The Benedict Option or the Liele Option?

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

The Benedict Option (Sentinel Press, 2017) by Rob Dreher is a new, best-selling Christian book which caught my attention when it became the cover story of the recent issue of Christianity Today. The subtitle of the book is “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” What is the Benedict Option? The Benedict “option” is to follow in the path of the 6th century monk, St. Benedict, and set up separate religious communities which allow Christians to create counter-cultural enclaves to survive the “dark ages” which are descending upon western culture. Dreher says that the culture wars are over and, in case you haven’t gotten the memo, Christians lost. There is a rising fundamentalist intolerance among the new cultural elite and, Dreher argues, Christians will increasingly become marginalized in Western society. He goes on to say that “there are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization.” Thus, the Benedict option is to create new micro-communities of hope and wait out the storm.

I am not entirely unsympathetic to Dreher’s thesis, and this article is not intended to offer either an endorsement or a sustained critique of the Benedict Option. I would only say that the church has been in this situation many times in history and there is a second option which is worth remembering. I will call it the George Liele Option. The story of George Liele is not widely known in our recounting of church history because he was an 18th century slave. He knew first hand what it meant to be marginalized and counted as less than a full person. He managed to work and “buy himself” out of slavery, and eventually became the pastor of the first African Church of Savannah. He later worked as an indentured servant and was able to pay for his wife and four children to relocate to Kingston, Jamaica in 1783, a hub of the transatlantic slave trade. Liele effectively walked right into the heart of one of the most degraded, fallen, and misery-laden places on earth and become a light for the gospel.

When the story of missions is told, it is not unusual to read that William Carey from England was the father of modern missions in the West, or, that Adoniram Judson was the first American missionary to leave the soil of America as a missionary (he went to Burma). However, it is actually George Liele, a former slave, who has the remarkable distinction of being the first American to leave the United States and serve cross-culturally as a missionary. He went to Jamaica a full ten years before William Carey departed for India. Likewise, Judson did not arrive in Asia until 1812, almost three decades after Liele arrived in Jamaica.

The Liele Option is the missional option.  This option is to face the full descent of darkness head on and to bear witness to the light in very public and prophetic ways. Liele formed the first African Baptist Church of Kingston and within ten years the church had grown to over 500 members (For more on George Liele [1750-1828] see, Clement Gayle, George Liele:  Pioneer Missionary of Jamaica [1982] and E. A. Holmes, “George Liele: Negro Slavery’s Prophet of Deliverance,”  Baptist Quarterly 20 [October 1964]: 340-351).

Of course, anyone who knows the history of the monastic movement knows that the Benedict Option is also highly missional. The most dramatic withdrawal from the world is probably associated with St. Simon Stylites the Elder who spent 37 years on top of a small platform on top of a fifty foot pillar in—amazingly—Aleppo, Syria. However, St. Simon became a magnet who drew hundreds to hear the gospel. Many bishops, and even the Emperor, came to him for advice, counsel, and prayer. Likewise, those engaged in overt missional work in the midst of a lost world, human trafficking, or cultural indifference, cannot survive long without being nourished by the Christian community which surrounds them and prays for them.

So, whether we opt for the Benedict Option, or the George Liele Option, we must always remember that we are following Christ himself who commanded us to be “in the world, but not of the world” (John 17:14-18). That command will take radically different forms as we lean towards the “in” side of the equation or the “not of” side of the equation. Yet, both are essential if we are to be faithful in our own time.