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.

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

$
Personal Info

Donation Total: $0

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 Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • This is pure anecdote, but among my high school peers, more public school kids grew up to be stable Christians than homeschoolers.

    Also, I’m curious where church planting fits into the BenOp. Is it generally assumed among non-Protestants that in the near future, the cultural soil will be so barren that no new churches will be planted? Does this carry over into a Baptist or Reformed understanding, and if not, how does it relate?

    • Same experience. This still sounds a lot like non-isolationist isolationism; and very similar to what Evangelical culture has been claiming, and to a degree practicing, for decades. More scripture, more church, private schools, more spending time in their own activities, but otherwise not all that distinct. Is protestant BenOp just Evangelicalism 2.0?

      • hoosier_bob

        I don’t think it’s even Evangelicalism 2.0. It looks more like an effort to drive out those who aren’t fully on board with the movement’s prevailing identity politics. The recent dismissal of Larycia Hawkins from Wheaton, which Dreher wholeheartedly supported, seems to be a harbinger of where it’s headed. It’s just good old-fashioned Carl McIntyre-style fundamentalism with skinny jeans and trendy-looking eyewear.

        Yes, converting to Catholicism or Orthodoxy seems to give this fundamentalist impulse a bit more apparent legitimacy. But in the RCC, these BO types largely operate as their own parish-within-a-parish. And in Orthodoxy, they operate in areas of the country where there are few, if any, people who actually grew up in Orthodoxy.

        Regardless of the garb, let’s just call it what it really is: Fundamentalism 2.0.

  • hoosier_bob

    What is the evidence that we live in an increasingly anti-Christian culture? Yes, we live in a pluralistic culture where conservative, white Christians no longer hold hegemonic sway over the culture. And the culture tends to react negatively when conservative, white Christians suppose that they somehow are entitled to keep making the rules, despite their diminished political influence in the broader culture. It’s probably more accurate to say that we have an increasingly anti-Christendom culture. But that’s a far cry from suggesting that it’s anti-Christian. I don’t observe too many people seeking to stop Christians from practicing their faith within the context of their families and faith communities. The rub comes when Christians seek to impose certain sectarian ideologies on the culture at large. But that’s not anti-Christian, as I see nothing in Christian teaching that requires us to seek to exert hegemonic control over the culture.

    As Richard Rohr has noted, you never see Christians seeking to erect statues listing the Beatitudes on the courthouse lawn. If Christians were more inclined to do that than to erect statues of the Decalogue, then perhaps we’d fave less of this alleged hostility.

    • Namyriah

      Wow, evil “white Christians” with their “hegemonic sway.” You forgot to include “patriarchy” and “bigots.” You won’t get your PC merit badge.

      Regarding the addlebrained Richard Rohr and his admirers: the reason for putting the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn is that it’s a COURThouse, that’s where the LAW is carried out. Duh. What the heck would the Beatitudes have to do with courts?

      You religious left characters enjoy abusing Christians. How’s that working out for you in the pews? Last time I checked, every leftard denomination is sinking like a stone. Good riddance. You keep telling people how “inclusive” your churches you are, and no one wants to be included.

      • hoosier_bob

        Jesus said, “You shall know them by their fruit.” If conservative, white evangelicalism is such a good thing, then why don’t the lives of its practitioners better reflect the grace of Christ?

        • Joe Stocker

          ‘Fruit’ also includes teaching. As alien as any culture can be to me – I am grateful for what flyover country US evangelicals have done to keep the gospel message alive.

          • hoosier_bob

            Hmmm. I didn’t see that one in the list that Paul gives us.

          • Joe Stocker

            LOL true – but is the fruit in Matthew 7 a direct reference to the “Fruit of the Spirit”? Isn’t it also about being “In Christ” – enabled by correct teaching (even though individual Christians continually fail to uphold that teaching)?

          • hoosier_bob

            I would assume that the fruit of the Spirit is much the same fruit of having been transformed by the grace of Christ. When Jesus refers to fruit, I suspect that he’s not praising people who have good doctrine but who otherwise treat people like jerks.

