Principled Pluralism: An interview with Dr. D. Michael Lindsay
Christian Leadership Alliance (CLA) President and CEO, Tami Heim, recently interviewed Dr. D. Michael Lindsay, president of Gordon College. Located near Boston, Gordon offers a distinctive blend: an outstanding, nationally ranked liberal arts college with an intentionally Christ-centered community.
Religious liberty and principled pluralism came front and center in 2014 for Dr. Lindsay and Gordon College when Dr. Lindsay, along with a number of other Christian leaders, signed a letter to President Obama, urging him to include a religious exemption in an executive order aimed at barring federal contractors from discriminating in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. That precipitated public criticism of Gordon College, which like many Christian institutions, has a historic statement of faith, life and conduct governing standards on how the institution does life together as a Christian community.
Heim spoke with Lindsay on how he and Gordon College have navigated changing cultural tides while holding to biblical truth. Here is an except of the interview that was featured in the 2016 summer edition of Outcomes Magazine.
How can we promote grace and truth while protecting religious freedom in today’s challenging cultural milieu?
The Apostle John describes Jesus as being full of both grace and truth (John 1:14). John was a very careful writer, so I think that the order of those words mattered to him and should matter to us. John understood that you can’t appreciate the truth of Jesus Christ until you first appreciate his grace.
Much of the posture of the Christian church of the last 30 years has been committed to upholding the truth of the gospel in powerful and convicting ways. I certainly believe that is fundamental to our ability to bear witness to God’s work in our world. At the same time, Christianity has lost cultural sway in the hearts and minds of most Americans. Although we remain a nation where people profess a belief in Christ, for most of them it doesn’t make a significant difference in how they live day in and day out. Even more telling has been the loss of cultural influence that Christian institutions once wielded.
After the media attention Gordon received in 2014, we found that there was far more openness to hearing our deeply felt, deeply held, theological convictions once people had developed a relationship with us. They needed to realize that we were their neighbors, their friends, before they could receive a strong or even prophetic word about their lifestyles. We must offer a gracious, loving and compelling Christian witness that draws people to the grace of Christ so they can appreciate the truths of the gospel.
I certainly don’t believe that we will win over all of our critics. For many who oppose the church’s historic teaching on human sexuality, this is a political battle where the winner takes all. But for those of us who follow Christ, there’s a much larger issue at stake. It’s not just about sexual mores or personal behavior — it’s about the relevance of the gospel in contemporary life. That requires us to have a gracious, soft answer, but also a willingness to speak truth. At Gordon we seek to embody grace and truth in the fullness we have experienced in the person of Jesus Christ.
How do we encourage what you have described as “principled pluralism”?
Perhaps there was a day in American society when the Christian church could unilaterally advance its particular vision for society, but that day has come and gone. We now live in a pluralistic world with widely divergent worldviews.
In this contemporary environment, people of faith must make space for all voices. When we stand up for Jews and Muslims to be able to share their religious convictions in the public square, we secure the right for Christians to similarly express their convictions. This is what principled pluralism requires.
We have to be fair and evenhanded in our public stance, creating space for people of all faiths, and of no faith, to share their convictions honestly and without limits. In order for our voice to be heard, we must make space for all voices at the table. In a day when people are intentionally seeking to silence Christian influence, the surest way to guarantee it remains in the public square is to support voices of those who have been marginalized.
As a very practical example, evangelical Christians on the campus of Princeton University have found more opportunity to share their understanding of human sexuality when they have linked arms with devout Muslims who share a conservative sexual ethic. On a campus like Princeton, it is difficult for the institution’s leadership to talk about the value of diversity without appreciating the religious sensibilities of their Muslim students. As Christians have spoken up in solidarity with people of other faiths, they have also secured more opportunities for a vibrant Christian witness on campus. That’s what principled pluralism is all about.
What can other leaders learn from your experiences?
First, we are constantly in the preparation phase for the next crisis coming to our institution. We must make much of every moment we’re given. I learned that the network of friendships and relationships established before the crisis were essential for the college to flourish under the glare of the media spotlight and withering public criticism. I encourage leaders to make sure they are actively cultivating friendships and relationships with community leaders and leaders of institutions very different from our own. You will rely upon those acquaintances and friends to help you when you need someone to speak up on the value of your institution and its mission.
Second is that crisis does not develop character; it reveals it. When we face a crisis, we rely on the spiritual and moral capital we’ve cultivated in our life. There is very little time to develop your character when your institution is fighting for its survival. The daily habits of spiritual formation, an active prayer life, daily time in Scripture, small group accountability, and Sabbath rest and worship, sustain you and become your lifelines when you’re in the crucible of crisis. Leaders must develop those habits even in the midst of full schedules and other demands because they will become essential when you face tough times.
Third, reaching out to colleagues in your own respective universe of institutions is really important. No one was more helpful or encouraging during this season for me than other Christian college presidents. Presidents of institutions like Wheaton and Biola — with whom we compete fiercely for students, donors and national rankings — were incredibly helpful fellow pilgrims as I went through this season.
It’s also important that when you see another colleague whose institution comes under a challenging time to intentionally reach out. Our natural inclination is to look away lest something like that come into our own lives. The real act of Christian ministry is to help in that very significant season of challenge and crisis. I am certainly more attentive to fellow college presidents when their institutions get into the news, and I’m grateful for colleagues who were willing to reach out to me in my season of need. We must mutually support and encourage one another in both good times and bad.
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