Neo-Anabaptists and the Benedict Option

One of the underlying questions behind much of Rod Dreher’s discussion of the Benedict Option so far concerns how we ought to think about a limited withdrawal from mainstream America in order to protect ourselves as orthodox believers against “corrosive modernity,” as Rod has put it.

There are many aspects to this question but one of the most important is this: Is the BenOp a short-term tactical maneuver to correct for unique contextual issues concerning the western church’s immediate situation or is it a more long-term, normative move meant as a sort of repentance for how the western church has related to mainstream culture?

Or, to put the question another way, is the creation of small enclaves of sanity a short-term maneuver done in hopes of regaining lost ground in the future or is the BenOp at its root animated by a belief that the only sort of sustainable orthodox community is one that exists on the margins of society?

Rod’s own work begs these sorts of questions due in no small part to his praise of Stanley Hauerwas and his explicit linking of the BenOp idea to Hauerwas’s work in Resident Aliens. In one sense, it’s not at all surprising that Dreher is explicitly citing Hauerwas. Many other orthodox Christians are beginning to speak in more Hauerwasian terms as well. Southern Baptist leaders are speaking of the church as a prophetic minority and Presbyterian historians are talking about the church-in-exile. Indeed, it is interesting that we may be starting to see a new interest in neo-Anabaptist themes on the religious right in post-Obergefell America which is a far cry from the far more common appropriation of Anabaptist thought by the evangelical left.

The timing of this move is not coincidental—Hauerwas’s work, amongst many others, has given conservative evangelicals a way of recovering a more critical relationship to the United States and toward the American project more generally. Given the way orthodox Christianity has tended to walk in lock-step with American civil religion since the post-war era, that is no small achievement on the part of the retired Duke professor. Yet as America as a whole has drifted leftward on sexual ethics and as the Republican party has increasingly turned its back on social conservatives, we shouldn’t be surprised that traditionalists are turning more and more toward Anabaptist themes in their own work.

More than any other tradition of western Christianity, the Anabaptists understand what it is to live on the margins. Their earliest leaders, men like Michael Sattler, Felix Manz, and Menno Simons (from whom the Mennonites take their name) were often hunted by Catholic and Protestant lords alike and even the more temperate Protestants, like Martin Bucer, often ended up favoring exile for outspoken Anabaptists in their cities. Less temperate leaders, like Zurich’s Huldrych Zwingli, would execute Anabaptists by drowning—an ironic third baptism given to people who rejected infant baptism and thus had been re-baptized as adults. (To be sure, the Radical Reformation was by far the most eclectic stream of Christianity to emerge from the reformation and some parts of it were genuinely insane, which perhaps helps to explain the severity of the response from the more mainstream churches of Europe.)

To this day the heirs of the Radical Reformation are small, marginal Christian groups—the Mennonites are amongst the more mainstream while the Amish and Hutterites would represent a less common strand of the tradition.

Yet there are many problems that arise when we begin to question the Anabaptist approach more thoroughly. (I should note up front that James Davison Hunter’s treatment of the neo-Anabaptists—think Shane Claiborne—in To Change the World is must-reading, as is O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations which offers a more complete response to Yoderian and Hauerwasian ways of thinking.)

To begin, the obvious problem for any religious tradition that defines itself in such essential opposition to the government but also, increasingly out of necessity, the modern market, is that if you preach repentance to Caesar (or the Wolf of Wall Street) and they say “OK, I repent,” you don’t know what to tell them. Peter Leithart gets at the problem in a punchy-but-amusing way here (HT to Brian Auten on this quote):

Once there was a prophet named Stanley. The prophet Stanley was a bold and faithful man who stood with granite face against the powers of the age.

“You cannot do that s–t,” he would say, as he stood before the king. “You are going to end up in f—–g h–l, and your people are going to hate you.”

One day, the king began to listen and to see the wisdom in Stanley’s words. When Stanley told him that the weak must be protected from the vicious strong, the king took steps to protect the weak. When Stanley told him that Jesus was Lord, the king bowed his knee. When Stanley told him that religious freedom is a subtle temptation, the king took heed.

And the king made a proclamation, that all in his kingdom should wear sackcloth and ashes and repent of their sins, even to the least beast of burden.

And Stanley went out from the city and made a shelter and sat under it and refused to speak again to the king.

And Stanley said, “Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life. I am a d–n prophet, not a f—–g chaplain.”

And the Lord said, “Do you have good reason to be angry?”

As for the king, he was greatly confounded and confused and knew not what to do; for he had done all that Stanley had asked.

The parable ends with questions, not a moral: Will the king always refuse to listen? Says who? And, when the king begins to listen, must the Church fall silent, so as to avoid becoming a chaplain? To keep her integrity, must the Church refuse to succeed?

