Peter Hoover: Renounce and Enjoy

How much corn would make this Haitian farmer happy?

Obviously, the amount does not decide on how much it weighs or how much money it makes. If this Haitian farmer is thankful, if he praises God whether he has much or little, he is content. Tomorrow is another day.

Or isn't this true?

As an eighteen-year-old, in Bible School, I learned all about asceticism, and how it wrecked the rest of the world. Asceticism, they told me gravely, would endanger all capitalism and personal freedom far and wide. . . . But another dimension began to grow around me as I lived among the poor in Latin America. Whether I liked or not, Jesus worked at me year after year. The more I saw of the poor, the more I saw of Jesus, I saw another side -- the cross.

Does Jesus' cross have anything to do with corn planting? Of getting rich or going poor? Of growing powerful or letting go? In the last months two believers have sent me two messages that I feel compelled to pass on. This one, a brother named Geoff Thorn in a small Christian community in New South Wales, carries us into . . .

The War of Spirits within the Early Church

What inspired the joy and zeal radiating from the Early Christians? How could the church expand so rapidly over the known world in just one hundred years after the time of the apostles? Why was it that these first believers could face persecution and death with courage and joy? The heartbeat of this first church comes alive through Eberhard Arnold’s book, The Early Christians in the powerful words of the believers themselves. We know, too, of the severe persecution they faced from state and society for 300 years. But further, what went on within the churches and among them in this time? And in particular, what was the war of spirits that arose so quickly within the church?[1]

The Christianity of the apostles and their disciples was ascetic. For us, 21 centuries later, asceticism, like repentance has lost much of its true meaning. Asceticism, then and now, is the refusal to make any compromise with the ways of the world, even when these ways are thought by many to be without apparent sin. It simply means to be in the world but not of it. This aloofness from the world spirit and the world order manifests itself in various ways. The world loves and honors wealth. The ascetic chooses poverty. The world respects and takes measures to ensure the safety of private property. The ascetic aims at community of goods. The world encourages unbridled, physical enjoyments for which man’s body craves. The ascetic practices self-imposed restrictions, even austerities—poverty, fasting, purity, chastity and virginity, community of goods—each, partial expressions of asceticism, or in other words, the renunciation of the world and its ways.[2]

In the apostolic age two beliefs which especially inspired asceticism, or this renunciation of the world spirit and the world, were, firstly, the expectation of the immediate, return of the Lord. This expectation inspired ascetic renunciation. It is very natural that it should. If a man is convinced that the end of this present world order is close at hand, at once very many things that are usually of great importance cease to be of value. When a man is looking out in immediate expectation for the lightning that shall flash from the East, it matters very little to him how much profit is made in the day’s business, or what opinion his neighbors have of him. Under the tremendous import of such anticipation his body will even cease to crave its customary indulgences. It is in this spirit that Paul writes to the Corinthians[3]: “Brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; and they that use this world, as not using it to the full: for the order of this world is passing away.”

Similarly, a second conviction inspired asceticism. The early Christians well knew the reality and activity of the powers of evil. This was on the Lord’s own authority speaking of the chief of demons as the “prince of this world.” These demons, acting through the world and its powers, which they own and inspire, are bent upon the destruction of the Church and each of her members. Money and stature in this world are baits – too often successfully employed – by which they strive to seduce Christians from their allegiance to Christ.

To the little bands of the first disciples such a mix of world and spirit was well-nigh impossible. John writes to the churches, “We are of God. The whole world lieth under the power of the wicked one.”[4] “All that is in the world, the desire of the flesh, and the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father.”[5] To the early Christian, the only reasonable exhortation was John’s plea, “Love not the world.”[6] A hundred years after the time of the apostles, Tertullian wrote: “The theatres, the streets, the market-places, the taverns, the baths, are altogether filled with idols.”

Further, we must remember that the Church in Jerusalem,[7] during the earlier years of its existence, was a communal brotherhood in which the renunciation of private property, if not an actual condition of membership, was certainly the general practice. This was a continuation of the life lived by Jesus and His disciples, where one man kept the little store of money[8] and bought such things as were needful for the community. It is not surprising, in view of the way in which the Lord lived, that community of goods should have been the way of the church at Jerusalem.

In the Shepherd of Hermas we get a glimpse of the earliest Christian view of wealth and its use. In his first similitude he contrasts the heavenly city, of which Christians are citizens, with earthly governments and states in which Christians are not permitted dwell as citizens. In another place he speaks of Christians who acquire wealth and standing in this world as being “two thirds withered and only one-third green.” Paul’s[9] twice-repeated phrase, “Covetousness, which is idolatry,” is enlarged by Polycarp, the Apostle John’s disciple, when he says, “If a man does not keep himself from covetousness, he shall be defiled with idolatry.” He means that eagerness to possess material things will inevitably bring a Christian into connection with those demons who reside over the commerce of the world. It is very noticeable how many sayings of our Lord speak to the advantage of poverty over wealth.

