In recent years, movements such as ‘critical race theory,’ ‘intersectionality,’ ‘queer theory,’ and ‘social justice’ have become very popular. These movements, which are rapidly shaping modern thought, law, education, and entertainment, draw from an older philosophical well called critical theory. The ideas from this philosophical well are being taught as truth in schools, promoted in television shows for both children and adults,[1] and used as necessary workplace curriculum for soldiers and civilians alike.[2]

Critical theory is a philosophy that establishes itself as a gospel, but it is no gospel at all.[3] God has spoken with clarity in the Bible about what brings restoration to our lives and society. Similar to the Garden of Eden where God’s goodness and justice were questioned, Satan is using these philosophies to question God’s good design for human flourishing. While many critical theorists are trying to find answers for the brokenness in the world, they are looking in a well that compounds the problem and creates division.

My hope here is to help us understand critical theory, the ways it is compatible and incompatible with the Gospel, why it is relevant for us to learn, and how the Bible would lead us to respond so that we can distinguish ourselves with love while not being “taken captive” by philosophies that reject Christ.[4]

What is critical theory?

Critical theory views the world through a lens of power where everyone is seen either as ‘oppressed’ or as an ‘oppressor’ depending on categories such as race, gender, or sexuality. Developed in a system of thought called ‘Marxism,’[5] those in non-dominant groups are seen as ‘oppressed’ by the power of the dominant group who impose their values and perpetuate their control. Here are some fundamentals:

1. Critical theory believes that our identity as individuals is inseparable from our group identity, placing us as members of a dominant ‘oppressor’ group or in the subordinate ‘oppressed’ group. Men, for example, would be part of the ‘oppressor’ group and women part of the ‘oppressed’ group. Similar assignments would be made regarding race, age, sexuality, economics, able-bodiedness, etc.

2. Critical theory believes that dominant demographic groups oppress others by imposing their values. One example of critical theory’s resistance to seeing dominant groups impose their values on others is the insistence of using gender-inclusive pronouns aimed at protecting ‘oppressed’ minority groups from feeling they are deviations from the norm.

3. Critical theory believes that dominant groups have greater access to resources and benefit from dictating values that maintain inequality. Accordingly, a white, heterosexual man would be part of multiple ‘oppressor’ groups, and this ought to govern how we think about his actions and motives.

4. Critical theory believes that our fundamental moral duty is the liberation of oppressed groups, either by resisting the ‘oppressors’ power or by eschewing our ‘oppression’ on others. Let me give an example to show its reach. Whereas many see the Bible’s sexual ethic as ‘puritanical,’ critical theory sees it as ‘oppressive’ towards the LGBTQ+ community. Therefore, to hold to a biblical sexual ethic is said to participate in the very power structure that has oppressed people for millennia.

5. Critical theory believes that ‘lived experience’ is more authoritative than ‘objective evidence’ when it comes to oppression. Objective evidence, such as a sonagram, is seen as a potential excuse for the dominant group to justify their subjugation of the oppressed. This fundamental of critical theory lies behind the notion that men should not make statements about the morality of abortion on the basis of biblical or scientific evidence because they have no ‘lived experience’ with pregnancy.

6. Critical theory believes that individuals who are part of more than one oppressed group experience ‘intersectionality,’ making their oppression distinct. This means that a black, gay, woman, all considered ‘oppressed’ identities, will experience three intersections of oppression making her more authoritative and equipped to lead society forward than someone with no oppression.

 

What parts of critical theory are compatible with the Gospel?

Recognizing these commonalities may make us more sensitive when discussing these ideas with others.

1. Critical theory recognizes that oppression is wrong and ought to be opposed. While a biblical understanding of ‘oppression’ is significantly different than that of critical theory, the Bible undoubtably affirms that the abuse of power leading to oppression is a grievous evil.[6]

2. Critical theory believes that power corrupts and that those in power can make laws or interpret the Bible to justify their dominance. Jesus affirmed this real threat when he said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them.”[7] Power in the hands of sinners can be used for evil. God’s Word can be manipulated by evil people to do harm.[8] We see this tragedy when Herod required the killing of all the Jewish baby boys and in modern atrocities such as slavery and genocide.[9]

3. Critical theory sees dominant groups having an influence in society. We see this reality in the Bible when the Jewish people struggled under Roman rule[10], and when Paul wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world…”[11] Indeed, Christians in America today feel this burden as culture and the controlling leaders of government, academia, and media are thoroughly rejecting biblical values.

