Many of the earliest missionaries after the apostolic period were monks. We celebrate the evangelistic boldness that took Patrick from his homeland in Britain back to the island of his slavery, Ireland. Willibrord went from England to the Netherlands. Ansgar evangelized the Vikings of Denmark and Sweden. Boniface evangelized Germany, and beyond those we know about, there were doubtless many more monks whose names have not been passed down to us through history.
Why there are no Baptist monks
As a Protestant, I often feel uncomfortable admiring or celebrating the work of these monastic missionaries. Monasticism as a concept arose due to an absence of holiness in the church at large. During the first three centuries of the Christian era, persecution and martyrdom provided Christians with heroes of the faith, but once Christians were no longer dying in the arena and Christianity became fashionable in the newly reconstituted “Holy” Roman Empire, there became a disturbing lack of holiness among those who claimed to believe in Christ.
Most of these new “converts” were no more born again than a poached egg, and instead made the shift to Christianity for political or social reasons. Thus, the leaven, having been gladly accepted into the church, leavened the entire lump.
What do you do when the church itself becomes unholy? You found a parallel institution — monasticism. (It’s remarkable that the same impulse lies behind the founding of many parachurch ministries even among evangelical Christians today.) It began with the anchorite monastics that withdrew into the wilderness for solitude like Anthony in Egypt, but later the cenobite model of gathering into a monastic community to live a life of prayer took hold with the influence of Benedict’s community at Monte Cassino. Some of these communities became devoted to proclaiming Christ where he had not yet been named. In monasticism there was found an outlet for those who truly wanted to live a life separated from the world and devoted to Christ.
The Reformers rejected monasticism. Luther rejected it on a very personal level by abandoning his vows and marrying a nun, Katerina. The Reformers criticized the monks of their own day for their gross immorality and pointed out the sad contrast with the deep devotion of the earliest monks of Christian history. But the problem with monasticism went beyond the failure of monks to live up to the monastic ideal. Monasticism was problematic theologically, since it created different tiers of Christian commitment within the church.1 With the recovery of the gospel came an awareness that holiness was not an elective to be chosen by an elite group of believers, but it was God’s expectation for the entire church. This was especially true among Anabaptists and Baptists, who understood the New Testament to teach that all true Christians are born again and called to be saints.
Monasticism, therefore, has a split personality. On the one hand, it created an elite group of believers within the church, which messaged to most people that not all Christians should be holy. Holiness became an elective. But at its best, monasticism was a Christ-centered way of life that paired withdrawal from the world with mobilization into the world. It was a total devotion to Christ that married both communion with Christ and the proclamation of Christ to the pagan.
Do we need a new monasticism?
Nevertheless, as I reflect on the intertwined history of missions and monasticism, I am led to a disturbing question: Do we as evangelicals need to recover the marriage of missions and monasticism? Are we missing something deeply essential by our rejection of monasticism and its divorce from missions?
I’m far from the first to ask if there is something missing in Protestantism by our rejection of monasticism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,
The restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Christ.2
Bonhoeffer gave form to this new monasticism in his two greatest books, Discipleship and Life Together, both of which he wrote while German churches were largely coalescing to the spirit of Nazism. German Christians failed to stand against the Nazis because they had not heard Jesus’ demand for discipleship. The church had preached “cheap grace” while Jesus taught a “costly grace.”3
Cheap grace had only called them into membership in an institution and the reception of the forgiveness of sins. Costly grace demanded that they give their lives in order to become disciples of the living and loving Christ. “It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”4 It was this total devotion to Christ, which is the demand of Christ upon every believer, that Bonhoeffer thought of as a “new monasticism.”
But maybe we who sacrifice so much to serve away from home and across cultural boundaries have focused too much on the cost and too little on the grace. We give our lives, but we fail to find the rest that is ours in the “true life” that Christ offers us.
Most of us who are called to serve cross-culturally are doers by nature. We like to get things done. Certainly, some of us have this inner drive broken and tamed by the difficulties of the mission field. Most lazy missionaries are actually hurting and cynical missionaries — and there are many such men and women “serving” around the world, counting down the days to an honorable retirement.
More prominent are the “Roman candle” missionaries. These are the people who light their fuse, burn bright and beautifully for a short-time, and then explode. Those who have lived as a missionary even for a short time can probably recount the stories of several zealous men and women who started out strong and full of conviction, but the mission field chewed them up and spat them out.
But then there are those who endure. They work hard. They push through the pain and the disappointments, and they press on. They’ve seen God work. They’ve seen prayers answered, but they’ve also been hurt by the people closest to them. They’ve lamented with David, “Even my friend in whom I trusted, one who ate my bread, has raised his heel against me” (Ps 41:9). Most missionaries are tired — deep in their bones tired. They love Christ and are devoted to his work, but they are exhausted.
Jesus’ Habit of Withdrawal
John Piper taught us that worship is “the fuel of missions.”5 But unfortunately, most of us are running on empty. Yes, we worship on Sunday. Yes, we worship with our family daily, and yes, we have our daily devotions. But all of these times have become so dry. It’s not that we’ve lost our conviction about God’s mission or the power of the gospel, and it’s not that we’ve even lost our passion for God’s call on our life. It’s just that we are incredibly and deeply tired of doing things for God when we don’t necessarily feel like we are experiencing the deep intimacy with God that is ours as disciples and children.
When we find ourselves in this place of physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion, we see the symptoms of a non-monastic, materialistic missiology — the missiology of method and strategy, the missiology of go out, get things done, and report to the donors. While we are trying to reach the lost for Jesus, our own souls are hungering and thirsting for Jesus.
As many have noted, the necessity of withdrawing can be seen in Jesus’ own ministry. Luke 5:16 utilizes an imperfect periphrastic construction (ἦν ὑποχωρῶν, “was withdrawing”) to communicate that withdrawing was Jesus’ habitual practice, not merely a frustrated last-minute response to overwork and exhaustion. The NIV utilizes the word “often” to give the appropriate sense: “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16 NIV). Thus, all the other specific instances of Jesus’ withdrawal communicated in the gospels are examples of the habitual practice (e.g., Matt 14:23; Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42; 6:12).
For this reason, it should come as no surprise that when Jesus faced his most difficult and important work of ministry — the ministry of the cross — he first withdrew for prayer. When introducing Jesus’ prayer on the Mount of Olives, Luke once again notes the habitual nature of Jesus’ action: “And he came out and went, as was his custom (κατὰ τὸ ἔθος), to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him” (Luke 22:39 ESV). Could the disciple’s drowsiness on this night be partially explained by the habitual nature of the event? Following Jesus to a mountain to pray in the night or early morning did not set off any alarms in their minds. They were not alert to anything unusual happening that night. Jesus was simply withdrawing to a lonely place to pray like he had done over-and-over again throughout their three years together.
Withdrawal was Jesus’ habitual practice. The missionary Mary Slessor rightly said,
Christ never was in a hurry. There was no rushing forward, no anticipating, no fretting over what might be. Each day’s duties were done as each day brought them, and the rest was left to God.6
The New Monastic Missiology
What if the thing we need most is to slow down, trust God with his work, rest, and feel God’s presence again? What if habitually withdrawing from the world is equally as important as entering into and engaging the world? What if we need Jesus as much — or even more than — the people we are trying to reach?
- See especially Calvin’s criticisms of monasticism in Institutes 4.13.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “To Karl-Freidrich Bonhoeffer, London, January 14, 1935” in vol. 13 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 284.
- Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 43.
- John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 17.
- Quoted in Bruce McLennan, Mary Slessor: A Life on the Altar for God (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2014), loc. 1335