The phrase “critical race theory” (CRT) has been trending recently, due in large part to President Trump’s Executive Order on “Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping.” In the last few months, several prominent evangelical pastors have tackled the topic of CRT (John Piper) or the related area of postmodern critical theory (Tim Keller), concluding that they both are incompatible with the Christian faith. Two days ago, the presidents of the six Southern Baptist Seminaries issued a joint statement along with my pastor, SBC President JD Greear, affirming that “Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.”
This was a welcome announcement for those of us who, like myself, have been warning fellow evangelicals about the influence of critical theory in general and critical race theory in particular on the church. I hope we’ll see more and more Christian organizations commit publicly and explicitly to rejecting both racism and Critical Race Theory.
In this essay, I’d like to encourage pastors to oppose the errors of CRT, but I’ll suggest what might seem like an unusual approach: pastors should consider preaching against CRT without mentioning CRT at all. Let me repeat that: pastors, consider preaching against critical race theory without using the phrase “critical race theory.” Why? For two reasons.
First, we need to take our focus off the label “critical race theory” and focus instead on the unbiblical ideas at the heart of CRT. If you merely firebomb the term “critical race theory,” people will repackage the same bad ideas under some other label. A repudiation of the term “critical race theory” –no matter how strong– leaves plenty of room for people to say “I completely and utterly reject CRT; I’m merely arguing that racism is a normal, permanent, and pervasive system of privilege which is hidden behind ideas like colorblindness, sustained by ‘white fragility’, best understood by people of color, and part of interlocking systems of oppression.” In other words, it allows people to deny embracing CRT while still embracing all the core tenets of CRT. Consequently, we have to equip Christians to recognize and reject the underlying ideas rather than only having a reflexive aversion to certain terms.
Second, critical race theory is an academic discipline with a vast literature, spanning multiple decades, dozens of major scholars, and tens of thousands of pages of key writings. Therefore, many pastors may feel just as hesitant to preach a sermon on “the incompatibility of CRT and Christianity” as they would to preach a sermon on “the incompatibility of quantum multiverse theory and Christianity.” What’s more, even if you have a good grasp of the core ideas of CRT, you’ll still likely face a barrage of criticism. You’ll be told that you lack the necessary academic qualifications to truly understand these ideas, that CRT is just a conservative bogeyman, that opposition to CRT is a dog-whistle for racism, and on and on.
My proposed solution is to shepherd your flock by sticking to what you know and are commanded to expound: the Bible. There are core biblical truths that will radically undermine the core tenets of CRT. Therefore, critics will be forced to critique the Bible itself rather than critiquing your grasp of CRT or your motivations or your politics. And that’s where we ultimately want this issue to be settled: by appeals to the Bible.
So what are the key biblical doctrines you should preach on? I’ll list six.
“Racism is a sin”
While Christians nearly universally recognize that racism is a sin, they can rarely explain what makes it a sin. Biblically, racism is the sin of partiality. This partiality can take horrifically egregious forms, as when we deny that certain human beings are made in God’s image. Or it can take more subtle forms, as when we mistreat or disdain people on the basis of the color of their skin. This partiality can be codified and systematized into law, as it was under slavery and Jim Crow. Or it can be present only in our individual thoughts and behavior. Regardless, racism is a sin because it violates God’s commands regarding impartiality in judgment and love for neighbor (Ex. 23:1-8, Deut. 16:19, Lev. 19:15, James 2:1-4).
Why it’s relevant: the recognition that racism is primarily a sin undermines the common claim that “people of color cannot be racist.” Because CRT focuses on systems, rather than individuals, it is common for CRTs to define racism not merely as prejudice, but as “prejudice plus power.” Thus, while CRTs will affirm that people of color can be just as prejudiced as whites, they will deny that people of color can be racist by definition. Emphasizing that racism is a sin entails that it is a transgression to which all Christians, whether Black or White or Hispanic or Asian, are susceptible. Additionally, in 2020, many people of color have significant cultural power and can wield it to disadvantage whites. Reminding your congregation that racism is a sin forces all people to evaluate their responsibility to love their neighbor and to use their power justly.
