Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 4—A Believers’ Church Alternative

Ted Grimsrud

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. Continue reading “Dreher’s ” Benedict Option”: Part 4—A Believers’ Church Alternative”

What kind of Christian politics? Some beginning thoughts

Ted Grimsrud—April 5, 2017

We are living in interesting times. I can remember in the late 1990s having several conversations with progressive friends about the future of Christianity in the United States. Some of my friends thought we were heading into a time of diminishing interest in Christianity and diminishing influence of Christians on the wider society (it is interesting that today, it is more likely to be Christians on the right who worry about Christianity being marginalized in the United States).

Then George Bush got elected and proceeded to help bring the Christian Right closer to the seats of power than ever before. In the years since, for better or worse, Christian politics has remained a significant presence. And then, of course, with the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency and the strengthening of Republican power in most of the states in our nation, evangelical Christians seemingly heightened their stature and may well now be on the cusp of achieving some of their long sought policy goals—not least the repeal of Roe v. Wade and a return to the criminalization of abortion.

There are other Christians who have strongly opposed the close ties between the Republican Party and American Christianity—including, actually, a growing number of evangelicals. It is even possible to imagine that this moment of seeming unprecedented influence for the Christian Right might in time be seen as a turning point in weakening the broader connection between evangelicals and Republicans. Donald Trump stands for so many values that seem antithetical to traditional evangelical morality that it is difficult to imagine that he will be able to retain the support of all that many.

An interesting book

I just read a book about Christianity and politics that has stimulated more thinking for me. Keith Giles, currently pastor of an outside-the-box congregation in southern California, recently published Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics to Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb (Quior, 2017). I recommend this book if one if interested in seeing how the evangelical consensus favoring blind support for the Republican agenda is being questioned.

Giles is a birthright evangelical, and this book clearly emerges out his disillusionment with the Christian Right. In a nutshell, he poses “the pursuit of politics” in the contemporary United States as contradictory with a pursuit of the genuine gospel. His agenda is to encourage those who seek to follow Jesus to turn away from a quest for political power. He sees the quest for a “Christian America” as terribly misguided.

Authentic Christianity, as Giles understands it, does indeed hope to contribute to social transformation. But it is not a transformation effected by top-down, state-oriented power but by conversion to Jesus as savior. “Presidents and politicians have much less power than the average Christian when it comes to transformation…. The Gospel of Jesus is still the most effective weapon against evil, corruption, violence, hate, fear, and every other sin known to mankind…. Let everyone know that Jesus is the best Leader anyone could ever have” (p. 185).

There is much that is attractive in Giles’s argument. Certainly, his critique of the Christian Right and its embrace of the American Empire is helpful. I sincerely hope that many evangelical Christians read this book. I can’t help but think it would be better for American Christianity and the country in general if Giles’s position gained many adherents—even if I don’t actually agree completely with his constructive agenda.

Reading Giles stimulated me to think more about the different ways Christians approach politics in the United States. Feeling a bit playful, I decided to create a chart that maps various approaches that Christians have taken in recent years. This is a serious exercise, but not one to be taken too seriously. The “map” is only a quick (and superficial) sketch. But perhaps it has potential to serve as an aid for understanding.

Continue reading “What kind of Christian politics? Some beginning thoughts”

The “essence” of Anabaptism

Ted Grimsrud—July 22, 2014

[On the evening of July 20, I spoke as part of a panel of four on theme of the meaning of Anabaptism, at Morning View Mennonite Church. I was assigned two general questions and given first five minutes and then ten minutes to speak. It was a great experience. It was challenging because it was a rural, quite conservative congregation (having split from Virginia Mennonite Conference because the conference was too “liberal” about the same time my congregation split from Virginia Conference because it was too “conservative”). I focused on finding common ground with other panelists—I was the only one who is now part of Mennonite Church USA. It’s a good exercise, I think, to reflect on our core identity.]

What are the core elements that define historic Anabaptism?

