Christian Living

The age-old problem of pluralism

I was watching the recent episode of the ABC’s Q&A which featured Martyn Iles from the Australian Christian Lobby. One of the pushbacks to Martyn’s comments was “that’s not what all Christians think.” There was a presupposition amongst those opposing Iles that even for a Christian, the individual’s determination of right and wrong is sacrosanct, because it is their own.

Pluralism has been a source of tension for God’s people for thousands of years. And so, in 2021, how should we engage with a society where pluralism is rife? And what can we learn from Scripture about this age-old conundrum?

The ancient near east was made up of pluralistic societies, in which multiple gods were the norm. It is in this context that the clarity of God’s word through Moses is so applicable to us today. In his epic speech(es), Moses reminds God’s people that it was after God’s demonstration of his power in the famous Exodus event (Deut 5:6) that he gave his people his ten words, the ten commandments (Deut 5). For the Lord God is the one who creates and the one who saves, and as his people, we should live in a way that reflects the reality of the relationship we have with our God.  

The first of these ten words is: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Deut 5:7). The Lord our God, the Lord is one, and so we ought to love him with every fibre of our being, and communicate this truth to every generation within our households (Deut 6:4-8). This is reiterated for us by Jesus in the Gospels (Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:27).

Why is this so important for us? I think the key is that there is only one true God, and that means our affections are to be directed towards him. It is why idolatry is so grievous a sin throughout Scripture – having other gods is a rebellion against God. Idolatry is assuming that there is something or someone who deserves our affections more than God does. And that is simply not true, and even more, is offensive to a God who loves us with such costly love that he sent his own Son to redeem us (John 3:16). Pluralism is anti the relationship we should have with God. Acceptance of the plethora of opinions on what is right and wrong is a clear expression of our rebellion against God, and consequently deserving of his judgement.

A beautiful picture of what it looked like for the ancient Israelites to worship God rightly is seen in Deuteronomy 12:1-7. Even in a quick look at this part of Moses’ sermon, a few things are obvious: God is the one who knows and therefore instructs his people about how they ought to live and worship him (Deut 12:5-6). It is noteworthy that these few verses are comprehensive – God chooses what they are to do, where they are to do it and how they are to do it. Strikingly, everything else that is not what God wants is to be completely obliterated (Deut 12:1-3). It ought to be wiped away from existence, because idolatry is the very heart of sin. Thinking that we know what we should do to live rightly, but without reference to God, is actually an expression of the judgement that we deserve. God is the only one who knows, and he has revealed to us in Scripture all that we require for life and godliness. 

So for us in 2021, a true and right relationship with God involves things like removing those things in our lives which are inherently selfish, drawing closer to God in repentance and trust, and accepting the freely given blessings that come with salvation through grace alone (see John 4). Idolatry in our Western culture in 2021 may not take the form of altars, sacred stones and Asherah poles, but idolatry certainly still exists – it’s whatever we’re devoted to above God. Regular candidates for our misplaced affections are often things like materialism, hedonism (including pornography), family, reputation or career. While we are not called to break down, smash, and burn like the ancient Israelites were, we are called to put our sin to death and be single minded in our reliance on, and perseverance in, the gospel of the Lord Jesus, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

I am convinced that the Scriptures speak clearly and negatively about pluralism as idolatry. God is not whatever we decide he is – he speaks clearly and intelligibly, and we ought to thank him for it. And let us also keep praying humbly and fervently that we would cling to the cross, for ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’