See more here: An Antiracism Glossary – Racism
“A Christian’s primary identity is in Christ, not in their demographic group”
God created all people groups and ordained the times and places we would live (Acts 17:26). Therefore, even though the modern conception of “race” is a social construct, the category of “ethnicity” is not. Paul exulted in his Jewish ancestry (Rom. 3:1-2), referred to the Jews as “his people” (Rom. 9:3), and notes how fellow Jewish believers brought him comfort (Col. 4:11). Consequently, it is not sinful to have an ethnic identity or a cultural identity or a nationality. However, Paul also recognized that all these identity makers are so radically demoted in importance when compared to our primary identity in Christ that they should be considered “as dung” (Phil. 3:8). This principle of the centrality and supremacy of our identity in Christ has two consequences.
Why it’s relevant: First, if we ever begin to feel more sympathy, more unity, and more solidarity towards non-Christians who share our skin color or our gender or our nationality than towards Christians from a different demographic group, we must question our hearts. If any of these identities challenge our fundamental identity in Christ, it has become an idol. Second, if we ever begin to disdain or mistrust another Christian solely due to their demographic group, we must check this impulse and mortify it. We stand before God and therefore within the church as brothers and sisters in Christ (Gal. 3:26-28), not as oppressed Christians and oppressor Christians.
See more here: Reflections on Ekemini Uwan’s Sparrow Interview – Part IV
“Assume the best of your brothers and sisters”
The Bible insists that Christians are to assume the best of others (1 Cor. 13:7), to be slow to judgment (Matt. 7:1-5), and to strive for unity (Eph. 4:3). The Westminster Larger Catechism puts it beautifully: “The duties required in the ninth commandment are…a charitable esteem of our neighbors;…freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them.” Precisely because racism is a sin and often involves the hidden motives of a person’s heart, we should therefore be very hesitant to attribute someone’s actions to racism without good evidence. To jettison this biblical injunction is to open the church up to slander, bitterness, anger, and all the division that the NT writers continually warn against.
Why it’s relevant: because CRT views racism primarily as a system rather than a sin, it is very common for CRTs to argue that all whites are “complicit in racism.” Even more, CRTs like Robin DiAngelo will argue that all whites are socialized into racism so that they not only participate in the system of racism, but also harbor unconscious, deep-seated racist attitudes. Both whites and people of color are encouraged to interrogate white actions to expose the hidden, subterranean ways in which racism is continually manifested. This attitude of perpetual fault-finding is precisely the opposite of the one that Scripture enjoins. If we assume the worst of white Christians in every encounter and attribute their every action to deep, unconscious bias, we will tear the church apart.
See more here: Quotes from Robin DiAngelo
“Christians have been reconciled to one another in Christ”
The unity of Christians is a major theme in the New Testament. In Ephesians especially, Paul insists that all Christians have been (past tense) reconciled to God and then to each other through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ (Eph. 2:14, c.f. Gal. 3:26-28, Col. 3:11). Of course, when one Christian sins against another Christian, the offending party should repent, confess, and seek forgiveness (Matt. 5:24). But apart from any particular act of sin, no Christian needs to repent or to confess or to seek to be forgiven by any other Christian.
Why it’s relevant: modern discussions of “racial reconciliation” will often insist such reconciliation cannot occur without justice and that justice cannot occur without repentance which, it is insisted, has not yet taken place. This claim might be true if it were applied to particular sins committed by particular, living people, but it is almost always applied to historic sins committed by Whites. We’re told that without such corporate White repentance for the sins of historic Whites, racial reconciliation is impossible. Yet we find no hint of this idea in the New Testament, where Paul told Jewish Christians, who were actively living under the boot of Roman oppression, that they were nonetheless already reconciled to their Gentile brothers in Christ apart from any demand for “corporate Gentile repentance.” Thus, while Christians are everywhere exhorted to pursue unity (Eph. 4:3-6, Rom. 12:1-5, Phil. 2:1-3) and while confession and repentance are indeed needed when particular sins are committed against particular people, we should insist that hostility between Christians on the basis of demographic markers alone is a sin which must be rejected. We are not guilty and cannot repent for sins we have not committed (Ez. 18:14-20, Deut. 24:16, Jeremiah 31:27-34).
