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Privatization: What Is It and How Has It Poisoned the Church?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Religion and morals, say the pluralists, belong to the private realm and must be kept out of the public realm.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

In response to our recent series on dealing with apostasy in the church, readers have asked, "What has caused the problems we're seeing today?" In contemporary terms we can put the answer into three words: postmodernism, pluralism, and privatization. Our last two articles dealt with philosophy of postmodernism and the poison of pluralism.

Today in our final article addressing our readers' question, we consider the rise of the privatization of beliefs in our society, and two of its most adverse effects. One is the suppression of Biblical Christianity outside the home and the walls of the church, and the complicity of many Evangelicals in that suppression. The other is the protection of doctrinal error in once-sound colleges, seminaries, and churches.

How Postmodernism and Pluralism Lead to Privatization

As we've seen, the postmodern mindset that dominates our society says that feelings are more important than facts and logic. We must go where our feelings lead us, postmodernists say, no matter what. And because postmodernists reject the idea that there is a single, objective standard of truth, this leads to pluralism. It is intolerant and bigoted of Bible-believing Christians, say the postmodern pluralists, to declare that the Bible is the only objective standard of truth, and that Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal life.

What, then, do the postmodern pluralists who dominate our society, do? They erect the walls of privatization. They declare the public square off-limits to religious views. Religion and morals, say the pluralists, belong to the private realm and must be kept out of the public realm.

Keep It To Yourself

In the postmodern, pluralistic view, "truth" is not objective. There is no single standard. "Truth" is subjective, relative, and personal. One person or group's "truth" is not necessarily another person or group's "truth". Therefore, society cannot allow one person or group's "truth" to encroach or intrude upon another's "truth". Therefore, there must be a discontinuity between one's private religious thoughts and actions, and one's public behavior. Christian, leave your religious beliefs behind when you leave your home or church. Outside those very limited realms, the pluralists say, you must be a moral neutral (as if such a thing were possible).

The postmodern, pluralistic mind says that individuals must confine expression of their religious convictions and worldview to their private lives or their "religious community". Society cannot permit individuals or groups to bring such views and expressions into the public square. What individuals do or believe in their private lives has no bearing on their fitness (or unfitness) to serve in the workplace, government, educational institution, or pulpit - as long as they keep their private actions and beliefs private.

A Double Standard

But clearly there is a double standard at work among those who claim there are no standards. Some views must be privatized, while others need not be. It does not matter, the postmodernists ridiculously claim, if the man who is put in charge of "safety" in public education at the highest levels of the federal government is a homosexual activist. It does not matter that another high government official says that she derives her inspiration from the writings of Mao Tse-Tung. And it does not matter if a president of the United States engages in sexual immorality in the Oval Office.

But what is obvious, over and over again, is that the view of one religion and worldview does matter to the postmodern pluralists, and is singled out for suppression: Biblical Christianity. It is the authority of the Bible and the name of Jesus Christ that the postmodern pluralist hates above all else.

This is not so very different from the experience of early Christians as recorded in the book of Acts. Repeatedly, they were told by the authorities not to name the name of Jesus Christ, or to preach in "that name" (Acts 4:17-18, 5:28, 5:40). But they refused, saying, "We must obey God rather than men," and rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for Christ (Acts 5:27-42).

An Excuse for Silence?

But today, far too many Christians use the philosophy of privatization as an excuse not to bear a clear Christian testimony in the workplace, in the classroom, and in the public square. Far too often, Evangelical postmodernists bow to the world by agreeing with it that they must not "offend" anyone by taking a clear stand for Christ and the Bible.

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in southern California, gave classic examples of this kind of cowardice at a Pew Forum on Religion, Politics, and Public Life in 2005. Warren, the architect of the Purpose-Driven Church movement, said, "I don't accept gay marriage. I don't think a gay relationship is exactly what God wants in life....By the way, my wife and I had dinner at a gay couple's home two weeks ago. So I'm not a homophobic guy, okay?"2

At the same meeting, a reporter from the New York Times asked Warren, "Where are you on the death penalty and stem cell research?" Warren answered, "Let me ask you this - if I answer that question, to your disagreement, will it affect our relationship with each other?...I'm saying, for you, is that a make-or-break issue? See, it's not for me....I believe that everybody makes a decision on these issues based on their values. I happen to base my values on certain values that I get out of the Scriptures. Other people base their values on some other beliefs. Everybody makes a value-based judgment."3

How Privatization Has Undermined Christian Scholarship

Privatization has not only had a devastating effect on Christian testimony. It has also had a destructive impact on Christian scholarship. Under the influences of postmodernism, pluralism, and privatization, the administrations of many Christian colleges and seminaries have hired professors with the thought that an individual's private beliefs have only limited bearing on his fitness to teach. Formerly conservative schools have brought in men who received most of their training in liberal colleges and seminaries. They have overlooking their doctrinal deviancies in order to achieve academic respectability in the eyes of the world.

Many times, the hiring of such men has set up an inevitable clash between those on a school's faculty who still stand for the truth of God's Word and those who teach and tolerate error, with school administrators trying to keep the controversy from becoming public. They know that unless such controversies are kept private, the school's reputation will suffer and some sources of financial support might dry up. Thus many Christian colleges and seminaries have allowed intramural controversies over basic, non-negotiable doctrines to drag on for years, all the while allowing the heretics on their faculties to continue to spread their influence among students while the internal debate drags on.

Two classic cases of this kind of privatizing behavior took place at once-conservative Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Norman Shepherd was permitted to continue to teach students that justification is by faith plus works for several years, while an intramural struggle raged concerning his views. He was only fired when the controversy became public despite the administration's strenuous efforts to keep the lid on it, and conservative donors began to withhold financial support. But what was kept private was the fact that professors sympathetic to Shepherd were permitted to remain, and to continue spreading his poison among ministerial students. Today, those students are the pastors of hundreds of churches, into which many of them have introduced doctrinal error.

Twenty-five years later, Westminster was again embroiled in controversy over the teachings of Professor Peter Enns, who taught that Scripture is neither fully inspired nor inerrant. Enns taught that much of the Old Testament is merely the re-telling of ancient pagan myths, and that the Bible should not be considered accurate in matters of history or science.1 As in the case of Norman Shepherd, Enns was forced out only when the controversy became public and the seminary's finances suffered as a result. It seems that when money is at stake, pluralism and privatization suddenly become far less important to school administrators and trustees.

How Privatization Undermines Churches

The philosophy of privatization has carried over from colleges and seminaries into many churches. Individuals and congregations are criticized for calling attention to doctrinal error and demanding correction. Often these people are told by their church leaders that they are somehow violating the ninth commandment (against bearing false witness), or Matthew 18:15-17 (which deals with the handling of private offenses) by publicly exposing heresy, and naming the names of those who teach and promote it.

Authentic Christianity in Contrast

In yesterday's article we quoted several passages that state the Biblical imperative to expose and reprove doctrinal error. Today we add these, which once again state the imperative of not privatizing doctrinal deviancy, but rather exposing and renouncing it:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them. (Matthew 7:15-20)

For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers...whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain...Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith...To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work. (Titus 1:10-16)

Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not; but have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:1-2)




1. The first book to publicly expose Enns' false teachings was the author's Christianity and Neo-Liberalism (The Trinity Foundation, 2004).

2. "Myths of the Modern Megachurch," a transcript of Rick Warren's remarks to the Pew Forum's Faith Angle Conference on Religion, Politics, and Public Life, May 23, 2005, Key West, Florida, as viewed on 10/6/2008 at

3. "Myths of the Modern Megachurch"


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