By / Mar 22

One of my favorite non-fiction authors is Rod Dreher, a journalist and cultural commentator who blogs at The American Conservative. Since late 2013, Dreher has been calling for a Benedict Option as a strategy for spiritual renewal and cultural witness in the post-Christian West. He draws inspiration from Alasdair MacIntyre, who in his book After Virtue commends Benedict of Nursia as a model for cultivating virtuous Christian communities. In a helpful Q&A, Dreher defines the Benedict Option:

The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option … is an umbrella term for Christians who accept MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to [the] Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.

The Benedict Option has struck a chord with believers from across the ecclesial spectrum. A variety of observers have weighed its relative merits and measured the potential pitfalls. Many have dismissed the Benedict Option for various reasons. For my purposes in this essay I’m far more interested in those who’ve offered thoughtful alternatives to, or refinements of, the Benedict Option—especially those proffered by my fellow evangelicals. For example, see the Buckley Option, the Francis Moment, the Kuyper Option, and the Wilberforce Option.

I want to offer my own friendly alternative to the Benedict Option. It’s covenantal, congregational, counter-cultural, catholic, and commissioned—all for the common good. I’m tempted to just call it the Baptist Option. But if you know anything about Baptists, you know that where two or three of us are gathered together, especially in a church business meeting, there are at least seventeen opinions. So, though it’s not as neat a term, I’m calling my proposal the Paleo-Baptist Option.

In his final book, the late Richard John Neuhaus provocatively compared modern America to ancient Babylon, a place where truth and justice are perennially compromised and committed believers are increasingly marginalized. Less than a decade removed from Neuhaus’s death in 2009, his words seem prescient. I argue the Paleo-Baptist Option has much to commend it for believers living in American Babylon, including many who don’t identify with the Baptist tradition. Baptists will best thrive in American Babylon by self-consciously framing ourselves as an ecclesiological renewal movement within the Great Tradition of catholic Christianity.

The Rise of the Paleo-Baptist Vision

The Baptist movement emerged in the British Isles and colonial America during the first half of the 17th century. Early Baptists disagreed among themselves about the nature of election and the atonement, but their understanding of the church was fairly consistent. Like all Protestants, Baptists were committed to the supreme authority of Scripture for faith and practice, but they emphasized how this principle applied to matters related to the church’s nature, structure, and mission.

Baptists formulated their views of salvation and the church in covenantal terms. To be a Christian was to participate in the eternal covenant of grace through repentance and faith. Local congregations were regenerated communities wherein professing believers voluntarily covenanted together in membership. Believer’s baptism was considered the sign of the new covenant and represented the individual’s covenant commitment to individual and communal discipleship. To fall into ongoing unrepentant sin was to transgress the church’s covenant and possibly evidence that you weren’t really a partaker of the covenant of grace.

Early Baptists practiced congregational polity. They believed every local church is a microcosm of the church universal and that it was the responsibility of the entire membership to exercise the power of the keys to the kingdom. Churches were kingdom embassies, church members were kingdom citizens, and every kingdom citizen was to take ownership of the King’s agenda. While Baptist congregations set apart individuals to serve as pastors and deacons, they argued all believers were called to the ministry of proclaiming the gospel in word and living out its implications in deed.

They were counter-cultural. They weren’t Anabaptist separatists who rejected the legitimate authority of magistrates or embraced pacifism. Baptists desired to see sincere Christians hold government office, they professed political loyalty to the Crown, many served in the New Model Army during the English Civil War, and a few even sat in Parliament during the early Commonwealth era. Nevertheless, the Baptists were counter-cultural in that they rejected the establishment of the English state church. Baptists wanted a nation governed by Christian principles, but they advocated full religious liberty, arguing one is ultimately accountable to God alone for his or her religious convictions.

The earliest Baptists were committed to a form of reformational Free Church catholicity that has largely been forgotten by contemporary Baptists. In their key confessional statements, they echoed the language of the ecumenical creeds in formulating their views of the Trinity and Christology. The Orthodox Creed (1678) commended the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds to General Baptist congregations. The Second London Confession (1689) argued strongly for a universal visible church, of which Baptists are only one part. Calvinistic Baptists also understood themselves to be a part of the “Protestant Interest,” the transcontinental Reformed-Lutheran bulwark against the encroachments of Roman Catholicism.

