The Benedict Option – Well, Duh

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The Benedict Option is one of the highest selling Christian books of the year and also one of the most controversial. Likely hundreds of reviews have been written, famously whether the reviewer has read the book or not. Given the amount of noise and misunderstanding surrounding the book, it is worth adding my own brief review to spell out what Dreher says in the book having (actually) read it a couple of times.

Dreher writes in ways that are both inviting and off putting. He can be humble, for example, the subtitle “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” implying there might be other strategies than his own. He can also be dogmatic, repeatedly stating the Benedict Option, or some variant, is necessary for Christianity to survive in the West. Clearly, writing in such a way does not endear the book to those who have their doubts about the Option.

First of all, what the Benedict Option is not. From what I can tell, the primary stumbling block is his call to Christian community, by which some assume Dreher means a retreat from society into communes in the woods. The difficulty is that Dreher never spells out precisely what he believes Christian community should look like. For himself practically, increasing community meant moving his family closer to his congregation – they were 45 minutes away – so they can participate more fully in the life of the church, particularly in regards to prayer. Hardly a retreat into a commune in Idaho. In an interview on the Mere Fidelity podcast, Dreher said he didn’t spell out the practical details of community because he doesn’t know exactly what it should look like in every case and didn’t want to write a How To guide. Fair enough. To dispel the idea that Dreher is suggesting a full withdrawal from society here is a quote on evangelical presence to the wider world from his chapter on Christian community,

‘Ultimately, I think Christians have to understand that yes, we have to be countercultural, but no, we don’t have to run away from the rest of society…We have to be a sign of contradiction to the surrounding society, while still nurturing our own community so we can fully form our children.’ (p. 134)

The other stumbling block is his take on the urgency of the Christian situation in Western culture. Dreher pulls no punches; he believes Christianity will be more or less wiped from Western civilization if Christians don’t make radical changes to our thinking and practice. In the first chapter, he gives some statistics about the decline of Christian beliefs and church attendance, noting that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism now serves as its replacement, and then, in chapter 2, gives an intellectual history from the 14th century to the present detailing how the decline occurred. Dreher certainly could have spent more time supporting his case. However, I don’t think this was necessary. He has spent years presenting objective evidence for the decline of Christian practice in the West on his blog at The American Conservative. In the last Presidential election I saw concerned reports of anti-religious legislation and political rhetoric denigrated as fear mongering by Christians of a different political persuasion. From this I learned a lesson – people will not easily believe facts that don’t match their core life narratives. I don’t doubt this applies as well to me as it does to everyone else by the way. Dreher can present data and stories all day long, but people will not easily accept that information if it does not match their narrative of what is supposed to be happening.

What is the Benedict Option? Dreher doesn’t provide a statement spelling it out. However, the practices that constitute the Benedict Option are clear enough from the book:

  • Prayer, corporate and individual, must be the center of our lives
  • The teachings of our forefathers in the faith must be rediscovered
  • Some form of liturgical worship – Word and Sacrament – should be implemented instead of entertainment driven services
  • Spiritual practices – asceticism – must be incorporated into our daily lives
  • Church discipline must be implemented against church members who chose to live in sin
  • Believers must be actively involved in the life of their local congregation
  • Hospitality must become the norm
  • Classical Christian education should be reintroduced where possible
  • Parents should pay attention to the influence their children’s friends have on them
  • Parents should catechize their kids
  • Pastors and parents must educate the next generation about healthy sexuality
  • Parents must keep watch over their children’s use of the internet and entertainment in general

If Dreher is right and much of the Church in the West has become secularized, than one would expect a widespread, and total, rejection of The Benedict Option by popular Christian leaders. Check. For me the most upsetting aspect of reading the book was being aware of the wholly negative reviews by evangelical Christian leaders. Much of the book is a call to revive historic Christian practices. If you are a Christian that doesn’t see any value in Dreher’s recommendations than you’ve gone off…full stop. That doesn’t mean there can’t be disagreement in certain areas, for example, there is plenty of room for discussion concerning his suggestions on education and work, but a wholesale rejection is not OK. I’ve titled this post “The Benedict Option – Well, Duh” because so much of the book consists of obvious suggestions for improving Christian practice. I say this, not to denigrate the book – we need basic guides to healthy Christian living – but to express shock at those who entirely reject it. Live in fellowship with other Christians. Pray. Fast. Teach Christian doctrines to your children and guard them. Reconnect with the historic Church. Duh.

