The Early Monastic Movement

The early monastic movement was mostly a response to the drastic changes taking place within the Christian church due to the rise of Constantine and the implementation of his new religious policies. The new position of the Christian church under Constantine was that of power and prestige. People were greedy for monetary riches with the expectation of gaining more influence and position within the church. This type of aggressive reach for riches was the exact opposite of Jesus’ teachings about worldly treasures.

Moreover, as Christianity developed an elevated status of priority over the Greco-Roman religions within the Empire, people by the thousands were pursuing entrance into the newly advantaged Christian faith. Throughout the past, becoming a Christian was an extremely costly decision with life and death implications, but in the new Empire supported Christianity, there was a sense of easiness or shallowness to becoming a Christian. In a way, Christianity became the new Empire supported socio-religious program rather than a “Jesus is Lord” discipleship movement.

In view of these changes, many Christians believed that the church had been seduced with security and comfort and was caught in the snare of Satan. Many recognized the unfaithfulness and sinfulness of the church, and so they decided ‘to flee from human society, to leave everything behind, to dominate the body and its passions, which gave way to temptations.”[1] The monstatic movement established itself in the desert where people lived in solitude in caves or other natural structures, and their lives were defined by silence, solitude, minimalism, simplicity, prayer, celibacy and purity. They pursued a distraction free life with the hope of experiencing more deeply the presence and holiness of Jesus.

A positive and strength of this movement was that it became a strong spiritual voice from the desert against the sin and corruption of the Imperial church. They were performing their part of the drama of redemption as witnesses to the gospel’s redeeming power from sin and corruption. The monastic communities taught a powerful lesson of laying aside every sin and hindrance that so easily ensnares people and of fixing their eyes on Jesus the source and perfecter of their faith (Heb 12:1-2).

A negative and weakness of this movement was that it became a form of escapism for some. Rather than stay within the Empire and minister within their everyday context, some may have given up and ran away to the desert communities. This would have been more of a self-preservation and self-focused decision rather than a calling by God. The church would have needed many of these Christians to stick around and become catechists to the new people coming into the church.   

[1] Justo L.González, The Story of Christianity, Rev. and Updated, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2010), EPUB edition, pt.2, ch. 15, “The Monastic Reaction.”

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