disagreeing with “the Benedict option”

When I spoke at ICOM about biblical interpretation and how that should influence our role in the culture wars (thank you, Jim Tune, for giving me such an easy assignment!), I said this:

“We love the Bible. Do we believe what it says? Because if we do, we don’t need to be afraid. And we don’t need to be jerks with people who don’t believe it. What we need to do is live and love and work and embody the gospel among them for a long time, for a lifetime.”

Then I suggested that instead of yanking Jeremiah 29:11 out of context, we should go back a few lines to verses 5 through 7. Here Jeremiah is telling the newly-exiled Jews how they should live in Babylon. He says: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

“This is the long game,” I said. “God is reminding his people that you don’t have to be in charge to have influence. If you want to prove the word of God is true then you don’t just tell people what the Bible says, you live it out over time……Seek the well-being of your community and your city and your country.”

This is what some scholars call “the Jeremiah option” – acknowledging that Christians are no longer the dominant majority in our culture, but that we are in a position to profoundly affect and even bless our communities – and that we are reflecting God’s heart when we do so.

This month’s Christianity Today cover story discusses the Benedict option, which takes the opposite approach. According to Rod Dreher, one of the leading voices behind this movement and the author of “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians Living in a Post-Christian Nation,” American Christians must pull back from their secular, consumerist society and live creatively countercultural lives in order to preserve their faith. Dreher sees this as “being the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.”

I’m all for a high level of commitment to faith, but I disagree with Dreher that withdrawing from everyone else is the best way to express it. For one thing, this isn’t the example we’re given in the early church. If Acts is to be believed, the first followers of Christ lived radically different lives from those around them; in fact, the first church in Jerusalem was a socialist experiment in shared property and communal living. But Acts 2:47 says that even as they lived this way, they were “enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The difference these first Christians experienced because of their faith led others to adopt the same faith. Wasn’t the political and religious climate of that day much more hostile to Christianity than our own? How many of those Jerusalem residents would have found out about Jesus if these first Christians had hidden away? Their uncompromising faith would have been great – and unnoticed. The counter-cultural demands of the New Testament are not only to help us grow in faith, but to reach the very culture that resists us. For a movement that prides itself on emulating the first-century Church, it’s misguided for us to ignore this example.

The excerpt of Dreher’s book in CT points to examples of groups seeking to recapture this type of church community – neighborhoods in which many of the church members live close to each other, establishing the patterns of their week and the growth of their faith in a social structure. That sounds wonderful, and I can testify as a member of a small church that worshiping and serving with people who know you well forces you to grow in ways you don’t experience by just scooting in and out of a dark worship auditorium once a week.

But it sounds like Dreher is just advocating a return to what the church was supposed to be in the first place, regardless of congregational size. He wants the church to pursue discipleship and accountability. He wants a grounding in scripture and a commitment to study, and argues that the pull of consumerism and individualism have distracted us. It’s true that in many ways the American church is floundering; I’ve written before about things like our lack of biblical literacy. But do we have to retreat from other Americans to refocus on our faith? Again, my reading of the New Testament suggests that if we truly lived according to its teaching, we would resist the pulls of our culture and influence it for good, while being part of it. We would be “Benedict” churches following the Jeremiah commands.

I’ll concede that I haven’t yet read Dreher’s entire book, and it’s possible his argument is more nuanced than I’m reflecting here. I welcome comments from those of you who have explored his ideas more deeply or who support his point of view. But from what I understand so far, he’s advocating that the church retreat and regroup because it’s lost its way. This may be a necessary short-term corrective step, but I don’t think it’s the long game we’re called to. I’m all for taking risks, but perhaps the biggest risk would be re-learning what it means to be the Church, right where we are.

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