Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Protestantism and the Benedict Option

August 27th, 2015 | 11 min read

By Jake Meador

The following is less a long-form essay and more a series of semi-connected thoughts concerning the Benedict Option and American Protestantism. I’ve broken them down with headers in hopes of making it easier for readers to pick out which parts are of greatest concern to them.

So far much of the conversation about the Benedict Option has been amongst American Catholics and Orthodox. Part of this, no doubt, is because the very name “Benedict Option” is drawing on traditions of monasticism that are far more at home in Rome and Constantinople than in the various Protestant traditions.

That said, the problems that the BenOp is trying to address will concern all small-o orthodox Christians and so Protestants must have a way of thinking about this and talking about that is plausible for Protestant believers. (Indeed, it’s worth noting that many of the businesses currently tied up in legal battles appear to be run by Protestants.)

Why the BenOp Discussion is Led by non-Protestants

First, we need to be clear on why Catholics and Orthodox have taken the lead in this conversation. There are two main reasons for this:

  • First, historically Rome especially has been much better at thinking institutionally, which is a necessary element of the BenOp.
  • Second, Roman and Constantinopolitan (you learned a new word) ecclesiologies both emphasize the exclusivity of their ecclesial bodies (as well as their magisterial authority in Rome’s case) so the idea of being a separate, withdrawn community existing outside the mainstream isn’t really that new for American Catholics and Orthodox. Indeed in one sense it is not so much a prescription of what they ought to be but is simply a description of what they always have been (in the United States at least).

The second point doesn’t need further explanation, but the first does. Part of the institutional strength of Rome is simply an inevitable function of two things. First: the fact that they have existed as a unified institutional body for a very long time. Second: the fact that their pastors are single. When you have a parish structure with church buildings that are mostly paid for and you have single pastors who don’t have families who are living in rectories that are mostly paid for you will have more money to use on other things.

As a result, it is easier financially-speaking for Rome to build strong institutions (their school system, most notably) because they have more money to do so. Most churches in the Lincoln diocese, for example, give the vast majority of their money to maintaining the Catholic schools with the result being that Catholic families can send their children to Catholic schools for about 1/5 the cost of sending a child to our city’s largest Protestant school.

Conversely, priests in the Lincoln diocese on average make between 1/3 and 1/4 of what the typical pastor in my denomination is paid. Stretch that out over all of Lincoln’s priests and all of Lincoln’s evangelical pastors and the difference in available funds for other work easily creeps into six and maybe even seven figures.

On this point, there isn’t much evangelicals can do to address the problem. The old model of having a parsonage next to the church for the pastor’s family is basically extinct and would be very expensive to revive. (And it would be impossible for many suburban churches that don’t have houses next to their building anyway due to the size of their campus.)

Additionally, our pastors aren’t going to stop having families any time soon–nor should they. This isn’t a point about why Rome is better than Protestantism but simply about the practical realities of the two groups.

The one point that could be made is that when denominational splits do happen, the evangelicals need to win them. To take only one example, when my own denomination broke off from the southern mainline Presbyterian church in the 1970s we lost almost all of our buildings. That’s an enormous cost in terms of finances, but also in terms of stability in individual congregations. So please pray that faithful churches involved in litigation battles with apostate denominations like The Episcopalian Church and the PC(USA) would win their court battles and be able to keep their buildings. There is literally millions of dollars tied up in those battles and the long-term effect of losing would be considerable.

That said, evangelicals can start thinking more institutionally in how they use the funds and other resources they do have—which is why we need to listen to folks like Andy Crouch and James KA Smith and also need to learn from the work being done in places like Moscow, ID.

The Protestant BenOp–Soft Catholicism or Something Else?

One way that some evangelicals have tried to talk about these issues is to lapse into a kind of soft catholicism in which an older type of liturgy as well as confessional documents serve as a quasi-magisterium which can via a kind of coercive power create the sort of institutions that make BenOp communities more likely to develop. This is one of the issues lingering behind many of the young evangelicals and high church discussions.