The final component of the Paleo-Baptist vision was the last to be incorporated into the DNA of the Baptist movement. Baptists didn’t always understand themselves to be a commissioned people. While early Baptists were committed to evangelism and starting new churches, the 17th century was not a time of widespread intentional missionary work by Protestants. By the early 18th century, some Baptists had imbibed deeply of Enlightenment skepticism and were drifting into heresies that rejected the deity of Christ and substitutionary atonement. Other Baptists were influenced by a hyper-Calvinist rationalism that downplayed the urgency of spreading the gospel. Near the end of the Evangelical Awakening in Great Britain, leaders such as Daniel Taylor, Andrew Fuller, and William Carey offered evangelical rationales for intentional evangelism and foreign mission. The key verse became the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19–20. From the mid-1700s onward, Baptists interpreted the Great Commission as a binding command on every generation of believers.

The Decline of Paleo-Baptist Principles

With the exception of an emphasis on mission, among American Baptists these Paleo-Baptist priorities were either lost or redefined over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Like other evangelicals, many Baptists embraced a radical form of biblicism that substituted what some have called solo scriptura for the Reformational principle of sola scriptura. Some went so far as to claim that creeds have no authority whatsoever—not even as a secondary authority under the supreme authority of Scripture.

Baptists increasingly interpreted historic Baptist principles such as congregational polity and local church autonomy through the lenses of Enlightenment individualism and Jeffersonian democracy. In terms of religious liberty, many Baptists advocated a version of strict church-state separation that emerged from the Enlightenment and has been identified with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

By the 20th century, Baptist leaders such as E. Y. Mullins and George Truett were arguing the Baptist tradition is quintessentially American because of the Baptist commitment to democracy and church-state separation. Baptists frequently credited themselves with the passage of the first amendment to the Constitution because the Baptist evangelist John Leland strategically allied himself with Madison on church-state matters. In perhaps the biggest Baptist irony in history, Southern Baptists in particular became so culturally influential in the American South and Southwest that the historian Martin Marty argued the Southern Baptist Convention became a de facto religious establishment—the “Catholic Church of the South.”

Then the world began to change. While Baptist elites resonated with mid-century Supreme Court decisions that codified secularist forms of church-state separation, grassroots Baptists—again, especially in the South—became increasingly persuaded that America was a Christian nation that was losing its way. The moral turbulence of the 1960s contributed to a growing sense of dread. In a story that is now fairly familiar, those who were experiencing this sort of cultural angst, including millions of Southern Baptists, signed on with emerging Religious Right, became active in the Republican Party, and sought to reclaim America for God.

The Religious Right became arguably the most powerful force in American politics between about 1980 and 2005. They played a key role in electing presidents, establishing majorities in Congress, and putting evangelicals on the cultural radar. But from the vantage point of 2016, they also failed in most of their long-term objectives. Instead of America becoming more like the kingdom of God, it has become more like Babylon. That so many Baptists wanted America to be a Christian nation demonstrates the massive gap between Paleo-Baptist priorities and many contemporary Baptist views of culture—especially politics.

Advancing Paleo-Baptist Priorities

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.

Though pragmatic forms of revivalism and populist versions of patriotism have distracted many Baptists, the Paleo-Baptist vision is making a comeback. Groups such as 9 Marks Ministries advocate historic Baptist ecclesial priorities, but do so in a way that also appeals to many other low church Protestants such as Presbyterians, Bible Churches, Evangelical Free congregations, and even many non-denominational evangelicals. Public intellectuals such as Russell Moore have urged American evangelicals to ratchet-down their propensity to identify the GOP with God’s Own Party and have called upon all believers to be an orthodox counter-culture for the common good. These Paleo-Baptist calls resonate with many Baptists and many other believers, especially among the millennial generation.

