Living Faithfully in a Pluralistic Culture

Several weeks ago, Michael Gerson argued that evangelicals ought to be more introspective about how they engage culture. Citing a recent study showing that many evangelical millennials are turning away from “the embattled, political subculture of their parents,” he explained, “A desperate, angry, apocalyptic tone of social engagement alienates many people, including some of the children of those who practice it.”

For the most part, I agree with him. I, too, think “a purely reactive model of politics is not attractive, even internally.” Yet this advice is incomplete and insufficient:
 
There is an alternative. A commitment to civility, rooted in respect for universal human dignity. A passion for the common good, defined by inclusion of the most vulnerable. A belief in institutional religious freedom and pluralism for the benefit of everyone, including non-Christian faiths. 
 
Gerson tells us to commit, to care, to believe—acts that when driven by mere moralism will inevitably lead to failure, frustration, and exhaustion. If we want the freedom and courage to serve, not condemn others in a pluralistic culture, we need more than advice calling us to pursue the common good. We need the power to lay down our lives.

Calling and Assignment

One of the most significant ways we can serve our neighbors in a pluralistic culture is through our vocations. In 1 Corinthians, Paul highlights two aspects of vocation—calling and assignment: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned him, and to which God has called him” (1 Cor. 7:17, emphasis mine). While calling is about our vertical relationship with God, assignment is about our horizontal relationships with others. Tim Keller writes, “Our daily work can be a calling only if it is reconceived as God’s assignment to serve others.”

In the fall, though, both our calling and our assignments are broken. Instead of feeling welcomed and loved in the presence of God, the man and the woman feel naked and ashamed (Gen. 3:7). Instead of serving one another in love, they turn on each other and shift blame (Gen. 3:12-13). Jonathan Edwards reflects, “Before, and as God created man, he was exalted, and noble, and generous; but now he is debased, and ignoble, and selfish.”

Failure to Thrive

In our vocations, this self-centeredness often works itself out by enticing us to see our assignments as opportunities to honor and exalt ourselves, not to love and serve others. Instead of asking, “How, with my existing abilities and opportunities, can I be of greatest service to other people, knowing what I know of God’s will and human nature?” Keller says, we ask, “What will make me the most money or give me the most status?”

We use our assignments to distinguish ourselves from others, not serve them, especially when the other is a person with whom we fundamentally disagree. In “the culture of shut up,” we would rather silence our opponents than engage—much less, love and serve—them. We refer to “our tribe” and use language like “us” and “them.” We mischaracterize their views, painting them in their worst, not best light.

True Freedom and Courage

The gospel, though, gives us the freedom and courage to serve others, not condemn them, because it shatters any sense of pride and arrogance. When we see that Jesus, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, did not grasp for equality with God, but “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7), we see that assignment is not about honoring or exalting ourselves, but about serving others (see Mark 10:45).

And we serve them no matter how other they are because, in the incarnation, we see that Jesus became the other for us. He left perfect communion with the Father to become man and live among broken, sinful, and rebellious people—people like you and me—so that we might join his family (John 17:1-26). The cross has the power to restore not only our calling with God, but also our assignments with others (Eph. 2:14-16).

This enables us to serve all types of people because, even though our differences may be significant, we do not expect our neighbors to see as we do, because we know that “a person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27). As John Newton writes,

He has graciously accommodated himself to my weakness, borne with my mistakes, and helped me through innumerable prejudices, which, but for his mercy, would have been insuperable hindrances: I have therefore no right to be angry, impatient, or censorious, especially as I have still much to learn, and am so poorly influenced by what I seem to know.

Therefore, we can be committed to civility with all people, as Gerson advises, because we recognize the grace we ourselves have been shown in Christ (Rom. 5:8). We can be passionate about the common good because God’s providence is our hope (Eph. 1:3-14). And we can believe in institutional religious freedom for the benefit of everyone, including non-Christian faiths, because we know that no one is converted through the power of the state, but only through the power of the Spirit (John 16:13).

The good news of Jesus Christ gives us the humility to love others in a pluralistic culture because it is more than mere advice calling us to civility. As Thomas Watson once said, “If civility were sufficient to salvation, Christ need not have died.” The gospel is power (Rom. 1:16). It gives us the freedom and courage to lay down our lives in service to others because we know that, hidden in Christ, we will be lifted up once again (Col. 3:3-4).

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