Faith and Healing – A Response to Thomas Schreiner

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I was glad to see that the Gospel Coalition published an article this week addressing Jesus’ teaching on faith in the Gospels. When scholars talk about faith, they almost always mean faith as presented in Paul’s letters, not as taught by Jesus. For example, out of the approximately twenty-four pages Bultmann spends on the New Testament in his article on faith in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, the majority of the Synoptic Gospel references are found in a single paragraph. Ceslas Spicq in his entry on faith in the Theological Lexicon of the New Testament gives no coverage of at all. The top study that gives space to faith in the Gospels is Der Glaube im Neuen Testament by Schlatter from 1885, which has never been translated into English.

With the explosion of the Prosperity Gospel globally, scholarly work on faith is essential.  Too often mainline Evangelicals simply dismiss Prosperity Gospel teaching without addressing the interpretations that give rise to it. Unfortunately, Schreiner’s latest article doesn’t help either those wanting to dialogue with the Prosperity Gospel camp or those wanting to understand Jesus’ teaching.

There are two key issues with Schreiner’s article: his interpretation of Jesus’ teaching on faith and his discussion of healing in the Bible. On the first point, Schreiner writes, 

In the stories recounted in both Matthew and Luke, the disciples long for more faith. Then they could do great things for God. Then they could cast out demons and forgive a brother or sister who’s especially annoying. Jesus tells them they don’t need great faith; they need just a little faith.

Biblically, “a little faith” is exactly what they don’t need as that is precisely the deficiency Jesus accuses the disciples of in the passage Schreiner cites. This phrase “little faith” is tricky because it sounds quantitative but is used qualitatively in the Gospels. To have little faith is to have some doubt mixed in with your faith, which renders faith inoperative. Schreiner is correct that the size of one’s faith isn’t important, but to leave out discussion of doubt when talking about faith is to leave the topic only half covered. See my Master’s thesis on this subject for details.

Later in the article Schreiner says, “Faith isn’t abstract; we put our faith in the promises of God, in the truth he’s revealed. Scripture never promises believers they will be healthy or wealthy.” This sort of statement is typical in Evangelical discussions on healing but not helpful. Why not? Because the Bible sure seems to promise healing. To cite a few examples,

Exodus 23:25 “You shall serve the Lord your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you.”

Psalm 103:2-3 “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases…”

James 5:14-15 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.

The problem we have when talking about healing and suffering is that there is a dissonance in the Bible that no one knows how to resolve. Instead of acknowledging this dissonance, people camp out one side or the other, either exclusively teaching the healing passages and never the ones on suffering or vice versa.

Evangelicals need to put themselves in others’ shoes. Imagine someone said to you, “the Bible never says we are justified by faith.” After you showed them where the Bible does indeed say that, what would your response be if they replied, “it doesn’t mean that?” You probably wouldn’t take them too seriously. Likewise, we shouldn’t expect those in the Prosperity Gospel camp to take us seriously if we aren’t willing to deal with the passages they are preaching on. Evangelicals must teach both health and suffering passages faithfully.

The Neglected Bits of Church Life – Prayer, Deacons, and Discipline

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How many churches have deacons these days? How many have regular prayer meetings? How many discipline members who are living in sin? Carl Robbins, a by-the-book sort of pastor (I mean that as a compliment), provides practical instructions on how to wisely implement these Biblical, yet neglected practices in your church.

