BenOp There, Done That

Alan Jacobs explains why Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option is unobjectionable:

The Benedict Option, as I understand it, is based on three premises.

1. The dominant media of our technological society are powerful forces for socializing people into modes of thought and action that are often inconsistent with, if not absolutely hostile to, Christian faith and practice.

2. In America today, churches and other Christian institutions (schools at all levels, parachurch organizations with various missions) are comparatively very weak at socializing people, if for no other reason than that they have access to comparatively little mindspace.

3. Healthy Christian communities are made up of people who have been thoroughly grounded in, thoroughly socialized into, the the historic practices and beliefs of the Christian church.

From these three premises proponents of the Benedict Option draw a conclusion: If we are to form strong Christians, people with robust commitment to and robust understanding of the Christian life, then we need to shift the balance of ideological power towards Christian formation, and that means investing more of our time and attention than we have been spending on strengthening our Christian institutions.

Jacobs doesn’t understand why anyone would dissent. I largely agree, though I have to admit I’m not willing to give up on HBO or Phil Hendrie just yet. At the same time, I understand that certain — ahem — television shows and Phil’s humor may not be appropriate for children.

The dissent is not with the specifics of Rod’s BenOp. The dissent is with Dreher’s (and Jacob’s) sense of discovery. Some Christians for a long time have thought about American society, the necessity of alternative institutions, and the problem of passing on the faith in ways that Dreher seems only now (after Obergefell) to have recognized. The dissent also includes some frustration over people like Rod ignoring those earlier forms of opting out of the cultural mainstream. For a long time, the mainline Protestant churches, which is where I believe Rod started his Christian journey, thought the fears of fundamentalists about the wider society were delusional, based on conspiratorial thinking or worse. Only once the good taste of mainline church life needed to reckon with homosexual clergy and marriage did conservatives in mainline churches begin to entertain the sort of thoughts that fundamentalists (and some ethnic Protestants) had sixty years (or more) earlier. Even at Jacobs’ former institution (Wheaton College) and probably at his current one (Baylor), fundamentalism is/was something to be avoided. Why? It was separatist, sometimes even — trigger warning — double separatist. But now, not separating is a bad thing? Hello. The train left the station.

Will naming such cultural segregation after a saint and linking it to a moral philosopher (Alasdair MacIntyre) make fundamentalism look more attractive? Probably. But I’d like Dreher to acknowledge those saints who came in between Monte Cassino and After Virtue. They were ahead of this time even if coming after Benedict.

Today's Lesson in Ecclesiology

From the far right:

After Pope Benedict XVI resigned, there was a near-universal agreement among Church leaders that his successor should make it a top priority to bring the Roman Curia under more effective control: that is, to govern the Vatican well. In the daily conferences leading up to the 2013 conclave, one cardinal after another spoke out in favor of administrative reforms. Not surprisingly, after his election Pope Francis soon pledged himself to the cause of Vatican reform. It is not an easy task, and to date we have not seen the fruit of his efforts (except in Vatican financial affairs, where the reforms driven by Cardinal Pell are taking effect), but it will be fair to judge this pontificate on the Pope’s success or failure in streamlining and taming his own bureaucracy.

But the problems of Church governance do not stop at the Vatican walls. Especially because Pope Francis has indicated a desire for decentralized leadership, the Church will need bishops who govern effectively.

How often have you heard complaints about a bishop’s prayer life? Not often; very few people are presumptuous enough to judge the quality of another man’s prayers.

Have you heard complaints about a bishop’s teaching? Yes, occasionally. Frustrated Catholics will sometimes say that a bishop’s public statements on doctrinal issues have been confusing or misleading. Far more frequently there will be laments that the bishop remains silent when a clear teaching statement is necessary.

Still, by far the greatest source about a bishop’s performance will involve his governance. The appointment of pastors, the decisions to close parishes or schools, and the diocesan budget priorities will always be easy targets for critics. But even beyond that, the most common complaints involve not the bishop’s acts of governance, but his inaction: his failure to respond to complaints about liturgical abuse or parish mismanagement; his unwillingness to rebuke prominent Catholics who flout the teachings of the Church; his acceptance of religious-education programs that mislead young people and leave them ignorant; his tolerance for priests who have lapsed into complacency or worse.

