Rev. Joshua Engelsma, pastor of the Crete PRC in Crete, Illinois

Over the last several years, the church of Christ has been rocked by wave after wave of trouble. These troubles are not isolated to our own denomination; it seems that many Reformed and Presbyterian denominations are facing similar issues. For instance, the onset of the covid-19 pandemic and the response of consistories in arranging worship services was polarizing. At around the same time, doctrinal controversies were swirling and gut-wrenching church splits took place. This was followed by an increased awareness of sexual abuse and concerns about how churches are handling (or mishandling) these cases. Christ’s church has been sailing in troubled waters of late.

A question worth considering is this: Is there something that ties all these different struggles together? Are they so many disconnected happenings, or is there an underlying issue that connects them?

Without resorting to hyperbole and claiming that this is the fundamental issue, I propose that an issue wrapped up in all these different troubles is the matter of authority in the church. To one degree or another, all these issues touch on the use or misuse of authority and the view one has of authority. What the church is facing, then, is a crisis of authority.

If that is the case, then it is necessary for us to be reminded of the proper, biblical view of authority. I intend to do that in a few editorials.

As I see it, the church is being tugged about by two dangerous rip currents. The first is a critical approach to the idea of authority that essentially wants to destroy structures of authority altogether. The second is the misuse and abuse of authority. Before setting forth the positive view of authority, I want to examine these two cross-currents. The first is the subject of this article, and the second I hope to address in my next editorial.

Critical theory

To understand the view that wants to remove all authority structures in the church, we need to understand something about critical theory.1

Most scholars agree that the notion of critical theory has its origins in the early 1900s at the Institute for Social Research at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. The intention of the Institute was to interact with and develop Marxist thought. The German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883)2 taught materialism, that what we see is all there is and that there is no higher, spiritual realm. Especially he emphasized the role of economics and its influence on society and relationships. He criticized capitalism because of the inherent division he saw between the wealthy class who owned the means of production (the bourgeoisie) and the working class (the proletariat). Marx’s division of society into an oppressive ruling class and an oppressed working class was key not only to his own thinking but was foundational for later critical theory. In fact, some have labeled critical theory as “cultural Marxism.” It ought to be noted though that while critical theory owes much to Marxism, it ought not be equated with Marxism.

What Marx originally applied to economics and class divisions, critical theory has taken up and applied to most other areas of society. This theory is called “critical” because it is critical of any existing structure of authority in society. It views every relationship between people in terms of the difference of power and authority, and it assumes all systems of power are corrupt. Critical theory divides individuals into two classes: the class of oppressors and the class of the oppressed. It then attempts to explain all the problems in society in the light of this division, particularly the abuse of authority carried out by the oppressors. They see oppression occurring whenever there is any inequality between different people.

The way in which they see this oppression occurring is not by brute force, however. Rather, they speak of the oppressive class exercising “hegemonic power,” by which they mean “the ability of dominant groups to impose their norms, values, and expectations on society as a whole, relegating other groups to subordinate positions.” 3 The oppressive class may not even be aware of its oppression, yet the oppression continues because their values are impressed upon society at large.

So significant is this matter of oppression, that it forms the core identity of every person. One’s individual identity is inseparable from the class of oppressors or oppressed to which one belongs. So, if a person is white, he automatically is oppressive. If a person is a woman, she is automatically oppressed.

Some have taken the basic ideology of critical theory and applied it to race, thus giving rise to critical race theory. Critical race theory views all the problems of history as a result of the division of society into a dominant, oppressive race (usually whites) and other minority, oppressed races. This has given rise to such terms as “white privilege” and “white fragility.” Critical race theory drives the Black Lives Matter movement.

When the basic ideology of critical theory is applied to gender, you have feminism. The core belief of feminism is that the problems of history are a result of the division of society into a dominant, oppressive gender (males) and a marginalized, oppressed gender (females).

