First, let me say that my critique of the Benedict Option in the last installment was unfair. The Benedict Option does not leave the world to itself, as I now understand. Thanks to Alistair for pointing me to a link that helped me gain a more thorough understanding of what the BenOp actually is. I have also done some more research on it in the last couple of days that has made me quite sympathetic to the model, which I would now find entirely compatible with a two kingdoms approach. I hope to write more on the BenOp in the future.
In the meantime, I should finish what I started and go on to elucidate my understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the transformationist and two kingdoms models. I will deal with the transformationist model today:
The transformationist model’s strength is its holistic approach to life. It rightly acknowledges that Jesus Christ is Lord of absolutely everything, and that therefore, we must not think of our devotion to Christ as merely private. It affects the way we live in public, the way we act in society as citizens, employers, employees, neighbors, volunteers, etc. It also rightly acknowledges the importance of building Christian institutions that have a long-term impact on culture. If you look at the culture of medieval Europe in comparison to the Roman Empire and barbarian cultures that preceded it, you cannot deny that, over time, Christian ways of thinking and behaving (even if skewed in many ways by bad theology) thoroughly supplanted paganism. And the result has been major advancements for human flourishing ever since.
However, the transformationist model is susceptible to a number of weaknesses (not necessarily so, but in terms of its unfortunate tendencies). One problem that arises when you start speaking in terms of “redeeming culture” is that you may begin to imagine that there is one Christian approach to everything. For example, you may conclude that only one approach to education is properly “Christian education,” leading you to conclude that anyone who chooses a different approach is pursuing something that is sub-Christian. Transformationism, in other words, can slide very easily into a kind of legalism if it is imposed too far. Transformationism also can lead to unrealistic expectations that result in discouragement and burnout. Major cultural change often takes a very long time. We should not be thinking about the next 20 years; we should be thinking about the next 200 years if major cultural change is what we are seeking. But if you charge into the world thinking that you will change it in a short amount of time, you are bound to be disappointed and discouraged when you bump against reality. Transformationism needs to be tempered with a cautious realism.
Transformationism also seems to have less of an emphasis on the distinctive nature and life of the church in society. Since its goal is societal transformation in accord with Christian principles, it would naturally come to see the church, over time, as being less and less distinct from the world. That mentality, in turn, can lead to a de-emphasis on the centrality of the church and its distinctive life in the world. In addition, transformationism runs the risk of confusing the church’s mission, which is to make disciples of all nations, with cultural transformation, which I would argue is not directly the mission of the church. Of course, making disciples faithfully will have an impact on cultures more broadly to some degree, but I want to be careful to distinguish the indirect result of the church’s mission with the mission itself.
As I said, transformationism is not necessarily committed to the errors I have named, so it is possible to consider oneself part of the transformationist camp and still avoid these pitfalls. These categories are not rigidly walled off from one another, so it is entirely possible to draw strengths from each one while seeking to avoid tendencies toward error in them.