Furthermore, we Baptists have continued to understand ourselves as a commissioned people who are called to proclaim the gospel and make disciples among all people. In recent years, the wider conversation about the missional church has helped many Baptists to ground our Great Commission instincts in a Trinitarian theology of mission. This has led to an increasing awareness that all of Scripture speaks to God’s mission, which is both prior to and animates the church’s mission. As Ed Stetzer argues, “The church is sent on mission by Jesus. It’s not that the church has a mission, but rather that the mission has a church. We join Jesus on His mission.” A commitment to mission seems to be a serious lacuna in the Benedict Option as presently conceived. I hope Dreher addresses this topic as he continues to refines his paradigm and finishes his book-length project on the Benedict Option.

Learning from the Benedict Option

Though I believe the Paleo-Baptist vision addresses some shortcomings in the Benedict Option, there is a key area where I believe Paleo-Baptists have much to learn from Dreher’s proposal. Dreher calls for communities committed to “forming Christians who live out Christianity according to the Great Tradition.” As discussed above, early Baptists were committed to a form of reformational Free Church catholicity. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that catholicity has never been a strong suit among Baptists. Our very name highlights our most visible difference with our fellow Christians.

I know some Baptists will disagree, perhaps strongly so, but I believe the time is ripe for what Timothy George calls an “ecumenism of the trenches” as modeled in initiatives such as The Manhattan Declaration. Paleo-Baptist Christians should be willing to link arms with other believers in as many ways as we can, with integrity, without retreating from our own tradition’s core distinctives. The encroachment of American Babylon necessitates the mortification of all forms of sectarianism, denominational idolatry, and party spirit.

I’m encouraged by the growing number of (especially younger) Baptists and baptistic evangelicals who are embracing the ecumenical creedal tradition, more closely observing the Christian calendar, celebrating communion more frequently in corporate worship gatherings, and learning from the spiritual practices of brothers and sisters in other ecclesial traditions. I personally know of both new church plants and older “legacy” churches that have intentionally embraced a greater sense of catholicity without backtracking one bit on their Baptist identity.

Again, I argue Baptists will best thrive in American Babylon by self-consciously framing ourselves as an ecclesiological renewal movement within the Great Tradition of catholic Christianity. Far more important than passing on our Baptist identity to the next generation is passing on the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. To be clear, I believe historic Baptist distinctives are essentially correct and ought to be embraced, defended, and commended to others. But only the faith shared by all believers everywhere will fuel our spiritual maturity, empower us for Christian witness, motivate us for humble and sacrificial service, and help us to think rightly about God and his world and live rightly before God in his world.

Conclusion

The Paleo-Baptist Option offers a way to navigate American Babylon that is more deeply rooted in local churches than the Benedict Option. It’s also more explicitly missional than the Benedict Option, at least as the latter is presently conceived. Even traditions that disagree with Baptists concerning our theology and practice of baptism can embrace a more intentionally covenantal, congregational, counter-cultural, and commissioned outlook and adapt these priorities to their contexts. In this sense, all American believers can develop certain “Baptist instincts” in response to anti-Christian tendencies in the wider culture.

At the same time, if the vision I’m commending is to be truly Paleo-Baptist—in the fullest sense—then those of us who are convictional Baptists will need to more intentionally embrace the Great Tradition and embody a commitment to catholicity that is both deeper and wider than we’ve normally affirmed in our tradition. As with any authentic ecumenical moment, all Christians need to learn from each other, sharpen one another, and spur each other on to love and good deeds. We need each other as our respective traditions seek to follow Christ and bear witness to his Kingship in a culture that is increasingly hostile to all forms of orthodox, full-throated, publicly engaged Christianity.

One of my favorite non-fiction authors is Rod Dreher, a journalist and cultural commentator who blogs at The American Conservative. Since late 2013, Dreher has been calling for a Benedict Option as a strategy for spiritual renewal and cultural witness in the post-Christian West. He draws inspiration from Alasdair MacIntyre, who in his book After Virtue commends Benedict of Nursia as a model for cultivating virtuous Christian communities. In a helpful Q&A, Dreher defines the Benedict Option:

The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option … is an umbrella term for Christians who accept MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to [the] Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.

The Benedict Option has struck a chord with believers from across the ecclesial spectrum. A variety of observers have weighed its relative merits and measured the potential pitfalls. Many have dismissed the Benedict Option for various reasons. For my purposes in this essay I’m far more interested in those who’ve offered thoughtful alternatives to, or refinements of, the Benedict Option—especially those proffered by my fellow evangelicals. For example, see the Buckley Option, the Francis Moment, the Kuyper Option, and the Wilberforce Option.

