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of their ecclesial bodies (as well as their magisterial authority in Rome’s case) so the idea of being a separate, withdrawn community existing outside the mainstream isn’t really that new for American Catholics and Orthodox.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.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy as well as the Vice President of the Davenant Institute. 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 and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play. His first book, "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured Age," will be published summer of 2019 by InterVarsity Press.

  • Hi Jake, I unabashedly identify as a progressive Christian, but I’m increasingly drawn to the Benedict Option. But here’s my concern and twist.

    A lot of the recent conversation about the BenOp has been driven by the cultural shift regarding same-sex marriage. Lamenting that shift in the culture there is hand-wringing and talk of withdrawal.

    But that withdrawal is, in my estimation, catastrophically compromised by hypocrisy. The witness of evangelical marriages has been abyssal for a few generations now. Why no conversation about the BenOp then and about that?

    That, to me, is the hypocritical element with all the recent conversation about the BenOp, and if that isn’t confessed I fear that any movement toward a BenOp will carry with it a church/world distinction that creates the in-group/out-group dehumanization that any sort of “withdrawal” entails.

    I’d argue that the monastic witness is at its best when it’s a renewal of the church rather than a withdrawal and condemnation of the world.

    Perhaps we should speak of a renewing St. Francis Option rather than a withdrawing Benedict Option. Because until the BenOp is aimed squarely at the failure of the church I fear it’s just another toxic manifestation of the culture wars.

    • Richard – To a point I’d agree with you on this which is why I think we need to be using reform language as much as we use withdrawal language. So I don’t think your point is entirely mistaken.

      I’d also agree with you that marriage has been basically broken in America for decades and that Christians should have been looking at reforming marriage amongst themselves some time ago. So we’re all in agreement on those points, I think.

      That said, I do think traditional Christian sex ethics would distinguish between a culture where heterosexual relationships are the norm but marriage is not honored as it ought to be and a culture committed to a kind of sexual individualism like ours today. The former has some intuitive sense of Christian ethics and needs to be brought more fully into the teaching by showing that a heterosexual union between two people is still not the ideal apart from a covenantal relationship sealed by oaths and the presence of witnesses for the giving of those oaths. The latter treats sex as essentially a pleasurable good to be consumed in whatever way a person desires–masturbation, sodomy (and I mean any form of anal sex; not simply sex between men), multiple partners, group sex, etc are all treated as acceptable options based only upon the consent of the parties involved.

      So while the former culture, in some crude way, has unintentionally aligned itself with nature as understood by Christianity and needs to be shown how to fully embrace those norms, the latter is something altogether different and seems, to me, much more difficult to address adequately.

      So yes, marriage has been broken for a long time and there is something frustrating in the way some folks seem to have only now figured that out. (I wrote about this a few weeks ago, actually: https://mereorthodoxy.com/the-inevitability-of-same-sex-marriage/) That said, I think there is a distinction to be made between a culture in which heterosexuality is treated as normal and is simply badly understood and a culture that embraces the consent-based sexual individualism we have today. What do you think?

    • This article is a nice articulation of what I was trying to say above:

      http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2015/09/time-to-take-marriage-seriously

  • Hey Jake, a couple of years ago I started having a great interest in monasticism. (I am happily married and plan to stay that way). Mine was not so much as withdrawing from this world as opposed to truly dying to myself. We hear a lot preached about being a living sacrifice but I rarely see it being lived out (not lived out well in my own life). As I began to read some of the desert fathers I found that despite their attempts to withdraw they would wind up having a greater impact on the communities around them. (Or often communities would grow up around them) – We need to be clearly set apart but fully immersed in our communities. We should stand out from the crowd. We need to become a community within a community.

    Then you wrote “Protestantism… tends to be more resistant to the idea of the nominal believer. ” I think that our major problem in the church is that we are filled with nominal believers and that is what we needs to change. Out of fear of legalism we have lost a disciplined life lived for Christ.

  • There are many good things in this article. In particular, the summarizing of the BenOp is that of withdrawal from the world. If we are concerned with the Great Commission and how the New Testament describes our status in this world, we cannot tolerate this option.

    There are two problems with that intolerance though. First, how do we best prepare our children for a life of full engagement in the world? After all, we neither throw babies into the deep end of the swimming pool nor do we hold our children back from learning to swim so that they can play in the kiddie pool when they become adults. Second, how do we keep from letting go of the Gospel because we were either allured away by the siren calls in the world or too worn down by the world’s woes.