Granted, lay Catholics should spend less time complaining about their bishops, and more time praying for them. Nevertheless it is instructive to see the nature of their complaints. We certainly need bishops who pray fervently and preach effectively. But we also need bishops who govern well. Above all, we need bishops who want to govern.

From the Protestant left:

You, as a baptized Christian and ordinary member of a church, are responsible for protecting the gospel and the gospel’s ministry in your church by discipling other church members.

Remember Ephesians 4:15–16. The church builds itself up in love as each part does its work. You have work to do to build up the church. And part of that includes the ministry of words. A few verses later, Paul says, “Speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, because we are members of one another” (v. 25). Speak truth to them, and help them to grow. Our words should be “good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). Also, make yourself available to be spoken to. Are you willing to listen?

Basic Christianity involves building up other believers. It is a part of fulfilling the Great Commission and making disciples. Speaking of . . .

If through union with the second Adam God has reinstated you as a priest-king, your whole life should reflect the gospel in word and deed. You are an ambassador. Paul’s charge and example is worth repeating here:

He has committed the message of reconciliation to us. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:19b–20)

Every Christian has been reconciled, and thus every Christian has received this message of reconciliation. Therefore, we plead and we pray for sinners to be reconciled to God.

This, too, is a part of your job. The command to “Go and make disciples” belongs to you (Matt. 28:19).

From the moderate Calvinist middle:

1. Christ who has instituted government in his church has furnished some men, beside the ministers of the Word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereto. Such officers, chosen by the people from among their number, are to join with the ministers in the government of the church, and are properly called ruling elders.

2. Those who fill this office should be sound in the faith and of exemplary Christian life, men of wisdom and discretion, worthy of the esteem of the congregation as spiritual fathers.

3. Ruling elders, individually and jointly with the pastor in the session, are to lead the church in the service of Christ. They are to watch diligently over the people committed to their charge to prevent corruption of doctrine or morals. Evils which they cannot correct by private admonition they should bring to the notice of the session. They should visit the people, especially the sick, instruct the ignorant, comfort the mourning, and nourish and guard the children of the covenant. They should pray with and for the people. They should have particular concern for the doctrine and conduct of the minister of the Word and help him in his labors.

As always, the one, the many, or the few.

Rev. Kev, Bring 'Em Home

Kevin DeYoung, on the threshold of becoming Presbyterian, lists 10 reasons he is thankful for the PCA. The last one goes like this:

10. Opportunity. The PCA is a young denomination. I’ve moved from the oldest Protestant denomination in the country to one of the newest. There are always challenges that come with youth (who am I? what will I be when I grown up? how do I relate to those who have gone before me?). But there are also great opportunities too.

Like pursuing a gospel-driven diversity that listens and learns without patronizing and pigeon-holing.

Like engaging a wayward world with more theology, more conviction, more worship, and more of God.

Like showing the world that real unity can only be found in truth, that the richest doctrine leads to the fullest doxology, that the highest Christology produces the best missiology, and that staunchest Calvinists can be the most loving people you’ve ever met.

So, why doesn’t the Gospel Coalition join the PCA? Why don’t the allies follow Kevin and realign with a Reformed church? I understand that would mean the end of the Gospel Coalition. But if we have churches like the PCA, why do we need the Gospel Coalition

The Gateway Drug to the Gospel Coaltion

Peter Dietsch gets off to a great start about the importance of ecclesiology to being a Christian:

As you can hopefully tell from the language of the confession, the Westminster Divines had a decidedly high ecclesiology. I’ve found that a good way to test whether or not someone has a high ecclesiology (what they believe about the importance of the visible church) is to ask a question that try to ask of every candidate who comes before presbytery for ordination: “What do you think about this statement: The visible church is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”

This question really strikes at the heart of what one believes about the importance of the visible church, whether or not they have a high ecclesiology. For, as the confession here teaches (and Jesus and the Apostles taught), the visible church is the institution through which God ordinarily confers salvation. The Great Commission to make disciples by baptizing and teaching Christ’s commands is given to the visible church (Matthew 28:18-20), preachers are sent to preach the gospel by the church (10:15), the sacraments are administered in and by the church (Acts 2:41-42; Matthew 28:19; Ephesians 4:4-6, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34), church discipline and the corporate sanctification of God’s people takes place in the church (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Corinthians 2:5-10).

