Baptists and the Benedict Option in American Babylon

by
March 22, 2016

Introduction

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 and Bruce Ashford 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.


Nathan Finn
Nathan A. Finn is the Dean of the School of Theology and Missions and Professor of Christian Thought and Tradition at Union University