4. Critical theory is inclined to give special attention to the powerless and vulnerable. The concern for the weak is repeatedly echoed by God.[12] Nobody modeled this concern like Jesus.[13] As we follow Him, we should be the first to affirm the dignity of all people and quick to help those in need.[14]

What parts of critical theory are incompatible with the Gospel?

There are many areas of substantial conflict, so let’s examine some of great importance.

1. Critical theory functions as a worldview, defining man’s identity, problem, solution, purpose and destiny with answers that are not true. The story of the Bible runs from creation to redemption. It says that we are created in God’s image (identity),[15] that we have sinned against God (problem),[16] that we are saved by trusting in Jesus who died for our sin and rose again (solution),[17] that those who believe in Him are empowered to love God and others (purpose),[18] and that we will face judgment before God and spend eternity either in heaven with Him or in hell (destiny).[19]

In contrast, the story of critical theory runs from oppression to liberation. It says we are members of either a dominant or marginalized group (identity), that we have oppressed and are tainted by guilt because we are members of a dominant group or have been oppressed as a member of a minority group (problem), that we save ourselves by pursuing liberation (solution), that we need to dismantle all beliefs and institutions that oppress by divesting ourselves of power in order to liberate others, or acquiring power to liberate ourselves (purpose), and that the world will culminate in a utopia after all oppressive systems are deconstructed (destiny).

2. Critical theory sees human relationships through the lens of power, which it regards as oppressive. This is inconsistent with Scripture. The relationships between God and man, parent and child, or leader and citizen involve power differentials but need not be abusive. Power is not inherently exploitative. God uses His power to serve. The Bible tells us to submit to God’s authority, to honor those with whom He entrusts authority, and to use our authority for the good of others.[20]

3. While critical theory is right to insist that power can corrupt, it is incorrect to assume that power is the only, or even the primary, source of corruption.Sinful desires, which are common to all human beings, are the source of corruption that distort our perception of what is right.[21]

4. Critical theory claims that members of oppressed groups have special access to truth because of their ‘lived experience’ with oppression. This is particularly dangerous because it undermines the function of Scripture as the final arbiter of truth, accessible to all people regardless of their group identity.[22] We cannot assume that our beliefs are right or wrong by virtue of our group. We must align our thoughts to God’s Word, which is the only true authority on all matters of life.

5. Critical theory produces an inconsistent moral standard between the ‘oppressed’ and ‘oppressors.’ Actions or thoughts that are identified as immoral among ‘oppressors’ are said to be permissible among the ‘oppressed.’ The Bible teaches God’s law applies equally to all people. If a thought or deed is sinful according to Scripture, then it is sinful for all people regardless of their group.[23]

6. Critical theory’s emphasis on group guilt is incorrect. The Bible says we will stand before God’s justice not as members of a group, but as individuals.[24] Clearly, not everyone in a demographic group sins like others in that group. God has determined and pronounced that we bear the guilt of our own sin and not the guilt of our fathers.[25] Love and mercy should lead us to see the historic abuses done by people of similar or dissimilar demographics and respond with grief and service, but we must understand that God holds each person accountable for their own actions and attitudes.

7. Critical theory inaccurately sees our identity in light of demographics instead of our relationship with God. Our primary identity is as an image bearer of God.[26] As Christians, our identity is who we are in Christ.[27] Christ is who reconciled us to God and made us members of one family.[28] Adopting an adversarial worldview in which some people are viewed as oppressors, not because of their behavior but because of their group, will undermine our love and our mercy for one another.

 

Why is this relevant?

Critical theory is relevant because it is more than theory. It is a worldview that is reforming our culture, its laws, and its institutions beneath our feet. Critical theory and its offshoots such as ‘critical race theory’ or ‘social justice,’ which will be addressed in subsequent articles, are planting seeds in culture that will sprout. This is not going away. Sadly, history shows that the world’s ways of addressing the realities of sin in our own strength only compounds the problem and creates division.

While critical theory serves to sensitize us to the pains of mistreated people, it pretends to be a gospel. Like any false gospel, to the degree that the church absorbs its inaccurate assumptions, we will find ourselves rejecting God’s designs for society. Critical theory offers a worldview that defines our identity, problem, solution, purpose, and destiny. Thus, it competes with the gospel as the governing lens through which we see the world. Either the Gospel will displace our commitment to philosophies like critical theory, or these philosophies will displace our commitment to the Gospel.

How should we respond?