The Anabaptist movement emerged in the 1520s as part of the Protestant Reformation and, because of its radical call to return to the gospels, came to be known as the Radical Reformation. Anabaptists built on the work of mainline reformers such as Martin Luther who taught a direct appropriation of biblical teaching over church tradition. They took things a step further, though, and zeroed in on the message of Jesus. They affirmed following that message for all Christians—no matter what the cost. So, the core of the core in naming the essence of Anabaptism, I would say, is recovering Jesus’s way as the heart of Christian faith.

To say more than that gets complicated. There were many early expressions of the Anabaptist movement—some branched off the first group in Zurich, Switzerland. Some sprang up spontaneously—a revolution in the understanding of Christian faith was in the air. The Anabaptist movement was decentralized. When we talk about historic Anabaptism, we should acknowledge quite a bit of diversity. But I believe, in contrast to the recent generation of academic historians, that we may still affirm a sense of coherence in the movement—even if it didn’t take the form of a centralized organization or official creeds and dogmas.

Anabaptists believed Jesus to be more central than church tradition, the nation-state, institutional hierarchies, or top-down operated rituals. Because of this, Anabaptists got into trouble—to the point that thousands were killed for embodying their convictions. So I suggest if we want to flesh out our sense of the essence of Anabaptism in the 16th century—and of a usable Anabaptist vision—we should look at why all these diverse Anabaptists got into trouble (recognizing of course, that each group had its own distinctive way of embodying these core convictions). Continue reading “The “essence” of Anabaptism”

Damaging the Christian faith? Questions about some anti-gay sentiments

Ted Grimsrud—April 27, 2014

I wrote in an earlier post that I have been disappointed that most conversations that I am aware of about how churches and church-related institutions should respond to LGBTQ folks in their midsts don’t seem to be very theological. Those on the “restrictive” side assert over and over again that the basic issue is the Bible and authentic Christian faith on the one side (theirs) and humanism, relativism, and liberalism on the other. And, it seems, many on the “inclusive” side don’t mind this framing of things.

As I express in that earlier post, I am not happy with that framing, and I try to show there that, for example, my workplace, Eastern Mennonite University, should adopt inclusive hiring practices because of our theological convictions and because we affirm the importance of the Bible. Of course, my sentiment is not gaining widespread affirmation.

Concern for the health of Christian faith

Certainly, the main reason for my convictions and the main motivation for trying to articulate them is my concern for the pain that discrimination causes for people who are hurt by it. It is because of the Bible’s call for love, for compassion, for respect, for hospitality, that churches and church related institutions should take an inclusive approach. We should be welcoming because of the damage a non-welcoming approach does to vulnerable people.

Just lately, though, I have been wondering that perhaps it should also be for the sake helping churches and church-related institutions themselves not to be damaged by problems that arise with following the restrictive path. And, in particular, I’ve been thinking a bit about whether assertions for the necessity for taking a restrictive approach actually might undermine Christian faith itself. Part of what has triggered these reflections just now are several short statements of opposition to movements within churches and church-related institutions that have formerly been restrictive toward becoming more inclusive. Continue reading “Damaging the Christian faith? Questions about some anti-gay sentiments”

“Mennonite Systematic Theology”: An opportunity whose time has passed?

Ted Grimsrud

David Cramer’s recent interesting Conrad Grebel Review article, “Mennonite Systematic Theology in Retrospect and Prospect” (31.3 [Fall 2013], 255-73) has stimulated my thinking quite a bit. He surveys the past thirty years, discussing the rise of interest in doctrinal theology among Mennonites and suggesting that while it has been good for Mennonite theologians to engage the broader Christian tradition it is still necessary for Mennonites to develop “more radically particularistic, integral Mennonite Systematic Theologies” (p. 257).

Though I have quite a bit of sympathy with Cramer’s suggestion (and I hope to say a bit more about a “particularistic” approach to Mennonite theology at the end of this post), his discussion triggered some thoughts that leave me feeling a bit discouraged. One response I have to this essay is to wonder if it might actually be too late for Cramer’s proposal. I hope not….

