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As Christianity became the government’s preferred relgion during [Constantine I]’s thirty-one years in power and then increasingly the only religious option during the reigns of his Christian successors, many were tempted to join the church simply because it provided a way to get ahead in society. In other words, during the fourth and fifth centuries nominal believers entered the church in significantly large numbers to bring about an identity crisis within the church. In essence that crisis can be boiled down to this question: What does it mean to be a Christian in a “Christian” society?…The answer to this crisis of ecclesial identity was the renewal movement that we call monasticism.
Michael A. Haykin, Rediscovering The Church Fathers: Who They Were And How They Shaped The Church (Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2011), 108.
This struck me as I thought about Christianity in our context. Today, and forward on, in America the line of what it means to be a Christian is becoming ever more distinct. But, depending on where you live in America, nominal Christianity is very real. And back when our parents and grandparents lived it was very real. The same question that faced the believers in the 4th and 5th century faced them and it can still face us.
When we get into an identity crisis of what a Christian really is we can revert to making hyper-biblical rules to try and bring clarity. It is not that a believer is wise in what he or she watches. But it is that a believer should not have a TV at all!
This is sort of what Paul had to combat in the church at Colossae when he writes,
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. (Col. 2:16-19)
The first monks? Probably not. However, the sun never has anything new to shine on. The problem is building an identity on something besides the Head–Jesus Christ.
When the focus slides from Christ we start to go beyond the bible to try and find an identity. Thus, these teachers would say to believers, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (v. 22). This is getting to the monasticism we know.
I wonder how much of the hyper-biblical rules we run into are actually coming from an identity crisis? For a while I have alway traced it to pure legalism. When I, however, meet Christians who seem to be drawing lines in strange places with how they live I wonder if it actually them miss placing their identity?
I see this coming from two groups of people
1. Those who want to be separate from the world and only see keeping hyper-biblical rules as the way to do it.
2. Those who make themselves separate out of pride. They not only want to be separate from the world but they seek to make themselves distinct from “weaker” believers as well.
As believers how do we guard against this? Even though Paul’s exact aim is not against monasticism I think the things he brings out apply. Right after these remarks comes chapter 3 where Paul lays out a succinct view of Christian living. I will refer you to Sinclair Ferguson’s exposition to save space here.
I can summairze in the same manner as Paul, “holding fast to the Head.” Christ is both the arthur and perfecter of faith. Trusting in His gracious work and promise of salvation. And seeking to respond to that grace with correct living in His strength. There is no reason to resort to hyper-biblical rules if one’s identity is firm in Christ.
Now, this does not answer all questions on this topic. Though, I think it is helpful to notice this from history. If we are holding fast to Christ then we do not have to construct a false identity to assure us of our salvation. Even in a nominal Christian context. Christ is are assurance! Neither does this excuse nominalism and lawlessness from being great evils of those who profess Christ. It is a real problem that has to be preached against. Hopefully, though, by learning from monasticism we can be cautious of the error they made. They us hold fast to the Head and find our identity in Him.
We confuse growth in knowledge and insight with genuine life change. But insight is not change and knowledge should not be confused with practical, active, biblical wisdom. In fourteen years of seminary teaching, I have met many brilliant, theologically astute students who were incredibly immature in their everyday life. There was often a huge gap between their confessional and functional theology. Students who could articulate the sovereignty of God could be overcome by worry. Students who could expound on the glory of God would dominate classroom discussions for the sake of their own egos. I have counseled students who could explain the biblical doctrine of holiness while nurturing secret worlds of lust and sexual sin. I have seen many men who were months away from ministry who had not yet learned how to love people. Students who could explain the biblical teaching of God’s grace were harsh judgmental legalists.
Paul David Tripp, Instruments In The Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 242.
He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in the one righteous person, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!
-The Epistle to Diognetus (written ca. 150-225)