To Advance or To Withdraw? That is the question I’d like to consider, and it’s a question being posed more and more by Christians.
Should we as Christians be advancing into the world? Or, should we withdraw – retreat if you will – in order to protect ourselves and our faith from the perceived evils that surround us?
This question has gained some prominence in recent weeks with the widely acclaimed publication of Rod Dreher’s book ‘The Benedict Option.’
I must admit up front I haven’t yet read Mr. Dreher’s book, so I’ll make no conclusions about his work. But, aside from Dreher’s book, I have read and listened to more than a little commentary and debate about whether or not we as Christians should retreat from secular society. American society has become simply too toxic – too evil – for us to hazard our souls to its influence, or so the argument goes.
Mr. Dreher, as I understand from his interviews, argues we must withdraw, we must retreat from secular society and follow the example of St. Benedict of Nursia. We must, in short, return to a form of Christian monasticism, of cloistering ourselves to pray, to praise and to love God from within the safe confines of a protected separation from all that is evil, or bad, or just undesirable in the world. Dreher uses the analogy of the ark, and says that we must again build a spiritual ark “for the long journey across the sea of night.”
This approach to Christian withdrawal (a view I’d argue is not entirely in line with monasticism, either in its historic or contemporary usage) is not a very optimistic view of society today, nor of our ability as Christians to effectively evangelize and love our neighbors within society.
And, the analogy of the ark begs the conclusion that those who do not join us will be left to drown in their own sea of sins. It’s good stuff for a book, and for stirring up all kinds of excitement on various talk shows and social media. But, what does it mean for us as Christians? Should we advance? Or should we withdraw?
The answer, I believe, is “Yes.” We must do both.
How do we do both? What do I mean? To explain, I turn to an unlikely source for a sermon: the rough and salty U.S. Marine Corps General Oliver Smith.
Gen. Smith was one of the commanding generals of Allied forces during the Korean War. Very early in the war Smith’s force of about 30,000 troops was faced with a far superior force of about 120,000 Chinese soldiers at the Chosin Reservoir. Of course, it was prudent to withdraw.
When someone suggested that Smith was retreating, he famously replied “We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.” Smith and his men needed room and time to prepare themselves. They needed to “advance in a different direction” so they could steel themselves to resume the original advance to their objective.
We too, need to “advance in a different direction” from time to time. We need to prepare ourselves, to arm ourselves with the tools needed to achieve our mission. But, like Gen. Smith, we must never accept this as running away from the difficult objective. We are better positioning ourselves. We are gathering our strength. But we are not running. We are not hiding. We are preparing for the task ahead. And the task is the same as it has always been: to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”
And how are we to prepare for this task? What are we doing to prepare when we withdraw? Paul gives us a hint in today’s reading from Ephesians (5:18): we are to fill ourselves with the Spirit. Before we can go out – before we can advance – we must withdraw, into ourselves, into our faith. We must withdraw into the Spirit. For, it is only in the Spirit, that we can truly go out and share the Gospel – in the very secular, adrift and lost world in which it is most needed.
And when should we be prepared to undertake our task – to advance? Jesus makes this pretty clear in our reading today from Matthew. “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…Therefore you also must be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
If we believe that Christ is alive and working in the world – working in and through us – then the unexpected time of His arrival always is now. And the time for Him to find his servants at work, always is the present moment. The time to awaken and do His work, always, is now.
But, how are we to maintain balance between the need to withdraw – to find peaceful solitude in the Spirit – and our calling to advance, to carry the Spirit in the Word out into the world?
We find a good example to follow in St. Dunstan, whose feast day we remember this week. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 10th century, is well known for reviving monasticism in Britain. In this sense Dunstan may seem to come down in favor of those who advise withdrawal – that we should withdraw to preserve what is left of Christianity.
But, while Dunstan advocated monasticism as a refuge in which to seek and praise God, he also was no stranger to secular life. He advised the English monarchy, advocated for social causes, pressed for peace in England’s relations with her neighbors, and reformed the Church of England. He also was well known as a musician, hymn composer, and artist. He excelled in metal work and built foundries to cast church bells.
St. Dunstan understood that monastic life was good – as a refuge, a retreat, in which the pursuit of the Spirit could flourish. But his work, whether in advocating to the king or in casting bells to proclaim the glory of the King of Kings, centered on carrying the Body of Christ out of the monastery, out into God’s world to God’s people. He knew when to withdraw, but only in the context of strengthening the Body of Christ for the advance.
For a more contemporary message on this question – should we withdraw or should we advance? – we need look no further than our Presiding Bishop, The Most Reverend Michael Curry. In a recent talk on social justice and evangelism, Bishop Curry urged the Episcopal Church to “wake up!” He calls us all not to withdraw, but to advance boldly into the world to spread the Gospel.
“The truth I really do believe is that we need witnesses, and not just witnesses in the abstract,” he said. “We need evangelists to witness to a way of being Christian that reflects the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.”
He goes on to tell us we should follow the example of St. Dunstan, and ultimately of Jesus, in carrying the Spirit of God into the heart of secular life.
“We are not entering the political realm as partisans, but to lift up the values we have as Christians,” he said. “Jesus died in the real world because he dared to take the values of the Kingdom of God and live them.”
And that’s what we’re called to do: “take the values of the Kingdom of God and live them.” We are being called to an awakening, much like the Psalmist in today’s reading: “Wake up, my spirit, awake, lute and harp; I myself will awaken the dawn. I will confess you among the peoples, O Lord; I will sing praise to you among the nations.” Psalm 57:8-9
So, should we withdraw, or should we advance? The answer, again, is “yes.” We must withdraw – whether coming here to worship, or withdrawing in our favorite place for prayer and meditation – to center ourselves in the Holy Spirit. We withdraw – we go within ourselves – to achieve an awakening of the Spirit, of Christ within us, to strengthen us for the advance. And then, thus strengthened, we must advance. We must GO OUT into the world, to look for God in all the unexpected places and faces, and to loudly proclaim our love for Him, and for our neighbor.
2 thoughts on “To Advance, or To Withdraw?”
Thanks for this piece. You’ve posed the question that faces well and I agree that the either/or requires a “yes.” In other contexts, I’ve read that missional church collapses without consistent attention to forming disciples. This may not exactly the same issue, but I think it bears an important family resemblance. Thanks again for well-crafted, intelligent piece.
Thank you for reading! I appreciate your insight on missional churches and the need to form disciples. I think it’s essential we “withdraw” to undertake that kind of spiritual formation and training in order to strengthen our ability to “advance.” Have a great evening.