A theological attraction to Mennonites

Not long before Cramer was born (he cites his year of birth, 1983, as coincidentally the moment when it seems Mennonite academics made a self-conscious turn toward doctrinal theology), I had first encountered the Mennonite tradition. Drawn to Mennonites’ pacifism as mediated through the writing of John Howard Yoder, I made the move from being a generic evangelical to joining the Mennonite church in 1981. This step of formal membership followed a year of residence at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.

From the start, my attraction to the Mennonite tradition had everything to do with Mennonite theology. Like many evangelicals at the time and since (I think this may be true of David Cramer himself, at least to some degree), I read Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus and felt a strong attraction to the tradition that had generated such a profound perspective on the gospel. I was fortunate soon to discover a generous-spirited small Mennonite congregation in my home town that sought, with significant success, to embody that peaceable message.

The people, the relationships, the social ethics, the service work, the tradition and practices of “nonresistance” and conscientious objection, all attracted me powerfully. However, I was also passionate about the ideas, the intellectual grounding, the theology of peace that I discovered among Mennonites. It wasn’t just Yoder. I avidly read Norman Kraus’s writings along with the 1976 festschrift for Guy Hershberger, Kingdom, Cross, and Community, that contained any number of rich essays. My wife Kathleen and I went to hear Myron Augsberger preach when we visited her family in Phoenix in March 1977. We were beside ourselves in excitement that evening. Here was a perspective that promised to make sense of what it means to think as Christians in our violent world. Continue reading ““Mennonite Systematic Theology”: An opportunity whose time has passed?”

What makes a Mennonite?

Ted Grimsrud—July 3, 2013

It used to be that the question “what makes a Mennonite?” probably would mainly have confused North American Mennonites. A Mennonite was simply born into the family, church, and broader Mennonite fellowship. Now it’s true Mennonites practiced believers baptism with its implication that actually becoming a formal member of the Mennonite church required a choice, a conscious commitment.

So there may have been a bit of a tension between one’s birthright Mennonite identity and one’s official, based-on-church-membership Mennonite identity. But for generations the large percentage of those born into Mennonite families stayed in the fold—and few “outsiders” entered the church community. So to be a “Mennonite” was a straightforward, uncomplicated thing that had most of all to do with birth into the community.

The effects of Mennonite cultural assimilation

This has all changed in the past 130 years. As North American Mennonites have assimilated, this has meant that the boundaries separating the Mennonite world from the outside have become increasingly permeable. More people born into Mennonite families have left, more new Mennonites have entered the fold, and various theological currents from the outside have shaped Mennonite congregations.

People who track such things are worried about Mennonite demographics, especially in relation to the make up of Mennonite Church USA (and also, perhaps, Mennonite Church Canada as well as other Mennonite groups). As a rule, Mennonites are getting older. Due to smaller families and young people leaving the church often not to return, the overall numbers of church members are shrinking and those who remain tend to be older.

One way to speak of these dynamics is to say that more and more, being a part of the Mennonite community is a choice. People who are born into find it easier to leave and people from the outside find it easier to enter the community (at least to some extent). Fewer people all the time, it seems, are making this choice.

So, is there a future for the Mennonite tradition? One small part of reflecting on this question is simply to think about what a “Mennonite” is—or, as I ask in this post’s title, “what makes a Mennonite?” Continue reading “What makes a Mennonite?”

On thinking like a postmodern Anabaptist (if that’s possible)

Ted Grimsrud—June 25, 2013

What do you get when you put together an appreciation for well-known postmodern thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas with a self-identification with Anabaptist theology, membership in a Mennonite congregation, a (tentative) commitment to pacifism, and an affirmation of the core theological project of John Howard Yoder? Then you add an academic location that combines the field of social theory with a professorship at a notorious bastion of libertarianism and Republicanism (Hillsdale College)? And for good measure, include some rock and roll….

Well, you could get an incoherent mess. Or, if the person who embodies all these disparate influences (and more) is intelligent and clear-thinking and a good writer and has a whimsical sense of humor, you might get a remarkable and pathbreaking collection of essays. Happily, Pete Blum’s For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought (Herald Press, 2013) fits in the second category.

