Churches and their leaders continue to wrestle with the implications of the United States Supreme Court’s June 26 decision legalizing same sex marriage. The trajectory of where this thing is going is perfectly clear to anyone paying attention—there’s going to be a steep price for faithful congregations. Churches that refuse to abide by the state’s new law likely will lose their tax exempt status and almost certainly their property tax exemption in the next few years. Beyond that, any public criticism of homosexual behavior in general and same sex marriage in particular soon will result in accusations of bigotry and hate speech. That’s not the raving of a Baptist preacher but the measured opinion of dissenting Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
To churches and leaders not paying attention, things will go on pretty much as usual. Keep doing whatever it is you’re doing; be nice to people; and maybe you’ll be left alone. Or worse, welcome the decision and jump right into the brave new world. That’s the course taken by one of our sister congregations, Greenville’s First Baptist Church, when last month the congregation approved a policy allowing for full inclusion of gay, lesbian and transgender people into every aspect of the church’s ministry, including weddings and ordinations. Pastor Jim Dent explained his church’s decision this way: “It’s going to open up a space for evangelical gay people to have a place again, to not discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity.” I’m not sure that faithfulness to biblical teaching as well as 2000 years of Christian history falls under the category of discrimination, but Pastor Dent’s perspective is the standard one for churches trying to chart an easy course through the coming storm.
But for those who actually believe their Bibles, agreeing to wear the government’s yoke isn’t a viable choice. So what’s the best option for America’s churches?
A phrase currently making the rounds is “the Benedict Option,” and I believe it casts a vision for the new season of the American church.
Benedict of Nursia was the fifth-century Italian who is considered the father of western monasticism. As the Roman Empire fell apart, Benedict gathered a group of like-minded men around him and established the great monastery at Monte Cassino. He later wrote “The Rule of Benedict” that became the how-to book for Catholic monasteries throughout the world.
Benedict discovered what others before him had learned. In a time of cultural disintegration, faithful followers of Jesus had to withdraw from society in order to preserve their own faith. The monasteries he founded–as well as those that followed–saved Christianity and western civilization. As the culture around them disintegrated, groups of committed Jesus followers found a way to preserve their faith and their Christian culture.
Blogger Rod Dreher attributes the phrase “Benedict Option” to philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in the last paragraph of his book After Virtue:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead…was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point…This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless quite different — St. Benedict.
So what would the Benedict Option actually look like on the level of a local church?
First, I think it would mean a radical shift of perspective in how we’ve viewed our evangelical churches over the last few decades. Richard Niebuhr’s classic book, “Christ and Culture” provides a useful framework for this. He distinguishes five basic ways down through the centuries that the church has adopted in relating to its surrounding culture. I won’t bore you with all five of them, but two stand out. The first is what Niebuhr calls “Christ Transforming Culture.” What he means by this is those times in history in which the church has been able—through ministry, example, benevolence, politics and general presence—to transform the culture into more biblical patterns. The Second Great Awakening is a great example. And, until a few years ago, that was the model followed by many evangelicals in our own country. We thought if we could just mobilize and preach and elect enough Republicans to high office we could transform American culture so that it more closely resembled our own convictions. So through the time of the Moral Majority and the growth of mega-churches and even into our own generation, we’ve labored to make that transformation happen.
But everything changed in 2008. The financial crash had lasting implications for people’s religious lives as money concerns lingered for years. And the election of a thoroughly secular President put evangelical churches into a postion of cultural irrelevance unknown since early in the twentieth century. Legalized same sex marriage didn’t change everything overnight; it did, however, ratify the change that had already been happening.
The American church no longer has the option of transforming American culture. At least, not in the sense we once did. We have no voice or presence in modern America that allows for societal transformation. In keeping with Niebuhr’s framework, our relationship with the culture is no longer one of transformation, it’s instead what he calls, “Christ Against Culture.” That’s the position of the church during the Roman Empire, or that of the Chinese house churches today. What we believe and how we live is in sharp contrast with what the culture accepts.
How else are we to understand the recently released videos, showing the scandalous and evil perspective of the Planned Parenthood toward aborted human fetuses? When a government supported institution like Planned Parenthood not only aborts human babies but then casually discusses picking through the dismembered bodies in order to determine which parts will fetch the highest price on the open market, that’s a culture more susceptible to judgment than transformation.
Should we be politically active and try to shut down institutions like Planned Parenthood? Of course! But let’s not delude ourselves. Planned Parenthood will continue its operation because it’s a perfect reflection of what we value as a nation.
The Benedict Option recognizes all this and calls for churches to stage a strategic withdrawal from the culture in order to get our own houses in order. So that we can on the one hand become authentic communities of holiness and grace and so a witness to this dark world. And on the other hand, when the time and circumstances are right, move out strategically into the culture, forming new communities of holiness and grace.
The second specific way the Benedict Option would affect local church life is to steer us away from the programmatic, institutionalized ministries we’ve embraced for the last few decades. We’ve worshiped too long at the altar of statistics and adopted whatever program de jour that promised more numerical growth. But religious programming is of little value in a culture that is killing babies and selling their body parts. What we have to figure out is how to grow authentic disciples of Jesus.
For that reason the Benedict Option, I believe, calls for an urgent and immediate devotion to discipleship. In other words, we should throw all our resources into doing whatever it takes to make authentic disciples of Jesus. Lead people to faith in Jesus then take them step by step into a new way of living–one of grace, holiness and love. Build communities not around the management of religious behavior or denominational loyalty but of shared commitment to Jesus and to one another.
The Benedict Option is a radical departure from what we’ve been accustomed to, but I believe in the coming months and years we will more and more embrace this vision of church. We’ll have to. I’ll look forward to blogging more about the Benedict Option in coming days.