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Purity, Ecclesiology, and the Benedict Option

April 4th, 2016 | 9 min read

By Jake Meador

It took longer than I expected it would, but we now have our first article calling for a specifically Baptist take on Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. The piece, by Union University’s Nathan Finn, argues that a uniquely Baptist twist on the BenOp is needed in today’s increasingly anti-Christian cultural moment. (I will be calling this a “Baptist twist on the BenOp” rather than the Paleo Baptist option because, as my former boss would put it, “mercy hot monkeys!”, we have enough options already. And yes, he really would say that.)

Finn’s Paleo Baptist approach puts a strong emphasis on the following:

  • Individual Christian congregations consist only of voluntary members who affirm the truths of the Gospel and agree to live their live in light of that confession.
  • These individual churches use a  congregationalist polity in which each church essentially governs itself and each member of the church has responsibilities to promote the work of the Gospel.
  • These congregations will be counter-cultural in that they reject a state church or attempts to enforce religious or theological norms via the magistrate, but they will not be separatistic in the way that the Anabaptists were in the 16th century and that neo-Anabaptist groups are today. They will not be, for example, opposed to Christians working in politics, but only toward the attempt to establish a state church.
  • These congregations will be deeply committed to the work of evangelism and outreach.

The key excerpt from Finn’s piece is likely this section near the end of the post:

The time is ripe for Baptists in America to reclaim the Paleo-Baptist vision and commend it to all faithful Christians living in American Babylon. To borrow Dreher’s language, Paleo-Baptists are already committed to “construct[ing] local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents.” We call them local churches, and in the Paleo-Baptist vision, churches are counter-cultural communities of disciples who covenant to walk together for the sake of worship, catechesis, witness, and service.

To those like Dreher who are drawn to neo-monastic movements, Paleo-Baptists would say that a covenantal understanding of church membership accomplishes the same goal, but applies it to all church members, which we believe closely follows the New Testament vision of the church. When membership is restricted to professing believers, churches become the most natural context for theological and moral formation and intentional discipleship.

The reason I am surprised that it has taken this long for an explicitly Baptist twist on the BenOp to be proposed is relatively simple: The BenOp is still a predominantly Catholic and Orthodox move, even if it is attracting interest from other groups as well. Most the big groups Dreher has mentioned by name—the Clear Creek Abbey folks in Oklahoma, the Italians he has profiled on his blog, and St. Jude’s School in DC, are all Catholic movements. Evangelicals are interested, but still trying to figure out what to make of it. That said, if any evangelical group figures to be most friendly to it, it is Baptists for the simple reason that in their ecclesiology Baptists are already very close to Rome. Indeed, it’s worth noting that many of the early reformers including Calvin, Luther, and Bucer, often critiqued the Anabaptist error as a twist on the classic Roman errors in how they understood the life of the church.

For both Roman Christians and Baptists, the membership of the visible church consists exclusively of those people who are, according to the respective churches, true believers. In Rome’s case, the church exists above the rest of society while the more common Baptist position seems to be treating the church as merely existing separate from the rest of society. But the key thing in both cases is that the church exists apart from all other social institutions and is, indeed, a polity unto itself and is able to exist in a kind of suspended state removed from the life of the commonwealth more generally. This is not the position of other Protestant traditions, most notably that of the reformed Protestants who trace their lineage back to Zwingli, Bullinger, Bucer, and Calvin.

The reformed believe that God presently rules over a spiritual kingdom through his lordship over the hearts of his people. But there is also a second kingdom, sometimes called a visible kingdom and sometimes a temporal kingdom. To this kingdom belongs the many social institutions that define daily life—family, local economies, government, and, according to Calvin, the visible, institutional church as well. Not only that, the institutional church is not the pure, sectioned-off community only for the true believers. It is a community of wheat and tares, an institution whose chief concern is not with marking out the outer boundaries of the church but with consistently and clearly articulating its center through the preaching of the Gospel and administration of the sacraments.

