A Pluralistic Church: Collapsing Tower or Growing Vine

by Donald G. Dawe

Dr. Dawe is Robert L. Dabney professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, now on sabbatical in Nigeria.

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 12, 1982, p. 567. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


When does pluralism cease being Christian and become a polite word for compromising the faith? To sort out our thinking on pluralism, we need to discover whether the church grows as a tower or as a vine. All churches are branches called to bear the fruit Christ alone gives.

Pluralism is one of the great new buzz words in talk about the church. Our understanding of pluralism, however, tends to be long on sociology and short on theology. We lack the theological imagery to enable us to reflect on life in a pluralistic church.

Two biblical images of community hold promise for helping us make sense of what is happening in the church as its life in our time becomes ever more complex. They are the image of community as a tower (Gen. 11) and as a vine and its branches (John 15). The tower is Babel, which rose higher and higher. The vine, in the words of Jesus, branches outward into the life of love. Both vine and tower grow, but in very different ways. To sort out our thinking on pluralism, we need to discover whether the church grows as a tower or as a vine.

All parties to the differences that vex our common life invoke pluralism. Yet it is a two-edged word with both negative and positive connotations. Some speak of pluralism in the church with a sense of relief, for acceptance of a pluralistic church means that we need no longer pretend that all sisters and brothers in Christ are unified in belief, thought and action. Conservatives and liberals, pietists and liberationists, feminists and traditionalists, left-wing and right-wing can all affirm the existence and importance of one another as part of a pluralistic church. As unhappy as one faction may be with the other, each is spared the need for waging warfare to eliminate the opposition, once everyone has agreed that pluralism is here to stay. This is no small gain. Many affirm pluralism as one of the happier discoveries of the day.

But in another sense, all this talk of pluralism leaves us uneasy. In face of the glaring opposition and deeply felt differences, how is it possible to say that we are still one in Christ? It is increasingly hard to believe that we are one even in our own denominations. Caucuses and special-interest groups form faster than we can catalogue them, let alone integrate them. Pluralism seems to leave churches linked together by little more than participation in the pension plan. Unity in Christ seems to disappear behind the growing diversity of opinions. And no committee can put it together again.

In the churches of Africa, Asia and Latin America, pluralism shows a vigor that beggars the imagination. Churches in the Third World are no longer waiting patiently for us to translate our theology books, liturgies and organizational charts into their languages. Becoming a Christian in these lands no longer requires ignoring or despising local cultural and religious beliefs and values. Indigenization of the Christian faith to local culture is in full swing.

And the dangers of syncretism that so worried Hendrik Kraemer are seldom mentioned. Among a new generation of evangelicals, following the lead of Charles Kraft, are to be found the boldest devotees of putting Christian faith in context for a myriad of tribes and cultures. Indian and Asian theologians are exploring Buddhist philosophies and reading Hindu pundits to find ways of expressing their faith in Christ. The church no longer calls upon converts to don Mother Hubbard dresses to cover their bodies or Western ideologies to blanket their minds. To this, millions are saying, “Hallelujah, Amen.”

This exuberant pluralism may be received with joy as God’s new work in our midst. But it also strains to the breaking point all claims to being one in Christ, no matter how carefully nuanced. How can faith in the one God revealed through one Lord take on such varied and contradictory forms? Pluralism seems to be a very small umbrella to cover such a vast network of differences. When does pluralism cease being Christian and become a polite word for compromising the faith?

In order to wrestle with these questions, I would like to suggest a theological starting point which, while not self-evident, certainly has a claim to plausibility. What if pluralism is not a problem for God, even if it is a problem for God’s people? Is it not possible that the Lordship of God embraces deep and, for us, terrifying differences in how Christ is confessed? The difficulties with pluralism are our difficulties, and they stem from problems of vision. We have become trapped in a misleading way of looking at how the community of faith grows.

In our view, the church through history has grown as a tower going ever upward, story by story. More appropriately, we should be tracing the growth of a vine sending out ever-new branches. The logic behind these two kinds of growth is very different. The tower, with its rigid vertical construction, leaves little room for variation. The vine, free to branch out in a myriad of directions, has rich variety. And as the Bible teaches, tower-building is perilous business if what happened at Babel gives us an indication. But in the promise of Jesus, those who abide in the vine bear much fruit and give glory to the Father (John 15:5-8).