This dilemma explains why the magisterial Protestants would sometimes mockingly call the radicals “anarchists.” Suppose that we preached the Gospel faithfully and every person in a place became Christian—would the government dissolve because no Christian can serve in government due to government’s coercive nature? But then what do we make of the many biblical texts that seem to treat government as a creational norm? Indeed, what do we do with stories like those of Daniel and his friends in scripture who all served in the Babylonian government? What do we do with Elisha’s words to Naaman after he was healed which allowed him to continue serving the king? Or what of John the Baptist’s response when asked by soldiers how they ought to live after being baptized?

But there is a deeper problem here as well with the Anabaptist paradigm. Because the Anabaptist approach puts such weight on the church as the place where God’s redemptive work is seen and displayed, it ends up radically growing the church’s scope and meaning in the world. Indeed, Hauerwas’s oft cited quote that “the church does not have a social ethic, the church is a social ethic,” hints indirectly at this problem: When the only place where God can be found is a small group existing on the margins of society called “the church” then this church must assume enormous authority for itself.

When the church is given such a central role, you end up with an odd sort of twist on the classic Roman error in ecclesiology of giving the church access to an authority it has no right to wield. But whereas the Roman church exists in a hierarchical structure that can when functioning help militate against the sort of abuse one would expect from such a powerful (and, ironically, coercive) body, many Anabaptist communities do not have anything like that sort of structure. It is not surprising, then, that one offers hears horror stories of abusive cultures and churches coming out of the radical tradition. Indeed, the very roots of the radical reformation show that this danger is one to which the radicals are especially susceptible.

The relevance of all this to the BenOp should by now be apparent. If the BenOp is about a corrective to some specific problems that have arisen in the North American church since the post-war years, then that is all to the good. It is not hard to argue that the second half of the 20th century was a uniquely poor time in the history of the western church and a move that would take us away from that by making some very specific course corrections to deal with significant problems is all to the good.

If the BenOp simply means that we need to revisit the question of Christian education for our children and begin thinking more seriously about what practical steps can be taken to create thicker bonds of friendship within our churches in order to produce more mature, stout-hearted believers then it’s hard to see how anyone could object to it. Indeed, that simply sounds like basic Christian wisdom to me.

But if the BenOp means that we ought to expect the Christian church to always live on the margins of society and that we must create more set-apart social bodies to serve as colonies existing in perpetual opposition to a hostile world, then we are dealing with something quite different.

One final note—I would hate for anyone to think that the chief question here is simply one about societal withdrawal. That is the issue everyone wants to discuss with the BenOp, but it’s actually not a very interesting question. Christians are called to be in the world, not of it. So we will always be in the world. And Rod has been very clear on this point, even though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise based on the lazy accusations of some of his critics. The concern is what the shape of our being in the world will be. Are we people living counter-culturally who, nonetheless, see that there really is a great harvest out there and who are hopeful about our prospects and have a plan for what happens when the harvest comes? Or are we more like Jonah, willing to preach repentance but in the back of our minds convinced that the king will never hear us? If you think it’s the former, then your take on the BenOp is likely to look quite different than it would if you believe the latter.

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  • Jake,
    Good questions, especially those “take this to its logical conclusion” queries.
    As an casual observer of the Ben.op. proposals, I’ve thought it has considerable overlap with with the movement in which I was spiritually raised–and still have some connection to–Fundamentalism. Clearly the attempts Fundamentalism made to influence culture, either by lobbing Gospel grenades over the walls, or by attempting to make the moral, but silent, majority, loud, didn’t work out so well. A look at that past should be added to the list of “things to check out before I sign up.”

  • The comparison of Hauerwas to Jonah is pretty amusingly resonant. Leave it to Leithart to come up with that one. :)

  • Thanks for this post; as I struggle to understand what [if anything] is meant by the BenOp ‘movement’ this was an interesting read. It is much appreciated that you acknowledged the Stanley Dilemma. :)

    You cite Mr. Dreher’s article in the statement: And Rod has been very clear on this point, even though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise based on the lazy accusations of some of his critics.” Perhaps rather than claiming critics are lazy you could post a response to some pretty glaring gaps. I feel Mr Dreher ducks the question with:

    You keep talking about the Benedict Option, but you never say what it is. Give us the formula.
    I keep telling you that there is no formula!

    Except to create a movement, a community, YES, there sorta needs to be a formula, a pattern, substantive directives. He later states “We should be able to adapt the Benedict Option to urban and suburban life.” … followed by not a single example or recommendation as to HOW. I do not accept that criticizing this type of text is “lazy”. Point to an example. Make one clear directive. At least propose a theoretical for how a separate-but-not-separate community could be constructed, and how it would be financially viable – – – otherwise… who is being “lazy” It is one thing to say “we should be able to…X” but with no step offered in that direction….

    “I would hate for anyone to think that the chief question here is simply one about societal withdrawal”

    That may not be the ‘chief’ question, but it is the principle operational question. Is BenOp an Option [something which a person can actually choose], or is it an Idea? At some point someone has to say – formulaic: “this is how I withdraw”. Are there any communities today you would recognize as BenOp-in-practice?