What this means, amongst other things, is that the life of the institutional church cannot be separated from the life of the commonwealth, nor is the institutional church a separate polity unto itself.

This point therefore closely relates to two of the main concerns many have raised with the BenOp as it has been discussed and defined so far:

  • First, there is a concern that the BenOp will lead to an abdication from the work of evangelism and outreach to which the church has been called by Christ himself. Finn’s article in particular does a good job of addressing this point.
  • Second, there is a concern that communities which withdraw in the way that some think Dreher is proposing would quickly become the sort of isolated, cultic bodies that many evangelicals knew as young people. (This is a concern I understand given my own background with the church.)

However, if the Reformed view is adopted, then it is possible to have a sort of BenOp program while avoiding these errors. In the first place, a reformed understanding of the church strongly militates against a kind of isolationism that perverted forms of the BenOp might produce. It is not a coincidence that where the reformed have gone, robust parallel institutions have typically followed.

The best example may be Calvin’s Geneva which saw far more than just a Protestant blossoming with the arrival of Calvin. Printing presses followed, as did schools and the Genevan Academy for training pastors which, in time, became the University of Geneva. The effect was startling as what was widely considered a provincial backwater in the 1530s was, by the 1560s, a major publishing and educational hub in southern Europe. But, of course, other examples can easily be cited as well—puritan New England gave birth to both Harvard and Yale. Thinking more modern day, one might look at the robust culture of western Michigan around Grand Rapids where many Dutch reformed believers settled. Where the reformed faith has taken root, even for a short time, thick and robust cultures have typically risen alongside it.

Second, because the reformed see the church as just being one institution amongst many, it is quite natural that we would constantly be sending people out into the broader commonwealth to serve and promote its good. Indeed, reformed ecclesiology, which clearly places the institutional church within the life of the broader commonwealth, provides a far better basis for the sort of evangelism and outreach that Finn calls for in his article than does his own Baptist ecclesiology.

I have seen this in my own life. When I first became a member at a local reformed church, I, the good child of fundamentalism that I am, asked what things I should start doing in the church to be more involved. My pastor asked me what my normal routine was like. I listed off my academic responsibilities as a college student, work at the campus paper, involvement in a campus ministry, and so on. At the end of my answer, said “Well, I think you’re already doing good things. Just keep doing those. That is how you serve the church.”

A reformed ecclesiology provides a basis for that way of thinking. It helps the individual Christian understand how they are both a child of the church and a member of the broader commonwealth—and that those two things do not exist in competition with one another. Other ecclesiologies, which see the visible church as some sort of special institution existing in some cordoned off reality removed from all other institutions, have a far harder time providing a rationale for that sort of work in the broader commonwealth.

The point here is not that the BenOp is a bad idea. I’m in agreement with Dreher’s read of where we are culturally and what I expect the next 20-30 years to look like. Things are going to get rough for orthodox believers. And that reality means we need to revisit our relationship to the broader society and we should probably change our practices in a host of areas like the education of our children, where we live, and how our liturgical practices in the church and outside it shape our desires and beliefs. (Put bluntly, it probably means most of us need to get out of the public schools, take real steps to live in close geographic proximity to our fellow believers, even when that requires great sacrifice, and we should start singing more hymns, some Psalms, and receiving the Eucharist at least once a week. And behind all that, we should be spending more time reading our Bibles, praying, and reflecting on the Scriptures.)

But as we reason about these things, we cannot simply stop at a kind of general Christian orthodoxy. We need specific ideas about how the church functions in society and relates to all these questions. We will not be able to simply be “BenOp Christians,” in other words. We will be Catholics and Baptists and Reformed and Orthodox and a host of other things, all attempting to think better about this problem of discipleship in the post-Christian west. And our solutions will often reflect our unique traditions as much as they will our commitment to creedal orthodoxy more generally. It is my belief that when we begin to seek clear and firm answers to these difficult questions, we’ll find that, as Carl Trueman wrote nearly two years ago, the Reformed tradition may be uniquely equipped to help us understand our troubled historical moment.

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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).