Navigating Critical Theories Faithfully

A decade ago, few people had ever heard terms like critical race theory, queer theory, intersectionality, social justice, gender fluidity, hegemonic power, whiteness, DEI, or heteronormativity. The exceptions were those who had undertaken graduate studies in law, education, or the social sciences. That is certainly no longer the case. These days, it seems that everybody is talking about these terms. Proponents believe these ideas are central to the pursuit of social justice. Critics fear they are evidence of what critics call wokeness.

These differing perspectives have become part of our culture wars. Conservative politicians and parents raise concerns about the pernicious influence wokeness is having in the classroom, especially in public schools and higher education. Progressive scholars respond that critical theories are essential academic tools for understanding past and present forms of injustice and how to overcome them. For their part, many pastors and other ministry leaders are understandably concerned about the worldview assumptions that lie behind critical theories, but also want to take seriously the biblical admonitions to advocate for justice.

Over the past couple of years, apologist Neil Shenvi and educator Pat Sawyer have been helping believers navigate critical theories faithfully through blog posts, online essays, and their respective social media accounts. They have teamed up to author Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology—Implications for the Church and Society (Harvest House, 2023). Their timely book is exactly the resource many of us have long wished was available.

According to the authors,

     A particular set of ideas has overtaken our culture and has begun to overwhelm the professing church. These ideals, as we’ll show, are seriously detrimental to the common good and to basic Christian theology. To the extent that we embrace them wholeheartedly, substantially, or even moderately but uncritically, we’ll sow discord in society and will undermine sound doctrine. Eventually, left unchecked, they will tear society apart and will decimate the visible church (p. 7).

Rather than simply rejecting this constellation of ideas as wokeness, Shenvi and Sawyer offer a serious critique of them under the umbrella of critical social theory. Their desire is to help believers to better understand critical social theory so that they can respond in a way that rejects unbiblical ideologies while also advocating for justice in a manner that is consistent with Scripture.

Shenvi and Sawyer divide their work up into three major sections. In Part 1, they offer brief histories of the thinkers and systems that contributed to the rise of critical social theory. They also engage with nine key claims of critical social theory, noting where those claims have some truth in God’s common grace as well as how they fall short of consistently biblical perspectives. Part 2 offers a more robust critique of critical social theory from the perspective of evangelical theology. The authors are fair in their representations of critical social theory, but also relentless in their interrogation of bad ideas and their implications. In the third section, Shenvi and Sawyer look more closely at how critical social theory has infiltrated evangelical churches and offer some initial thoughts on how to better frame and more faithfully address the concerns raised by proponents of critical social theory.

As a professor in a Christian university and one of the pastors of my local church, I appreciate how Critical Dilemma handles the sorts of questions that sincere believers are asking about various forms of injustice (both real and perceived). Shenvi and Sawyer love the church and they want Christians to both care about pursuing justice while also rejecting critical social theory as a viable way for believers to conceive of and respond to matters of justice and injustice. I especially appreciated their thoughtful discussions of lived experience, ancestral guilt, and the relationship between justice and the gospel, three topics that many believers find confusing.

I’m so grateful that the Lord led Shenvi and Sawyer to write this much-needed book. I believe every ministry leader should read Critical Dilemma in 2024. In fact, it would be a fine book for a church staff or leadership team to read together. For those who want to really dig deeper into issues of gender, race, and justice this year, I would recommend reading Critical Dilemma alongside the writings of Carl Trueman (here and here), George Yancey, Thaddeus Williams, Katie McCoy, Abigail Favale, and Christopher Watkin.


Nathan Finn, Provost and Dean of the University Faculty at North Greenville University, is a historical and systematic theologian who writes and speaks widely on Baptist history and thought, leadership, and Christian higher education. He serves as a Research Fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He frequently preaches and teaches for local churches, ministry leadership conferences, Bible conferences, and other similar events.