But this principle can easily be twisted into something more dangerous. George Marsden provides a good example of how this can happen in The Soul of the American University. Because America was committed to being both Christian and non-sectarian, America’s institutions tended to default to a “non-sectarian” posture. Questions that divided Protestants from one another came to be seen as adiaphora as well, even when they were foundational to the way a Christian community functions. Thus American universities stayed away from taking a position on an issue that divides Presbyterians from Methodists, such as presbyterian-style church government or an issue like baptism which divides Baptists from Presbyterians and Episcopalians.
Unfortunately, you can’t really be agnostic on many of the questions American Christians wanted to be agnostic about. Many of the questions we relegated to the realm of “things indifferent” are pervasive enough that something will eventually have to address that question for you. If “sectarian” Christian positions are not acceptable answers, then you’ll find something else.
In American history, that “something else” is often an Enlightenment-inspired progressivism that sees human history as an advancing narrative of people being liberated from unchosen norms and freed toward greater levels of self-actualization. Such progressivism, of course, draws more heavily from Rousseau, Voltaire, and other 18th century philosophers than it does classical orthodoxy. In Marsden’s telling, this basic fact drove the secularization of the American university as decision making became more and more governed by pragmatism rather than orthodoxy. As this happened, more and more of the faith was regarded as non-essential and sectarian.
Sexual Ethics’ Descent Into Adiaphora
This approach is driving the shift on matters of sexual ethics. Evangelicals have by now become very comfortable with a pragmatic approach to theological questions as they relate to the life of our communities. Further, because of a narrow focus on questions of salvation, we have wrongly concluded that doctrines not essential for salvation are, therefore, things indifferent. (We have, in other words, lost the distinction between something that is false but not damnable, which we might call heterodoxy, and something that is truly indifferent.)
As a result, we are now witnessing an attempt to relegate questions of sexuality to this same realm, not because Scripture is silent on these matters (it isn’t) but because it is much easier to default to the cultural posture of affirmation and acceptance.
Indeed, you could argue that last year’s meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society foreshadowed Peterson’s announcement this week. In a panel on sexual ethics, several panelists repeatedly attempted to place the question of homosexuality in the same general realm of importance as questions of baptism—something which is important for individual churches to decide for themselves, but not something on which there is only one acceptable orthodox position.
This mirrors the position Peterson staked out in the interview: Churches should live and let live, accepting that more conservative members may leave affirming churches, but that this does not mean affirming churches are necessarily wrong on these matters.