The value of experiments

Perhaps the operative term in the book’s title is “experiments.” The seven essays here are each characterized by an openness, a tentativeness, and a gentleness of spirit. Blum addresses challenging issues. He’s an amazingly clear writer even as the themes he addresses are not easy or superficial. But there is a humility here, a sense of invitation to a conversation. There is no show-boating or disdain. No sense of seeking to shock or intimidate.

This is a collection of conversations—Blum talking with his thinkers and trying to get them to talk with each other. Some of the conversations are maybe a bit surprising—pairing the biblicist Mennonite pacifist Yoder with the French revolutionary atheist Foucault and then Yoder again with the only slightly less notoriously radical Jacques Derrida. Continue reading “On thinking like a postmodern Anabaptist (if that’s possible)”

A pacifist at the AAR/SBL

Ted Grimsrud

Last weekend, my wife Kathleen and I made our annual trip to the big city to hobnob with 10,000 religion scholars. That is, we attended that convention of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature in Chicago, November 17-20. As per usual, we had a great time. This year, things were pretty low key—both in the sense of not having many responsibilities and of not attending any high powered, life changing sessions (no Cornel West, Judith Butler, Jeffrey Stout, or Robert Bellah this year).

As always, the biggest highlights were the times with friends—especially those who I usually only see at these meetings, but also some new friends (including meeting in the flesh a couple of cyber friends) and even some good times with people I see regularly.

Because I didn’t have much business to attend to and didn’t really have much interest in the book fair (I’m not quite sure why this was; in the past, I spent as many hours as I could with the always amazing collection of books from hundreds of publishers—maybe as I get older I realize just how many books I already have that I will never read), we spent most of our time attending sessions. While my socks stayed securely on my feet throughout, I still found the sessions interesting and stimulating of thought—even if mostly it was to argue against much of what I heard. Here are some highlights. Continue reading “A pacifist at the AAR/SBL”

Faith and Politics (Including Voting)

Ted Grimsrud

All this talking and thinking about voting (this post is part three: #1—Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger?; #2 —More thoughts about voting (or not) for a “warmonger”) has pushed me to think about what I understand politics to be about and what this has to do with my faith convictions. These are some thoughts.

Biblical politics

I find the Bible enormously helpful for thinking about politics. Not that it gives us a blueprint or an explicit political philosophy or even a list of principles for godly politics. Just that it tells a story (a complicated story, with many subplots) that we can share in—a story, ultimately, of people trying to join together to make the world more peaceable in light of their understanding of God’s will for their lives.

In a nutshell, I would define “biblical politics” as people working together for peace. “Peace” I would understand as “biblical shalom”—the wholeness of the community, all people living harmoniously with one another and with the rest of creation. The operative sense of “politics,” then, is people working together in community for the sake of shalom.

The Bible, thus, is intensely political as it tells both of how communities can operate in peaceable ways and of how communities violate shalom (and suffer the consequences). From Genesis’s account of the communal problems that emerge when people turn from shalom to Revelation’s account of a great city of peace (the New Jerusalem) being established on earth, the Bible focuses on politics done (or not) in light of the peaceable will of the creating and sustaining God of the universe.

Continue reading “Faith and Politics (Including Voting)”

More thoughts about voting (or not) for a “warmonger”

Ted Grimsrud

As we draw closer to election day, 2012, I continue to reflect on the voting issue. My October 1, 2012, post asked the question “Should a pacifist vote for a warmonger?”  [UPDATE: I posted a third installment on October 28: “Faith and Politics (Including Voting)”] I concluded that though indeed I believe that President Obama’s four years in office have been a time of increasingly distressing militarism, I still will vote for him. I posed this choice not so much as voting for a lesser evil but as voting against a greater evil. That is, I do not understand my vote to be an expression of support for Obama but to be an expression of opposition to the far more distressingly militaristic and destructive-in-many-more-areas policies I would expect from a Romney administration.

The original posts received many thoughtful and perceptive comments. Within the comments section, several other fascinating conversations that went beyond my own contribution emerged. With these responses and numerous conversations with friends and more reading and thinking, I want to take some time to say a bit more—mainly to try to restate and clarify the argument I am trying to develop. Continue reading “More thoughts about voting (or not) for a “warmonger””