Recently, among Evangelical Christians, there has been much discussion about an important book by Rob Dreher, The Benedict Option. The book contains his recommendations of how Christians should live in what he labels a “Post-Christian Nation” His suggestions appeal to the life and work of St. Benedict. I first heard of this idea when it was highlighted in a recent edition of Christianity Today. To be fair, the book itself is top of my next to read stack, so I haven’t taken the time to consider Dreher’s argument fully.
Just this past week, my friend, Bruce Ashford provided his alternative to Dreher’s Benedict Option. His article is called: An Abrahamic Alternative to the Benedict Option. You can read his fascinating suggestion at www.bruceashford.net or click here (http://bruceashford.net/2017/an-abrahamic-alternative-to-the-benedict-option/). His words are worth considering.
Considering these ongoing conversations, I thought it important to provide another option. My goal is not to argue with either man – both of options contain merit. However, as I consider the examples of the past, the options for Christians living in difficult times are not limited. In fact, it was Russell Moore’s endorsement of Dreher’s book that spurred my thinking. Moore writes:” I am more missional than monastic, but I think every Christian should read this book.These words led me to think about a missional option.” I have decided to highlight a different church father. This article focuses on Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon. At the risk of sounding trite or silly — I want to suggest an Irenaean Option.
Michael Green, in his classic, Evangelism in the Early Church observes, There is a fundamental difference between the defender of orthodoxy, who is anxious to maximize the gap between authentic Christianity and all deviations from it, and the apologists, who is concerned to minimize the gap between himself and his potential converts. Green claims this is the attitude reflected by the Apostle Paul when he writes, that I can, by all means, save some.This attitude also seems to reflect the ministry of the church father, Irenaeus.
Irenaeus of Lyon (Martyred in 202) was a third-generation Christian. By this, I mean that he was converted by the ministry of Polycarp who in turn was converted by the ministry of the Apostle John. In the last quarter of the second century, Irenaeus was sent to Lyon, modern day France, to serve as a Christian Bishop to a small band of believers. His primary responsibility was care for the flock; however, his ministry is remembered because he also served as a missional bishop.
In what follows I want to highlight three key decisions that gave shape to the way he lived and ministered among unbelieving pagans.
- Irenaeus became an expert, in the pagans belief and worldview.
One of the most important documents of the early church is a multi-volume text known as Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies). This work is a presentation of the Christian faith in the face of pagan/Gnostic teachings. This book is one of the earliest defenses of orthodoxy, and it shows how Christians should read the Old Testament. He presents a clear description of our trinitarian faith: the faith in one God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. . .; and in one Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was enfleshed for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit . . . (AH 1.10.1)
Along with these clarifications of orthodoxy, Irenaeus went to great pains to show that he understood what others believed. The complexity of belief and the detailed analysis of his writings demonstrate that Irenaeus must have spent considerable time in dialogue and debate with those outside the faith. These discussions seem to have sharpened his thinking and helped him communicate the faith.
In a post-Christian culture, or even a non-Christian, we can lose our focus or allow fear to drive us into isolation. It can be frightening, painful, and even dangerous to go toe-to-toe with well-schooled and educated unbelievers. When one studies the teachings, or considers the worldview of others, we run the risk of being drawn away. However, I don’t believe retreat is our best option. Nor do I believe this tracks with the vision of Christianity portrayed in the New Testament.
Precise and convincing presentations of the Christian faith require us to appreciate the objections of others fully. Retreat creates at least three problems with regards to communicating the gospel. First, our gospel presentations become out of date. We answer questions that people are not asking and we appear out of touch. Second, until we talk to people, we will be talking about them. We develop caricatures of our opponents or erect strawmen. Finally, studying worldview and seeking to understand communicates love and long-suffering both of which reflect God’s character and demonstrate fruits of the Spirit.
- Irenaeus learned to communicate Christ to unbelievers
At the beginning of Against Heresies, Irenaeus begs the indulgence of his readers with relationship to his language skills. He writes that his time with the people and his use of their “barbarous dialect” has affected his ability to write in Greek. According to Green, He made a practice of preaching in the villages as well as the towns of Gaul where he was bishop, and this is not only in Greek, the language which many of the educated inhalants would understand, but also in the vernacular.(Evangelism in the Early Church, 205) As bishop, Irenaeus could have excused himself from learning another language. However, his missional impulse drove him to communicate with the despised barbarians.
