Benedictine Discipleship – A Vision for Church Life

I am worried about us.  We are becoming a Facebook church, indistinguishable from the dominant voices of our culture, taking our cues from special interests and having little to say that profoundly differs in the sea of voices crying for the attention of consumers.

I dread statements from the national church, not because I disagree with what they say, but because so little of what is said is rooted in Scripture and aimed growing the kingdom of God.  It is not because the statements are politically correct or always from one political side or the other, though both of those things seem consistently true.  It is rather that the statements are not a challenge to the dialogue of the day, but merely a safe statement of cultural comfort.  Rarely would the statements of our national church challenge the average listener to National Public Radio at all.

On the other hand, merely becoming another mouthpiece for the politically or socially conservative is no more faithful.  There is a profound need for something faithful to Jesus and not in bondage to the worldviews that define our current cultural dialogue.

I have found a lot of hope in the Rule of Benedict and the works of the church grounded in the language of discipleship.  Following Jesus is the point of the Rule and is literally what discipleship is.  Jesus is not as popular as you might imagine with religious people.  We like Jesus sure enough, but we don’t necessarily listen to what he says or what he is actually about.

It is like a lot of politics in the United States.  How often have you asked someone about the candidate that they support and had them reveal that they don’t know what the candidates support or don’t agree with their actual policies?  Say, “This is what that person actually says . . . ” and you become this stickler, a pedantic jerk who insists on fidelity to what people actually say and do.  So it is with faith in the public sphere.

Seldom do we quote Jesus, and even more rarely do we quote him correctly.  For example, we often say or used to say: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  But what Jesus actually said is “If you continue in my word (teachings, logic), you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” *

We are according to the last command of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel to be going “into all the world to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  This seems really clear, but when did you last do it or even hear about doing it?  If you are going to make a disciple you should know what one is. I suppose you should also know if you are claiming to be one.  Simply put it is someone who has bowed before a teacher and has taken on that teacher’s teaching, logic, worldview, and way of being.

(I worry after writing this if I have become a disciple of NPR.)

Discipleship is the church’s business.  The Rule of Benedict gives an outline of how that might be ordered in a small dedicated community of monastics over a millennia ago.  The first time I read it, I was blown away by how biblical it was and how deeply rooted in Jesus’s vision and teachings.  It is a way of living as a disciple in a community.

When I met Bishop Robert R. Gepert, now assisting in Pennsylvania, we held Benedict in common and wondered together about what it might mean to see a bishop or a parish priest as an abbot.  He was trying to live that out in his vocation as I was in mine.  I am still deeply indebted to his guidance and support for those years.  Seeing my role as a priest in terms of a Benedictine abbot meant that I expected my parishioners to be monks and nuns, dedicated members of a community seeking to follow Christ.  I assumed that they would be faithful to the vocation and mission of the community, and that we could begin to assume a common rule between us that guided each of us.  Of course we all failed my vision, but in large part it was because I never could really communicate this holistic vision because I was still working it out myself.

What I wonder now is: Is is possible to order a local Episcopal church around a common rule/vision of discipleship, around following Jesus, teaching his logic, worldview, and way of being?  You would think that this would simply implied by being a “church” but sadly it is not.  Most of the people who come to us are not looking for that, and I would say that most of our members are not trained and shaped in this way.

We must first of all agree that we believe in biblical truth, though, and that is difficult.  If Jesus is under-read, the Bible as a whole is almost entirely ignored in the consumer church.  It is impossibly long and difficult to understand.  It is hard to know what the experts might think about the sources, truth, and viability of any given passage.  And it might even disagree with the NPR or the Facebook that I am disciple to.  Our national church (Episcopal) gives clear statements about the Bible that may be missed by those merely shopping the aisles of the social media, e.g. from

The Bible

“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 236).

It is our foundation, understood through tradition and reason, containing all things necessary for salvation. Our worship is filled with Scripture from beginning to end.  Approximately 70% of the Book of Common Prayer comes directly from the Bible, and Episcopalians read more Holy Scripture in Sunday worship than almost any other denomination in Christianity.

The Rule of Benedict quotes the Bible so much that many considered it a condensed or abridged gospel in the medieval age.  The Bible was assumed to be true, even if it had to be read at several levels, and the truth had to be discerned with attention and care “through tradition and reason”.  It was assumed to be true the way that an appeal to “science” is assumed to be true in the popular imagination.  In the debates around the internets, many people point to what “science has proven” without really knowing the actual studies or sources even say, much less how valid or repeatable the studies are.  “Science” for many people equals “truth.” It is rarely considered that science is a process or method of seeking evidence for hypothesis and theories that, when healthy, holds these guesses at truth to be tentative even as more evidence is sought and the theories are relied upon for deeper inquiry.

You cannot really become a disciple to science even though it is often quoted as if it were a master, because science is vast and continually changing.  You can use scientific research as a way of testing and proving hypotheses, providing relatively steady points of measurement of reality, and of building arguments on hypothesis, theories, and evidences.  You cannot be a disciple to science because to be a disciple is to be in relationship with another person, taking on their teaching, logic, worldview, and way of being.  Science has no way of being.  It does not offer one and cannot.  A person must supply the logic/order of information, vocabulary, and thoughts.  A person must then live that out as a way of being that can be emulated.

A side point about what we would be believers should learn from science as a philosophy of learning.  We should be bold enough to trust Jesus while holding our theories about him humbly, always seeking deeper levels of inquiry and trusting revealed truth should not cut us off from being able to trust that God’s way of being is far deeper than we can even inquire right now.  It would be a relief just once to read, “Well, I think Jesus would say such and so, but I am willing to go ask him, read his teachings again and pray about what he would actually say.  Would you do that with me?”

