In reflecting on Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, I have: (1) Summarized things I appreciate in his discussion, maybe most centrally his assertion that Christians need to take very seriously how our faith should shape our lives in a deeply problematic contemporary North American culture. (2) Offered a fairly sharp critique of his proposals, suggesting that at its heart, Dreher’s Benedict Option does not make the message of Jesus and his embodied love central enough. And, (3) I lingered a bit on the issue of same-sex marriage that Dreher seems to see as the paradigmatic expression of the anti-Christian dynamics in our society today. I believe that judgment is incorrect and profoundly hurtful. I conclude that third blog post by pointing to the possibility of a “Believers’ Church option” that more successfully embody core Christian convictions in countercultural witness. I’ll complete the series with some thoughts about this “option.”
It’s a measure of my appreciation for Dreher’s contribution that I point to it as inspiration for suggesting a “Believers’ Church Option” that perhaps in some ways complements Dreher’s Benedict Option, also perhaps stands over against it as a quite different kind of Christian approach.
The Believers’ Church Tradition
One way to think of Christian traditions is to make a distinction between “magisterial churches” and “believers’ churches.”
Magisterial churches are those traditions with a history of being, in some sense, state churches that are closely linked with magistrates (or governmental leaders). These include most of the larger Christian groups (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestant groups such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, and Anglican).
Alongside these state-connected groups, though, numerous independent Christian fellowships have arisen, especially with the break in western Christendom between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century Reformation. These Believers’ Churches (e.g., Mennonites, Baptists, Church of the Brethren, Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Pentecostals) have typically practiced believers’ baptism and been free from direct linkage with the state, more Bible-centered and less creedal, and non-hierarchical.
Dreher’s Benedict Option seems more closely related to magisterial church traditions (his own connections are mainly Catholic and Orthodox). That legacy may partly explain why Dreher seems unfamiliar with the idea of Christians being content with having a minority status in a given society—and being comfortable with that status.
So, a major difference between the Benedict Option and the Believers Church option is distinct sensibilities about how Christians understand themselves in relation to their wider culture. Believers’ Church adherents would not have the same kind of longing for the heyday of what Dreher calls “the West” (chapter two) where Christianity had a kind of hegemony of status and authority. In fact, some Believers’ Church Christians have welcomed the breaking apart of what they call “Christendom” as an opportunity to witness to a different kind of Christianity, a Christianity more authentic to the message of Jesus and the practices of the early churches.
Drehere approaches the notion of Christian countercultures as if it is something relatively new, at least in the countries of “the West.” For the Believers’ Churches, a sense of living as a counterculture goes clear back to their origins.
Jesus at the Center
As I noted in my general critique of The Benedict Option, the actual message of Jesus from the gospels gets little attention—something typical of magisterial Christianity since the 4th century. In contrast, Believers’ Church Christianity has always placed the gospels at the center of their construal of faith. As a consequence, the call to love even enemies has often had a priority. So, too, has a sense of calling to witness to the wider culture of the way of love.
This sense of calling has existed side-by-side with a sense of separation from the problematic dynamics of “the world”—particularly an economics of wealth acquisition, a politics of domination, and an inordinate nationalism.
What the Believers’ Church could offer those interested in the Benedict Option is a tradition of that (1) has lower expectations of the wider culture’s moral soundness, (2) that leads to less disappointment with the practices (and even hostility toward Christians) of the wider culture, and (3) that actually allows a more hopeful encounter with the wider culture based on hope in the possibilities for a minority witness (rather than a desire to retain a kind of cultural hegemony).
This relationship with the wider culture has actually enabled Believers’ Church communities to have a constructive influence with the wider culture—such as, for example, pioneering the concept of the separation of church and state, innovations in education and health care, and establishing freedom of religion rights such as conscientious objection.
A term I have used before as a summary for how the Bible presents the relationship between the faith community and the wider world is “God’s healing strategy.” The main idea is that, drawing on the story of the calling of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12 to create a family whose descendants will “bless all the families of the earth,” the core biblical theme is a vision the people of God living as communities of people who know peace and share that peace with the rest of the world. This vision combines a sense of distinction between faith communities and the wider world with a sense of the calling of those communities to love and be agents of healing for all the families of the earth.
An important part of the Bible’s vision of peace and healing is that the biblical story ultimately rejects the notion of territorial human kingdoms serving as channels for God’s work in the world. The “politics of Jesus” draws on the “politics of Jeremiah” in calling for God’s people to “seek the peace of the city where they find themselves” (Jer 29) and not to expect to return to a worldly territorial kingdom as God’s direct agent. Jesus as Messiah is an upside-down king who practices a kind of political power based on servanthood.
In relation to the Believers’ Church option, this model of politics empowers a sense of distance from any particular nation-state as the locus of God’s work in the world—in contrast to the sensibility of magisterial Christianity that has animated “the West.”
With this sense of distance from nation-states also comes a sense of welcome and openness to peoples of all nations and walks of life. That is, the distance from nation-states actually empowers a greater potential for connecting with actual people in loving and respectful ways. The distance is not a call to withdrawal from the wider world but for a different kind of engagement with the world.
