Benedict Option vs. Wesleyan Option

December 21, 2015

The Benedict Option despairs of redeeming postmodern Western Civilization and counsels a Christian retreat into separatist communities to rebuild Christian culture through faithful discipleship. The model obviously is St. Benedict, who founded a vibrant monastic movement in the ashes of the imploding Roman Empire.

No doubt the Body of Christ and wider culture would benefit greatly if more Christians were to pursue some form of the Benedict Option, creating centers of self-denying devotion, prayer, learning and charity, even celibacy. May this movement, to the extent it fosters Christian growth and witness, grow and prosper!

But just as in Benedict’s day, roughly 99 percent plus of Christians will decline to actively pursue this option. Maybe some don’t have the spiritual insight and discipline. But many more likely don’t have the calling. Throughout the church’s history most believers have had a vocation to live and work within the world, with all of its temptations and snares.

Too often Christian thinkers issue summons for all Christians to follow a particular path of faithfulness. Christians must become politically active! Christians must withdraw or take a break from politics! Christians must engage secular culture and arts! Christians should create alternative institutions! Christians should litigate in defense of their rights! Christians should reject lawsuits! Christians should eat organic food! Christians should abjure clothing and live au natural in the woods eating berries and honey!

In truth, hundreds of millions of Christians globally and tens of millions nationally don’t all have the same lockstep calling. Scripture and Christian tradition indicate God’s appointment of Christians to highly varied and sometimes seemingly contradictory callings. While some Christians in the early church suffered martyrdom at Caesar’s hands others were serving in Caesar’s household. The Lord had purpose in both places and many others.

So let’s be hesitant to proscribe universal cultural, political and vocational instructions to the Body of Christ, which will not and should not be universally heeded. The church encompasses a wide diversity of callings, to its everlasting glory.

Although very few will be called to actively practice the Benedict Option, many others may subscribe to its rhetoric as an excuse for indifference and even contempt for cultural and political engagement, which would be dangerous. There is at loose in American Evangelical Christianity, at least among some elites, a spirit of apathy towards civil obligations.

Supposedly, even amid our unprecedented wealth, comfort and numbers, we live in very bleak times. Widespread Christian engagement didn’t create Zion in America, therefore it was all for naught. The earlier generation of Christian culture warriors are now supposed to have been an embarrassment for which the church should now atone. But no amount of apology will forestall the imminent apocalypse, which mostly includes critical internet commentary about Christianity and the occasional same sex rite at the local court house or empty Unitarian church. Woe is us as we drive our SUVs into the parking lots of megachurches in prosperous suburbs. Scary times indeed!

Of course, the secular culture does and has always posed serious threats to faithful Christian living. This spiritual warfare is permanent until the parousia. But all in all, Christians in 2015 America, even as the Devil still roams about like a roaring lion, have it better than any previous generation. Who among us would really prefer to live in 1950, 1850, or 1750, when America and Western Civilization were supposedly more Christian, never mind slavery, segregation and a thousand other social wickednesses countenanced by society and church?

Here’s my Methodist counsel for one form of Christian social witness and discipleship: a Wesleyan Option. Keep in mind at no point were Methodists ever anywhere near a majority among British or early Americans, nor among Christians at that time. John Wesley, who was unapologetically apostolic, believed in the universal church and neither he nor his followers expected all Christians to follow Methodism. They were, in a rough comparison to Catholic lay societies, a particular spiritual order within the Church of England. Yet their influence was profound, they transformed society and the church, and there are roughly 70 million Methodists globally today, perhaps several hundred million if Pentecostals are included.

Benedictine Option enthusiasts should like the Wesleyan example because it was built around small, intensely committed prayer and accountability groups with rigorous discipline who created distinct communities within a pervasively corrupt society and spiritually lax institutional church. Evangelism, discipleship, self-denial, service to others, and Christian joy were central emphases.

Wesleyans weren’t just focused on the spiritual charisms of their own movement. They self-consciously envisioned their vocation for spiritually renewing society and temporal polities. Wesley himself kept his movement out of direct political engagement. But he knew that as Methodism preached personal and social holiness throughout Britain and America there would be societal and political fruits. Wesley saw his times and culture as part of Christendom but also deeply in rebellion against God. He used the available foundations of a “Christian” nation, which included a relative legal religious liberty, despite howling hostile mobs, to proclaim the Gospel.

Early Methodism in America seized much of the frontier, where religion, formal or otherwise, was often absent. Methodist populism and revivalism, with its concern for social redemption, helped create America’s self-understanding of its democracy. It also contributed spiritual tools within civil religion for perennial social and political reform movements that continue to this day.

To varying degrees Methodism has repeated much of this process of personal and social renewal in once non-Christian cultures in Asia and Africa.

Methodism saw its surrounding culture as often wicked and hostile to the Gospel, which is perennially true, even in ostensibly Christian societies. Yet this challenge did not inspire cultural withdrawal but challenged Methodists to aggressively confront and work to change the cultures it spiritually invaded.

In short, Methodism offers a robust example accessible to all Christian traditions of intense counter cultural communities of discipleship alongside vigorous work for cultural and political reformation. Early Methodism, unlike the monastic Benedictine movement, was always for large numbers of regular people active in the world, mostly laborers, housewives and merchants, along with the occasional clerk, lawyer and soldier. Admittedly as a lifelong Methodist, I am very partial, and also chagrined that my own denominational branch of Methodism does not itself currently offer a good exemplar.

But I also propose that our own times are more similar to Wesley’s, which was a corrupt nominally Christian society that scoffed at serious devotion, than St. Benedict’s, which was still mostly pagan despite a century of imperial Christianity. Of course, both Benedict and Wesley were providential tools for their time and place. We can all learn much from both of them, and the accumulated grace from their faithfulness still bless the church and world centuries later.

Mark Tooley
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century. You can follow him on Twitter at @markdtooley.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD's foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and is a native of Arlington, … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24