Is It Possible To Think For Ourselves AND Pursue Spiritual Community?

At one end of the spectrum, we have the language of the Benedict Option, which includes a call to nurture a comprehensive Christian worldview in the greenhouse of a shared, committed faith community.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have encouragement for believers to think for themselves a la the Bereans named in Acts 17:11. Musician Steve Taylor’s 1983 satire, I Want To Be A Clone, sends up the fear driving some forms of Christian indoctrination: “They told me that I’d fall away/unless I followed what they say.”

How can we hold both in balance? Is it possible to fully align with a counter-cultural faith community and to love God with our minds (and hearts, souls, and strength) by learning to think and discern for ourselves? In some ways, my experience as a home school parent in the 1990’s and early 2000’s gave me a taste of the Benedict Option. The Christian home school community of which I was a part understood itself to be a counter-cultural community designed to pass on both faith and the riches of historical, Western Christian culture to the next generation. For many home school families I knew back then, the feeling was that most of our churches – predominately conservative or fundamentalist non-denominational congregations – weren’t going far enough when it came to countering the culture. Our good desire to disciple and educate our children drove many of us in the home school world to function as an ad-hoc BenOp community. (Others would call us a subculture of Christian subculture.)

The experience taught me that though in a perfect world, intentional faith community should encourage members to love God with our minds by discerning for themselves, it tends to be either the peer-pressured boundaries of membership in a counter-cultural group or the experience of diluted community that happens when Christians think for themselves.

In a perfect world, indoctrination and immersion in a subculture should create freedom. It rarely works this way in real life. To belong to a counter-cultural community requires adherence to the community’s written and unwritten rules. To think or act independently puts you outside the boundary markers of that community. The more counter-cultural your community is, the fewer bridges there tend to be to the outside world for those who no longer wish to be a part. Leaving may cost you friends, family, and even your faith.

On the other hand, independence carries other risks to faith. A recent piece posted by Benedict Option guru Rod Dreher quotes at length an individual named Elijah who penned his goodbye to Evangelicalism. Elijah challenged Evangelicalism’s “choose your own adventure” buffet line approach to teaching:

I was amazed at the disparate Christian writers, speakers, and bloggers that were liked, shared, and affirmed (and also mocked) on various social media sites by Christians of my acquaintance. Many of these “influencers” have little or no theological education, they haven’t done any Biblical scholarship, but they have wide audiences because they are perceived as authentic or “write from the heart”. This applies equally to progressive and conservative influencers, I hasten to add. Some of them are very well-expressed, but many of the ideas they share are simply at odds with a Christian worldview.

When I asked a few friends about some of the more egregious statements of these influencers that they “liked”, many said “Well, I don’t agree with that opinion. I just take what I need and leave the rest behind.” Several said to me they feel the same way about sermons in church that they don’t agree with: just leave that bit behind. (Ironically, one of the “I take what I need” guys regularly complains about “church hoppers”.)

The bulk of Elijah’s words focused on the impoverished Christian worldview that emerges from Evangelicalism’s terrible habit of slapping a patchwork of Bible verses on felt needs. His words echo the sentiments of many other people who’ve said adios to Evangelicalism. Whether you’re “Done” or “Still Hanging In There”, you’ll probably be able to affirm some of his concerns. I understood loud and clear what he was saying about the lack of discernment he kept running into among his Evangelical friends. I share his concern about the way many Christians mix and match teaching based on what tickles their ears and soothes their souls.

However, with my experience in a peer-pressure shaped home school community back in the day, I do want to add a small defense of something of the “I take what I need and leave the rest behind” mindset. To love God with our minds means that we must take what we need and leave the rest behind when we’re presented with the words of any book or sermon. In fact, I’d suggest that doing so is a hallmark of spiritual maturity.

That said, I’m still not quite sure how to balance thinking for myself with pursuing whole-hearted membership in counter-cultural, kingdom community. Jesus Creed readers, what are your thoughts? Is it possible to do both simultaneously?

(Originally posted on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog)

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