To take the Bible as a source of reality is to take it as part of our world, a steady point that for believers that provides direct experience of revealed reality.  We have to trust it in order to rely upon the worldview that we live in and base our decisions and opinions on.  But I would encourage the faithful to take that scientific method to scripture, applying inquiry and humility in equal measure.  We may always continue to grow in our understanding as we learn more and experience more of the Bible and the world.  We can do this while still holding the proclamations of the Bible as fundamentally true and still asking deeper questions.  The revelations of scripture are a still point in the world, but we are not disciples of the Bible.

We are to be disciples of Jesus.  We know about Jesus from the Bible, but he is not merely another biblical character.  He is the incarnate logos (word, logic, order) of God.  To know Jesus for us is to know God.  Paul puts this in absolutely beautiful terms in Colossians: “In him the fullness of God has deigned to dwell.”  Read Colossians 1-3 to get the full effect.

If we are to know God, we must know Jesus.   We must know what he said, what he did, and understand his logic and way of being.  A major part of that is how he reached others.  He went out into the world teaching, proclaiming, and healing.  He was in the world even with those that religious people consider unclean.

Can we order our lives in a church that way?  What would that look like?

I our Anglican tradition, we order our lives around Daily Offices of prayers and reading from the Bible, weekly Eucharist with a community within the Church, and a life of serving a parish, an actual area of communal responsibility.**  This mirrors the Benedictine life of those under the Rule, producing adult disciples at its best, allowing shallow formalism and letting socio-political work to take the place of inward transformation at its worst.  (See Martin Thornton’s English Spirituality for a much better exploration of this, or more recently Syndor or Avis.)

What would bringing the concepts of discipleship and the Rule do to change that basic formula?  I propose that cultural changes have led to a need for a more formal formation process for those who would be faithful believers growing in Christ, and that these two sources would provide far more in the way of a structure for that process and order of life.

Certainly the Rule has to be brought into our own context and may not always serve to just present this sixth century document without a lot of commentary or introduction to new members.  But the language around discipleship should help center the congregations life always in Jesus rather than some other distracting part of the tradition.

Also, to be clear, I also hold that most of what I have proposed to bring into church is simply too complicated to meet everyone’s needs.  Any ordering principle of communal life must be simple to matter.  It must be so simple that it can be flexed and still do its work and also so simple that it is unavoidable.  It must not be a mess.  This principle of simplicity comes from two decades of professional church work and looking at the church in its various historical heydays.  They weren’t doing a lot of different things in all of that history, they were doing something that worked.

Order.  The church must offer a simple ongoing way of being that can be easily taught.  Many churches do this through a variety of approaches.  Being Anglican/Episcopalian, we offer practices of a mature life: Daily Offices, weekly Eucharists, and regular service.  I would add pledged giving and volunteering at the church to weekly practices, but that is ambitious.

In place of the weekly Benedictine meeting of the community known as Chapter, I would propose weekly small groups focussed on personal discipleship and formation.  These groups would be centered first in a twelve week training manual of discipleship and then be centered in reading the Bible together and a form of Lectio Divina.  Maybe we could call these mini-Chapters.

That is it.  A form of daily prayer, weekly communal worship at table, mini-Chapters, and some form of regular service to the congregation and parish.

There are two big shifts that this proposal would require of the church as we know it.  It would require a move from being a consumer of faith to being an active member of a community centered in stability, restraint, and transformation (the Benedictine vows) and mission.  In the past I have said, “to be and make disciples.”  It would also require a move from a buffet model of ministry where we offer programs like the Golden Corral offers food and waste a ton of life to a model where we offer one way of engaging the life of the community, adjusted for age and ability like Benedict admonishes.

Now, if you are still with me, what am I missing in this model?  mini-Chapters could be tailored to the needs of special groups, couples for example or parents or those with grief.

Evangelism.  In this model, I would not encourage people to invite unformed Christians to worship.  I think that has always been odd, if understandable.  The Eucharist is our most intimate act of worship outside the prayer closet.  It would be like inviting q guest into the bedroom to have dinner.  The focus of evangelism would be service leading to friendship and invitation into a mini-Chapter.

Halter and Shaw were helpful in starting to articulate my discomfort with worship being our only door into the life of a community.  Their book called The Tangible Kingdom is a landmark in my thinking out modeling a different church life.

So how would this differ from Facebook or the political party of your choice?  Our life is not about reforming political structures.  I have read too much history for that.  Our life is about how we live as miniChrists, being a people who love like, think like, are like the one we bow to every week.  As we become more like Christ, incarnating the love of God into our own lives, we will change the structures of our common life.  But if not, we will be a place where people know that they can come for true peace and love and fellowship, just like the prostitute sought Jesus even into the home of a religious man who would disdain her in Luke 7.

Our teachings would be rooted in the Bible and more specifically in Jesus because he would be our constant study and thought.  I don’t if our social and political positions would change or not, but they would not be rooted merely in what the radio said or the internets.  We would be like salt in the meal of life, and no one throws out good salt.



*The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Jn 8:31–33). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

**The Anglican tradition, like some others, holds that a congregation and priest serve a geographical area called a parish.  In the same way a bishop and their churches serve a diocese, again a geographical area.  This tie to land includes the pastoral care of the people who live there, in some holy vestige of feudalism.  It is part of what drives that tendency to meddle in people’s lives who are not in any way “members” but who live near us, offering our spiritual care and guidance but also food, clothing, and shelter as part of our understanding of pastoral charity.

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