One method of responding to Critical Theory (CT) is to compare its ideology with Biblical doctrine. For this, I recommend dialogues Allie Beth Stuckey has hosted with Voddie Baucham and Neil Shenvi. My aim for this article is much more modest. I would like to contribute to a Biblical theology of CT – which is to say, a Biblical theological critique of CT. Specifically, this article examine relates CT to the plant and life of the Philippian church.

A Brief History of Philippi

Philippi was originally a modest Thracian town called Krenides, meaning “springs.” This city was founded in the early fourth century BC and conquered at least three times: first by Callistratus in 361 BC, second by Philip II in 356 BC (who re-named the city “Philippi”), and third by Rome in 167 BC.[1] Each conquest compounded the diversification of the settlement. Callistratus, an Athenian exile, brought settlers with him to bolster the town and implant a new culture. Philip II utilized its strategic value by fortifying the city, and it benefited from a flourishing Greek influence under Alexander the Great (Philip II’s son). Rome, the fourth occupant, perhaps did the most to diversify the city (see below).

Philippi had great military value. The city sat on the slope of a steep hill over-looking a river plain on one side and a mountain pass on another. The mountain pass was part of a very important road that connected Europe to Asia. Philippi also had great economic value. Because it guarded the road connecting Europe to Asia, it became an important center of trade between the East and West. There were also rich gold mines in the mountains around Philippi, which brought wealth to the city.

After becoming supreme emperor, Caesar Augustus[2] made Philippi an official roman colony. This meant that Philippi could enjoy the privileges of Roman citizenry with Italy. As a Roman colony, Philippi welcomed many military veterans and gradually mirrored the famed capital city, Rome. Philippians spoke Latin and were ruled by Roman law. Their buildings, city design, currency, and even religious practices were remodeled to reflect Rome. Philippi was a religiously diverse city, but two things were true at all times: they loved Caesar and hated Jews. This hatred for the Jews is probably why there was no synagogue in Philippi when Paul arrives in Acts 16. Later on, this hatred spilled-over into a persecution of Christians – the Christians worshiped a Jewish Messiah that they called Lord instead of Caesar.

This condensed history of Philippi sets the stage for studying Acts 16 and the Epistle to the Philippians. Saying that Philippi carried cultural and sociological baggage would be an understatement. The city was built on quadruple-layered inter-cultural conquest (Thracians, Souther Greek exiles, Macedonians, Romans), sifted by slavery and centuries without the saving grace of God. If CT is a Biblical paradigm, then we should expect it to be employed in Philippi. In fact, Philippi seems to have bore greater warrant than the United States for an address on oppression and power structures. The question is: do we see this in the New Testament? Did Paul utilize CT, or something ideologically parallel to CT, as he ministered to the church in Philippi? This matter will be addressed by surveying Acts 16 and Philippians for relevant texts (i.e. not by expositing the entire body of both segments of Scripture).

The Philippian Church

The Macedonian Call (Acts 16:6-10) ushered in the first Apostolic, European mission.[3] Paul, Silas (15:40), Timothy (16:1), and Luke (v.10f), though they traveled through Samothrace and Neapolis (v.11), made Philippi their first missional stop (v.12). In accordance with his custom, Paul first sought Jews to evangelize (v.13). The first Pauline convert in Europe was “Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods” (v.14).

At least three items of evidence suggest that Lydia was quite wealthy and powerful. First, she sold purple goods (v.14). In antiquity, purple dye was in far less supply than demand. The business was very lucrative. Second, Lydia was from Thyatira, which means Philippi was not her original home (v.14). This may imply a multi-city entrepreneurship in the business of purple goods. Third, Lydia seems to have been in charge of her house (vv.15, 40). Whether widowed or celibate, Lydia was the point-of-contact for her household, implying a unique and powerful independence.

In what manner does Scripture present Lydia? She was converted (v.14) and baptized (v.15), and immediately opened her home to Paul’s company: “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay” (v.15). That she prevailed upon Paul by this reasoning implies that Paul indeed judged her to be faithful to the Lord. The missionaries again took advantage of her generosity when they left prison (v.40). Lydia’s name is not mentioned again, but she was likely on Paul’s mind when he commended the Philippians’ “partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:5). Lydia’s conversion was that first day. Paul considered her efforts a participation in gospel ministry.

Would Paul have had Lydia behave in any manner resembling CT? Was she compelled by the Holy Spirit to abdicate her great wealth and influence? Does Paul seem to have called her to repentance for participating in such a lucrative business while slavery and ethnic oppression abounded in Philippi, undoubtedly in her own home? Any answer that favors CT can only be based upon conjecture and in contrast with clear inferences which can be made from the writings of Luke and Paul. Lydia put her privilege, wealth, power, and influence to work on advancing the kingdom of Christ.