I want to offer my own friendly alternative to the Benedict Option. It’s covenantal, congregational, counter-cultural, catholic, and commissioned—all for the common good. I’m tempted to just call it the Baptist Option. But if you know anything about Baptists, you know that where two or three of us are gathered together, especially in a church business meeting, there are at least seventeen opinions. So, though it’s not as neat a term, I’m calling my proposal the Paleo-Baptist Option.

In his final book, the late Richard John Neuhaus provocatively compared modern America to ancient Babylon, a place where truth and justice are perennially compromised and committed believers are increasingly marginalized. Less than a decade removed from Neuhaus’s death in 2009, his words seem prescient. I argue the Paleo-Baptist Option has much to commend it for believers living in American Babylon, including many who don’t identify with the Baptist tradition. Baptists will best thrive in American Babylon by self-consciously framing ourselves as an ecclesiological renewal movement within the Great Tradition of catholic Christianity.

The Rise of the Paleo-Baptist Vision

The Baptist movement emerged in the British Isles and colonial America during the first half of the 17th century. Early Baptists disagreed among themselves about the nature of election and the atonement, but their understanding of the church was fairly consistent. Like all Protestants, Baptists were committed to the supreme authority of Scripture for faith and practice, but they emphasized how this principle applied to matters related to the church’s nature, structure, and mission.

Baptists formulated their views of salvation and the church in covenantal terms. To be a Christian was to participate in the eternal covenant of grace through repentance and faith. Local congregations were regenerated communities wherein professing believers voluntarily covenanted together in membership. Believer’s baptism was considered the sign of the new covenant and represented the individual’s covenant commitment to individual and communal discipleship. To fall into ongoing unrepentant sin was to transgress the church’s covenant and possibly evidence that you weren’t really a partaker of the covenant of grace.

Early Baptists practiced congregational polity. They believed every local church is a microcosm of the church universal and that it was the responsibility of the entire membership to exercise the power of the keys to the kingdom. Churches were kingdom embassies, church members were kingdom citizens, and every kingdom citizen was to take ownership of the King’s agenda. While Baptist congregations set apart individuals to serve as pastors and deacons, they argued all believers were called to the ministry of proclaiming the gospel in word and living out its implications in deed.

They were counter-cultural. They weren’t Anabaptist separatists who rejected the legitimate authority of magistrates or embraced pacifism. Baptists desired to see sincere Christians hold government office, they professed political loyalty to the Crown, many served in the New Model Army during the English Civil War, and a few even sat in Parliament during the early Commonwealth era. Nevertheless, the Baptists were counter-cultural in that they rejected the establishment of the English state church. Baptists wanted a nation governed by Christian principles, but they advocated full religious liberty, arguing one is ultimately accountable to God alone for his or her religious convictions.

The earliest Baptists were committed to a form of reformational Free Church catholicity that has largely been forgotten by contemporary Baptists. In their key confessional statements, they echoed the language of the ecumenical creeds in formulating their views of the Trinity and Christology. The Orthodox Creed (1678) commended the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds to General Baptist congregations. The Second London Confession (1689) argued strongly for a universal visible church, of which Baptists are only one part. Calvinistic Baptists also understood themselves to be a part of the “Protestant Interest,” the transcontinental Reformed-Lutheran bulwark against the encroachments of Roman Catholicism.

The final component of the Paleo-Baptist vision was the last to be incorporated into the DNA of the Baptist movement. Baptists didn’t always understand themselves to be a commissioned people. While early Baptists were committed to evangelism and starting new churches, the 17th century was not a time of widespread intentional missionary work by Protestants. By the early 18th century, some Baptists had imbibed deeply of Enlightenment skepticism and were drifting into heresies that rejected the deity of Christ and substitutionary atonement. Other Baptists were influenced by a hyper-Calvinist rationalism that downplayed the urgency of spreading the gospel. Near the end of the Evangelical Awakening in Great Britain, leaders such as Daniel Taylor, Andrew Fuller, and William Carey offered evangelical rationales for intentional evangelism and foreign mission. The key verse became the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19–20. From the mid-1700s onward, Baptists interpreted the Great Commission as a binding command on every generation of believers.

