Freed to live through the death of another.

A Time for Asceticism?

Ever wonder why asceticism figures so prominently in church history? It started very early on. Many of the figures we are much indebted to (Augustine, Jerome, Basil the Great, Benedict, Patrick, etc.) throughout church history have had some strong leanings toward monasticism.

Now that the ‘clean sea breeze of the centuries’ has blown our minds clear from excessive faults, we often look back and wonder with amazement: ‘How could such great Christians have been so blind as to become ascetics?’ We don’t understand what brought them to this.

A bit of background, then, is in order. Christianity was persecuted on and off and to varying degrees for the first few centuries after Christ. It is absolutely miraculous, and a wonderful testimony to the power of the Spirit and the grace of God, that the church continued to grow by leaps and bounds throughout the Empire, even under such hardships. After a while, however, the persecution stopped. When Emperor Constantine was converted (around AD 312) the seeds of ‘cultural Christianity’ were beginning to grow roots. It would still be some years, however, before Christianity became the ‘state religion.’

Up to that point, to identify yourself as a Christian cost you something. You had to be willing to suffer and to lose things you had worked for. Once Christianity became cultural, there were no more martyrs, no more persecution. Now it cost nothing to be a Christian. Anyone could do it. The churches were soon all filled to the brim as people began to realize there was much socially and politically to gain from being a ‘Christian.’

Where once Christianity had been identified with righteousness of life and high moral standards, the now popular religion began to see moral decay from within. The high standards were lowered to the point that one could hardly tell the difference between ‘Christians’ and unbelievers.

Of course, the true believers were put off by this! Moral compromise should never be tolerated in the church, under any circumstances, and they recognized this. They knew that to be a Christian should cost them something, that they should stand out and be different than the decadent culture around them.

So… Christianity is popular and acceptable. It costs nothing to be a Christian. The churches are full of ‘cultural Christians.’ The Christians don’t look a lot different than the decadent society in which they live. (Am I describing their culture or ours?)

Their answer, of course, was that the truest, highest form of Christianity is that which costs the most. So they left everything behind: all their possesions, their family and friends, the luxuries of urban living, the right to marry, and the wealth of food, etc.

The New Testament seems relatively clear that we are not called to an ascetic lifestyle. But rather than condemning these brothers and sisters for fleeing to monasteries, we should seek to understand why they did what they did. And understanding that, we need to emulate their desire to stand out! They were not content with Christians who look just like unbelievers–and we shouldn’t be either!

So we can err by becoming ascetic and we can err by not seeking to be different at all. But we can also err in another way: We can seek to become ‘righteous’ in the way that our philosophical climate deems good. Why did they resort to asceticism when they thought they should be different? Because that’s what the greatest thinkers of their time valued as great righteousness.

When we seek to be different from the culture around us, we need to be careful that we’re not merely emulating the philosophical, ethical ideals of our day. Paul said, ‘Do not be conformed to the pattern of this age,’ and I think he meant it. Which of course means that we need to think hard.

How do I live as a Christian in a way that is different from nominal Christianity, but not simply according to the patterns that the world has established as right and good and self-sacrificing?

All this, of course, means that we need to continue to let that ‘clean sea breeze’ blow… we need to read church history so that we’re not merely influenced by the ideologies of our day. But more than anything, it means we need to be people of the book. We need to read the Word of God and know it intimately so that we’ll be able to discern all that is pleasing and right in the eyes of the God who wrote the book.

That is, after all, why we’re here.


  1. Nathan W. Tubbs

    Dude, that’s right on. I’m reading McLaren’s “A Generous Orthodoxy” right now, and he absolutely needs to read your post and church history in order to understand that what he’s trying to do to the church is NOT biblical. I’m just glad to see someone online with like opinions. And by the way, it is nice to have the wife in town, and it’s also nice to see that someone other than my mother-in-law reads my blog.

  2. JLF

    lol, Nathan… you got one up on me, anyway, even my mother-in-law doesn’t read my blog! 🙂

    Thanks for the comment. I couldn’t agree with you more about McLaren and church history. You should see this for some great insight into what McLaren does with church history in Generous Orthodoxy.

  3. Nathan W. Tubbs

    i just wanted to let you know that I linked your “Spurgeon vs. Emergent” post again. it’s good stuff…also, tell your mother-in-law that she’s missing some good stuff by not reading your blog!

  4. Rielly

    Very good read Julian.

    I’m just thinking through a question I thought about after reading your post. I have not decided my opinion, but let me throw it out to you nonetheless…

    Should we seek to be different for different’s sake? In every culture we find ourselves, should we be always trying to be different?

    What if there is crossover in a culture? The States is an obvious example. Though I don’t agree with the idea that countries are inherently “Christian”, especially the United States, could a culture have elements retained from it that are Christian virtues? And if so, should we seek to buck those virtues because it would make us ‘cultural’ and not different? Or should we seek to claim truth where we find it, even if it is in the culture? Saying, “This does not belong to secular culture, this belongs to the Lord God”? Or in other words, reclaiming truth for the Church of Christ, not letting some unbeliever distort and twist truth.

    For example…our culture is saturated in art forms. Does that necessarily mean we should be different and throw out all art because our culture is really into it? OR should we reclaim art as a major part of the Scriptures, and natural theology (God being the master artist)…therefore redeeming something some the culture has distorted.

    Another example is the whole concept of “religion”. This works especially in a Western context where being a cultural Christian is so common. Should we reject all forms of religion because it is cultural to attend Church and be affiliated with some kind of denomination? In this case you might disagree with my example, as people being more interested in “spirituality” as opposed to “religion”, but nonetheless, in the southern states, it’s pretty common still to be “religious”.

    So what does one do?
    I get the sense that seeking to be different for different’s sake is the essence of Asceticism. It is incredibly confusing how to think through being a Christian in a “culturally Christian world”…my fear is that we fight against what is already ours.

  5. shane

    Random visitor hear. Your posts are so refreshing. I have recently been wrestling with the whole emergent church “conversation” and was beging to think that i was the only one who saw any problems with it. thanks for your post

  6. Son of Man

    Jules, I like both you and your blog. But I hate having to type that stupid unintelligible word to post a comment.

  7. Jaime H.

    Fabulous blog!

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