          • Joe Stocker

            I don’t think the two fruity passages contradict each other but “You shall know them by their fruit.” follows on directly from a warning about false prophets…. “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” In other words – watch out for nice guys who lead you astray.

          • hoosier_bob

            Scripture says nothing to suggest that this passage necessarily applies to “nice people.” Nor does it suggest that “teaching” is the fruit.

            It could just as easily refer to someone like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, two pompous jerks who flatter their conservative, white evangelical audiences with hat-tips to racism and sexism. Or someone like evangelical “historian” David Barton, who writes the history that conservative, white evangelicals want to believe, even though it’s riddled with falsehoods.

            Moreover, it suggests that you will know good teaching by whether the lives of teachers reflect good fruit (i.e., patience, kindness, etc.). So, for example, if you want to know whether “complementarianism” is correct, look at the fruit of its proponents, e.g., Mark Driscoll, C.J. Mahaney, etc.

          • Joe Stocker

            Christians don’t have a monopoly on patience, kindness etc.

          • hoosier_bob

            Again, you’re reading elements into the passage that simply aren’t there. Jesus is simply setting forth a test by which we may judge whether certain teachers are false teachers. It’s a test of necessity, not a test of sufficiency. So, yes, being patient and kind are not sufficient qualities for making one a true teacher, they are necessary qualities. If someone lacks these qualities, we ought not to reject them as teachers.

            You implicitly seem to admit that this is not something we’ve done well in evangelicalism. We often elevate tribal loyalty above all else, such that we’re willing to embrace people who lack patience, kindness, etc., as long as they pass certain ideological tests of tribal loyalty.

            Yes, we should demand that teachers possess more qualities than patience, kindness, and the like. But if they lack these qualities, we should flee. Oddly enough during my years in the PCA, ministers were rarely examined on and rarely disciplined for these kinds of character issues. As long as they could recite textbook responses on things like inerrancy, biblical gender roles, and the like, we approved them. On two separate occasions, I was part of congregations in which financial improprieties were discovered on the part of a pastor. In both cases, the presbytery elected to take no action because theft did not raise substantial concerns about his orthodoxy. In both cases, more issues were discovered once these men were relieved of their duties at the church. Neither presbytery was interested in listening to any of it. Because these guys could still pass the tribal-loyalty tests, they were free to go and embezzle from another congregation.

          • 0pus37

            Who are you kidding? Left-wing “Christians” never read the Bible.

      • RustySkywater

        Um, the religious left consists of people who are themselves Christian(even if you don’t think they’re the “right kind”, so your accusation of abuse is a false one.

  • Greg Herr

    Trueman offers the best defense of the BenOp.

    ‘Every year I tell my Reformation history class that Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position. Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination, let alone the strange hybrid that is evangelicalism; in the light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in others words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day.’

    As a Baptist, I was graciously told of the Gospel of salvation, taught to love the scriptures, and had the best ever pot lucks.

    The Baptists led to the Bible; the Bible led to the Catholic Church; and the Catholic Church (as Carl alludes) led to the Benedict Option.

    • > led to the Benedict Option

      So, are you practicing BenOp? Can you describe how that is done in your day to day life? Sincerely curious.

      • Greg Herr

        Sure! Thank you for asking.

        My experience as a Catholic Christian, over 3 decades, has been that the elements described in the BenOp (here, by Rod Dreher, or others) are available in the Catholic Church. That ranges from intentional communities, to religious schooling, friendships, formal and informal liturgical prayer groups, Bible Study, serving the poor, holy orders and their corollaries for lay people…the list really has been endless.

        So there’s sort of two broad elements: those aspects of the BenOp that one participates in, and those that are *available* when the time comes or the need in one’s life arises. At one time or another, I’ve been involved in all of these.

        That’s mostly at the personal level. If one reads Rod Dreher’s criteria (shown below), some elements incorporate the broadest possible outlines: politics, influencing governmental policies, public institutions, etc. Those too are addressed, coherently, by the Catholic Church.

        Currently, I am a “co-church planter” and serve on the Board of Directors for a new parish in the Ordinariate. And I am a Benedictine Oblate candidate; member in CFM (Christian Family Movement); serve with Mercy House; in a men’s group; a husband and father; and go to Mass each Sunday.

