Social justice, critical theory, and consistency

Responses to my articles on ‘critical theory’, the ideology behind large segments of the social justice movement, have been largely positive.  SJWordsHowever, some Christians have raised concerns that my criticism is -at best- superfluous or -at worst- alarmist.  They would agree that Christians should not adopt critical theory as a worldview, but they would argue that backlash against social justice is often motivated by equally unbiblical ideologies.  They contend that many people rail against “social justice warriors” so that they can turn a blind eye to poverty, greed, racism, sexism, and many other social ills.

I think that this concern is legitimate.  In no way am I suggesting that we evade the biblical command to seek justice and love mercy; anyone who criticizes ‘social justice’ with that motivation is sinning.  Yet we should never suppose that errors in our fundamental assumptions and commitments can be safely overlooked, provided that they promote desirable behavior.  Cracks in the foundation work their way up through the entire edifice.  In what follows, I’d like to take a look at some of those cracks by stating three plausible claims that are rooted in critical theory. While these claims initially sound appealing, I’ll show that if they are followed to their logical conclusions, they will seriously undermine a biblical worldview.  My hope is that Christians who are interested in social justice will reflect critically on their beliefs so that they avoid the pitfalls inherent in these claims.

Claim #1: “Because the lived experiences of oppressed groups give them unique insight into truth, their experiences should not be challenged.”

It is undoubtedly true that our different experiences as individuals will shape our understanding of the world.  In particular, those who have experienced injustice and oppression will have personal insight that those of us who come from privileged backgrounds will lack.  Moreover, people with privilege sometimes discount the experiences of those without power, considering them to be less reliable or less valuable.  We all should work to correct for this tendency by paying special attention to people whom the world deems unimportant.

That said, it is incorrect to claim that personal experiences always give people insight into truth or that these experiences should not be challenged.  A person’s lived experience is just that: an experience. And experiences do not always track with truth.  This assumption is particularly dangerous when we try to extrapolate from personal experiences to moral truth.  For example:

  • Does the religious experience of a Muslim or a Buddhist give them unique, unchallengeable access to religious truth?
  • If I experience an allergic reaction to vaccines, does it follow that I have unique, unchallengeable access to truths about vaccine safety?
  • If I experience a strong desire for sex outside of marriage, does it follow that I have unique, unchallengeable insight into truths about monogamy?
  • If I have a particular lived experience about my sexual orientation or gender identity, do I have unique, unchallengeable insight into truths about sexuality?

In all of these cases, our lived experience must be tested against objective evidence and Scripture.   Neither the privileged nor the non-privileged person’s experiences are infallible guides to truth. To say that anyone’s lived experience is beyond scrutiny is to undermine Scripture as our ultimate authority.

Claim #2: “Because the theology of privileged groups is tainted by their privilege, we should de-center theology that originates with privileged groups and platform theologies that originate with oppressed groups.”

A cursory glance at secular or church history shows that groups in power do often create laws, encourage systems, and favor interpretations of Scripture that promote their own self-interest. Therefore, we should be careful to test “received wisdom” to see whether it is correct.  However, the inference drawn by Claim #2 relies on a double genetic fallacy.

First, the origins of a belief do not show that the belief is false.  For example, the Catholic Church used the doctrine of the Trinity as justification for the oppression of non-Trinitarian groups, but it does not follow that the Trinitarian theology ought to be de-centered or that non-Trinitarian theology ought to be embraced.  Second, while privilege and power certainly influence our theology, so do oppression and bitterness.  Both the oppressed and their oppressors are sinners, who will create and promote doctrines that promote their own interests.  There is nothing inherent in our experience of oppression that guarantees the validity of our doctrines.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Given male dominance throughout history, should we de-center male theology and platform female theology?
  • Given that all of the creeds of the Reformation were written by white, European men, should we de-center these creeds and platform creeds written by non-Europeans?
  • Given that liberation theology emerged from poor and oppressed groups, should we de-center theologies that focus on salvation from sin and platform liberation theology?
  • Given that all of the biblical authors were men, should we de-center their writings and platform the extrabiblical writings of female authors?

The influence of claim #2 can be seen in our use of categories like ‘male theology’ versus ‘female theology’ or ‘European theology’ versus ‘non-European theology,’ which puts the emphasis on the origin of a doctrine rather than on its truth.  Theological claims are either true or false.  Talking about ‘male theology’ versus ‘female theology’ is as misleading as talking about ‘male mathematics’ versus ‘female mathematics.’  Once again, we must hold all doctrines and theology up to Scripture.  No doctrine gets a pass, either because it endorsed by those in power, or because it originates with the powerless.  Scripture, not power, is the bar at which we adjudicate theological claims.

Claim #3: “Because power imbalances and marginalization are rooted in oppression, we ought to dismantle any laws, norms, or systems which perpetuate power imbalances or marginalization.”

At first glance, this last statement seems more political than theological.  Certainly, there can exist unjust laws which enshrine and promote evil practices and attitudes, and Christians should work do undo such laws.  But the statement as it stands is false.  Not all power imbalances are rooted in oppression, and ‘marginalization’ can be a difficult concept to define.  For example, there is a tremendous disparity in power and legal standing between adults and children.  Yet this disparity is not only just but vital for the flourishing of children.  Dismantling the legitimate, loving authority of parents over their own children would be disastrous.  Similarly, laws permitting the inheritance of wealth, homeschooling, and the private ownership of land, and tax benefits for marriage and education all reflect and perpetuate various disparities. Yet few people would argue that these systems are manifestly unjust or that Christians ought to dismantle then.  On a political level, this claim seems specious.

However, an even more serious problem with this proposition has to do with its theological implications:

  • Is social justice compatible with church discipline, which marginalizes certain people and excludes them from fellowship?
  • The belief that church elders should be male gives men a disproportionate amount of power in the church.  Is this requirement a form of systemic sexism that we are obligated to dismantle?
  • The belief that husbands have a leadership role their family gives men a disproportionate amount of social power.  Should we dismantle this norm?
  • Should we dismantle pro-life legislation because the burden of unplanned pregnancies falls disproportionately on women?
  • Should we refrain from claiming that Christianity is uniquely true because this claim marginalizes Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christians?

Once again, if we follow this proposition consistently, it will have far-reaching implications. It’s naive to think that we can accept this claim wholeheartedly but limit its application only to select areas of life.  Both social pressure and logical consistency will push us to extend our critique to gender, sexuality, and ecclessiology.

One frequent response to the concerns I’ve enumerated above is that they are purely hypothetical; no one would actually move from opposing sexual harassment to denying the exclusivity of Jesus.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  Over the past few years, I’ve watched several high-profile Christians with theologically conservative beliefs embrace ‘social justice’ because of their commitment to the Bible’s commands regarding the poor and vulnerable.  However, I began to see critical theory work its way through their theology, leading them into more and more unbiblical positions.  Instead of recognizing that the Bible needs to critique our fundamental assumptions about power, privilege, and oppression, they began to let their assumptions about power, privilege, and oppression undermine their commitment to the Bible.


In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote: “Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” My plea is that as Christians, we would commit ourselves to continually reforming and reexamining our beliefs.  If we find ourselves walking down a path that takes us farther and farther from Scripture, we should retrace our steps.  The longer we continue down the wrong road, the harder it will be to turn around – and the less likely we’ll be to notice that we’ve lost our way.

See all content on critical theory here.

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