Further, after remaining in the city some days (Acts 16:12), Paul would have recognized the power dynamics at play in Macedonia’s leading city – yet he does not address issues CT would compel him to. In his first sermon (v.14), there can be little doubt that Paul proclaimed the way of salvation (v.17). Whether by his city ministry also or simply by praying and singing hymns to God (v.25), the jailer likewise heard the Gospel from Paul, and was instructed, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (v.31). To his house they spoke the word of the Lord (v.32), but there is no mention of oppressor/oppressed paradigms or of a need to recognize ethnic guilt.

On at least two occasions, Paul did stand-up to powerful bodies in the city. He released a slave girl from a spirit of divination (vv.16-18). This was a forward act against the owners and the spirit exploiting her (v.19), yet Paul made no point to uproot the clear system of oppression (i.e. slavery). Paul also demanded that the magistrates escort him and Silas from prison (an embarrassing act, which was accompanied by an apology; vv.35-40). However, Paul demands such treatment on the grounds of their Roman citizenry.[4] Rather than divulge himself of privilege in the name of equity, he asserted his Roman privilege. He did it again later in Jerusalem, eventually with the intention of gaining an audience with Caesar himself (22:25-29). Paul did not reject his privileges, but used them to advance the kingdom of Christ.

In the life of the Philippian church, Paul demanded there be no intracongregational divides. This was a Gospel issue for the Apostle: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that… I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27). Because of the cultural and ethnic diversity of Philippi (created by Rome and four-fold cultural baggage), the congregation was probably quite diverse. There was at least a member of local law enforcement (Acts 16:34) and a Messianic Jew (v.14) in the assembly. These two individuals belonged to sociological groups filled with tension. As mentioned in the history of Philippi above, Jews were hated in the city – surely one of the most oppressed groups in the region. Surely a pawn of the power-hungry magistrate, an oppressor at least in relation to Jews, would have to demonstrate a posture of perpetual guilt and confession towards this woman. We would expect something like this if CT was a Biblical paradigm, but instead Paul calls for one spirit and one mind (Philippians 1:27).

Unity in faith, for they had unity in struggle: “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (vv.29-30). Rather than define congregational relationships by power dynamics of oppression, or by intersectional moral capital, Paul defines them by unity in Christ. This is partly because their struggle is the same. The Apostles spills no ink to group individuals into groups of varying oppressions. Rather, he puts them all under one banner and faces them towards one conflict.

Therefore, they are to be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2). Rather than declaring “their truth” gathered from a unique experience, they are to model the humility of Christ (vv.5-11) by counting others more significant than themselves (v.3). Christ’s example does much to contradict the CT paradigm:

Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

vv.6-8

Christ forsook equity in the name of grace and obedience. More so, He forsook equity that He had a right to. How much greater, then, is our call to abandon “fairness” and “equity” in life, for the sake of advancing the kingdom of Christ? It should be understood that justice is not the same thing as equity and equality. In fact, outright equity (i.e. unqualified egalitarianism) is grossly unjust. God created the world with distinctions. Complementarity is embedded in the fabric of creation and maintained by God’s law. Christ received justice (vv.9-11), but He did not grasp equity.

Paul can maintain a high standard for unity because he preaches a powerful Gospel, where righteousness from God depends on faith (3:9). Union with Christ (vv.8-11) is of far surpassing value than fleshly distinctions, including ethnicity and sociology (vv.3-7). The Philippians should be defined by looking forward, not behind (vv.13-15). They are to live as citizens of heaven (3:17-4:1). Because of the Gospel, there is an agreement in the Lord that any two Christians can have with one another (v.2). Elders should facilitate peace among congregants (v.3), not the conflict of CT.

Finally, as if to drive a nail in the coffin of our need for unity in Christ, a special greeting is rendered from the saints of Caesar’s household (v.22). Should they not give an apology? Should they not send some kind of token or demonstration of their Roman guilt? It appears not.

Conclusion

This survey, though brief, sufficiently demonstrates that CT is alien to Paul’s ecclesiological efforts in Philippi. If CT was remotely Christian, then we should expect the ideology to appear somewhere in Acts 16 or the Epistle to the Philippians. Over the course of four hundred years, Philippi (according to CT) accumulated more power disparities, ethnic misrepresentations, sociological baggage, and general oppressions than the United States has in the same amount of time. Even if this point is refused, it seemingly cannot be ignored that CT is missing from any Scriptural approach to the people of Philippi.

May we, therefore, press forward against Critical Theory and the gates of Hell. They shall not prevail against us.


[1] 168-7 BC is the technical date for Rome’s conquest of Philippi.

[2] Named “Octavian” during his initial exploits and dealings with Philippi. For clarity sake, I have opted to use the later name only. Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius with Antony at Philippi. Later, when he defeated Antony, Octavian gave Philippi further rights and blessings.

[3] There may have been Jews from Rome at Pentecost (Acts 2) who took the Gospel back to Italy.

[4] He demands it on the basis of their wrongful condemnation and Roman citizenry (Acts 16:37). However, their Roman citizenry was the point that caught the magistrate’s eye (v.38). Paul probably knew it would.

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