Category Archives: Christianity and Culture

The “Benedict Option” or Why the Church Must Not Serve “the Common Good”

 

“Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).

 “The Benedict Option”

In his recent book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (Sentinel: New York, 2017), Rod Dreher draws a parallel between the cultural situation faced by Benedict of Nursia in sixth-century Italy and our situation today in the western world. Benedict found his culture so morally corrupt and inhospitable to authentic Christian living that he withdrew from society and eventually founded the Benedictine order of monks. The social fabric of Benedict’s day was being ripped apart by barbarian tribes waging constant war to expand their domains. Our barbarians, says Dreher, don’t wear animal skins or overrun neighboring tribes. They wear designer suits and use smartphones, but they are just as dangerous to authentic Christian living as their sixth-century counterparts: “They are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human” (p. 17), and they call such work “progress.”

We live in an increasingly secular culture, and the minute we step outside the church door we are faced with enormous pressure to conform to the progressive vision of human life or at least to remain silent in our dissent. It is becoming ever more difficult for Christians to engage in professions such as public school teaching, the professorate or medicine. And ever-expanding antidiscrimination laws make engaging in businesses such as the florist trade, catering and photography risky for serious Christians. The culture war is over, declares Dreher; Christians lost, the barbarians won. The public square has officially become secular space, hostile territory.

In response to this new situation Dreher urges serious Christians to distance themselves from the dominant culture to form Christian countercultures. Leave public schools and form classical Christian schools or homeschools, don’t idolize university education, consider learning a trade, at whatever cost make your churches real communities that support authentic Christian faith and life, turn off the television, wean yourself away from social media, and “turn your home into a domestic monastery” (p. 124). It’s a radical vision, I know, and many will dismiss it as apocalyptic. However those who long for social space to live an authentic Christian life with their families and likeminded Christians may find in Dreher’s vision of the “Benedict option” inspiration to take action.

The Church as a Social Institution

In friendlier times the church was considered by the broader culture a social institution deserving recognition because of its invaluable contribution to the common good. Forming god-fearing, church-going, family-establishing citizens was considered a service to the nation. Traditional marriage, self-discipline and work were considered social goods. But we no longer live in friendly times, and the definition of “the common good” has changed dramatically. It now includes the ideologies of pluralism and multiculturalism, sexual license, expanded definitions of the family, gender fluidity and abortion. In certain influential sectors of culture the church is viewed as a powerful and stubborn preserve of superstition and reactionary morality. Through a combination of enticement, intimidation, and persuasion, mainstream culture attempts to move the church into conformity with its own moral standards and social goals. And its tactics are meeting with stunning success.

Especially after the American Civil War, many American denominations came to think of themselves as social institutions and touted their contributions to society. Some churches even made social utility their main if not sole reason to exist. Most churches relished and still relish such social privileges as tax exempt status and the right to own property. They value social approval and visibility. But the church’s unspoken agreement with society may turn out to have been a deal with the devil. For if a church presents itself to the public as a social institution valuable to society because of its contributions to the common good, can it complain when the public comes to expect it to behave like other social institutions?

But the most serious danger to the Christian identity of churches doesn’t come from outside the gates; homegrown “barbarians” are working from inside. Churches that sacrifice discipline and orthodoxy to pursue growth, popularity and social influence will find themselves mortgaged to the world. And mortgages eventually come due. Should we be surprised when church members and clergy who have marinated in progressive culture their whole lives press their churches to conform to that culture? Can the church retain its Christian identity while also clinging to its political privileges, social approval and community visibility? Pursuing something like “the Benedict option” may soon become the only way we can live an authentic Christian life in modern culture. Perhaps that time is already here.

Get Rid of Excess Baggage

Jesus Christ did not found the church to serve the society, and authentic Christianity cares little for secular definitions of the common good. It is not intrinsically wrong for the church to use what advantages a society may grant. But it should always keep clearly in mind that it does not need to own property, employ clergy and enjoy tax exempt status in order to exist in its fulness. It does not need political influence, social respectability or community visibility. It does not even need legal recognition. The church can get along quite well without these “privileges.” Indeed there may soon come a time when retaining its privileges at the cost of its Christian identity will become its greatest temptation. And it will fall unless it remembers that its one and only purpose is to serve its Lord whatever the cost.

Note: This essay is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Three Views on Women in Church Leadership: Should Bible-Believing (Evangelical) Churches Appoint Women Preachers, Pastors, Elders and Bishops?

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Theme for Year Four: “Love Not the World”

My theme for year four of ifaqtheology will be “Love Not the World.” Christians always face challenges from without and temptations from within. But the ever-changing form of those challenges makes them even more dangerous. We seem always to be one step behind, fighting the last battle, bursting through open doors, reacting to past abuses, and correcting yesterday’s errors. In this series, I want to help us discern and examine the challenges to Christian faith and practice that we face today and are likely to face in the near future. The theme text for this year is 1 John 2:-15-17

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

This text is raises so many questions we need to address and is overflowing with implications for the way we live in relation to the world. What is the “world”? Does it mean the created world or the human world, that is, human culture? Or, does it mean the usual “way of the world” dominated by the devil, sin, and corruption? What does it mean to “love the world”? Surely, John is not condemning loving the people of the world, because the Gospel of John proclaims, “For God so loved the world that he gave…his Son… (John 3:16). What would it mean to love the “way of the world”? And what are the two lusts and the pride of which he speaks? Do these three misdirected loves cover everything it means to “love the world”?

In what ways and for what reasons do the love of the world and the love of the Father exclude each other? And what does it mean to love the Father in contrast to loving the world? John gives us two reasons not to love the world. (1) Its loves do not originate with the Father, and (2) they “pass away.” What happens to the one who loves only things that die and cease to be?

But what does it mean to love the world today, in our setting? In what ways does the culture we live in conform to the “world” John speaks about? How do the three misdirected loves take shape in our society? And in what forms to they pose the greatest threat to our practice of the Christian faith? How would purifying our loves from the three worldly loves and focusing our love on the Father, change our lives? How would it change the way we work, play, and relate to others? How would it change the way the church organizes and conducts its corporate life? How would it change the way we educate our children, spend our money, and relate to the political order? How would it affect our hopes and values?

I look forward to addressing these questions during the next year.