I rarely post on this blog as there is so much good content on the web. However, these sermons are exceptional, and their content rare, so I want to share them with as many people as I can.

Instruction on Leading Prayer In Your Church – Being a charismatic for nearly twenty years, I’ve been in my fair share of prayer meetings and have listened to tens of messages on prayer. The unique thing about Robbins’ message is that he finds a balance between teaching the Church how to pray – usually people just start praying without being taught how – and getting the entire church to actually pray.

Instruction on How To Wisely Exercise Church Discipline – The classic Protestant marks of the true church are that it preaches the word faithfully, administers the sacraments rightly, and exercises church discipline. The last bit is hard and is offensive to our cultural sensibilities, so it gets neglected. Still faithful leaders exercise discipline. Robbins tells us how.

Why The Church Needs Deacons, What They Do, and How to Pick Them – Biblical church government includes elders and deacons. Without deacons, the elders will have to be the deacons and won’t have time to be great pastors. Robbins offers us a good primer.

A note about being “by-the-book”: Many non-denominational types improvise church life based on what’s popular in their circles and what seems best to them. Think about what it takes to improvise well in life. For example, for a jazz musician to be able to improvise a solo in concert they first need to know musical scales. If they tried to skip the hard work of learning scales and ear training their solos would be disconnected, random notes, not beautiful melodies. Learning the basics of leading a church – including prayer, deacons and discipline – is important before you start to innovate. It’s very unlikely that your spontaneous ideas will be an improvement on the combined wisdom of the church through the ages. First, learn what the Bible says and how the Church has applied it. Then you will know enough to adjust these concepts for your local setting.

How to Do Theology: Lessons from the Recent Trinity Debate

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In case you are unaware, there has been a somewhat heated debate in the blogosphere over the last few weeks regarding the Trinity and gender relations. Plenty of posts have been written about this debate, but recent ones by Grudem, Trueman, and Jones are too instructive not to share.

Before citing the posts, it’s worth revisiting something I wrote last year, “It sounds strange, but knowing God isn’t considered terribly important in evangelical churches. Look up the top scholars on the doctrine of God and you won’t find any Protestants on the list [now that John Webster is no longer with us]. Of course, we talk about knowing God, but by that we typically mean an emotional connection with a being we have at least partially made after our own image.”

In some ways this Trinity debate is a great microcosm of the present state of the Trinity in Evangelical thought as it pits Wayne Grudem, one of the main teachers of the Evangelical Church through his hugely influential Systematic Theology, against various theologians who are more connected to historical Christianity (in my opinion). The accusation is that Grudem, and others such as Bruce Ware, are teaching an unorthodox view of the relationship between the Father and the Son and using that to support their views on gender relations.

Yesterday, Grudem posted this (we are several weeks into the debate at this point). Mark Jones responded with this analysis of Grudem’s citations . This morning Carl Trueman posted his final (apparently) reply.

Trueman’s post is a big picture response, while Jones’s gets more into the details. I’ve spent a half hour trying to summarize the lessons to glean from these posts. After reflection, I’ll simply encourage you to read their responses to learn how to think and talk about God well.

Instant Gratification and Staying Steady for Millennia

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With thoughts of a former pastor being removed from office and the questionable direction of the modern Christian conference circuit going through my mind this morning, I came across John Haldane’s article “A Tale of Two Cities – And of Two Churches.” Haldane, who is descended from Scottish Presbyterians, contrasts the compromise and decline of the Church of Scotland with the steadiness of the Catholic Church over millennia. He quotes Lord Macaulay’s 1840 review of von Ranke’s History of the Popes:

The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. . . . She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.

