July 12, 2017

Missional Roots in Monastic Movements

Cells, conventicles, house churches, underground churches, missional communities ... what they are called does not really matter. Throughout the history of the Church there have been grassroots movements of Christians that have renewed and re-centered the Church's devotion to God and neighbor. These movements provide for us a "history of missional communities" if you will.

Like each of us and like every institution, the Church has always been susceptible to the temptations of money and power. The revival these movements reflected was a subversion of the status quo; resisting the expectations, if not demands, the market and state placed upon Christians in a particular time and place. Demands or expectations that these movements believed broke away from devotion to God and neighbor.

This is not to say that our lapses, meaning "sin", are social or individual. They are always both. It is simply the fact that since the early days of Christian community, it has been money and power that have drawn our attention away from the two commands that Jesus said all of Scripture hinges upon: Love God with every fiber of your being and care for your neighbor as you would care for yourself.

We would often prefer to read Scripture and study church history as if they were somehow unbound from the context within which they were written. Yet, when we begin to read them within their context we see things we may not have seen before.


Many theologians have pointed out the political nature of early Christian life. The imagery within Jesus' Messianic story and the Christian insistence of calling him "Lord" were a direct affront to Roman authority. But there is, additionally, a marketplace aspect to this that I've not found as much on. Early church practice caused an economic disturbance. As I have already pointed out, the early church reflected a "transethnic" evangelistic nature. This led to fewer people under Roman rule participating in the various ritual practices of other traditions. These rituals always had an economic component to them. The shift away from bringing gifts and sacrifices to temples, not paying temple taxes or contributing to the marketplaces that formed around places of worship was experienced across the Roman empire.

I have to stop here and point something out. This evangelistic movement was nothing like the coercive acts as evangelism understood through colonizing or the placating acts of evangelism in contemporary environments where the church is merely providing religious goods and services. The church did not have the political, economic or social clout to enforce or sell their convictions. Rather, early church evangelism happened through relationships in which God's "other way" was demonstrated in actions, told through personal stories and through the stories of Jesus and his apostles. It might be helpful to recall the quote from Justo Gonzales I shared at the beginning of the last post:
“The missionary task itself was undertaken, not only by Paul and others whose names are known […] but also by countless and nameless Christians who went from place to place taking with them their faith and their witness. Some of these, like Paul, traveled as missionaries, impelled by their faith. But mostly these nameless Christians were merchants, slaves, and others who traveled for various reasons, but whose travel provided the opportunity for the expansion of the Christian message.”
– from The Story of Christianity
The early church's commitment to God and neighbor would get them into trouble within the powers of the world until their numbers required a different political tact by the powers that be.

Over the next two centuries the church would begin to find some favor throughout the Roman empire. Yet, as their status within the culture changed and persecution slackened complicity with cultural norms increased. In response, the roots of the monastic movement begins. Antony (251-356) is known as a proto-monastic, establishing one of the earliest documented hermitages in Egypt. Antony set out to live in the desert alone but was joined by others and a new kind of Christian community took shape. The community follows the three rhythms mentioned in my previously: spiritual, relational and missional.

The spiritual nature of Antony's work is well documented in Athanasius's biography. But Athanasius also writes about the radical nature of the community--the relationships within the community. he refers to them as "cells." The cells maintained a communal nature that avoided the stratification occurring elsewhere. There was also as, John Driver writes, "fundamental socio-economic considerations." Driver goes on to say, "The flight to the desert had become a form of popular protest against the oppressive conditions imposed by the Ptolemies of Egypt." In other words, these "cells" existed as a witness. They provided another way to practice the Christian faith for those that could not measure up in the economic and political environment of popular culture in their context. By word and deed and how they organized their collective life, these communities demonstrated that there was another way to be human. Another way to follow Jesus.

Like so many other expressions of the Church, some monastic traditions would over time go the way of institutionalization, but we see in Antony's monastic cells the seed of the early church and many movements that would come in the future.

We look at other movements next time.

Until then, some reading:
The Life of Antony and the Letter To Marcellinus by Athanasius
Destroyer of the gods by Larry Hurtado
The Story of Christianity by David Bently Hart
Radical Faith by John Driver
Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon

Also in this series on "the meaning of missional":
The Domesticated And The Disappeared
Missional Roots in Monastic Movements
Where Death And Division Need Not Rule
This Book Enacts God's Dream
Missional Trajectory
Reading Scripture With The Other In Mind
Why Is 'Missional' So Important?
Missional Hermenuetic
Further Background
Where Do I Begin?