The Decline of Paleo-Baptist Principles

With the exception of an emphasis on mission, among American Baptists these Paleo-Baptist priorities were either lost or redefined over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Like other evangelicals, many Baptists embraced a radical form of biblicism that substituted what some have called solo scriptura for the Reformational principle of sola scriptura. Some went so far as to claim that creeds have no authority whatsoever—not even as a secondary authority under the supreme authority of Scripture.

Baptists increasingly interpreted historic Baptist principles such as congregational polity and local church autonomy through the lenses of Enlightenment individualism and Jeffersonian democracy. In terms of religious liberty, many Baptists advocated a version of strict church-state separation that emerged from the Enlightenment and has been identified with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

By the 20th century, Baptist leaders such as E. Y. Mullins and George Truett were arguing the Baptist tradition is quintessentially American because of the Baptist commitment to democracy and church-state separation. Baptists frequently credited themselves with the passage of the first amendment to the Constitution because the Baptist evangelist John Leland strategically allied himself with Madison on church-state matters. In perhaps the biggest Baptist irony in history, Southern Baptists in particular became so culturally influential in the American South and Southwest that the historian Martin Marty argued the Southern Baptist Convention became a de facto religious establishment—the “Catholic Church of the South.”

Then the world began to change. While Baptist elites resonated with mid-century Supreme Court decisions that codified secularist forms of church-state separation, grassroots Baptists—again, especially in the South—became increasingly persuaded that America was a Christian nation that was losing its way. The moral turbulence of the 1960s contributed to a growing sense of dread. In a story that is now fairly familiar, those who were experiencing this sort of cultural angst, including millions of Southern Baptists, signed on with emerging Religious Right, became active in the Republican Party, and sought to reclaim America for God.

The Religious Right became arguably the most powerful force in American politics between about 1980 and 2005. They played a key role in electing presidents, establishing majorities in Congress, and putting evangelicals on the cultural radar. But from the vantage point of 2016, they also failed in most of their long-term objectives. Instead of America becoming more like the kingdom of God, it has become more like Babylon. That so many Baptists wanted America to be a Christian nation demonstrates the massive gap between Paleo-Baptist priorities and many contemporary Baptist views of culture—especially politics.

Advancing Paleo-Baptist Priorities

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.

Though pragmatic forms of revivalism and populist versions of patriotism have distracted many Baptists, the Paleo-Baptist vision is making a comeback. Groups such as 9 Marks Ministries advocate historic Baptist ecclesial priorities, but do so in a way that also appeals to many other low church Protestants such as Presbyterians, Bible Churches, Evangelical Free congregations, and even many non-denominational evangelicals. Public intellectuals have urged American evangelicals to ratchet-down their propensity to identify the GOP with God’s Own Party and have called upon all believers to be an orthodox counter-culture for the common good. These Paleo-Baptist calls resonate with many Baptists and many other believers, especially among the millennial generation.

Furthermore, we Baptists have continued to understand ourselves as a commissioned people who are called to proclaim the gospel and make disciples among all people. In recent years, the wider conversation about the missional church has helped many Baptists to ground our Great Commission instincts in a Trinitarian theology of mission. This has led to an increasing awareness that all of Scripture speaks to God’s mission, which is both prior to and animates the church’s mission. As Ed Stetzer argues, “The church is sent on mission by Jesus. It’s not that the church has a mission, but rather that the mission has a church. We join Jesus on His mission.” A commitment to mission seems to be a serious lacuna in the Benedict Option as presently conceived. I hope Dreher addresses this topic as he continues to refines his paradigm and finishes his book-length project on the Benedict Option.

Learning from the Benedict Option

Though I believe the Paleo-Baptist vision addresses some shortcomings in the Benedict Option, there is a key area where I believe Paleo-Baptists have much to learn from Dreher’s proposal. Dreher calls for communities committed to “forming Christians who live out Christianity according to the Great Tradition.” As discussed above, early Baptists were committed to a form of reformational Free Church catholicity. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that catholicity has never been a strong suit among Baptists. Our very name highlights our most visible difference with our fellow Christians.