James’[10] denunciation of the rich, and his solemn warnings to those who lay plans for extended commerce are in full accord with the early Christian ascetic view of wealth and poverty, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?”[11]

There is no doubt that in the very earliest times, while marriage and family were in no way rejected, virginity was highly valued as leading to fewer temporal concerns and worries in this world. St Ignatius writes: “If anyone can remain in a state of celibacy to the honor of Him who is Lord of the flesh, let him so remain without boasting.” Justin Martyr and Athenagoras both boast of the number of those who for many years have continued steadfast in virginity. There is suggestion that heightened spiritual outpouring and gifts were connected with the virgin state in the mention of the seven daughters of Philip, who were virgins and prophesied, and in Polycrates’ statement about Melito of Sardis, that he was a celibate, and “lived altogether in the Holy Spirit.”

The members of the earliest community continued to live fully and vigorously in the words which foreshadowed and enjoined the highest renunciation, even the renunciation of having a family, as well as, generally, of every blessing of temporal life. No price was too high to pay for following Jesus without reservation – home, property, means, fortune, hope, good name, and, in the end, life itself.”[12][12]

While, however, we must conceive of the early Christian life as highly ascetic, it is most important to realize that this asceticism was spontaneous, unreasoned, unorganized. To the early Christian, aloofness from the world and its pleasures was an entirely natural fruit of his love for the Master. The Christians, subjected day by day to persecution, only increased in number. God had assigned them this illustrious position, which it was not possible for them to forsake. The world hated and persecuted them, and no wonder, for the world first hated and persecuted Him. But they rejoiced. This is the witness. The world feels Christianity to be something strange and hostile. The Christian accepts the judgment and responds: “If we are strange to the world, surely also the world is strange to us.”

It soon became clear that the condition of asceticism could not long endure unchallenged. From the start, what we may call the mainstream church arose urging a more relaxed view of asceticism. A question came demanding an answer. How far is it possible for a Christian, continuing faithful, to live the life of the world? In other words, must the Christian life always be an ascetic one?

What was happening here? As Christianity spread, there were drawn into the church men of various trades and professions. There came, for example, a magistrate, or politician or statesman; but he accepted the Christian faith with something like the request of Naaman the Syrian on his lips[13]: “In this the Lord pardon me. When my master goes into the house of the idol rimmon to worship, and. in obedience to my master, I also bow myself there in the house of rimmon, Lord pardon me this thing.” If a man of government did not himself sacrifice, he was called upon to lend

his authority to such sacrifices. He was bound to receive oaths made in the names of pagan deities, and to make proclamations at idolatrous festivals. Could a man in such office be a Christian? What about a soldier or policeman? Must this man of arms choose between sacrificing such a task or betraying the faith? Or, again, an artist is converted to Christianity. His trade is often making worldly images or gilding Pagan temple ornaments. “This is my trade,” he pleads; “by this I make my bread.”

Then there were children of Christian parents who loved the faith too well to think of betrayal, yet they lacked the impassioned conviction of their parents. These came gradually to feed delicately, to introduce into their feast music of the world’s minstrels. Young folks began to wear more fashionable clothes, or enjoyed baring the throat to the wine cup. And what about the rich in the great cosmopolitan centers who furnished their homes with fine things, and slept luxuriously in elaborately carved beds? Such people had something to say for themselves. Every creature of God, they urged, is loved and good and to be received with thanksgiving. All in all the original and spontaneous renunciation of the world no longer shaped the hearts and lives of these new believers.

This conflict became especially acute in the question of entertainment, the theatre and the games. These of all the institutions of the pagan world seemed least reclaimable. Down even to the days of John Chrysostom (344-407), under a “Christian” emperor, the public games were the subject of Christian invective and outcry. Yet there were those among these emerging Christians who now claimed their right to be present at such exhibitions. To our ears their arguments have a curiously familiar sound. “Artistic enjoyment is not contrary to the law of God.” “All things, including the bodily strength of the athlete and the musical voice of the singer, come from God, and are good.”

We see how impossible it was for the old instinctive antagonism to the world, the simple unreasoned asceticism of the apostolic age, to continue dominant in the wider, mainstream church. And so, for the generation which succeeded the apostles, the question of the relation of the Christian life to the life of the world had to be faced. And is not this always a most important question: What does it mean to follow Jesus? What is the Christian life? How different from the world? Is it necessarily ascetic? Is it ever ascetic?[14]

________________________________________ [1] The following account is based on The Spirit and Origin of Christian Monasticism by James O. Hannay, London, 1903. Selecting, editing, paraphrasing, and updating have freely been done to help clarify the message for us modern readers. Nevertheless do not let the 19th century language that remains keep you from the message. It is helpful to remember that a good deal of the material from the early Christians has been collected into ten large volumes. The English version of this collection is entitled The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Eerdman Publishers, 1962. GMT 7 June 2010

[2] 1 John 2:15-17, James 4:4 [3] I Cor. 7:29-31 [4] I John 5:19 [5] I John 2:16 [6] I John 2:15 [7] Acts 4:32 [8] John 13:29 [9] Col 3:5 [10] James 4:13, 14 and 5:1ff [11] James 4:4, 13-14 [12] Mt 9:37-39, Mk 10:29-30, Lk 14:25-27 [13] 2 Kings 5:18 [14] I Joh 2:15, James 4:4, II Tim 2:4, Mark 8:34 * * * * * * The Lord willing we shall continue our brother's discription of true Christian asceticism. Like a well-known witness we may "renounce and enjoy." May the Lord help us!


Rocky Cape Christian Community
19509 Bass Highway
Detention River, Tasmania 7321