Obviously this is a perennial temptation for Anglicans, particularly Anglicans of the sort who like John Henry Newman, but it’s also something you can see in a different way in some Reformed traditions where confessional documents are treated by some as almost having a magisterial authority. For example, in the PCA I have heard some of our most conservative pastors say that we ought to read scripture through the lens of the Westminster Confession.

There are two problems with this approach: First, this approach isn’t fully Protestant, but neither is it fully Catholic. As such, it will inevitably suffer from the incoherence that most half-way solutions suffer from. If you will be neither Protestant nor Catholic then you will be confused.

Second, history is littered with examples of what happens when an ecclesial body with a strong magisterial authority goes bad. (Another name for this is “the 15th century.”)

Indeed, we may be seeing the start of a new set of problems for Rome under Francis’s papacy. This report, for one, certainly doesn’t make for fun reading if you’re an orthodox Catholic. (Neither does this more recent story.) And there is reason to think that Francis’s sympathies are with the more liberal leaders in the Roman hierarchy. Handing magisterial authority to the institutional church seems like a great idea when you have a John Paul II or Benedict XVI. It’s much less attractive when you have a Francis or, heaven help us, someone worse.

So what would a more fully Protestant BenOp look like?

To begin with, there would need to be a strong emphasis on the new birth as well as individual Bible study and catechesis. One of the strongest points about Protestantism is that, by its very nature, it tends to be more resistant to the idea of the nominal believer. Because church membership in local ecclesial bodies is more voluntaristic by nature it is less likely that your church will be filled with nominal believers whose children will grow up with only the most superficial experience of the faith. (This is a point that my friend Leah Libresco made when writing about the 2015 Pew Religion survey.)

This is a somewhat counter-intuitive move, admittedly, when we’re talking about cultivating a way of life meant to protect ourselves against corrosive modernity which is defined chiefly by individualism. However, the point of the new birth in an individual life and the catechesis that follows is not to indoctrinate them in a kind of me-and-my-Bible individualism, but rather to help them form a deep-seated, personal relationship to the faith. There has to be a kind of large-scale personal ownership of one’s faith shared across many individuals before any kind of BenOp is possible. And Protestantism does that sort of thing very well.

This is the best possible application of Tyndale’s famous comment that he would make a common plough boy know the scriptures better than a typical pastor in the England of his day. As the aforementioned Pew Study makes plain, this has often failed to happen in more “high church” traditions. Often these churches have deemphasized personal knowledge of the Bible and the faith’s teachings in favor of a strong emphasis on attending Mass, observing feast days, and so on. While the rhythms of Mass and feast days can be powerful formative tools in the life of those steeped in the faith, if they are practiced apart from a deep personal comprehension of them they can also have an numbing effect, as has been the case in my own family, half of whom are Catholic.

That said, the Protestant BenOp cannot stop with conversion and catechesis. There must be a shared life cultivated by these individually born again members of the community. As young people grow and mature in the church there should be weddings and the formation of new families.

There must also be a sense of shared life in a place—and I strongly suspect that this will only happen when we actually do share a place small enough that this sharing actually means something. If we live 45 minutes apart, it will be difficult to cultivate a shared life both because of the tremendous amount of time involved in even the simplest interactions but also because the distance between members makes it difficult for them to develop a sense of shared mission or shared work. On this point, Protestants would do well to try and develop a parish-based approach to ministry, either in the form of neighborhood churches (ideally) or, at least, neighborhood-based small groups. (I’m still waiting to read the best book making the case for evangelical parishes, but for now The New Parish says some good things.)

A fully Protestant BenOp must also attend to more books than simply the Bible and the confessional standards of the church. At its best Protestantism has always been proactive in its engagement with the world outside the church and so a robustly Protestant Christian community would continue that tradition. The first reformers established this by insisting that we go back not only to the Scriptures, but also to the church fathers. Luther, Calvin, Bucer, and all the rest were steeped in the fathers, as anyone who has read them well knows. But our reading must not stop simply at reading broadly in historical Christian theology. We must also read the books of the world, as it were. The story of missionary William Carey can be instructive to us on this point. When Carey traveled to India and began the work of creating alphabets for languages that did not have them, he didn’t stop at translating the Bible into the language. He also translated the various sacred texts of other regional faiths because he was confident that the Bible could hold its own when set next to them. This is a confidence that we must carry into our communities.