The sense of mission in Believers’ Church traditions has typically been disinclined to erect strict boundaries of in and out. Theologically, the understanding would be that the lines must be porous in order to invite new people into the community. Since membership is determined by a non-coerced decision to follow Jesus, the communities must be invitational and non-boundary marker oriented. Of course, in practice Believers’ Church communities have practiced their own kind of boundary maintenance that has often not been welcoming. But in doing so, they have contradicted some of their main theological convictions.
So, unlike Dreher’s portrayal of the Benedict Option that seems not to include a sense of witness and invitation to the wider world, the Believers’ Church option is committed to struggle with the sense of the importance of both maintaining a sense of difference from the wider world and a sense of welcome toward and mutual give and take with that same world.
One of the core distinctives in the Believers’ Church tradition, as indicated with the term “believers,” is a sense of human beings having the potential to choose the good. A positive view of human nature is implied in the practice of adult baptism. We are not characterized by a “bondage of will” in the original-sin sense, but by the potential to respond to God’s Spirit in our lives.
As well, in deferring baptism, believers’ churches have evinced a sense of trust in God being active in the world. We can wait for baptism because we are confident that God will be caring for and reaching out to our children—and, by inference, other children as well.
We could cite the story of Jonah, where we have this Hebrew prophet who seems to think that God is the God only of his people and, in a sense, limited only to his homeland. Through bitter experience, Jonah learns that God is present in the sea and even among the pagans seafarers. And God’s mercy is present out there, too, when the fish saves Jonah’s life and gives him another chance to obey God’s call. Jonah does reluctantly obey, and discovers that God is also, remarkably, mercifully present among the hated Ninevites.
So, for the Believers’ Church option, we may envision a sense of calling to be salt and light in the world without hoping to be in charge of the world. This is the vision for life that the biblical story ultimately confirms as being the norm for God’s people. We may be hopeful that amidst the terrible things in human societies, people still have the capability of responding to God’s mercy. We don’t require a “Christian culture” in order to have a positive impact.
A Non-Believers’ Church Believers’ Church Model
Interestingly, one of the most exemplary models of a Believers’ Church way of being in the world comes out of the Roman Catholic tradition. Though not operating with an explicitly believers’ church ecclesiology, the Catholic Worker has embodied many of the core convictions of that tradition. What the Worker has had in common with the Believers’ Church vision is a self-conscious focus on the way of Jesus and an explicit commitment to the concrete practice of love (two things largely missing from Dreher’s explicit articulation of the Benedict Option vision).
Though not formally being a part of the established church or having much of a formal structure at all, the Worker has managed to sustain a communal identity. Though having a porous sense of boundaries that leads to offering hospitality wide and far, the Worker has managed to construct an impressive record of service and witness going on nearly nine decades.
Certainly, Worker founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin articulated sharp critiques of the wider American society of the 1930s—sharper and more insightful than Dreher’s, I might add. However, for them the critique fueled a sense of presence in the heart of the empire with “the least of these.” Their sense of antipathy toward American society deepened their sense of empathy for those who the empire trampled on.
They embodied a sense of calling to serve the world. To the extent that the Catholic Worker could be seen as sharing in a monastic spirit (and I think there is some of that spirit in the Worker’s history), it is a monasticism that means to step back in order to empower service, not step back in order to sustain a sense of purity.
A Believers’ Church Option
Dreher starts with hegemonic assumptions about “Christian culture.” He is nostalgic for what he imagines is a past Western Civilization that was authentically (more or less) “Christian.” He now believes that the “culture war” (at least in part understood as an attempt by Christians and other “conservatives” to retain their cultural hegemony in the society) is lost. So he proposes the Benedict Option as a kind of retreat.
In contrast, Believers’ Church Christians have never (when they are consistent with the best insights of their tradition) sought for cultural hegemony. They are not likely to look back at the Christian West with nostalgia, because during its heyday their spiritual ancestors were persecuted, even killed by the thousand. However, they have engaged over the years in a critical engagement with the wider society (when they weren’t on the run for their lives). No matter what their prognosis of the current cultural environment might be today, they would not expect their relation to the wider culture to be much different than it ever has been. Critical engagement, not retreat.
A Believers’ Church option would seek to find an (admittedly ever elusive) balance of sustaining a distinct identity for Christian communities while they simultaneously engage the wider world. A healthy balance will protect Believers’ Church communities from total assimilation with the wider culture (and it is definitely the case that many such communities have failed to find the balance and proceeded a disastrously long way down the path toward assimilation). Holding a tension between identity sustenance and engagement has been a way to understand and implement the founding vocation of “blessing all the families of the earth.”
I’ll close with a reference to the book of Revelation. The book envisions faith communities (the ekklesias, or churches) that follow the Lamb in relation to the Roman Empire. Following the Lamb has to do with retaining a sense of over-againstness in relation to the idolatrous and unjust elements of life in the Empire. However, this over-againstness ultimately functions as part of their vocation to contribute to the transformation of Babylon to New Jerusalem—a transformation that heals the nations and their kings .