Liberating Christians from their cultural captivity…

Nancy Pearcey

Nancy Pearcey has, in recent years, become one of our leading Evangelical apologists.  Britain’s Economist called her “America’s pre-eminent evangelical Protestant female intellectual.”


Her contribution to the Patheos website’s recent symposium on “Future of Faith in America: Evangelicalism” is worth a close read, as is the commentary of the other 26 participants.


“What are the challenges for evangelicals in … [our] changing cultural landscape?”  To answer her own question, she argues for the necessity of a public theology.


The major weakness of Evangelicalism has been its tendency to privatize Christianity. Historically, Evangelicalism spread through the revivals of the Great Awakenings, which focused on intense, individual, emotional experience. They tended to downplay the cognitive core of Christianity — its testable historical claims and the application of biblical worldview principles to public areas such as politics, law, education, and media.


By withdrawing from the public realm, evangelicals created a vacuum that was filled by secular ideas and agendas. The result was an uneasy sacred/secular divide. But today that divide is being breached — the clearest example being the issue of same-sex “marriage,” where the state has begun to dictate which moral standards Christian organizations and businesses will be “permitted” to hold.


To survive, Evangelicalism must learn to articulate a biblical worldview in terms applicable to public life. Speaking into the surrounding culture should be treated as a form of cross-cultural communication. Like ambassadors, evangelicals must learn the language and worldview of the people they are trying to reach.


Pearcey offers same-sex marriage as an example of how cultural understanding is shaped in the absence of a dynamic Christian public theology.


What is the worldview that underlies homosexual “marriage”? The idea that marriage can be changed by choice has roots in a political philosophy called social contract theory, founded by Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Social contract theory denies that marriage and family are natural and pre-political. Instead this secular origin myth posits a primordial “state of nature” where humans are autonomous, disconnected individuals. To preserve that original autonomy, the theory proposes to redefine every social institution as a contract — that is, an exchange of goods and services where we define the relationship, we choose the terms, we choose the conditions under which we stay or leave, and so on.


Where do these ideas lead in practice? A recent article says the ultimate goal is no marriage at all. In the ideal relationship, the author writes, “each member is an autonomous, free individual, who can come or go as she or he pleases.” The author says she treats even her three-year-old daughter as “free and autonomous.” [“Polyamory Is Next, And I’m One Reason Why” is linked below.]


In reality, of course, her daughter is nothing of the sort. She is dependent, vulnerable, and in need of adults who are morally obligated to her. As Bertrand de Jouvenal once commented, social contract theories “are the views of childless men who must have forgotten their childhood.”


The facts of biology and history both teach that humans are intrinsically social beings. Statists of all stripes have promised to “liberate” the individual from those social bonds, by substituting reliance on the state. As Rousseau wrote, “Each citizen would then be completely independent of all his fellow men, and absolutely dependent on the state.” This is a dangerously totalitarian mindset.


An Evangelical public theology must be devoted to two concerns—one for truth and reality, one for caring for those whose lives are broken by pursuing the false promises of autonomy.


To speak effectively into the public realm, evangelicals must make the case that marriage and family are morally binding covenants rooted in biology and human nature. Marriage is not something we create so much as a pre-existing social institution that we enter into. In the elegant words of the wedding ceremony, we “enter into the holy estate of matrimony.” In the Bible, marriage and family even provide rich metaphors for the Kingdom of God — precisely because they are the primary experience we have of an obligation that transcends mere choice, and is constitutive of our very nature.


At the same time, evangelicals must prepare to minister to the wounded, the refugees of the sexual revolution whose relationships have been wrecked by false promises of freedom and autonomy. When people are persuaded that they are free to “come and go” as they please, relationships will grow fragile and fragmented. Those around us will increasingly suffer insecurity and loneliness. The new polarization can be an opportunity for Christian communities to become safe havens where people witness the beauty of relationships reflecting God’s own commitment and faithfulness.



Liberating Christians from Their Cultural Captivity” is available online.  The entire Patheos symposium, “Future of Faith in America: Evangelicalism,” is available here.


Polyamory Is Next, And I’m One Reason WhyHere’s how libertarianism has led me and my partner into polyamory, and why America will have to grapple with this issue next was published on the website of The Federalist.



Most of us first became acquainted with Nancy Pearcey as Charles Colson’s co-author.  Together, they published several books, including How Now Shall We Live?  Her reputation as a fine writer and excellent thinker has continued to build with the publication of three books of her own.  Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From Its Cultural Captivity received Christianity Today’s Award of Merit and was also named an ECPA Gold Medallion winner.  Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning was published in 2010 and Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes


Nancy Pearcey currently serves as director of Center for Christian Worldview at Houston Baptist University in addition to her position as Professor of Apologetics.




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One Response to “Liberating Christians from their cultural captivity…”

  1. Wow, powerful stuff. Pearcey’s quick summary of social contract theory gives me a powerful tool for showing students the invalid foundation on which same-sex marriage is founded. Now the job is to show how marriage, like other social institutions, is pre-political and founded in the order of things–in other words, given by God. We need to show that this kind of a foundation leads to a secure social order. For if we are simply autonomous individuals responsible to no one but ourselves, then we need the state to order our lives…and we are thus marching to a totalitarian order, indeed.

    Doug Kennard