Learning a language is one of the most painful tasks for a missionary. We are forced to begin as a child. We humble ourselves and submit to others as our teachers. There is no other way. Tom Brewster has written, Learning a language . . . requires tremendous commitment to the people of the new language. In other words, learning a language for communication is not merely a technical or academic exercise, it is deeply personal. It demands being with people. It is a labor of love.
As our culture becomes increasingly secular, as Christianity is moved from the middle to the margins, it is imperative that we maintain the ability to speak the language of our culture. I do not mean that Christians struggle to learn the slang, swear-words, or other linguistic nuances. By learning the language, I mean that we remain centered in the culture so we can provide a clear answer to the hope that is within us. We understand what is being said and we seek to provide a clear and compelling defense of the Christian message.
Christ is Lord of all. This means that there is not a person for whom the Gospel is not good news. If we do not learn to communicate in the language of others, we will inadvertently communicate that God’s grace or Christianity is a religion of another time for another people.
Lesslie Newbigin reminds us that, despite our best efforts, it is possible to share the Christian message, but to do so with no legitimate points of contact with the culture. This makes the message appear, irrelevant and meaningless. (A Word in Season, 67) Dean Gilliland notes that when we fail to connect with the culture, we actually, veil its truth and power from those who are trying to see it through very different eyes. (The Word Among Us, vii) Neither of these men doubts the power of the gospel, but both remind us that, if we are unwilling to learn the language we cannot communicate its truth.
- Irenaeus sought to equip younger believers and send others to reach pagans with the gospel.
In the preface of his work, Against Heretics, Irenaeus states that his purpose is to point out the error of pagan religions for two purposes. (1) so that younger believers would not be drawn away from the Christians faith; (2) so that these, once trained, might: explain them to all those with whom thou art connected, and exhort them to avoid such an abyss of madness and of blasphemy against Christ. (AH 1.1.2) His missional ministry included the responsibility of sending others out to share the Gospel with those who were lost.
Irenaeus took the errors of these false teachers quite seriously. His response was not to seek isolation or to ignore the errors. His concern was to address each point as a training resource for other missionaries. He concludes his masterpiece by admonishing all readers of their (our) responsibilities, now that we know the truth. “It will be incumbent upon thee, however, and all who may happen to read this writing, to peruse with great attention what I have already said, that thou mayest obtain a knowledge of the subjects against which I am contending. For it is thus that thou wilt both controvert them in a legitimate manner, and wilt be prepared to receive the proofs brought forward against them. . . “(AH 5.1) He equipped his younger students to be on mission within the pagan culture that surrounded them.
Staring into the dark abyss of an aggressive or non-Christian culture, makes retreat look appealing. Our way of life is threatened. Our children seem vulnerable. We will suffer. But retreat and isolation was not the way of Irenaeus. There is another option for missional engagement.
With this, I am not suggesting that there are not things to be concerned about. I am not even arguing there are not times we need to opt for protection or re-grouping. It is necessary to point out the errors of culture and to expose the faulty worldview however, all of this must be done as a means of equipping and sending.
God has sent the Son into the world to redeem it back to himself. He gave his church the commission to make disciples of all nations. In the past, it has been easy to look beyond our borders and see the needs of the nations. However, I suggest that this nation, even this post-Christian (or non-Christian) nation of ours, needs discipleship.
In conclusion, I think it is important to point out, what appear to have been, two sources of strength for Irenaeus.
- He was convinced of the truthfulness of the Christian message. He saw in the gospel, that the God and creator of the universe had broken into time to redeem and rescue his fallen creation through the work of his Son. This was power and this gave him courage.
- He was convinced of the sufficiency of the scriptures. He arguments rest firmly on the fact that this God who redeems has also spoken. The voice of God and his truth are found in the scriptures.
Armed with these two convictions, he served bravely in the face of persecution and among unbelievers.
Scott Hildreth is the director of the Lewis A. Drummond Center for Great Commission Studies. He frequently speaks on issues of missions, spiritual formation, missiology, and theology. Scott also contributes to SEBTS faculty blog www.betweenthetimes.com