Historians have made us aware that the Jewish Christianity of the early church gave way to the Hellenized Christianity of the church in the Roman Empire. Deep and lasting changes were made in theology, liturgy and church order. The first floor of the tower was succeeded by a new second floor which was, in turn, succeeded by the ornate Gothic floor in the Middle Ages. The tower was building.

After the Reformation, the model took on a modification. The tower church began to look like the World Trade Center in New York City with its twin towers -- Catholic and Protestant. (Actually, the wondrous tower of Orthodoxy was building also, but we were so proud of our own construction that we paid it no heed.) As Protestants persisted in sending up more and different spires, the tower became unwieldy. Even so, our attachment to the tower model remained.

The logic of the tower tells us that at any time in history the church may have only one top floor. This floor is supported by all that went before, ideally incorporating the strengths and avoiding the weaknesses of the past. At any given time, there is to be one “sound” theology, albeit broad in scope; a liturgy that is “seemly and in order”; and a limited number of ways of arranging the organizational furniture. For the tower model, pluralism is a threat. Exuberant offshoots of indigenized theologies, liturgical innovation, charismatic enthusiasms or ethnic identities will break off the top floor and collapse the tower into chaos.

Now, at the end of the 20th century, the tower model of the church has “died the death of a thousand qualifications.” It can no longer explain what is going on around us. To make matters worse, the tower church has acquired a haunting similarity to that other tower built on the Plain of Shinar. It is not surprising that so much of our talk about the church has turned to “babble.”

A more convincing model for the church is taken from the word of Jesus about a vine with its branches. “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him; he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” How the vine and its branches grow gives us a logic that can guide us through the maze of contemporary pluralism. Branches grow out in different places on the vine, not just one on top of another. Each branch responds according to its own time and place. No one branch can ever replace another, yet each draws on a common source for its life. Branches do not have the vitality to do anything on their own; as Jesus reminds us, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

The church is a vast network of branches all joined to one vine. Its parts are not identical, nor need they be. Each has the character of its own time and place, be it the African savannah, American suburb, Asian busti, European city, or Latin American barrio. Yet these different branches are all rooted in Christ, and as they abide in him, they bear the fruit of the Spirit.

Before we sketch further, in colors too glowing, this model for the church, a strident objection must be acknowledged. Is not all such talk about pluralism the attempt of the naïve to sprinkle “holy water” on the religious localism that has already caused so much absurdity and immorality? Have we not had enough of “American Christianity,” “German Christianity” and “South African Christianity”? Does not the grafting of Christian faith onto ideologies always end in fruitless branches? Have we learned nothing from Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr about “natural theology” and culture Christianity?

The objections are well taken. But the model of the vine and branches is far from being uncritical. Jesus’ words speak starkly of judgment. The Father is the vinedresser who removes the unfruitful branches and prunes those that bear fruit. When a branch tries to produce fruit on its own, it withers, is cut off and cast into the fire. There is discernment in the model of the vine, not just comprehension.

The common confession of Jesus Christ as the source of life marks the church. There is much fruit but one source. Unless we abide in Christ, there is no fruit. The fruit of the vine is life abundant and eternal -- the fulfillment of what it means to be human. Wherever human life is distorted or denied, no matter what religious sounds are made, such a branch no longer abides in the vine. To use theological language, churches are measured by a christological and ethical norm. When localism isolates a church from Christ, it is cast forth. But where the new life of the kingdom emerges, it is because Christ is there. “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit” (Luke 6:43).

The pluralistic church cannot be guided by an insistence on only one kind of confessional language or academic pedigree for its theology. But the church is not without the power of judgment in the ongoing struggle of light with darkness. To understand how that power operates in a pluralistic church, we must first realize that judgment is against our church, not against others. It is not we who define truth; the truth in Christ defines us.

A pluralistic church makes sense when we stop thinking of ourselves as the vine and all other Christians as the branches. Christ is the vine, and all of us are branches. As Paul reminds us, one branch must not “boast over the branches” (Rom. 11:17-18). No single church lives in the penthouse atop the tower. Instead, all churches are branches called to bear the fruit Christ alone gives. In this vision, we may find the comprehension and the discernment needed to live faithfully in this time of waiting and of hope.