As Christians face more direct opposition from cultural powers, we should consider Rod Dreher’s recent discussions of the Benedict Option and the Jeremiah Option. The former represents a more “separatist” approach to cultural or political engagement and the latter embraces “assimilation” as a means of cultural survival. The struggle to maintain our Christian identity against a cultural onslaught that delights to seduce us into impotence has never been easy. However, it is crucial to recognize that engagement is an element of discipleship and the immanence of our witness is part of our obedience. If the Benedict Option is to represent a faithful community, it must be a witnessing and serving presence that bears the cost of following Christ.
Counterfeit, culturally acceptable Christianity is more dangerous to true faith than active and virulent persecution. This point is not disputed among most thoughtful Benedict Option supporters (indeed, Rod’s post about it is one of the best), but it is important to take up first because isolation from the world is not only unfaithful but poisonous to faith. Heeding James’ command to not be “polluted by the world” will often protect us from the seductive lies of the Satan, but it can also just as easily seduce us into Pharasaism. Most of us have read or met former Christians who have been inoculated against the faith by harsh, legalistic religiosity. In these cases, misapplication of the principle behind the Benedict Option has done harm to souls because of the inherent danger in isolation. Increasing the distance from a world in need proportionately threatens both individuals and communities; we need to intimately know the lost people and broken communities we are called to love in order to temper and strengthen our witness to them.
If we look to the Bible, we see that this is because God’s commands to evangelize and disciple are consistently linked with our prosperity as the people of God, from The Great Commission to the Kingdom parables or God’s instruction to the church in Philadelphia. Our faithfulness to doctrine is inseparable from our engagement with the world; as Jesus’ power was so great that the touch of the bleeding woman made her clean rather than Him unclean, so our interactions with the fallen world participate in God’s redemption of it. This is not a call to passively consume cultural products or merely imitate trendy practices, for a facile familiarity with other perspectives will only breed more ignorance. Instead, we need to spend time listening carefully to people whom we know and speaking boldly once we have demonstrated our commitment to them.
A community that is consistently interacting with lost neighbors and taking our stand at the gates of Hell must also hunker down regularly for the sort of intense reflection and spiritual isolation that the Benedict Option cherishes. This is where the Benedict Option apologists are most insightful: it is in contemplation, rest, and tightly-knit community that we are primarily given what God entrusts us to give away in turn. However, without a constant inflow of both needy souls to bless and lost opponents to challenge us, our faith will become as atrophied and grotesque as an athlete who eats the 10,000-calorie Olympic diet but never competes in a race. Just as our questions and doubts are shaped by the ends to which we ask them, so our rest and retreat are shaped by the ends for which we undertake them.
This sort of orientation, however, is by no means a prioritization of deeds over words, for the choice to love others self-sacrificially in a way that is both meaningful and sustainable requires a solid understanding of the Bible. Neither does it entail that the most faithful Christians are always in the hardest places, for believers who create institutions of study, creativity, or healing that send out disciples and draw in the curious are all part of this framework. As the stakes rise, however, the potential for the power of God to be proclaimed rises concurrently– whether it is Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol’s illness exposing a confusion of kingdoms or Christians in China growing into a worldwide evangelistic movement. These examples clearly how the crucible of persecution is part of God’s worldwide plan for the proclamation of the Good News. Just as Jesus’ incarnation and sacrifice made God’s proclamation of salvation immanent, so our proclamation of Him is amplified by our presence and our sacrifices.
Alan Jacobs notes that some of Rod’s commenters are missing this important part of Christian witness:
Those commenters have Christianity Derangement Syndrome — mental paralysis set off by the idea that being a Christian might cost something.
— Alan Jacobs (@ayjay) August 23, 2014
This illustrates what the Benedict Option seems to only halfway grasp, though: the question of cost and the value of suffering. Nik Ripken’s book The Insanity of God relates the stories of persecuted believers around the world who see how persecution is a means of testing and refining faith– which is far more reflective of the normative experience of many Christian communities around the world and throughout history. Recognizing the purifying power of opposition is a necessary part of contemplating retreat and rest. When we are battling regularly and intensely against powers and principalities, we are not only forced to choose the best swords and ensure that they are sharpened: we also find greater succor in God’s words in Isaiah 30:15, “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.”
Persecution, trials, and suffering purify the church and sanctify her members. The times when our comfort or deliverance are not apparent are opportunities for trust in God to take on new dimensions. Accordingly, our trust in material circumstances diminishes when our idols are put to the flame of persecution. This display of persevering hope in things unseen is then a startling witness to a watching (and even persecuting) world. Even when Christianity is a dominant force in any particular culture, there is usually enough counterfeit teaching to create this pruning, paring opposition– especially when the church is co-opted by the forces of injustice, as it has been at many points in American history. The times when cultural attitudes favor faithful Christianity are, in turn, grand opportunities to go out en masse to unreached places.
This raises the question of how to understand persecution of Christians in America today, where nearly every possible variation of assimilation and isolation exist simultaneously with many different levels of cultural acceptance and rejection. We must also recognize another danger within communities that embrace the Benedict Option: the fetishization of suffering, which Alan Noble has described within American Christendom. Persecution is not required for the church’s growth any more than procreation is, although both are natural consequences of fidelity to God and are to be expected when we faithfully practice God’s directives.
The Scriptures give us helpful examples in the tightrope walk between assimilation and isolation; we see that Christians in the New Testament who practiced faithfully often garnered negative attention when their preaching and action challenged existing religious, political, or cultural powers– but their retreat was always in preparation for a more aggressive evangelistic push. The continued existence of such powers today leads us to expect that places where Christians are tortured and jailed like Paul and Silas were will continue to exist (and there are many), but as modes of cultural expression change, so will forms of persecution. Yet it is clear in the Bible that the long-term effects of faithful believers enduring hardship are the growth of the church and God’s healing in the surrounding community. The experience of New Testament believers While the The opening of Acts 8 (just after the martyrdom of Stephen) is instructive:
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.
“Much joy in that city.” This is how a community scattered in exile knows that it has been faithful: Christians who know the people around them bring joy and healing to their communities even as they become vulnerable to suffering or targets for persecution. We must take hold of the power of God that is demonstrated as the death of Jesus in our bodies manifests the life of Jesus. The proclamation of God’s work in the world through preaching, teaching, prayer, service, conversation, acts of mercy, and even suffering is unmistakably part of our discipleship as a faithful community and how we retain our identity as His bride.