I’m not going to become Catholic, God-willing, but it is hard not to be impressed by the longevity of the Catholic Church. The seminary I graduated from still plays bagpipes at graduation so I’m descended from the faltering side in this case. The thing about conservative evangelicalism is that it’s not geared for the long run. It’s an assortment of individuals, churches and groups trying to grow a little bit or simply stay in existence. Of course, there are many noble men and women involved so I’m not trying to belittle anyone. I’m simply pointing out that our current approach isn’t sustainable long term.

In light of our current shortsightedness, here are some suggestions to help us become more stable for the long run:

  1. Don’t become enamored with parachurch ministries, and especially not with gifted individuals. Focus on your local church and the Church at large, not with the few uber-impressive guys who sell all the books and conference tickets. I’ve seen this in both Charismatic and broadly evangelical circles. There are those few stars that run the show, so to speak, until it’s found out they are practicing homosexuals or cheating on their wife or stealing money from the church or fill in the blank. I’m not speaking of all individuals with large ministries, of course, many are wonderful human beings no doubt. However, people are not meant to be idols. The apostles were special, but they were also the dregs of the earth. We’ve inverted that pattern. A global platform without suffering is a dangerous thing.
  2. Become as solid as you can, both in your understanding and your character, for the sake of the church. If you want to become a pastor, know that, in general, this will not help you get a position. It’s as likely that theological knowledge and piety will be regarded by churches as a hindrance to ministry as an asset. Go for depth and maturity anyway, and try to take others with you.
  3. Emphasize Church unity – a great way to avoid self-focus is to focus on people outside yourself and your group. Receive from others. You will learn more, love more, and the world will know that we are Christians by our love for one another.
  4. Avoid power as long as possible. We all want influence, but it’s easy to confuse the fallen desire for dominance with the godly desire to improve things. I wonder how many of us can tell the difference in our own hearts.

The Arrogance and Ignorance of the “Well-Educated”

Scott Masson shared The Arrogant Ignorance of the “Well-Educated” on Facebook today, and it is so good I wanted to share it with you.

Here’s a sample:

The problem is that her education is not as good as she thinks it is. If she was educated in our secular system, she would have learned nothing whatsoever about theology, presuming that, if there is a God, he, or probably she, agrees with us. If he or she does not agree with us, he or she can go to hell. And, of course, we can tell God to go to hell because he or she is made in our image (we are not made in his/hers) and we can do what we like with him or her. In short, we can treat God with the same arrogance and superciliousness with which we treat our neighbor: “What God calls sin, we call being well-educated.”

Leaders: Give Your People Opportunities to Mess Up

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Imagine a multi-generational church with many mature leaders. The church will run smoothest if the skilled men and women do the work. They have the experience and can pass on their wisdom to the next generations. Sermons will be better if the preacher has hundreds of sermons under his belt. Classes will go be better if the teacher has taught for decades. But this approach only works for a time. People get older and eventually others have to take their place. The church won’t be prepared for the next generation if her leaders took the easy route of doing everything themselves. And now the chance to mentor that generation is gone.

Good leaders raise up other leaders. This means giving the people under them opportunities to try things. Since excellence takes experience, these early efforts will almost certainly be poor, much worse than if the leader had done it himself. This is very much like parenting if you think about it. At first, it was much easier for my wife Aja to clean the bathrooms than to have my son Owen clean. She had to spend time showing him, and then come after him and fix his mistakes. However, eventually Owen learned how to clean the bathroom and Aja is freed to do other things. Also, Owen now has a skill that will serve him well as an adult. I imagine this is part of the reason pastors must manage their households well (1 Tim 3:4-5).

Of course, leaders can’t just throw people out there. Pastors need to set them up for success, giving them the training they need and encouraging them at every opportunity. That is good leadership.

The Place of Tradition in Biblical Interpretation

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*** This topic is critical, more so than it may appear

Since I was a good Protestant growing up, unlike those confused Catholics, I believed I would understand the truth if I faithfully read Scripture. I didn’t need tradition to help me, no creeds or teachers from ancient times. I was wrong. Why? Because I was putting myself in the place of authority.

