Now What?

Christians are divided about how to deal with the Supreme Court decision legislatinger, legalizing same sex marriage across the country, and with the increasing hostility toward traditional Christianity in the legal system and in the culture at large.

  • Some have suggested that pastors should stop acting as agents of the state in performing weddings but to have parishioners marry at the justice of the peace and then come to the church for a religious blessing.
  • Others have suggested legal changes to church by-laws that would shield pastors and churches from performing same sex weddings, though some insurance companies seem to be refusing to pay for lawsuits that might result from this action.
  • Neither of these options are helpful for Christian businesses that provide goods or services for weddings. For this group, first amendment lawsuits, civil disobedience, or capitulation would seem to be the only choices.
  • More broadly, Rod Dreher has suggested that we take “the Benedict Option,” named after St. Benedict of Nursia, the father of Western monasticism, and focus our efforts on building and strengthening our own communities and passing the faith down to our children.
  • Others criticize Dreher as being reactive rather than proactive, and argue that we need to become more engaged with the culture rather than less.

Leaving aside the legal issues for churches and businesses, let’s look at the pros and cons of the broader strategy of the Benedict Option. This is not an easy task, because Dreher has not been very specific about what he has in mind. This is probably due to his thinking on the subject evolving as time goes on—it seems to be more of a conceptual vision than a worked out program. That said, the fundamental point he makes is well taken: as Christians we need to do things differently and in particular we need to work on building and protecting our faith communities.

The Benedict Option: Rebuilding our Faith Communities
The Christian community has done a poor job in passing the faith down to the next generation. The most recent numbers suggest that 70% of youth who attended church for at least a year in high school drift away or drop out of the church in college. In the past, these dropouts typically returned to church when they had children; this no longer seems to be the case, in part perhaps because marriage is increasingly being delayed and the traditional family structure is breaking down.

The problem is not limited to the youth, however. According to a Barna survey, only 9% of the adult population in America and only 19% of “born again” adults have a biblical worldview. Clearly, churches are not successfully building biblical thinking into their congregations.

This lack of understanding of the biblical worldview means that where it conflicts with culture, Christianity is viewed as being ignorant, intolerant, out-of-date, or bigoted. For example, most Christians may know the “rules” about sexuality, but few can explain why homosexual activity, fornication, etc., are sins. When the entire culture tells you that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality or fornication, we need to present a coherent reason for the “why” of biblical sexuality or we will lose to the culture. This is why we’re losing so many of our youth on this issue.

It doesn’t help that parents, who are charged in Scripture with raising their children, typically subcontract that job to “professionals:” the church teaches their kids about God, the school does their education (and communicates its values), the media teaches them about relationships and how society is or should work, etc. But since the parents themselves typically lack a biblical worldview, they are ill-equipped to communicate an understanding of biblical truth and values even if they decide to try to challenge the schools and media for the minds and hearts of their children.

The examples can be multiplied, and things are likely to get worse since the levers that move the culture are almost entirely in the hands of people hostile to the Christian faith and particularly to Christian sexual ethics. Under these circumstances, regrouping and working to shore up the faith and understanding in our own communities is essential for the church today.

The Political Illusion
Dreher argues that we got into this situation because we have put too much of our focus on politics. Voting Republican because the GOP at least claims to be Pro-Life hasn’t made much of an impact on abortion, for example, and despite all the party’s pro-family rhetoric the country has steadily descended into social chaos.

Dreher again makes an important point here: we have largely fallen for the political illusion, the idea that if we elect the right people to office, they will keep the culture from decaying. The problem is that politics is downstream from culture: if you lose the culture, as Christians have, politics will not fix it. Changes in culture, whether positive or negative, lead to changes in politics, not the other way around.

Christians and Cultural Decay
But this is a weakness in some versions of the Benedict Option: if it means turning away from the culture, how will society begin moving away from the social and sexual anarchy that it is heading toward?