“The Bible is perspicuous”
Although some Christians have argued that the use of critical race theory contradicts the sufficiency of Scripture, the counterclaim could be made that the use of CRT no more challenges the sufficiency of Scripture than the use of germ theory, or economic theory, or political theory. The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture claims only that Scripture is sufficient for matters of faith and godliness, not for understanding modern medicine or free markets or voting patterns. Therefore, while CRT can and should be challenged on the grounds that it contradicts Scripture, it can’t be challenged merely on the ground that it is extrabiblical.
Instead, pastors should emphasize the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, the idea that what is necessary for salvation can be known and understood by all people, regardless of their background. Thus, our race or class or gender or ethnicity will not be a hindrance to the gospel such that we must consult other groups to truly understand it. Moreover, because Scripture is authoritative, all doctrinal disputes must appeal to Scripture itself and to authorial intent, not to our lived experience.
Why it’s relevant: under the influence of standpoint epistemology, many people today believe that a person’s social location as the member of an oppressed group gives them special access to truth through their “lived experience.” Conversely, members of dominant groups will be blinded by their privilege. As a result, the pronouncements of people deemed to belong to “oppressed” groups –people of color, or women, or LGBTQ people– become virtually unchallengeable. Suggestions that an “oppressed person” is wrong are met with accusations of “privilege” and “invalidating their lived experience.” In reality, all people are blinded by their sin and all Christians have access to truth through the Scripture, illuminated by the Holy Spirit. Thus, everyone must appeal to the Bible to substantiate their doctrines, not to their oppressed status or to their lived experience. While our experiences might give us insight into how Scripture is best applied in particular situations, no particular experiences are necessary for rightly interpreting the meaning of any passage of Scripture.
See more here: Should We “De-colonize our Theology”?
“The heart is deceitful”
According to Scripture, our thoughts, affections, and emotions have all been corrupted by sin. Consequently, “follow your heart” is one of the most dangerous and destructive pieces of advice we could possibly promulgate. Instead, we need to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rom. 12:2). We need to constantly question our intuitive, reflexive, “gut” reactions and test them against Scripture. Similarly, because we are sinners by nature, we will always twist or reinterpret evidence to justify ourselves and to support our pre-existing beliefs. We need to recognize this tendency and fight against it.
Why it’s relevant: the exalted role that lived experience plays in our culture and within CRT is in direct conflict with the biblical insistence that our hearts are wicked and need to be constantly reformed to God’s Word. No matter how strongly we feel about some issue, we must strive to examine the Bible and the data as impartially and objectively as we can. We need to challenge our assumptions and remain open to correction. “Your truth” and “my truth” are both irrelevant unless they agree with God’s truth, which is the only actual truth. While Christians rightly recognize that we should “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), that command needs to be obeyed in the context of other affirmations like “love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6). Thus, if someone has a wrong view of reality, compassion will lead us to sympathize with their pain, but will also compel us to challenge their false beliefs because true compassion is always rooted in truth.
What About Racism?
When Christians warn about the dangerous assumptions of CRT, one common pushback is that racism and white supremacy are far more serious problems in the church today. Thus, any objection to CRT is –at best– a distraction and –at worst– a cover for racism. The beauty of the approach I’m advocating is that the very same biblical doctrines that undermine many of the errors of CRT also undermine the sin of racism.
For example, in preaching that racism is a sin, we push every Christian to examine himself, realizing that our own hearts provide fertile soil for every kind of transgression. In preaching that our identity must be in Christ, we preach against white supremacy. In preaching that all Christians have already been reconciled in Christ, we admonish Christians to live out the unity that Christ has already established, sacrificing their own preferences for the good of the body (1 Cor. 8, Gal. 5:13). In preaching that the Bible is perspicuous and authoritative, we insist that every group’s culture must be tested against and submitted to the authority of Scripture. In preaching that the heart is deceitful, we challenge any complacency that would carelessly insist that “prejudice is not a problem I have” or that would turn away from evidence because it makes us uncomfortable.
Of course, if pastors want to mention “intersectionality” or “critical race theory” by name, they can. At the bottom of the page, I link to several resources that may be helpful for background reading. However, I want to encourage you: just preach the Bible. The Bible contains everything we need to teach the truth and to refute error. By all means, engage the culture and do your intellectual homework. But trust in the power of Scripture to change minds and hearts.
See all content on critical theory here.