I know some Baptists will disagree, perhaps strongly so, but I believe the time is ripe for what Timothy George calls an “ecumenism of the trenches” as modeled in initiatives such as The Manhattan Declaration. Paleo-Baptist Christians should be willing to link arms with other believers in as many ways as we can, with integrity, without retreating from our own tradition’s core distinctives. The encroachment of American Babylon necessitates the mortification of all forms of sectarianism, denominational idolatry, and party spirit.

I’m encouraged by the growing number of (especially younger) Baptists and baptistic evangelicals who are embracing the ecumenical creedal tradition, more closely observing the Christian calendar, celebrating communion more frequently in corporate worship gatherings, and learning from the spiritual practices of brothers and sisters in other ecclesial traditions. I personally know of both new church plants and older “legacy” churches that have intentionally embraced a greater sense of catholicity without backtracking one bit on their Baptist identity.

Again, I argue Baptists will best thrive in American Babylon by self-consciously framing ourselves as an ecclesiological renewal movement within the Great Tradition of catholic Christianity. Far more important than passing on our Baptist identity to the next generation is passing on the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. To be clear, I believe historic Baptist distinctives are essentially correct and ought to be embraced, defended, and commended to others. But only the faith shared by all believers everywhere will fuel our spiritual maturity, empower us for Christian witness, motivate us for humble and sacrificial service, and help us to think rightly about God and his world and live rightly before God in his world.

Conclusion

The Paleo-Baptist Option offers a way to navigate American Babylon that is more deeply rooted in local churches than the Benedict Option. It’s also more explicitly missional than the Benedict Option, at least as the latter is presently conceived. Even traditions that disagree with Baptists concerning our theology and practice of baptism can embrace a more intentionally covenantal, congregational, counter-cultural, and commissioned outlook and adapt these priorities to their contexts. In this sense, all American believers can develop certain “Baptist instincts” in response to anti-Christian tendencies in the wider culture.

At the same time, if the vision I’m commending is to be truly Paleo-Baptist—in the fullest sense—then those of us who are convictional Baptists will need to more intentionally embrace the Great Tradition and embody a commitment to catholicity that is both deeper and wider than we’ve normally affirmed in our tradition. As with any authentic ecumenical moment, all Christians need to learn from each other, sharpen one another, and spur each other on to love and good deeds. We need each other as our respective traditions seek to follow Christ and bear witness to his Kingship in a culture that is increasingly hostile to all forms of orthodox, full-throated, publicly engaged Christianity.

By / Oct 13

The question of Christianity’s place in a rapidly changing society seems to be on everybody’s mind. Barely a day or week passes that even mainstream press is picking up on an undercurrent of conversation happening amongst religious conservatives.

The discussion takes many forms and comes to expression most fully around the increasingly sclerotic issue of sexual morality. According to some, same-sex marriage represents the formal severing of America with its Christian roots. Are the days of the Religious Right dead? Will they be paid attention to like they once were by the GOP, or is that relationship dead, too? Do Christians have a place in the future of electoral politics? Are Christians to welcome or shun their newfound “Moral Minority” status? What is to be the posture of Christians who now find themselves as resident aliens in a culture that is quickly shedding itself of any vestiges of its Christian past? Or, with the surge of All-Things-Pope-Francis, is the decline of Christianity really even happening?

At a granular level, it seems that with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling, insiders and outsiders to Christianity are all recognizing that a symbolic pendulum swing, of some sort, has taken place. A new order has arrived, and Christians are now forced to find new ways to preserve their doctrinal and ethical distinctiveness.

Therein begins “The Benedict Option” proposed by my friend Rod Dreher. I don’t want to spill a lot of ink rehashing all of Dreher’s eloquent explanations of “The BenOp” as he calls it. The BenOp represents a strategic withdrawal of sorts built on the proposition that if Christians hope to survive to the next generation and outlive culture’s collapse, such survival will require greater attentiveness to forming deeper Christian identity and in turn, community. The BenOp, as I summarize it, represents a turn to deliberative Christianity.

Dreher’s BenOp is provoking a lot of discussion online, at conferences, and in churches. I accept this as a good sign, because it shows that Christians are thinking critically about themselves and their place in culture.

