“When the church joins the powers of the world, when luxury and ostentation take hold of Christian altars, when the whole of society is intent on turning the narrow path into a wide avenue, how is one to resist the enormous temptations of the times? How is one to witness to the Crucified Lord, to the One who had nowhere to lay his head, at a time when many leaders of the church live in costly homes, and when the ultimate witness of martyrdom is no longer possible? How to overcome Satan, who is constantly tempting the faithful with the new honors that society offers?” — The Story of Christianity (Gonzalez) p. 136-137
If you had to guess, roughly what year(s) do you think these words were written to describe?
If you guessed the year 311 AD (give or take a decade) you’d be right. 311AD is the year the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Toleration, making Christianity a state-sanctioned religion. It’s the year when, for all intents and purposes, persecution of the early church stopped. All of a sudden Christianity was the “in thing”. People were swarming to be baptized faster than they could be properly trained in the faith.
And it’s the year longtime Christians realized the church was facing a snare greater than any it had faced before: success and prosperity. The religion of the poor and persecuted all of a sudden became the church of the wealthy and powerful. For the first time in history being a bishop (church leader) meant status rather than almost certain martyrdom.
How did Christians respond? In one of two ways. The first was to adapt to the changes in society while holding on to the truths of the gospel. True believers and the longtime faithful survived, of course; but often they found themselves looked at as insignificant in the church by the more ‘worldly-successful’ newcomers.
The second way created a movement that continues to this day: monastic life. The Desert Fathers and the first monasteries (both male and female), began to appear as a reaction against the new ostentation of wealth and power being seen in the church. The monastics deliberately lived simple lives of poverty and service to demonstrate their love for their Lord in a materialistic world.
The monastics could be extreme. And while many stayed true to the gospel, others tended to over-emphasize the ancient Greek philosophies (Stoicism and Platonism particularly). But given the surrounding climate I wonder if maybe our modern world could do with a few more monasteries…