    • Ryan Booth

      Rod’s writing about the Benedict Option to this point has largely been about exploring ideas and getting feedback. He’s writing a book now, which should flesh the Ben Op out and will hopefully fill in what you think are glaring gaps. It’s unfair, at this point, to criticize Rod as “ducking” anything.

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  • There are two issues that come to the forefront here. The first issue deals with how will we Christians share society with others. The second issue revolves around how we will carry out the Great Commission. As we delve into each of these issues, the Benedict Option and similar approaches do not fair well. For in terms of how we share society, using the BenOp as a temporary solution tells society that unless we are in charge to some degree, we are not coming out to play. Of course that is the message we give the world. The BenOp tells us to be more self-directed rather than other directed.

    To make oneself more self-directed is to continually cripple oneself from doing one’s part in carrying out the Great Commission. In addition, if our only interaction with the world is to preach the Gospel, our neglect of the world’s daily problems will hurt our credibility and provide stumbling blocks to some of our listeners.

    Now Jake does a wonderful job in hringing up these issues in evaluating the Anabaptist position. That position sees the world’s sin but doesn’t take enough necessary opportunities to call the sinner to repentance. But isn’t the same true of the BenOp only to a different degree? And how long the BenOp will be necessary can only be speculated on.

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  • Jake I’m curious if you identify “mere christendom” as a requirement for mere orthodoxy. There sort of seems to be a running theme recently that anabaptist theology is a temptation to heresy away from… well I’m not sure what exactly. Must Christianity be a state religion? Or at least dominate culturally?

    As an anabaptist I find the Leithart parable and the question posed funny but not exactly a stumper. What should we tell the ruler or the wolf of wall street if they repent? Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell what he had and give it to the poor – I can’t see any compelling reason why this example would be invalid today.

    I grow increasingly confused as I read the reviews on Amazon for “To Change the World” and hear that Hunter argues that three different strands of American thought have been too political and instead Christians should focus on modeling a faithful presence. The book sounds interesting and (here’s my confusion) like an anabaptist critique of both conservative and progressive evangelical modes of political involvement. Jim Wallis and James Dobson have always seemed like two sides of the same coin to me.

    Finally it seems to me that many “neo-anabaptists” are simply politically progressive christians who have imbibed the anti-violence & anti-empire political viewpoints and adopted a label that allows them to retain their pre-existing political convictions.

    Historical anabaptism (eg the Schleitheim Confession or Bender’s Anabaptist Vision) certainly does not define its essence as opposition to the government but instead have an ethic driven by obedience to the words of Jesus. This ethic may find itself incompatible with embracing the powers and systems of the world but it doesn’t define itself by its opposition to them.

    I like your last paragraph and certainly many historic anabaptist groups have a pessimistic “please just leave us alone to live our lives in peace” sort of mentality in relationship to the larger world around them that bears critiquing. But in turn I think a call to preach repentance even to kings is too pessimistic if it insists that the king must be able to repent without changing anything and that success would look just like the current social order except with nifty “Team Jesus” jerseys.

  • Michael

    This is a great article, but I’m confused by this statement:

    “Indeed, Hauerwas’s oft cited quote that ‘the church does not have a social
    ethic, the church is a social ethic,’ hints indirectly at this problem: When the only place where God can be found is a small group existing on the margins of society called ‘the church’ then this church must assume
    enormous authority for itself.”

    I don’t see how you go from the church being a social ethic to being “the only place where God can be found.”

    I am an Anabaptist, though not a member of a nonconformist separatist group such as the Amish or Old Order Mennonites, who live in their own geographic enclaves and communities and are recognizable by what they reject, such cars, stylish clothing, and modern media. But I can see why these groups live this way: It is because of their children. Or, more to the point, their families. When raising children, parents can be reasonably assured that the values they want to instill in their kids at home will be reinforced by the culture in which the family lives and grows. That can certainly not be said about the “mainstream” culture for Christian parents today. And as a parent who is a member of a mainstream, acculturated Anabaptist congregation, I am not always completely confident that the biblical and Anabaptist values we are teaching our son will be consistently reinforced at our church and the Mennonite school he attends, especially concerning violence and sexuality. This is because, as I see it, secular culture has infiltrated the church, making it less nonconformist and, therefore, less biblical.

    The purpose of the church is (or should be) to lead others to Christ, and, then, to nurture new and existing believers with fellowship and biblical leadership. The obsession with authority, whether over the secular world or within the church, is, in my view of Scripture, of Satan.

  • John Thornton Jr.

    Hi Jake,

    Would you mind explaining what you mean by “Hauerwasian terms”? What I found frustrating about this post is that you neither cite nor quote Hauerwas though the post is about him and his work.

    – John

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