I will never forget the conversations I had in my fundamentalist church when I began reading Albert Camus as a high-school student. I began with The Plague but soon moved to The Stranger and The Fall, which I found to be his most devastating novel. Youth leaders and pastors found every possible way of telling me not to read these books.

And, of course, all that did was make me want to read them more. What are they afraid of? I wondered. It was only due to the patience of my parents (who never themselves attempted to control my reading habits) and the cheerful confidence I encountered at L’Abri (and in the writings of Lewis and Schaeffer) that I remained in the church throughout my adolescent years. If the Bible is true and if classical Christian orthodoxy is true, then it will continue to be true even after I read whatever latest bestseller is going after orthodoxy. So the Protestant BenOp must be literate not only in the Bible, but in the books that have shaped the imagination of our neighbors and friends outside the church.

The Benedict Option and Separatism

One of the problems in talking about withdrawal or creating separate Christian communities with evangelical Protestants is that many of us have experienced such communities and found them to be relentlessly toxic and dysfunctional. Having grown up in a separatistic fundamentalist church the reality of this concern is not lost on me.

That said, there is an essential piece to this conversation that I think separates old-school American fundamentalist separatism from the emerging idea of a strategic withdrawal as articulated by folks like Rod Dreher. As Russell Moore has noted in several places, most notably in his new book Onward (which I am currently reading and hope to discuss at more length here in the future) one of the main shifts we’re seeing in younger Protestants is toward a greater suspicion of the general American intellectual project.

Where the old fundamentalist retreats were often intended as something harkening back to a lost golden age (and thus always had a weird sort of nationalistic hue to them), the Protestant BenOp can be a withdrawal toward a different kind of future that looks less like standard intellectually vapid American fundamentalism and more like a deeper Protestantism grounded in the historical riches of the faith and marked by the sort of values and orientations that have far too often been unwelcome in the United States historically. I am thinking especially of the “sticker” values that have generally taken a backseat to evangelicalism’s love for all things “boomer.” Whether we can get there when the dominant form of evangelicalism continues to be non-denominational and credobaptistic is an open question, but the possibility for a Protestant BenOp that leads to a richer, historically grounded Protestantism is certainly there.

Thus this separatism need not look like the separatism that has often typified dissident brands of American Protestantism. Indeed, if our current withdrawal ends up looking like the schismatic fundamentalism of past generations we will have failed. Rather, the necessary withdrawal that evangelicals ought to make needs to be defined in specific terms (I’d start with withdrawing from the public schools) and designed to obtain specific goods, namely a more robustly Christian identity that maintains a healthy suspicion of American civil religion and all forms of nationalism.

That being said, a further point should be made to avoid some of the worst anabaptist excesses that can easily creep in with this kind of Hauerwasian language. The point of this move is not simply to establish some sort of pure Christian counter culture or to embrace a kind of permanent exiled minority status. The church is not somehow made more pure simply by virtue of being a cultural minority. We should not aspire to a permanent fringe status in the culture. This brings us to one of the chief difficulties with the BenOp which is its emphasis on withdrawal. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I think this emphasis is probably mistaken, even if I understand why the specific language has been used so far. But whenever I hear someone get specific about what this withdrawal means in anything resembling a useful way, I come away thinking “well, we should’ve been doing that already.”

It might be helpful, then, (and it would certainly be Protestant) to frame this movement less in terms of withdrawal and more in terms of reform. We must begin with reforming the church to address many of our persistent issues, particularly those concerning family life, education, place, and home economy. But the purpose of that reforming is to equip us to carry out the mission given to us by Christ in the Gospel. Put another way, we’re reacquainting ourselves with normal Christian orthodoxy so that we can then reacquaint our neighbors with normal Christian orthodoxy.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).