I’ve been thinking for some time that the term "pluralism" has suffered grave misunderstanding among the very people who should be more friendly toward the idea. Let me explain.

Many conservative Christians hear the word "pluralism" these days and the first thought that enters their mind is of something terrible, something sinister, even destructive of true faith in Christ as Lord. I do not hear the word that way at all, at least not in most cases.

Generally the notion of pluralism, at least as I am using the word and believe it is commonly used in our day, refers to a condition, particularly in a wider society, in which there are different groups of people that are distinctive in ethnic origin, cultural patterns, religious beliefs, or the like. Such pluralism is the very reality of the American ideal. We are land of immigrants, a land without a common ethnic glue. Our language unites us, to some extent, thus the debates about "official" English. But we are different in so many ways. This is the very idea of e pluribus unum, a foundational commitment of our nation that says out of many diverse groups we are one people.

Nowhere is this need for healthy pluralism more true than in regards to religion. For sure Christianity had a major role in shaping American pluralism, thus my use of the term Christian pluralism in a positive way. Christian pluralists should welcome a free society where ideas and religious practices can be expressed freely and openly without interference, so long as the law is not violated. Christian pluralism welcomes diversity because that same diversity allows the freedom of religious expression.

I, for one, believe Christianity thrives best in an environment where coercion is absent in any sense of the word. There is a vital difference between the Christian concept of law and society and the Muslim. We do not believe disciples of Christ are formed by force but by freely conforming their lives to the Lordship of Christ. The role of the state, in our understanding, is not to oppose religious faith nor to promote it, at least directly. The state should welcome the free exchange of ideas regarding ultimate questions. And the state that remains committed to the protection of such pluralism is the same state that offers Christians the fullest opportunity for practicing their faith openly and effectively.

So, Christian pluralists believe that Christianity really is the ultimate "true truth" (Francis Schaeffer) and that the law of God should govern Christian lives and even influence society to conform to the truly good. But Christian pluralists will not impose their beliefs on others. Rather, Christian pluralists will favor a society that makes it possible for different opinions, even wrong opinions, to thrive if they can win a following. It took centuries of religious conflict, social and political progress, and the development of a solid basis for a civil society rooted in freedom and law, to bring about this kind of pluralism. It is threatened in our time by forces on the right and the left, as it always has been. Christians should understand this better than most, if they know their own history, but the present secular/sacred struggles in our society have clouded their understanding. We should live more intentionally on the front lines where we can preserve it.

As a missional Christian I believe this is the best context for a health church too, thriving in a pluralist setting where the claims of Christ can be lived and shared without state or coercive interference. Remember, if you want to interfere with someone else’s freedom of religious expression you will soon loose the freedom to express your own faith as your conscience requires you. Christian pluralists are ultimate realists. They know that the city of man, in this present age, will never become the perfect approximation of the city of God. But Christian pluralists welcome this reality because they will always welcome the opportunity to be missional Christians advancing the kingdom of God (heaven) within the societies of man (earth).

It is not Christian pluralism that will destroy the fabric of our free society but rather radical secularism or the kind of religious totalitarianism that we see in other lands. Both radical secularism and totalitarian religious expression are intolerant of healthy Christian activism, in public and in private. The Christian pluralist understands this well and will remain vigilant to preserve the gains of a healthy Christian expression of this hard won pluralism.

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  1. jls March 9, 2007 at 12:20 pm

    Yes. We can embrace pluralism as an expression of our faith (Parable of the Weeds, Mt 13:24-29). Coercion is like economic protectionism. It arises when people are not confident that their beliefs will survive on a level playing field.

  2. Ben Toh March 9, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    To be honest, I did not like the word “pluralism,” because I equated it loosely with relativism (no absolutes), tolerance (a most abused and misused word today) and humanism, which all leads to the common idea that there are many ways/avenues to God, in sharp contrast to Jesus’ own declaration that He is the Way.
    What has clearly harmed the Christian cause is a “zealous” Christian imposing and forcing his “faith” on others, by saying and implying “ridiculous” things like, “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you will go to hell.” Even though this is in accordance with the Bible, it does not communicate God’s love and mercy, but instead only communicates pride, self-righteousness, intolerance, bigotry, disgust, etc.
    In light of this, “Christian pluralism” is clearly the best way to reach our pluralistic society. As the cliché goes, we must hate the sin intensely, while communicating unconditional love to the sinner, much like the father of the prodigal son, even if this is always far easier said than done.

  3. John H. Armstrong March 9, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    Yes, pluralism does communicate the wrong kind of tolerance in the realm of faith and religion. This is why I put the words together, “Christian pluralism.” I am not a pluralist at all, in the sense that you have put it initially, but a Christian pluralist.
    The word “tolerance” has the same unfortunate connotations but Christian toleration is right. We want the righteous to rule and we long to see cultures changed by the godly but we also want such change to allow for a proper pluralism and tolerance of those who disagree. This balance is what is missed on the left and the right in many battles and debates.
    Having said this clearly you have both made helpful and insightful comments.

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