The Benedict Option and the Great Commission

Church history provides many lessons on building intentional Christian communities.

The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

A growing number of American Christians are beginning to recognize a need for a more intentional form of cultural engagement, including the possibility of deliberately relocating into Christian communities for the sake of better preserving the faith for themselves and their children.


The Benedict Option


Perhaps no other book has been as influential in generating these kinds of discussions as Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. However, these discussions are often met with an almost immediate theological objection, especially from evangelicals who, rightly, place a high priority on evangelism and fulfilling the Great Commission. These objectors argue that any kind of “withdrawal” is by definition an abdication of our responsibility to reach the lost, and therefore Benedict Option-type solutions aren’t just unlikely to succeed, they’re downright "sinful."


However, these objections are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian from a Catholic background, Dreher’s work assumes that his audience will have at least a degree of understanding of what the Monastic movement was and is. Evangelicals, however, have generally misunderstood monasticism, and consequently they have also greatly misunderstood those suggesting the necessity of it’s re-emergence. Ultimately, monasticism was primarily a missions movement, which we can now safely credit for a large portion of the re-evangelization of Europe after the fall of Rome. What’s more, the earliest Protestant missionary movement was itself very similar to a monastic movement.


The Desert Fathers


For whatever reason, evangelical exposure to monasticism has focused on what Church Historians refer to as "the Desert Fathers." The Desert Fathers were essentially hermits who lived out in (you guessed it) the desert, far outside of the heavily urbanized Roman world. In most cases these men and women were motivated by a desire to get away from the temptations and distractions caused by busy urban lives in order to sharpen their contemplative practices in the pursuit of God.


Personally, I don’t doubt that many were called to that lifestyle by God, and the whole Church certainly owes them a debt of gratitude for the spiritual writings produced by their movement. However, it isn’t hard to see why this type of withdrawal poses serious problems if it's supposed to be pursued by Christians en masse. A quiet life of contemplation is certainly appealing, especially in the face of modern technology and the temptations and distractions it brings, so it’s not hard to imagine why someone would want to turn it off and move to a rural area to practice their faith without the problems modern life brings.


The Temptation of St. Anthony by Jacques-Philippe Le Bas

This is, however, not at all what monasticism was about for much of its history. The confusion is understandable given the greater notoriety the Desert Fathers have received in evangelical thought, and the obvious appeal of that kind of withdrawal, but broadening our understanding of history will help Christians avoid unnecessary concerns about the compatibility of a more monastic approach to life with pursuit of the Great Commission and, hopefully, take the Benedict Option or something quite similar to it more seriously.


Missional at the Core


As we begin to explore how monasticism functioned more broadly throughout Church History, let me briefly pause to explain an important missiological concept that will help highlight why the monasteries were missionally essential. Dr. Ralph Winter, one of the foremost mission thinkers of the last 100 years, distinguishes between the local church, which consists of all of the local believers in a given area, and missionary bands, which consisted of small groups of Christians deliberately separate from the local church in order to advance the Gospel message into places where it had no previous presence. Without going into excessive detail about the differences between the two, the most important piece for our discussion is that monasteries were simply an evolution of the missionary band structure carried over from the New Testament [2].


Whereas the local church serves, and indeed should serve, all believers regardless of their commitment level, the monastic structures required a commitment to a much more rigorous practice of the faith for the sake of actively reaching and ministering to the lost world. When describing the monastic movements as mission structures, Winter says, “Apart from monastic structures, it would be hard to imagine the vital continuity of the Christian tradition across the centuries.” The truth of this statement will become clearer after we discuss two historical examples of missionary monastic movements.


Saint Patrick and His Monasteries


Our first example will be Saint Patrick, of whom most Christians now only have vague notions that he is in some way connected with the nation of Ireland, possibly shamrocks, and a good deal of drinking. For those who don’t know, Patrick was actually not Irish but British, and he was a fairly wild young man until he was kidnapped in an Irish raid and made to serve as a slave. Through a divine series of events, Patrick eventually escaped, though not before mastering the Irish language and repenting of his sinful lifestyle. He entered the service of the Church before ultimately being called by God to return to the very people who enslaved him to serve as a missionary.


Patrick’s strategy should give anyone seriously discussing the Benedict Option a great deal to think about. Patrick established a series of monasteries all over Ireland which rigorously disciplined their members in the practice of the Christian faith and empowered them to plant churches throughout the whole nation. These monasteries provided not only laborers for the ministry, but living examples of the beauty and stability of the Christian faith in practice. When combined with Saint Patrick’s incredible skill at contextualizing the Gospel message, the ministry and example of these vibrant Christian communities led to a massive church planting movement across Ireland. A movement so successful, in fact, that it has only been in very recent history that Christianity began to lose its grip on the island, long after most of Western Europe had already fallen into secularism.


The impact of the Irish Monastic Movement would continue to be felt long after the death of Saint Patrick. In addition to successfully reaching the nation of Ireland, the Irish monastic movement proved foundational in preserving key components of the Christian faith and western culture after the fall of the Roman Empire. The Irish monasteries instilled in their members a deep love of learning and the pursuit of God. This inspired them to stockpile books, master biblical languages, and maintain rigorous Christian practices in their daily lives. As Thomas Cahill describes in his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, these monastic practices ultimately preserved western civilization for the rest of Christendom. When the great European libraries were being burned and looted, the more remote Irish monasteries were able to preserve the knowledge of critical languages like Greek, Hebrew, and Latin and provide access to important texts from both Christian and Western History.