We got into this situation precisely because Christians abandoned cultural engagement. In the wake of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy in the early twentieth century, theologically conservative Protestants largely abandoned academia to the modernists. Giving up on academia meant ultimately losing control of the public schools, since the educational establishment is trained in the universities. The modernists very deliberately and strategically moved into the educational arena specifically to control policy in the schools.

To make matters worse, the same Protestants who abandoned education also rejected popular entertainment and media. As far back as the patristic period, Christians have attacked the immorality of the theater and more recently of Hollywood. While this reaction is undoubtedly appropriate in some cases, the wholesale rejection by Christians of the entertainment industry has had devastating consequences for twentieth century culture.

Francis Schaeffer pointed out that philosophers’ ideas trickle down step by step until they are adopted by artists, and then the artists spread them to the masses. It is no accident that the sexual revolution hit about a decade and a half after Freudian ideas were mainstreamed into the culture in film, and same sex marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court a decade and a half after “Will and Grace,” which was the highest rated sitcom for young adults aged 18-45 in the years 2001-2005.

By losing the schools and the media, we lost the culture and with it politics and law.

Should We Care?
But as Christians, should we care about the culture? Shouldn’t we focus on evangelism and getting people into Heaven and not worry about society?

It would take a book to explain everything that is wrong with this argument, but for now, I will just note a few points.

First, in Matthew 5:13 Jesus tells us, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” Salt was primarily a preservative in Jesus’ day, its main function being to keep meat from rotting, not simply to enhance its flavor. Jesus is telling us here that our job is to act as a preservative, to prevent society from decaying. If we can’t do that, we are “no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet”—a situation many of feel like we’re in right now in our culture.

Second, in Matt. 13:33, Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures [i.e. about 60 pounds] of flour, till it was all leavened.” The leaven does not work by changing the flour into more leaven; instead, it permeates it and gives it shape and structure. I would suggest that society is the flour, which we are to shape and influence with the values of the Kingdom. As explained in my book, Why You Think the Way You Do, the influence of Christianity is what made Western civilization the positive force it has been in world history, and ignoring the Kingdom is what has led to its worst failures and abuses.[1]

Lastly, we also need to deal with the Law of Love. If we really believe God’s ways are true and that He has taught us what we need to do for human flourishing, then out of love of our neighbor, shouldn’t we work to promote His ways as best we can in society? Given that the alternative is to leave people in their sin and to allow sin to embed itself deeply into institutions and social structures that will inevitably produce brokenness in those they touch, and particularly in the weak, the poor, and the helpless, how can we claim to be following Jesus if we do not do everything in our power to oppose evil and promote the Good? Social engagement is thus not optional if we are going to obey Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves.

If we are going to be faithful to our calling and to our Lord, we need to have a twofold strategy in the face of the growing hostility we face in the legal system and in the culture. Dreher is right: we need to strengthen our own communities of faith and do a much better job at teaching both the content of our faith and the reasons for it.  But at the same time we need to renew our commitment to engaging the culture at every level. Our old strategies, including falling for the political illusion, will not work, but if we do our job right in equipping believers to live out their faith within their professions and then salt them throughout the culture, like leaven in dough they can have an impact far beyond their numbers. If Benedict is the model Dreher points to, Daniel is the model of this second approach. Ultimately, we need both.

[1] Some people argue that Jesus’ references to the Kingdom refer to the Millennium, though that idea is hard to square with the message of the Kingdom proclaimed in Acts (e.g. 8:12, 19:8, 20:25, 28:30f.).

Next Steps

What is your level of engagement with our culture? If you’re not engaged, try getting your feet wet before the month has passed—your part is essential for effecting change in our culture.

Further Reading
A brief article worth reading can be found at the Colson Center Library: “Passing the Torch to Future Generations.” If passing on the faith to your children is of concern, you can purchase Teaching Kids About God from the Online store.


1 Comment

  1. Once more, Glenn you are very perceptive - and faithful to the vision of the Kingdom of God that Jesus brought. I especially like the two options: Benedict and Daniel. 'Benedict' not in the isolated sense, but in the nurture sense! That is where I sit also.
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