First a confession: I’ve always had something of a for weakness mysticism – so ascetic or monastic lifestyles have always had a little bit of romantic appeal to me. There’s just something about the idea of getting away from the rush, pressures and temptations of everyday life and being able to pursue the spiritual life in a less hindered and distracted way.
But here’s the thing – I’ve managed to convince myself that there’s a very good reason for an evangelical Christian like me not to leave ordinary suburbia for a monastery or the tranquillity of the outback. Like many other Christians who are serious about the gospel, I am concerned that a withdrawal like this is an abdication of our duties to actively engage society with the good news of Jesus.
But there’s a deeper problem than that. I don’t think the monastic approach really delivers where it’s supposed to. There is nothing innately beneficial about taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, living a tightly regulated communal life in a monastery or withdrawing to wander in the desert. They offer no guarantee of growth in Christlikeness and in fact may be more dangerous than helpful. The Bible warns against asceticism (see Colossians 2:18-23) and against performing religious practices in such a way that makes us feel like we’re pleasing God, whilst not really dealing with what’s going on in the heart (eg; Mark 7:1-23). So a monastic life may actually be a way of deceiving ourselves and drawing us further away from Jesus.
It’s true that monasticism developed because people wanted to live fully consecrated or devoted lives to God, without things like money, worldly business and even family life “getting in the way.” But it also created a tiered spirituality, which saw ordinary Christians as still eligible for salvation, but less able to draw near to God, while those consecrated by vows were able to more fully devote themselves to things that were considered “higher instructions” of Christ in the Gospels.
In many ways, this is where our society’s contemporary categories of “very religious” vs. “not very religious” Catholics/Christians come from. Poverty was seen as more devoted than having material wealth. Chastity was seen as a higher calling to pursue than legitimate expressions of human sexuality in the bonds of marriage. And placing one’s self under the binding authority of a monastic rule of life, as well as particular religious leaders, was esteemed more than simply steering clear of sinful actions and attempting to follow the teachings of Jesus and the church.
While each of these dichotomies is false, my recent studies on Puritan spirituality and the way they valued meditation and contemplation, have suggested to me that there is a much better way than having a two-tier Christian system on one hand, or completely dismissing “monkhood” as unbiblical on the other. The solution it seems would be to encourage all Christians to live lives that are consecrated and contemplative. And perhaps we need a “semi-monastic” approach to Christian life (I’m open to a better descriptor!). One which avoids the excesses and unhelpful emphases of monasticism, while at the same time fostering a serious commitment to following Jesus and denying the legitimacy of indulgent, distracted, spiritually unengaged disciples.
I’m not proposing vows or monasteries, but here’s where I think we could get somewhere: Instead of “poverty, chastity and (monastic) obedience” for some, how about “modesty, purity and evangelical obedience” for all?
While I don’t believe Jesus requires the spiritually serious to live in complete poverty and forego having any money or valuable possessions, I think Western evangelicals are far more likely to err on the side of over-indulgence, luxury, stinginess and mass-accumulation. The biblical solution would seem to be a universal commitment of Christians to material modesty, in a world that worships Mammon (see Matthew 6:24). We deal with the problem of materialism and luxury not by voluntary poverty but by dealing with the heart’s lust for riches by believing Jesus’ promise that treasure in heaven is worth pursuing more than treasure on earth (Matt 6:19-21).
Chastity is right for those who are single (voluntarily or involuntarily so), but sexual lust is a sinful desire that must be killed in the hearts of both the married and the unmarried. The Bible clearly calls for purity of heart, mind, tongue and body for all who would be Christ’s disciples. And while it’s true that singles have more potential time and energy to be fully devoted to God’s priorities (and thus, well-used singleness should be more highly esteemed than it often is), there is nothing that automatically makes the single woman more effective or faithful than the married mother. And there is certainly nothing that makes a married man less pure than a single guy when he expresses his sexuality in the marriage bed with his wife. Purity and effectiveness come from hearts transformed by grace, rather than external life circumstances.
Finally, obedience to a monastic rule of life won’t necessarily help us grow spiritually, but dedicating ourselves to respond in repentance and faith to whatever we read in God’s Word certainly will. Born-again Christians cannot live out God’s will perfectly, but those who understand “evangelical obedience” know that he accepts our obedience when it is fuelled by genuine faith in response to the gospel of Jesus and born out of the love that God’s Spirit has generated in our hearts as He sanctifies us. Not adherence to a particular set of regulations for some – but sincere obedience to Christ for all.
If we’re not being controlled or distracted by the excesses of materialism and sexuality, nor compromised through selective obedience to Jesus as Lord, we will then see Christians from all walks of life growing in ways that monasticism promises – but fails to deliver on.
And while you don’t need to move to a monastery or desert to pursue these commitments, why not do everything you can to surround yourself with Christians who are committed to the same life principles for growth in godliness?
And why not make sure we each take time to draw aside from the busyness of life – to contemplate the great and wondrous truths of our Saviour and Redeemer, hear His voice in the Word and pray to Him?
 Abraham Sobkowski OFM “Catholic monks in Jerusalem 2006” CC BY-SA 3.0 wikimedia