        But it may be that Alan Piper said it best:

        “Though it should not be exaggerated, there is a real sense in which if we do not wish to live in the Church, we do not wish to live in heaven. The reason is that God has made the life of heaven available to us in the Church. Heaven is a supremely intimate life with him, and in the Church we begin to participate in this life. Sure, there are difficulties in ecclesial life—getting to Mass, learning to pray, growing in virtue, letting go of vice, giving up certain goods—but in all of this God is purifying us. To put it another way, he is enlarging our hearts, making us less inadequate receptacles for his own beatitude. And this beatitude is available to us not only in heaven but even now in the Church.”

        [http://www.dominicanajournal.org/the-pope-emeritus-and-beatitude-in-the-church/]

        Thanks for asking, and blessings in your life and journey in Christ!

        Rod Dreher’s BenOp Criteria:

        1) That orthodox Christianity is in fundamental conflict with the American liberal order, a conflict that is radical, and cannot be resolved;

        2) That orthodox Christians are a distinct minority in the United States, and that their convictions will make them increasingly be seen not just as dissenters, but as enemies of the common good;

        3) That uncritically accepting the liberal order that has now emerged means giving up on some core Christian convictions;

        4) That modernity has evolved to a point at which it is unstoppably corrosive of authentic Christianity, and that those who would hold on to Christianity must clearly and decisively understand themselves in opposition to modernity;

        5) That some sort of separation —conceptually, and to some degree literally (e.g., withdrawing to our own schools) — is necessary to maintain Christian faith and commitment amid the chaos of our time;

        6) That the only way orthodox forms of Christianity are going to survive over the generations to come is by instantiating them in communal institutions, practices, and customs, requiring a degree of commitment that has been unfamiliar to most American Christians;

        7) That this limited separation is required not to escape fully from the world (which is neither possible nor desirable for the laity), but so that the laity can be for the world what God wants us to be;

        8) That Benedict Option Christians should remain politically active, working to preserve their own freedom and for the common good, but should direct most of their efforts to an inward rebuilding of the church and culture within the community, not to attempts to solve our dilemmas by political action;

        9) That lay Christians should lookto the Rule of St. Benedict and the monastic example for inspiration indeveloping our responses to the situation we find ourselves in;

        10) That nobody has a Benedict Option fully worked out now, but there are Christians from various traditions who have been working on it for a while, and that the rest of us can learn fromtheir experiences;

        11) That there won’t be a Benedict Option, but rather Benedict Options, plural, based on a community’s religious traditions and local conditions; that is, there is no one-size-fits-all;

        12) That the lack of a clear answer to the challenge we face is no excuse to sit back and let history take its course; we are all going to have to do this, or prepare to watch our children and grandchildren assimilated into Borg of relativism, hedonism, consumer capitalism, and the like.

  • Pingback: The Bahnsen Option – Old Life()

  • hoosier_bob

    Increasingly, it looks like Dreher’s BenOp is little more than an effort to try to create a “safe space” in the culture for upscale white-collar professionals who still want to speak out publicly against same-sex marriage and LGBTQ issues.

    Simply put, that’s not going to happen. I’ve been in the professional world since 2001. Even at that time, same-sex marriage was widely embraced among white-collar professionals. I was working as an IT consultant at a large bank with operations in central Ohio. Despite the fact that same-sex marriage wouldn’t come to Ohio for another 15 years, I’d guess that around 75% of my colleagues at that time–in 2001–supported same-sex marriage. Among white-collar professionals of working age (21-60), I’d guess that support runs well north of 95% (outside of the Bible Belt). Many of my younger male colleagues (in the tech/IT world) have engaged in gay sex on at least a few occasions, even though they nearly all identify as straight. That’s the origin of terms like “heteroflexible” and “straight, but not narrow.” Within that world, opposing same-sex marriage makes as much sense to people as opposing sunsets: If you like sunsets, take them in; if not, then shut the blinds.

    In that sense, Dreher’s following strikes me as consisting mainly of cranky, old white guys of the get-off-my-lawn ilk.