But then he takes most of it back when he makes the invisible church more important than the visible:

More could be said and I could go on; however, as one who professes to have a high ecclesiology, I wish at this point to say how my high regard for the visible church was arrested and challenged this week. Being a baptized member of the visible church is important, but it of far greater importance that one be a member of the invisible church!

This point was struck home to me with particular impact this week as I’ve been preparing for the sermon this coming Sunday. The text for our sermon is from John 1:19-34. John the Baptist testifies before some Jews who come as a delegation from Jerusalem as to the nature of his ministry – why he is preaching and baptizing. He says that he is voice crying in the wilderness (John 1:23) and that he baptizes in order that Jesus might be manifested (or revealed) to Israel (John 1:31).

And then, in order to clearly delineate between his outward and temporary ministry and the inward and eternal ministry of Jesus, John the Baptist makes the point: I baptize with water, but Jesus who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, He baptizes in the Holy Spirit (John 1:33).

Fine, but who is akin to Christ today? The Holy Spirit? But why does God give to the visible church the ordinances other than to connect the visible with the invisible, the Spirit’s call with the word preached?

Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. (WCF 25.3)

Folks who think they are members of the invisible church need the visible church to confirm that thought. Otherwise, they will think that visible church membership is optional and choosing the right one is merely a matter of preference.

Does My Local Church Have the Authority to Contradict George Whitefield?

A recent survey indicated that 90 percent of evangelicals think the local church has no authority to declare whether a person is a believer. The responses from evangelical leaders indicated that upwards of 90 percent of those with authority in the church think the church has authority. Go figure. Here are a few of the responses (and notice the failure to invoke the “keys of the kingdom”):

Jesus charged the church with responsibility for its members. Those who are not behaving as Christians are to be held accountable, and the ultimate form of accountability is church discipline where someone who refuses to repent of known sin is removed as a member. J. Carl Laney, Bible professor, Western Seminary

Of course the local church has this authority. This is actually its responsibility, and it is exercised by every congregation that requires a credible profession of faith for membership—though the church cannot declare this with eternal certainty. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Many U.S. evangelicals think not. But historically, the church clearly has the right to say someone is not living in harmony with the gospel and to separate from them. And if being a Christian includes membership in the community of faith, then this does call their salvation into question. Brad Harper, Bible and theology chair, Multnomah University

As glad as I was to see these responses even if no one appealed to the keys — Protestants wonder how Peter could have monopolized them when he had so little to write for holy writ — I had to wonder how these evangelical leaders would have responded to George Whitefield’s sermon “The Kingdom of God” where he asserted:

The kingdom of God, or true and undefiled religion, does not consist in being of this or that particular sect or communion. . . . Again, as the kingdom of God does not consist in being in this or that sect, so neither does it consist in being baptized when you were young. . . . take care that you do not make a Christ of your baptism . . . . [N]either does [the kingdom] consist in being orthodox in our notions, or being able to talk fluently of the doctrines of the Gospel.

Say what you will about Whitefield and the qualifications he tried to make, his understanding of the new birth pulled the plug on the work of the institutional church — church membership, sacraments, and catechesis, for starters. So when will evangelical leaders understand that in backing the new birth outlook of a Whitefield or a Billy Graham, where church membership, doctrine, ceremonies are merely external matters that don’t fathom the import and depth of internal realities, they have sown the seeds of the laity’s disregard of church leaders?

With Constantine No Walter White

I wonder if those who long for a stronger Christian presence in determining cultural standards and governing society are willing to give up some of their sideline interests. If, for example, you happened to hear a person who advocated family values and traditional marriage also write about the brilliance of The Wire in its depiction of urban life and politics, would you not think the message a tad mixed.

I have before wondered about those who like Doug Wilson or the BBs who advocate a return to Geneva of the 1550s or Boston of the 1650s if they are willing to give up some of the liberties that Americans now enjoy this side of 1776 (like blogging). But I am even more curious about the larger and less vocal set of critics of our current scene for its indifference to a higher range of human aspirations and who follow with great enjoyment the latest hit cable TV show — Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, True Detective. Do these folks who hope for higher standards in government and culture make any calculation about whether their favorite shows will still be on the air if they get their wishes (the Gypsy Curse?)?