    We should note that ithdrawal from the world as adults is self-serving, not God-serving. It allows us to live out our “faith” in controlled environment, which is controlled by us, than in an environment that demands real faith. I believe that this was the criticism Bonhoeffer had of monasticism as he contrasted it with Martin Luther’s approach of going into the world to live his faith.

    A soft Protestant BenOp follows the preferences of the conservative PCA ministers whom Jake referred to. For they wanted to view the Scriptures through the corrective lens of the Westminster Confession. There is a precedent for this approach, though not using the Westminster Confession as the lens. That precedent was established by the Roman Church and was later followed, in their own way, by the conservative synods of the Lutheran Church as they attribute inerrancy, at least in concept if not by name, to their Confessions. Challenging conservative Lutherans on that practice can be like juggling hornets’ nests while wearing only a swimsuit.

    There are two problems with following the lead of those conservative PCA ministers. The first problem is that the Westminster Confession slyly takes precedence over the Scriptures. The second problem is that such an emphasis on the Confessions reinforces a trait that is already quite proficiently displayed by conservative Christians: that is to rely so heavily on theological-based deduction in interpreting the world that one no longer needs to listen to or read how others experience life. Jake’s reading of Camus was excellent even if he had to swim upstream to do so. I had a similar experience to that when I began to read Noam Chomsky and Martin Luther King Jr.

    We might want to note one more thing here. My guess is that those who favor the BenOp at least partially do so because of their authoritarian leanings. Here, it would serve us well to distinguish the Biblical emphasis on authority in our lives from authoritarianism. Should we learn the traits of authoritarianism, we find that while tyrants love its active form, its passive form stunts our growth.

    Sorry about the length of the comment.

    • This is a whole nother point that needs to be discussed at some length, which is the role of conscience, prudence, and the importance of adiaphora for these communities. There are several reasons I think Reformed Protestantism best suited to this moment, but it’s resistance to the kind of ecclesial totalitarianism that can arise with both Rome and more congregational polities is one of the main reasons.

      • And yet, Reformed Protestantism still embraces an authoritarian culture and that revolves around the use of the confessions. It’s that kind of use of the confessions that keeps us from listening to others.

        • Curt – Some segments of Reformed Protestantism, sure. But I’d say Presbyterian polity pretty effectively limits the potential for that kind of authoritarianism to really take hold. If you compare two of our recent scandals–say Tullian and Sproul Jr since he has PCA ties–and set them next to the scandals you get in congregationalist scenes like Acts 29 or Sovereign Grace I think our polity looks pretty good. There’s always going to be issues, of course, but I think the presbytery model is really *really* good at limiting the damage that abusive leaders can do.

          • Jake,
            if you only consider church disciplinary cases, you have a point. But I am not referring to that. Please note that in my original comment, I was referring to how we react to the world. With the emphasis we put on our confessions and catechisms, which are merely the usage equivalent of the traditions of the Sadducees and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we often find ourselves in the position of thinking that we need to teach the world what we know while we have little or no need for those in the world to teach us. In other words, we are too insular and our authoritarian culture maintains that insularity. This is why I applauded your reading Camus.

            Hope this conversation is not bothersome.

  • Tybourne

    Thanks for your article, Jake. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel though. Protestants already have their own version of the Benedict option. In Anglicanism, see the non-juror tradition and its apotheosis in William Law. In Lutheranism, see Bonhoeffer’s work on community and the Moravian brethren. In Calvinism, see Roger Schutz and Taize. Among anabaptists, look no further than the Hutterites and Mennonites.

  • Smfrmrinfrisco

    Perhaps it would be beneficial rather than talking about the Benedict Option folks actually spent the time to read and absorb Benedict’s Rule thrice a year and consider becoming Benedictine oblates tied to actual monasteries and abbeys and see how it influences their faith….

    • Greg Herr

      This makes way too much sense. To Add To That: Something that I always find beneficial is to hear from folks how much they love their church-slash-christian community, how grateful they are for all it offers them, and how they are experiencing some aspect of the Benedict Imperative. Fortunately, every community offers something to be grateful for.

    • I have actually begun reading the Rule and have joined a group of 4 other men in my church who are praying, thinking, and drinking (ahem) about a “Benedict option.” Pray for us.

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