When the basic ideology of critical theory is applied to sexuality, you have queer theory or the LGBTQ movement. The core belief of the LGBTQ movement is that the problems of history are a result of the division of society into a dominant, oppressive “sexual orientation” (heterosexuality) and other marginalized, oppressed “sexual orientations” (homosexual, bisexual, transgendered, queer, etc.). This ideology has spawned such terms as “heteronormativity” and “cisgender.”

Frequently, proponents of critical theory will speak of intersectionality. This refers to the way in which these different, critical categories of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation overlap and affect the person. For example, on one end of the spectrum is a person who belongs not only to the oppressive class of whites, but also to the oppressive class of being a male and the oppressive class of being heterosexual. In the eyes of many critical theorists, there is no sin as great as belonging to the intersectionality of being a white, heterosexual male. On the opposite end of the spectrum would be a person who belongs to the oppressed class of being black, the oppressed class of being a female, and the oppressed class of being a homosexual. This intersectionality of being a black, homosexual female must be acknowledged in order to understand her plight.

The person who adheres to the ideology of critical theory is woke, that is, he or she has been awakened to the realities of these injustices.

The endgame of critical theory is the dismantling of all traditional structures of authority. Critical theory is not merely academic, but it is intended to spark revolution and the overthrow of traditional powers. Two authors who have examined critical theory have said: “… critical theory is associated with a metanarrative that runs from oppression to liberation: We are members either of a dominant group or of a marginalized group with respect to a given identity marker. As such, we either need to divest ourselves of power and seek to liberate others, or we need to acquire power and liberate ourselves by dismantling all structures and institutions that subjugate and oppress. In critical theory, the greatest sin is oppression, and the greatest virtue is the pursuit of liberation.”4

In their pursuit of “liberation,” advocates of critical theory will “cancel” anyone or anything that stands in the way of their aims. This is the “cancel culture” one reads about so often. If you have ever said or written anything contrary to critical theory, you will be “cancelled,” perhaps by being smeared on social media or by losing your career. Often financial pressures are brought to bear. Athletes caught on video using a homophobic slur are dropped by their sponsors. Woke companies such as Apple and Amazon may refuse to do business with another company or individual that rejects critical theory. Try searching on Amazon for the book When Harry Became Sally, a book disapproving of queer theory, and you’ll find that Amazon has banned it.5

A crucial element of critical theory is the notion that only members of the oppressed class have access to “truth.” They possess this access to truth because of their “lived experience” of oppression. This means that only people of color can talk about race, because they alone have the lived experience of being oppressed by whites. Only women may speak about issues of gender, because they alone have the lived experience of being oppressed by men. Only homosexuals and transgender persons may speak about matters of sexuality, because they alone have the lived experience of being oppressed by heterosexuals. The marginalized alone have that unique insight.

In fact, so adamant are proponents of critical theory that truth resides with the oppressed class, that anyone even questioning that idea is engaging in oppressive behavior. Any critique of critical theory, any appeal to reason or evidence, immediately marks a person out as belonging to an oppressive class. No white person may ever speak about issues of race. No male may ever speak about issues of gender. No heterosexual may ever speak about issues of sexuality. If they would do so, they would, perhaps without knowing it, engage in the continued oppression of the marginalized. They would be attempting to protect their position of power and privilege.

The difficulty in identifying and evaluating critical theory is in its deceptiveness. Advocates of critical theory certainly are able to point out real injustices. It is certainly true in the history of the United States that white people have maintained racist attitudes and wickedly treated blacks and other people of color. It is certainly true that throughout history men have looked down upon and taken advantage of women. These are things rightly to be identified and opposed. But often the proponents of critical theory will move subtly from real examples of oppression to false ones. They will define oppression so broadly and imprecisely that almost anything one does not like becomes oppressive. For instance, a person might condemn all sinful abuse of women by men and yet still be considered oppressive because he maintains complementarianism and the God-given authority of a husband with respect to his wife. Or a person might condemn racism and the enslavement of blacks and yet be considered oppressive because he refuses to march with Black Lives Matter. A person may cry, “Oppression!” whenever they want, and automatically that is accepted as oppressive. When oppression is defined so loosely, anything passes for oppression.

