The term, religious pluralism, is likely not a phrase that the average person utilizes on a regular basis. But just because the term itself may not be familiar to us, it does not mean that the philosophy that undergirds the term is not a very real part of our culture. So what do we mean when we speak of religious pluralism?
Religious pluralism is the belief that people who embrace different and even conflicting religious views can and should seek to live in harmony with one another while celebrating each other’s religious distinctives. Typically, those who identify as pluralists reject the notion that any one particular religious ideology is right or best. Instead, they suggest that truth and good can be found in every religion and culture should glean from the best of all while rejecting what they deem to be radical exclusivism.
This all sounds very modern and politically correct does it not? You may have seen or even possess for yourself a bumper sticker which reads, COEXIST, where each letter is represented by a different religious symbol. The message implies that one religious belief is not better or more authoritative than another, so why can’t we all just get along? On the surface, this sounds like a fair and reasonable expectation for enlightened, progressive people in the 21st century. But below the surface, this diabolical suggestion takes on a different look.
Implications of Religious Pluralism
Every religion tells a different story in an attempt to answer the questions, “How did the world come into existence, and what is the meaning of life?” The pluralist doesn’t assert that all stories are true, but he rejects the suggestion that one exclusive story could be the true account of the world’s origin, purpose, and destiny. In the mind of the pluralist, one must make room for all options and respect each view despite any disagreement one may have with it. One of the problems with such a stance is that eventually, we have to ask the all-important question, “Who gets to decide whether it is true or not?” The pluralist says, “To each his own. What may be right for you may not be right for me.” But such an approach is illogical. Two conflicting stories can’t both be true.
In such reasoning, man starts with himself and attempts to work backward to find answers that only God can answer. This never works. In fact, it could be said that religious pluralism is really an attempt to keep man at the center of his own universe and keep God out of religion altogether. In a monotheistic worldview, all reason must begin and end with God.
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The Bible and Religious Pluralism
From the very beginning of the biblical record, the inspired writers spoke with undeniable clarity regarding the single-minded devotion which was to be given to the one, true God by everything that had breath. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). These are words that have echoed down through the ages, reminding countless generations that nothing is more important than loving, serving, and worshipping the God who is above all. But not only does this God demand the undivided attention of His chosen people, but He is also insistent about how His people are to relate and interact with the worshippers of other gods.
The land which God was giving His people, Israel, to possess was occupied by pagans who did not honor Israel’s God, nor did they respect God’s people. The instruction which comes to Israel is anything other than accommodating, when God says, “You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them. . . for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods” (Deuteronomy 7:2-3).
How Should Christians Understand Religious Pluralism?
It would be easy to rationalize God’s instruction to Israel as merely an antiquated paradigm that has no contemporary relevance in light of the New Testament’s emphasis on loving and not judging others. If after all, as many purport, Christians should not judge others, then certainly we should not judge a man’s religion. But leaning on the “we shouldn’t judge others” crutch is somewhat ingenuous here. The passages in Matthew 7:1-6 do not forbid us from judging others, but not judging using our own standard of judgment. Believers have a responsibility to judge everything and everyone according to God’s standards which are clearly set forth in the Bible.
It should be clearly stated that I am not in any way encouraging disrespect for anyone at all who might have competing religious views. Such a stance by anyone would be a flagrant disregard for Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’” (Mt. 5:43-44). There is never a biblical warrant for God’s people to be anything but loving and respectful toward those who differ in their religious convictions.
However, for the believer, respect for the person must never be confused with hatred for their unbelief and rejection of the one, true God. Christians who affirm the authority of God’s word must faithfully discern (or judge) between true doctrine and false religion, and once we have done so, we must adhere to Paul’s instruction to Titus when he exhorted him to “be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict,” and Paul goes farther to say that such false teachers must “be silenced” (Titus 1:9-10).
This is the great offense of our Christian faith. We affirm that the biblical story of God, the world, and man is the only true and right story of the universe. If anyone wants to know the truth of life, he has only one place to turn and that is to the Bible and the God for whose story it tells. Religious pluralism seeks to confine our biblical explanations to the Christian faith alone, but to no avail. All other stories must be rejected and silenced though we must do so while loving the ones who embrace them.
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Dangers of Religious Pluralism
Increasingly, our culture and society sees religious pluralism as a healthy quality of the diverse world we live in. And I would agree that from one perspective, mutual respect and harmony among such diverse neighbors seems ideal. For the Christian, however, we must constantly be looking through God’s eyes as we contemplate our approach to those religions which reject the exclusive claims of the Father, Son and Spirit.
If the church fails to live radically countercultural lives by “walking as children of light” (Eph. 5:8) there will be pitfalls which will likely wreak havoc in our way.
Pluralism is a cultural expectation, not a biblical one.
The Apostle Paul asked a very important question which should be the guiding principle for every believer when he stated, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers: for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial?” (2 Cor. 6:14-15). Respecting unbelievers is good and right, but when we refuse to confront the lies of their false religion, we legitimize their beliefs and ultimately fail to point them in the way of truth.
Silence is not an option.
If the church refuses to speak boldly the message of the gospel, then the Christian faith will soon be engulfed into the sea of religious pluralism and will be relegated to just another religious option amid many different choices. Paul instructed the Ephesians to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (Eph. 5:11).
Doctrinal Purity is at risk if pluralism is our aim.
Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus to instruct them both in how to faithfully lead the church in a deeply pluralistic culture. Paul’s words may seem harsh to our modern ears but we must hear them as Paul exclaims, “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing” (1 Tim. 6:3-4). Pluralism suffers its severest blow with Paul’s piercing claim that “if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Gal.1:8).
A newborn lion cub is cute and cuddly and for a time may be harmless enough. But that same cub will one day eat you for the fun of it. Other religions may seem harmless enough to you, but if you’re willing only to pet and cuddle with them now don’t be surprised if one day they demand much more from you than you’re prepared to give.
May the church’s commitment to the oneness of God and our resolve to serve Him singularly grow stronger against the backdrop of God’s own revelation that He is jealous (Ex. 34:14) and will not share His glory with another.
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Rick Kirby, along with his wife and children, live in Anderson, South Carolina. Rick serves as a corporate chaplain in the upstate of South Carolina, in addition to shepherding micro-church movements, which he does in partnership with the Evangelical Free Church in America and the Creo Collective. Rick has written as a freelance writer in the past with organizations such as The INJOY Group, InTouch Ministries, and Walk Through the Bible. Rick holds a Master of Divinity degree from Erskine Theological Seminary and presently is a Doctor of Ministry student at Erskine, as well. Through the years, Rick’s family has been deeply engaged in discipling efforts globally in Brazil, Ecuador and most recently in Puerto Rico. Among the many things Rick enjoys are woodworking in his woodshop and roasting (and drinking) coffee.