1. No matter how much doubt Satan casts over God’s goodness and design, let’s resist the deception and put our trust in God. God is for us, and His instructions and restrictions are for our good.[29]

2. Let’s remember that man’s fundamental problem is sin, and the only solution is the Gospel of Jesus. Our performance cannot save us. Our dismantling of unjust societal systems can’t save us. Our solidarity with the oppressed can’t save us. Jesus alone can save us. Jesus did the difficult work to make reconciliation with God and lasting peace with man possible by coming to earth, living without sin, dying in our place, and rising from the dead.[30] Those who put their faith in Jesus are made new, filled with His Spirit, and empowered to imitate His love. While we should work and pray for the poor and mistreated, man’s greatest problem is guilt before a holy God. Therefore, we must make the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection the center of our message.[31]

3. Let’s labor as a church to be a witness of God’s kingdom. When a church demonstrates true love and fellowship across demographic lines, it undermines the idea that critical theory is the only path to human flourishing and harmony. The church is to embody the kingdom of God on earth where righteousness and mercy are visible. The church is like an outpost of heaven where the redeemed are to gather, set aside the earthly things that divide, and love one another earnestly from the heart.[32]

4. Let’s repent whenever God’s Word reveals a lack of love and mercy in our lives. One reason people are susceptible to critical theory is that, at times, they have seen lack of love and abuse of power in the church. While we should never repent for being part of a demographic group that God assigned to us, we should be quick to repent whenever God reveals that we have violated His Word.[33]

5. Let’s saturate our hearts with Scripture so that we can discern truth from error. The Bible must remain our ultimate standard by which all truth claims are judged.[34]

6. Let’s try to understand the nuances of ideas before condemning them outright. Critical theory looks at brokenness in the world, which is a distortion of God’s design, and tries to eradicate both the brokenness and the design. Instead of making a similar error, we should slow down and discern what, if any, parts of a social theory are true so that we can speak with truth and mercy.

7. Let’s be charitable in our words. To yell, “Marxist!” whenever someone says, “Justice,” is impatient and unloving. It is important to learn what people mean when they use phrases shared by different ideologies. In an increasingly fractured culture, we should be known for graciousness toward those with whom we disagree, particularly those who profess faith in Christ.[35]

8. Let’s examine our hearts to see if Jesus’ love for the hurting is evident in our lives. Social theorists are inaccurate when it comes to understanding the world and its brokenness apart from the Bible, but many are earnest in their desire to bring relief. As followers of Jesus, we too should desire to bring relief. Perhaps it would be good to routinely ask ourselves individually, “How should I help the poor? What am I doing for those whom Jesus called, ‘the least of these?’ Do I love mercy?”[36]

The only book I recommend without qualification is the Bible, every word and page. However, I have found portions of these resources helpful in my attempt to understand Critical Theory.

“The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity,” by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer

“Christianity or Critical Theory,” by Eric Watkins

“Faultlines,” by Voddie Baucham

“Biblical Critical Theory,” by Christopher Watkin

“The Secular Creed,” by Rebecca McLaughlin

 

[1] https://deadline.com/2019/05/arthur-gay-wedding-mr-ratburn-pbs-kids-1202614162/

[2] https://www.militarytimes.com/management/hr/2021/01/21/biden-overrides-trump-orders-on-diversity-training/

[3] Galatians 1:6-7

[4] Colossians 2:8

[5] Marxism is a system of thought known for its portrayal of tensions that exist between economic classes that are collapsed into categories of ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed,’ with capitalism being one main cause of oppression.

[6] Proverbs 14:31; Isaiah 10:1-3; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5

[7] Matthew 20:25-26

[8] Jeremiah 17:9

[9] Matthew 2:16

[10] Luke 3:1

[11] Romans 12:2

[12] Deuteronomy 10:18; Proverbs 31:8-9; Isaiah 1:17; Micah 6:8

[13] Luke 4:18

[14] Matthew 25:34-40

[15] Genesis 1:27

[16] Romans 3:9-19

[17] Romans 3:21-26; 5:1; 10:9-10; Ephesians 2:1-9

[18] Matthew 22:36-40; 28:18-20; Ephesians 5:1-2

[19] Revelation 21:1

[20] James 4:7; 1 Peter 2:13-17; Luke 22:26

[21] James 1:14

[22] Psalm 119:160; 2 Timothy 3:16-17

[23] Leviticus 19:15

[24] 2 Corinthians 5:10

[25] Ezekiel 18:2-4, 20; Deuteronomy 24:16; Jeremiah 31:29-30

[26] Genesis 1:26-27; James 3:9

[27] Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:10

[28] 2 Corinthians 5:17; Colossians 3:12-15

[29] Psalm 119:68; Matthew 7:11; Romans 8:32

[30] Ephesians 2:14-19

[31] 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

[32] Romans 12:9-13

[33] 1 John 1:9

[34] 2 Corinthians 10:5

[35] Ephesians 4:15

[36] Matthew 25:34-40