Critical church theory

The purpose of this article is not to present a full-blown explanation and critique of critical theory. Hopefully, it is apparent to Christians that critical theory belongs to the rebellious spirit of the end times, as II Timothy 3:1-2 predicts: “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be…disobedient….”

Neither is my purpose to warn Christians from adopting the mindset of critical theory with respect to race, gender, class, and sexuality. Certainly, that warning must be given.

But my purpose in explaining the basics of critical theory is to examine how that thinking may shape mentalities among Christians toward the church. The church is swimming in the cultural waters of critical theory, and we would be naive to say that this ideology could never seep into the church. We are not so immune from the thinking of the world around us. Often, without even knowing it, the church begins to adopt the mentality and terminologies of the world. And the danger is that the thinking of critical theory governs a person’s view of the church. We might call this “critical church theory.”

The supposition of a critical theory of the church is that the authority structures in the church are corrupt. That begins with the male officebearers, and with pastors and elders in particular, who occupy positions of authority in the church. The perception is that pastors and elders are no good. They are an oppressive class. They are an “old-boys club,” self-protective and self-perpetuating, interested only in maintaining their authority. This means that consistories can never be trusted and that officebearers are the enemy. Since in Reformed polity these same men are delegated to classis and synod meetings, the classis and synod are thoroughly rotten as well.

One evidence of this is a thorough distrust of the notion of confidentiality, long held to be a necessity in much of the work of elders. For elders to say that they cannot talk about a certain aspect of their work as a matter of confidentiality, or for a broader assembly to deliberate a matter in closed session, is immediately viewed as a cover-up and further evidence of their oppressive behavior.

If the thinking of critical theory takes firm root, then a person may go so far as to believe that, as an oppressed member of the church, they alone have access to “truth.” For anyone to offer any critique of their position is out of the question and only a further indication of oppression. Any defense by a pastor or elder of male authority in the church is seen as “elder privilege” and a protection of oppressors.

If critical theory comes to full bloom in the church, then the end goal is to deconstruct church. Or, to put it more bluntly, the goal is to tear the church down brick by brick, to burn it to the ground, and to construct in its place something new where male elders are not in authority. Perhaps there is the use of social media to “cancel” various men, slandering them and dragging their name through the mud until they are thoroughly discredited.

We would do well to examine our own thinking about the church to be sure that the anti-authority spirit of the age does not creep in and give rise to sinful attitudes and actions toward those in God-ordained positions of authority.

And yet…at the same time, the difficulty is that there has been the real misuse and abuse of authority in the church, leaving God’s people legitimately confused and hurting. I want to look into that more next time.


1 For what follows on critical theory, I relied heavily on the following articles: Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer, “The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity,” https://www.thegospelcoalition. org/article/incompatibility-critical-theory-christianity/; Neil Shenvi, “Critical Theory Within Evangelicalism,” https:// shenviapologetics.com/critical-theory-within-evangelicalism/; Eric Watkins, “Christianity or Critical Theory?” https://www.ligonier. org/learn/articles/christianity-or-critical-theory; Martyn McGeown, “Critical Theory,” https://cdn.rfpa.org/wp-content/ uploads/2022/12/15181354/2021-04-15C.pdf. In the interests of full disclosure, I also gleaned a few bits of information from Michael Grasso, “The OPC, GRACE, Diane Langberg, and Critical Theory, Part 1: Critical Theory,” https://greenbaggins. wordpress.com/2022/02/18/the-opc-grace-diane-langberg-andcritical- theory-part-1-critical-theory/, although I am aware of criticisms of Grasso’s work.

2 For more on Marx’s philosophy, cf. Carl R. Trueman, Strange New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), 51-59

3 Shenvi and Sawyer, “The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity.”

4 Shenvi and Sawyer, “The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity.”

5 Trueman, Strange New World, 146.