Before last semester I can’t say that I ever really put any thought into the idea of the church or of community. Church was the place where I went to practice my faith and interact with other Christians – my interactions were more driven by political considerations than theological considerations. There was nothing really thoughtful or intentional about my approach to church and my community.
This semester, I was fortunate to be assigned Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together for my class on the social context of churches; it’s a wonderful little book. Along with the congregation study I was assigned to do, I was forced to start thinking about community. This is one place where I think Baptist theology is particularly weak. Some of this stems from the fact that the Bible is somewhat vague on the purpose of the church, the way the church is supposed to be set up, how different churches are supposed to interact with each other, etc.. To be fair, many different denominations have tried to come up with a good Biblical basis for the structure of their community, and yet we still have a multitude of different forms.
Baptist churches are set up on the congregational model, where each church is responsible for the hiring of staff, its budget, its facilities, its theology, etc.. Through its national convention, costs are shared for such things as educational materials, retirement benefits, and mission work. But Baptist churches have wide latitude in what they can profess as their beliefs and in their forms of worship. For most Baptists, I would say that they would view the purpose of the church is to serve as a means of evangelizing the local community and to serve as a place of worship and spiritual formation.
As a child and a youth, the church was a place where I was safe and where I had loving adult mentors who cared for me, something I wasn’t exactly getting at home. I remember people like Mr. Greenwood, Debbie Stone, Carol Pelham, Phil Igney, and Craig Sherouse, who treated me with kindness, grace, and gentleness. I think that as a result of those relationships, I experience God’s presence best through relationships with other people. Sermons reach me, and I like singing the old hymns (I rarely find contemporary praise music to be moving), but the real presence of God for me is often found in those moments of intimacy with other members of the church. "Blessed be the tie that binds, our hearts in Christian love. The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.” And, Matt. 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." For the Christian, this fellowship is only made possible through the saving work of Christ, communicated through the work of the Holy Spirit.
The importance of Christian fellowship carries over to my life as an adult. Over the last year many of my friends have left my church, which has caused me great sadness and sometimes anger. Some left for natural reasons, mostly career moves, but many left because they were unhappy with things that were happening at the church. But while I may best experience the presence of God through fellowship, my commitment is to God through my church. As I mentioned previously, our individualistic culture gives rise to some real commitment issues.
I am fortunate, perhaps, to have a grandmother who has been a tremendous role model in this area. She has been a member of the same church, First Baptist Church of Columbus, GA, for over 60 years. She has been there through good pastors and through bad pastors. She has seen good friends come, go, and die. The impact of her example on me has been tremendous. Since I was born in Columbus while my dad was in Vietnam, the very first Bible I ever received came from that church, just two weeks after I was born. I still have that little New Testament. I sometimes wonder if God was working on my spiritual journey from the very beginning. Anyway, in our society, this kind of commitment is truly counter-cultural behavior.
Because the Order of Saint Benedict is a part of the Roman Catholic Church, one would think that it would not have much in common with Baptist life. As you know, the hierarchical structure of Roman Catholicism resembles a more military type structure, probably as a result of its contact with the organization of the Roman Empire. And certainly the monks comply with Catholic teaching and doctrine. They are quite orthodox that way and are subject to the local bishop in terms of education and liturgy.
However, the monasteries themselves are more akin to Baptist churches. Monks join a specific abbey, not the Benedictine order. Each Benedictine monastery follows the rule of Benedict, but has wide latitude as to how it is applied. There was a time when this monastery did Vigils at 4:00 a.m., but now it is at 6:00 a.m. (much to my chagrin). Some Benedictine monasteries do all of the Psalms in a week, this one does it over two weeks. The local bishop has little influence on what goes on in the monastery. Only within the last few decades did the Pope request that the order have a kind of “abbot in charge” in Rome, who the Pope could use as a liaison with the Benedictine houses. Even so, this abbot has little power over the monasteries and as Father Charles put it, “he can make us do anything he can talk us into.”
This ability of monasteries to be a part of the church while not being completely subject to its authority has been a great strength for Catholicism. Virtually every important reform movement in the Roman Church’s history has come from the monasteries. By being separated from the rest of the church, the monasteries have sometimes been less likely to be corrupted by society.
However, when monasteries have become corrupt, they once again show their similarity to Baptist churches. In a Roman Catholic parish, if one does not like the particular teachings of a priest or bishop, it is not possible to go off and start another parish. However, with monasteries it is common historically for monks who are dissatisfied to go and form a new monastery. Very often, as is usually the case with Baptist churches, the schism is the result of monks who are unhappy with what they see as practices that are too liberal or that have crept away from the important teachings of the rule. The classic case of this is the Cluniacs from the medieval period, who were a Benedictine reform movement. These breakaway monasteries are what one might deem “monastic fundamentalists,” though they are commonly referred to as monks who follow the rule “primitively.” Near here is a monastery recently founded by some French Benedictines who follow the rule that way, doing their prayers seven times each day.
So, perhaps one of the reasons that Benedictine life is interesting to me is that it combines the strengths of the doctrinal unity of the Roman Church with the local autonomy of the Baptist tradition. Maybe all of these monks are really just good Baptists at heart (though I’ve yet to have fried chicken here.)