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Lessons From Church History Volume 2

Volumes 2-4. This is the history of the Church from the Roman War (66-73 A.D.) to Constantine and the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. with lessons to be learned from it.

Category - Long Book

Book 3 - Chapter 8

Asceticism and Celibacy

When the Church was driven from its Hebrew roots into the culture of the Greeks, the moral outlook changed. Previously, righteous acts were defined by law; forgiveness by ceremony, through sacrifice and washings (“baptisms”). The New Testament put faith upon the throne and obedience as its queen. Obedience was crucifying “the flesh,” but not the body. Paul fought asceticism (Col. 2:23).

The Greeks took this idea of crucifying flesh to mean asceticism—denying one's self the normal pleasures or comforts of life. The Greek believers increasingly brought with them the dualistic idea of spirit and matter, and with this came the notion that flesh was matter and therefore evil; it must be destroyed in order for one to be spiritual and good. This was combined with the classical Greek ideal of the perfect man.

The Eastern ideal was a dualistic idea of balance between good and evil, light and darkness, God and Satan, yin and yang. The Greek ideal was the perfect man, and the classical Greek sculptures attempted to portray perfect form and beauty. The Latin ideal was perfect government, law and order. All of these ideals differed from the Hebrew-Christian ideal of faith in Christ, resulting in obedience to the law.

Thrown into the Greek culture, the new believers would slowly shape the outlook of the Church. By the second century the Apostles were all gone, and fewer Hebrews led the people. Because the Church desired righteousness yet found itself in a highly immoral world, it was inevitable that some would become separatists, thinking that they could attain perfection by avoiding temptation and by denying all fleshly desires and appetites. This was the ideal of asceticism.

Philip Schaff defines asceticism for us in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. II, p. 388, 389,

“Asceticism in general is a rigid outward self-discipline, by which the spirit strives after full dominion over the flesh, and a superior grade of virtue. It includes not only that true moderation or restraint of the animal appetites, which is a universal Christian duty, but total abstinence from enjoyments in themselves lawful, from wine, animal food, property, and marriage, together with all kinds of penances and mortifications of the body. . .

“The ascetic and monastic tendency rests primarily upon a lively, though morbid sense of the sinfulness of the flesh and the corruption of the world; then upon the desire for solitude and exclusive occupation with divine things; and finally, upon the ambition to attain extraordinary holiness and merit.  . . It . . . thinks to secure itself against temptation only by entire separation from the world, instead of standing in the world to overcome it and transform it into the kingdom of God.”

It was not Roman persecution that drove men into a separatist life, but rather a sense of moral weakness in the face of societal temptations. They thought that by removing the most vital Christian force, they could save the Virgin Church by fleeing into the wilderness. By the third and fourth centuries, there were tens of thousands of monks and hermits in the wilderness of Egypt and Syria, whose very separation removed a much-needed moral force from the very society that Christianity sought to influence.

Paul preached holiness and would not allow incest in the Corinthian fellowship (1 Cor. 5:1, 2, 13). He taught that marriage was good and likened it to Christ's relationship to the Church, but because of the persecutions of the day, he knew that it could also lead to suffering if one's husband or father were to be executed. Likewise, Paul recognized that going on long missionary journeys was not conducive to a happy marriage, and thus celibacy was a better option for those called to such a type of ministry.

Even so, Paul prophetically warned against “forbidding to marry” (1 Tim.4:3). It was one thing for a man or woman to remain unmarried voluntarily for purposes of ministry; it was quite another to make it mandatory for salvation or even to be considered more holy than others.

Unfortunately, later generations turned Paul's caution regarding marriage into a standard of holiness and spirituality. It was not long before celibacy was elevated to the position of holiness. Combined with Greek dualism, marriage was thought to be a concession from God on account of man's sexual drives (“passions of the flesh”), and that real holiness could not be attained apart from celibacy and virginity.

It is ironic that while the early Church fought Gnosticism and taught against its dualistic notions of spirit and flesh, its own ascetisism and celibacy was rooted in that same dualism which it abhorred in the Gnostic. Both proceeded from the wrong idea that physical matter (flesh) was inherently evil. Yet, as Schaff tells us on page 399. . .

“It should not be forgotten that many virgins of the early church devoted their whole energies as deaconnesses to the care of the sick and the poor, or exhibited as martyrs a degree of passive virtue and moral heroism, altogether unknown before.”

Schaff continues,

“The excessive regard for celibacy and the accompanying depreciation of marriage date from about the middle of the second century, and reach their height in the Nicene Age” [4th century].

Excessive forms of holiness inevitably lead to hypocrisy, as such a life style become impractical or even impossible. Human nature finds a way to survive the greatest suppression. One cannot be perfected by ascetic suppression of human nature—which, after all, is God given. The fall of man did not create sexual urges. Sexual urges are part of nature that God pronounced “very good” in Gen. 1:31. The problem came in Adam's fall, when his soul usurped the authority of his spirit, which in turn had been led by the Holy Spirit.

Once the soul took control of the spirit, the soul lacked the moral understanding needed to retain perfection. And so, doing the best it could, man could only degenerate morally with each succeeding generation. The soul was unable to control the passions of the body, for the soul itself was fleshly (“carnal”).

Asceticism was (and still is) an attempt to attain righteousness by changing outward forms and conditions. Though viewed as a spiritual act, it is proven in the end to be the soul's attempt to become spiritual in itself and become capable of taking the lead, rather than by giving up its usurped sovereignty and recognizing the headship of the spirit. [Selah]

Let me get personal for a moment. As a child, in my desire for holiness, I doubted my salvation because I saw myself as less than perfect (i.e., “holy”). God delivered me of that when He pointed out the imperfections of the preachers and missionaries around me. Years later at the University of Minnesota, I read a book that said, “Don't let anyone tell you that you cannot be perfect; you CAN be perfect.”

I tried for the next month to bring every thought into captivity and be perfect. I failed. Then I remembered the revelation God had given me as a child. Again, I gave up walking down that guilt-ridden path and decided simply to follow the Holy Spirit and let Him change me from the inside in His own imperceptible way.

Another decade went by, and God began to teach me intercession, spiritual warfare, and other spiritual principles. Once again, I desired a greater degree of holiness, and this time I went on prolonged times of prayer and fasting (up to 21 days at a time). While I received some benefit from this, I was no holier than when I had started. So I decided to simply let the Holy Spirit lead me, and let Him be my righteousness. As time passed, I discovered that those problems in my life soon were no longer a problem. And I had done nothing in myself to resolve those problems.

We must find the middle road between license and legalism. It is the path where we simply follow His leading.