There are (at least) two kinds of authority in Christian thought – revelatory and interpretive. The item with revelatory authority has authority because it contains revelation from God. The person or group with interpretive authority has authority because they interpret revelation to determine how we think and live.

Below are the approaches of three major groups to these authorities. These are put in historical order starting around the time of the Reformation:

Catholic Church
Revelatory Authority – Scripture and tradition
Interpretive Authority – the Church according to the rule of faith

The Reformers
Revelatory Authority – Scripture alone
Interpretive Authority – the Church according to the rule of faith

Some Modern Evangelicals
Revelatory Authority – Scripture alone
Interpretive Authority – the individual

I want to make two points in this article. One is that Luther and the other reformers of that day agreed with the Catholic Church on interpretative authority, but disagreed that the Catholic church had moved that authority to the level of ultimate authority alongside Scripture. Luther went against the Catholic church of his day, not because he thought everything they said was wrong – he agreed with much of it – but because he believed some of the things they said were wrong. He got into trouble because the Catholics gradually came to a position over the centuries that the pronouncements they made were revelation from God, and therefore could not be opposed. Luther rightly pointed out that their councils and the Church fathers disagreed with each other and therefore couldn’t all be true. For saying this, Luther was branded a heretic. For orthodox Protestants, the church and the rule of faith have authority, but their authority is subject to the ultimate authority of Scripture.

The other point I want to make is that interpretive authority lies with the entire church, not us as individuals. What matters more to how we think and live our lives: the words of Scripture or how we understand those words? Unfortunately, it’s how we understand those words. I say unfortunately, but really there is no way around this. When we read the Bible we don’t get audible commentary from God saying “this is what that verse means.” No, we have to interpret the verse. What’s the safest way? Well, the interesting thing about us humans is that our reason isn’t rational when left to itself. Instead, our reason serves to promote our preconceived notions (see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for this concept). Typically, we only become rational in the context of sympathetic dialogue. How is this relevant to interpretive authority? It means that often when we read the Bible by ourselves we are simply confirming what we already believe. We’re never going to get anywhere with that approach. It is by Christians wrestling with one another for centuries that the truth is discovered. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth (John 16:13). This doesn’t mean Christians individually; believers can be way off and still be genuine. No, it is the whole church together that the Holy Spirit is leading into all truth. Don’t go alone. Connecting yourself to the Church brings big rewards.

For more on this topic, see Keith A. Mathison’s excellent Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes. Some suggestions to get you started learning from the Church: read the early creeds – the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. These are quite short and so don’t take much time. Then read the Heidelberg Catechism. From these you’ll get a solid doctrinal foundation.

Christianity, Homosexuality, and Leviticus

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“You believe what the Old Testament says about homosexuality, so then, do you believe all the crazy rules and regulations in the Old Testament too?” This question comes up frequently in public discourse on homosexuality. Michael Bird here provides what to me is the definitive Christian response in a brief, clear, and winsome manner.

Bird writes so much that’s good I want to quote him extensively, but since his response is brief I’ll only include his concluding remarks:

Mr. President, at the end of the day Christian ethics are based on love not law: love for God and love for our neighbors. Christians, within the precincts of their own consciences, cannot affirm behavior that they believe Scripture prohibits. The wisdom of our tradition is that sexuality is a gift from God, leading us to affirm celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage. Yet because of the command to love their neighbours, you can expect Christians to always treat people, irrespective of gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation, with compassion and dignity, as we ourselves would want to be treated. If you wish to wag a finger at Christians for their hypocrisy, and I hope you do, citing texts from Leviticus is probably not the best way to do that. Much better is to accuse Christians of not keeping Jesus’ commands to love their gay neighbor, point out that they have not followed Jesus’  example to welcome those who polite society has rejected, and they have not embraced the lost for whom Jesus said he came to save! That is a word of rebuke Christians need to hear time and again.