There are vast numbers of critical texts that we would have virtually no access to had they not been preserved in Irish monasteries. What’s more, the Irish didn’t stop at preservation. As things began to settle down, they established new monasteries in Britain and on the European mainland to begin re-Christianizing the Continent. These monasteries successfully created church planting movements that allowed Western Europe to re-emerge as a significantly Christian culture after the chaos that brought down Rome. One striking example of the missionary vigor of these monasteries was that they provided the necessary framework for reaching the Norse, even as the viking raids greatly disrupted their way of life.


Statue of St. Patrick

It’s noteworthy that while the Irish or Celtic monastic movement had some uniquely compelling features that make it worth studying, many of the most successful monastic movements throughout history had strong missionary motivations. The Franciscans and Jesuits in particular were incredibly effective missionary organizations that helped carry Roman Christianity all over the world. The large numbers of Catholic Christians in South America, the Philippines, and significant portions of Africa today speak to the effectiveness these movements had in establishing the Church in places that previously had no witness. In the early days of the Reformation, the absence of missionary structures akin to Roman Catholic Monasteries led Roman Catholics to criticize Protestants for their lack of missionary zeal. It would take nearly two centuries for Protestants to build such structures and begin engaging the Great Commission in earnest, which is why it's worth exploring how the first real Protestant missionary movement featured significant monastic characteristics.


The Moravians


Most evangelicals today will, not entirely without reason, assume that William Carey was the first serious Protestant missionary. While Carey’s efforts cannot be overstated, the Moravian missionary movement predates him by sixty years. The Moravians deliberately relocated during a time of anti-Protestant persecution and settled on the estate of Count Nicolas Zinzendorf. Through this process they established a communal way of life marked by devotion to Christ, fervent prayer, and missionary zeal. Their community, which came to be called Herrnhut, was a self reliant community that sent laborers out who could use their practical skills to establish new missionary communities around the world. Their missionary movement was so passionate that its first two missionaries literally sold themselves into slavery for the sake of the lost, which led to a 24-hour a day prayer movement that lasted for over a century.


Interestingly, the largest deficiencies in the early Moravian effort were precisely in the areas in which they were the least Monastic. While their commitment to one another in communal life and passion for the Gospel are similar to what we saw with the Irish movement, they lacked the formal training structures present in the monasteries. The result was a strong emphasis on evangelism, but a lack of skill in planting effective, reproducing churches in many of the areas they visited [3]. Despite this, like the Irish Monastic Movement before it, the Moravian movement also achieved far-reaching results. In particular, the Herrnhut community was a key inspiration for John Wesley as he formed his Class-Meeting model for reaching the lost and reforming the English church.


Christians Today


Rediscovering the rightful place of historical monasticism has serious implications for us as we discuss how Christians ought to be living in the United States today. The most obvious initial takeaway ought to be that, contrary to common accusations, the monastic model is an effective tool for planting churches and fulfilling the Great Commission. When we describe deliberately practicing a degree of withdrawal from the culture at large and deliberately living together in close community for the sake of fostering a more vibrant faith, we aren’t talking about a withdrawal towards isolation while the world perishes in the darkness. Instead, what we're describing is deliberately taking a missionary footing towards a culture that we can no longer faithfully be a part of while actively living out the Christian faith.


Adopting a more monastic lifestyle isn’t about retreat; it’s about recognizing that in order to reach the world around us, we’re going to have to start living far more intentionally than we are right now. A watered down, nominal Christianity won’t carry us through the trials that are coming, but a vital, communal life ordered around the kingship of Jesus and the proclamation of His Word will.


This will involve precisely the kind of rigorous and challenging life undertaken by the members of monastic movements through the centuries. Methodically rejecting the alluring temptations of the culture around us can only be achieved by enforcing the kind of order, simplicity, and spiritual disciplines upon ourselves that monastic orders have been undertaking for centuries. Like those previous orders, the enforcement of such disciplines will need to lead to a rule of life that empowers greater personal faithfulness to Christ for ourselves and our families, while ultimately building up the structures necessary for actively making disciples in the lost world, in the communities around us, and around the world.


A Follow-Up Guide to Dreher's Work

This may, in some cases, involve deliberately relocating to areas where both stability and outreach can be more readily achieved, and that is simply a reality of how the Great Commission plays out in real life. Did not our Lord Himself strategically relocate a handful of Galileans to Jerusalem through His Great Commission? Modern faith communities should make the same considerations as they consider adopting a monastic lifestyle for the sake of the Gospel in the United States today.


Our churches absolutely should continue to minister to the communities around them, and welcome disciple-making environments for even the most nominal of cultural Christians. However, it will serve the Church and the world if at least some Christians recognize the times and choose to commit themselves to a more rigorous lifestyle for the sake of boldly proclaiming the Gospel.


God has used just such a means to save western civilization and launch missionary movements before, and perhaps in His grace He will do so again.



Notes:


[1] If you want to learn more about the Benedict Option, start here https://thebenedictoption.com/benedict-option-what-is/, and then read both “The Benedict Option” and “Live Not By Lies” to gain a fuller understanding of Dreher’s argument and its context


[2] Winter, R., 2009. The Two Structures of God's Redemptive Mission. In: R. Winter and S. Hawthorn, ed., Perspectives On the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 4th ed. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, pp.244-253.


[3] Grant, C., 2009. Europe’s Moravians: A Pioneer Missionary Church. In: R. Winter and S. Hawthorn, ed., Perspectives On the World Christian Movement: A Reader, 4th ed. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, pp.291-293.



Daniel Boggan grew up overseas and has spent most of his adult life in bi-vocational ministry working with unreached internationals and helping to mobilize and equip Christ's Church for the Mission of God. He's also spent the last 10 years practicing, teaching, and consulting in the field of regenerative agriculture and is passionate to see God's people take the Creation Mandate seriously. Daniel has a degree in biblical studies and is passionate about the Word of God.


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