Dreher’s proposal has also received a lot of criticism. Critics accuse Dreher of a newfound and rebranded quietism or pietism—a Christianity that shirks social responsibility and instead retreats to the hills. These critics often hail from the transformationalist camp of Christianity, a paradigm that believes that Christianity must always engage with the forefront of culture for the sake of mission or else it will run the risk of disobeying the inherently transformative nature of Christianity. Many look to the 19th century Dutch polymath Abraham Kuyper as the forerunner of Transformationalism or neo-Calvinism. For our purposes, let’s refer to this as the “Kuyper Option.” I’ve even heard this sentiment referred to as “The Wilberforce Option” at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on the Gospel and Politics conference in honor of William Wilberforce whose Christian presence in 19th century England helped bring slavery to an end as an institution.

In some sense, the debates we’re having today echo back to the timeless question of how Christianity and culture relate to one another. It may be that Dreher is recapitulating the themes that H. Richard Niebuhr classic Christ and Culture raised in the 1950s.

The purpose of the present essay is to argue that the Benedict Option and the Kuyper Option (i.e., Transformationalism) don’t have to be at odds with one another. I like much of what the Benedict Option emphasizes and view its recommendations as quite necessary if Christian identity is to survive the secularist winter. I also consider myself a proponent of the Transformationalist paradigm. I’m a Calvinist who believes that the success of Western culture—measured in terms of past commitments to human dignity, the rule of law, and humane institutions—is inextricably linked to its Christian roots. Now that we find ourselves slowing witnessing the displacing of a vaguely Christian consensus, it may mean that the sun is setting on the so-called “Christian West.”

Now, I’m fully aware that in my earnest desire to bridge disagreement, I could be misreading what the advocates of each side are really saying. But what I do know is that Christianity is often victim of hackneyed “either/or” false antitheses. Sometimes, “either/or” polarities need to occur. Open Theism and Calvinism, for example, are polarities and reconciling them cannot be done. I don’t see that as necessary in the debate happening right now. Instead, I see elements of overlap in the proverbial Venn diagram.

Must the Benedict Option and Transformationalism be at odds? Or, what would a Transformationalist Benedict Option look like? Because that’s what I think we need.

First, the Benedict Option has been wrongly construed by many as surrender. After reading and speaking with Dreher, I continue to sense that surrender is not inherent to the BenOp. The Benedict Option as Dreher tells it is Contra Mundum, Pro Mundo—“Against the World, for the World.” Any oppositional position that Christianity takes toward the world is ultimately aimed towards displacing falsehood with truth. The Benedict Option is advertised as awaiting the inevitable ruins of societal self-destruction while looking to the church looks to strengthen its own pillars. The church must try to stave off the ruins, but once the ruins are present, it seeks to rehabilitate a broken culture with the truth of Christianity. In that sense, the BenOp is a patient, long-suffering transformationalism.

The Benedict Option, rightly construed, may then be seen to be referring to the interior self-awareness of how the church sees itself pursuing deliberate growth in Christ for the sake of forming deep communities that can withstand secular advance. This is why you see in so much of Dreher’s articulation the idea of community formation seeded by a virtue ethic that looks to the practices and habits of community in forming its people.

If I’m at all interpreting Dreher’s Benedict Option accurately, I sense that Dreher is emphasizing the communal and interior life of the church. This doesn’t mean that the Benedict Option is averse to mission, but it places emphasis on mission as springing from the interior existence of Christianity identity.

Secondly, Transformationalism is firmly dedicated to the proposition that conversionary Christianity offers the best and lasting hope for building humane societies. This proposition I wholeheartedly affirm. Transformationalism insists that a Christianity lived boldly in the public square is infused with a dynamic of hope. The Benedict Option is transformational in the sense that it believes that Christian identity, insofar as it is rooted and orthodox, can and will transform because Christianity is an exponent of absolute, indissoluble truth grounded in the goodness of God and his loving care for creation.

I see the primary difference in the two paradigms as between an interior Christianity (Benedict) and an exterior Christianity (Kuyper). Transformationalists insist upon scaling the walls of every sector of culture in order to see Christ’s Lordship ultimately stamped upon it. Here, Kuyper needs Benedict. To scale the walls, it will require a type of people that are formed and self-aware. An interior concern is conscious of who Christians must be in order to exist. An exterior approach is conscious of what Christians do to live faithfully.