Take for instance this passage from Theodore Dreiser’s novel, Genius (1915) — hide the women and children:

She leaned back against his shoulder stroking his hair, but finally ceased even that, for her own feeling was too intense to make movement possible. She thought of him as a young god, strong, virile, beautiful – a brilliant future before him. All these years she had waited for someone truly to love her and now this splendid youth had apparently cast himself at her feet. He stroked her hands, her neck, cheeks, then slowly gathered her close and buried his head against her bosom.

Angela was strong in convention, in the precepts of her parents, in the sense of her family and its attitude, but this situation was more than she could resist. She accepted first the pressures of his arm, then the slow subtlety with which he caressed her. Resistance seemed almost impossible now for he held her close – tight within the range of his magnetism. When finally she felt the pressure of his hand upon her quivering limbs, she threw herself back in a transport of agony and delight.

By the standards and laws of the day (remember Comstock was still on the books), this passage was pornographic. It kept Dreiser and his attorney tied up in courts and prevented the book from being widely distributed for eight years. By those same standards, The Wire would never have aired.

Could I live without HBO or Netflix? I’d like to think so but aside from the ordinary routines of family life or the genuine enjoyment of clever plots and transfixing characters, I’d also like to think that I would not have to choose. I do know enough history to think that if the Christian political and moral types get their way and rectify the errors of a secular society that lives by the antithesis of a Christian w-w, my private amusements are going to resemble what transpires among my fellow church members when we gather for worship or merriment than what I now enjoy in the other kingdom of a 2k universe.

Assembly Envy?

What makes a synod extraordinary? For Reformed Protestants and Presbyterians an assembly, synod, presbytery, or classis is ordinary. The OPC even has all sorts of rules that govern its assemblies and that read like the owner’s manual that comes with the purchase of a toaster. But for Roman Catholics, synods are extraordinary. One reason may be that they occur so infrequently. Another is that attendance is at the prerogative of the pope.

The list of attendees for the extraordinary synod to meet next month and deliberate on marriage and the family has gone public:

In addition to 114 presidents of national bishops’ conferences, 13 heads of Eastern Catholic churches and 25 heads of Vatican congregations and councils, the pope appointed 26 synod fathers to take part in the Oct. 5-19 synod. . . .

Almost all of the 26 papally appointed voting members are from Europe. Of these, none of the 14 cardinals, eight bishops and four priests appointed by the pope is from North America or other English-speaking countries.

The list has displeased some:

Having curial officials as members of a synod fails to recognize that they should be staff, not policymakers. They could attend the synod as staff but should not be voting members. For the most part, they should be observers and not speakers. They have all the other weeks of the year to advise the pope. This is the time for bishops from outside of Rome to make their views known.

If Francis and the Council of Cardinals is not willing to change the makeup of the Synod of Bishops, it is hard to believe they will really fix the Roman Curia. . . .

We will have to wait and see whether the auditors will represent to the bishops the views of lay Catholics, but it is hard to argue that they are representative of Catholics at large. Certainly any who think natural family planning is the church’s great gift to the laity will not. And those who are church employees could fear losing their jobs if they spoke the truth.

One of the previous extraordinary synods, the one that in 1985 John Paul II convened to consider the implementation of Vatican II, wondered whether the notion of subsidiarity should be applied to the church as much as to society (as I have also wondered):

It is recommended that a study be made to examine whether the principle of subsidiarily in use in human society can be applied to the Church, and to what degree and in what sense such an application can and should be made.

So far, it looks like an institution that has relied so heavily on the papacy will ever be able to extricate itself from that dependence. In the words of the old adage, you have to dance with the one who “brung ya.” And as Thomas Reese observes, that co-dependent relationship is turning out to hold a number of ironies for both the left and right in the Roman Catholic communion:

In the decades following the Second Vatican Council, Catholic progressives constantly called for decentralization in the church. Now that they like what the pope is doing, they want him to do things by executive order. Meanwhile, conservatives are beginning to see the advantages of subsidiarity in the church. God does have a sense of humor.

But since Jason and the Callers haven’t even bothered with post-Vatican II ecclesiology, the ex-Reformed kids are alright. For the still-Reformed, the church politics of decentralization are alive and well.