When Martin Luther set off the Protestant Reformation, he unfortunately birthed a tradition of badmouthing monasticism. On many occasions he openly rejected monasticism, and even claimed that monasticism is unsupported by Scripture:
“I would suggest to those in high places in the church, firstly, that they should do away with all vows and religious orders; or at least not speak of them with approval or praise… This kind of life finds no testimony or support in Scripture, but has been made to look imposing solely by the works of monks and priests. However numerous, sacred, and arduous they may be, these works, in God’s sight, are in no way whatever superior to the works of a farmer laboring in the field, or of a woman looking after her home… Vows only tend to the increase of pride and presumption.”
~ Martin Luther (The Babylonian Captivity of the Church)
“Hence all monasteries are founded upon the filth of the devil.”
~ Martin Luther (sermon on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, commenting on Luke 6:36-42)
Yet when we read the Bible, we meet godly men who lived like monks. Let’s consider the biblical stories of Elijah, those who took the Nazarite vow, John the Baptist, and the earliest examples of Christians living after Pentecost.
St. Elijah the Tishbite
Elijah was celibate, and he spent his life serving the Lord as a prophet. He spent a number of years as an ascetic, living alone in the wilderness, drinking only water and eating whatever the ravens would bring to him:
Then the word of the Lord came to [Elijah], saying, “Get away from here and turn eastward, and hide by the Brook Cherith, which flows into the Jordan. And it will be that you shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” So he went and did according to the word of the Lord, for he went and stayed by the Brook Cherith, which flows into the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the brook. (1 Kings 17:2-6)
According to historian Andrew Jotischkey, there were many patristic and medieval monks who considered Elijah to be a preeminent example of monastic life:
Patristic and medieval commentary celebrated Elijah as the Old Testament “type” of the hermit. Jerome discussed the respective claims of Elijah and John the Baptist to the title of “the first monk,” alongside the Egyptian desert fathers Anthony and Paul of Thebes. Rupert of Dentz, in the twelfth century, described Elijah as the “author and initiator” of monasticism. To Peter Damian, Elijah was the originator of the eremitical life. Monks themselves, like the Egyptian Onuphrius, were aware of following the example of Elijah; Peter the Venerable, looking back at the generation of Onuphrius as founders, saw Elijah as the ultimate monastic founder-figure. … Gerard of Nazareth prefaced his biographical collection of hermits by appealing to the example of Elijah.
~ Andrew Jotischky (The Perfection of Solitude)
The Nazarite Vow
A distinct aspect of Christian monasticism is its relative austerity, compared to the requirements made of other Christians. Monks and nuns are normally expected to make vows of celebacy, poverty, stability, and obedience. While other Christians are permitted to marry, to have personal possessions, to move from place to place, and to enjoy some level of independence in many decisions, monastics accept a life in which a greater level of strictness is expected in these four areas.
There is Scriptural precedent to the idea of having a special religious order, in which participants are required to meet standards not normally required of others. In the Old Testament, God provided people with the option of taking the Nazarite vow:
Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When either man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazarite, to separate themselves unto the LORD: He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried. All the days of his separation shall he eat nothing that is made of the vine tree, from the kernels even to the husk. All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in the which he separateth himself unto the LORD, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow. All the days that he separateth himself unto the LORD he shall come at no dead body. He shall not make himself unclean for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister, when they die: because the consecration of his God is upon his head. (Numbers 6:2-8)
There is nothing sinful about eating grapes, and there is nothing wrong with drinking wine or strong drink. It is not wrong for a man to have an occasional haircut. And there is nothing wrong with helping prepare a dead body for a funeral. Yet a Nazarite would willingly avoid these things, in obedience to his/her religious vows.
As part of a religious order, a faithful Nazarite accepted the additional austerity required for that way of life. So it is today with monastics.
St. John the Forerunner
John the Baptist was a celibate man who lived in the wilderness, dressing humbly, eating simply, and dedicating his life to the Lord:
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight.’” Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.
St. John did not live in society, but society came to him. People came from all around to learn from him, to confess their sins, to be baptized, and to follow him. Similar things have happened with many Christian monks. They leave society to work on personal holiness. In time, when their sanctity becomes widely recognized, people travel into the wilderness to find them, and to seek their guidance. The monastic may reject worldly society, per se, but fellow human beings are still welcomed with open arms.
The monastic vow of celibacy has apostolic precedent. The apostle Paul was celibate, and he wished all people could be like him (1 Corinthians 7:7-8). The apostle Peter, on the other hand, was married. A person can follow Christ faithfully, whether celibate or married.
The monastic vow of poverty has apostolic precedent. The first Christians held most of their property in common, sharing it freely with one another:
Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.
Not only did they hold all possessions in common, they also worshiped daily in the temple, as this passage from Scripture demonstrates. Of course, daily prayer and worship is also a key aspect of monastic life. Monasticism perpetuates this spirit of daily prayer which was practiced by all in the first years of the Church.
The monastic vow of obedience has apostolic precedent. The apostle Paul said, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Of course, not only monks and nuns are called to obedience. All Christians are called to obey their bishops and priests.
As Scripture says:
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves:
for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account
All Christians, whether monastics or not, are called to obedience.
God gave us bishops, priests, and deacons for a reason.
The monastic vow of stability is merely an extension of the vow of obedience. Bishops normally ask a monk or nun to remain at a single monastery for life, unless they acquire episcopal permission to relocate. This level of obedience is not required of most Christians, but is fitting for those who have willingly chosen the monastic way of life.
Serving People in the World
While monastics physically retreat from mainstream life in the world, they do not retreat from the world entirely. They still love other people, pray for them, and work for the furtherance of the Gospel. Medieval monks diligently copied the Scriptures, preserving them for us throughout the centuries, long before the invention of the printing press. Monks like St. Theophan the Recluse wrote letters to many people, encouraging them in the faith, and calling them to an obedient walk with Christ.
Like Elijah and John the Baptist, monks are ascetics. Like St. Paul, monks are celibate. Like the Nazarites, monks follow stricter rules than the rest of us. Like John the Baptist, monks preach repentance, and they often receive visitors who come out to meet them in the wilderness. Like many early Christians, monks renounce material wealth, and they pray daily for the salvation of us all. Thanks be to God!
Sounds pretty biblical to me.