Now, there may be serious disagreement between the camps between what each thinks what influence is feasible at the moment. That, I believe, might be the biggest point of conflict. Dreher is pessimistic about opportunities to see change happen and believes that the secularist advance is dominant and unstoppable in the short term. To him, we are irreparably post-Christian in the short-term. The Transformationalists, on the other hand, believe that no momentary hesitation or acknowledged self-retreat is allowable. If there’s an opportunity to influence the culture, it should be taken because Christ’s Lordship over the cosmos requires a witness heralding this lordship over every arena of life and culture. A Kuyper Option understands that Christianity, by definition, is public truth.

A congruence of a Transformationalist Benedict Option may mean, supremely, that our method and expectations change. We continue to strive to influence every sector of culture that Christians can, fully aware of the limitations and difficulties that our times will place upon us. But we do so with an eye toward understanding that the witness we offer, perceived as refuse to some (1 Cor 4:13), is really a sweet aroma (2 Cor. 2:15). This is a Christianity where paradox and contradiction may be the mode of transformation.

But let me say very soberly: There will not be transformation in the headwinds now facing us if there isn’t deep identity and resolve to orthodox Christianity. No longer can parents simply rely on an ambient culture to disciple their kids in the way of the American way of life if the American way of life means subliminal paganism. There’s a realization setting in that the faith of their childhood cannot be passively absorbed. It will require catechesis. I see this happening within my own ranks of conservative Christianity, most of which unabashedly loves culture and wants to benefit it.

What must the Benedict Option and Kuyper Option brace for and work to prevent in the day we now find ourselves? The Benedict Option must be careful to not fall into a Nature/Grace dualism that evades social responsibility. The Kuyper Option must sever triumphalism or penultimate victory from their short-term strategy. Penultimate victory may come in terms of reclaiming sectors of culture, but I don’t see that happening for a long, long time. Kuyper Option Christians must, to paraphrase Chesterton, fight a losing battle and know that they’ll not actually lose. Again, this long haul requires the habits of identity formation.

A Transformationalist Benedict Option must be simultaneously attentive to the interior identity and exterior mission of the church. A Transformationalist Benedict Option will mean that local churches are cultivating a Christianity with roots. Children are being catechized by parents. It will mean that children and teens are being taught the beauty of creation and the Lordship of Christ. There will be more discussion about culture proper, not just subverting culture with parroted forms of (bad) Christian culture. Churches will be full of members who are full of cultural refugees, but refugees who act as insurgents.

A metaphor may serve what I’m hoping to argue. If a ship is off course and going astray, I want every effort taken to send rescue boats whose compasses can put the ship back on course. But rescue boats need to have their own compasses and directional navigation properly calibrated in order to rescue. In the same way, the church must know who it is to withstand the waves while looking to rescue the wayward culture that is intent on throwing its compass overboard and dancing while the ship ventures further and further off.

This isn’t an either/or. No one is saying not to fight or engage, but the mode of engagement is going to look different. We’re going to have to take on a new mindset; we’re going to have to learn to embrace ridicule; we’re going to have to learn how to communicate our beliefs in a way that assumes nothing. We have to learn that winsomeness may not matter at all. That should not, however, cause us to hesitate at all about whether our Christianity is to be lived publicly.

I tire of the constant “The times are a changin’” refrains. They are. So what. Stiffen the spine. Perhaps we’re awaiting the ruins, but that shouldn’t cause us to expedite their presence. Work to prevent them. Christian parents, teach your children the faith. Take nothing for granted. Look to the local church as the locus of your social identity. Put down the happy clappy self-improvement book and pick up something by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Look to the sky and shout, “Play the man, Master Ridley,” for everything will be alright in the end.

Andrew Walker
Andrew Walker is the managing editor of Canon and Culture. He also serves as the Director of Policy Studies for The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination’s entity tasked with addressing moral, social, and ethical issues. In his role, he researches and writes about human dignity, family stability, religious liberty, and the moral principles that support civil society. He is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Andrew lives in Franklin, TN with his wife and daughter and is a member of Redemption City Church. You can find him on twitter at @andrewtwalk.