Asceticism and False Christianity

 

Dictionary.com:

Asceticism:

1. the manner of life, practices, or principles of an ascetic.

2. the doctrine that a person can attain a high spiritual and moral state by practicing self-denial, self-mortification, and the like.

3. rigorous self-denial; extreme abstinence; austerity.

Ascetic:

1. a person who dedicates his or her life to a pursuit of contemplative ideals and practices extreme self-denial or self-mortification for religious reasons.

2. a person who leads an austerely simple life, especially one who abstains from the normal pleasures of life or denies himself or herself material satisfaction.

3. (in the early Christian church) a monk; hermit.

4. relating to asceticism, the doctrine that one can reach a high spiritual state through the practice of extreme self-denial or self-mortification.

5. rigorously abstinent; austere: an ascetic existence.

6. exceedingly strict or severe in religious exercises or self-mortification.

 

This article does not apply to most Christians. Most Christians don’t practice the life of an ascetic. Chiefly, as it relates to Christianity, asceticism is a life of false humility, a life that seeks to become “more spiritual” by living a life that is in isolation from the world, and in extreme cases, in isolation from the local body of believers. Basically, they live the life of a monk or a hermit. They deny themselves of the material things of the world and of worldly pursuits in order to seek God on a “more spiritual” level.

Refusing the common teachings of the Christian faith, particularly as it relates to living the Christian life, ascetics seek their own understanding. They seek God on their own terms. They try to understand the Bible independent of the local church, independent of God-ordained pastors and teachers, independent of the teachings of historical Christianity. They want a more personal connection with God. They may even believe that understanding of truth really only occurs as it’s given to them directly from God, as God Himself provides interpretation of Scripture — while rejecting the God-ordained teaching of pastors and teachers. They take pride in their humility, which of course is false humility. In other words, this type of mindset and lifestyle is very prideful, for it elevates oneself above others, believing that God has a special purpose and plan for them that He doesn’t have for the common Christian.

The ascetic may or may not be saved. I think it’s possible that one can be born-again, but who never had the opportunity to grow in the context of the local church. Thus without God-ordained guidance early in one’s Christian journey, they soon get off track, seeking to understand the Bible on their own, and coming to their own conclusions about how the Christian life is to be lived. However, such a person – a true born-again believer – when confronted with the truth, and when encouraged to join the local assembly of believers, will respond accordingly by joining a local church and submitting to its leadership, seeking to grow with other like-hearted believers.

Then there are ascetics who go under that banner of Christianity, but are not saved, they have not experienced the new birth. These individuals have not only adopted their own version of the Christian life, but they generally reject the common teachings of the Christian faith. They may be correct on certain doctrines, but they miss it on others. In particular, they miss it on how the Christian life is to be lived out in this world. They isolate themselves from the local assembly of Christians. They reject God-ordained teaching of local church pastors and teachers. They refuse to follow the wise counsel and instruction of God-ordained leaders and seasoned followers of Christ.

I’m not talking about differences in position on certain doctrines within true Christianity, I’m talking about beliefs and practices that are not commonly found in true Christianity. They have a distinction all their own. When a professing Christian resists the common teachings and common practices of mainline Christianity year after year, it’s a strong indication they have not experienced new life in Christ.

Those who are of the truth, respond to the truth by being obedient to the truth. In other words, those who are born of the Spirit, will respond to the truths of the Spirit (1 Cor 2:10-16).

 

The church at Colossae had a situation that is similar to what I’ve described in this article:

(Colossians 2:16-19) — 16 Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is Christ. 18 Let no one condemn you by delighting in ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm. Such people are inflated by empty notions of their unspiritual mind. 19 He doesn’t hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, grows with growth from God. CSB

(Colossians 2:20-23) — 20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. ESV

Among the Colossian believers were false teachers, those who taught asceticism. They tried to impose their teachings and their way of life upon those believers. They brought confusion to this church. But the Apostle Paul would have none of that. He revealed them for what they were — false teachers, teaching things that are not according to the true teachings of Christianity.

Perhaps the confusion for these believers was that, as followers of Christ, we’re taught to live a life of self-sacrifice in order to serve Christ. We’re taught to “seek the things that are above,” rather than the things of the world, as Paul taught in the very next chapter (Col 3:1-4). While that’s true, denying ourselves and worldliness in no manner means that we’re to isolate ourselves from the world (1 Cor 5:9-10). And even more obvious, we’re not to isolate ourselves from the local church. We’re to be in the world, serving among the unsaved, but we’re not to be of the world.

Those who live ascetic lives go beyond the teaching not to be of the world, to living in isolation of the world, to live as hermits. Nowhere does God’s Word teach such a lifestyle. Furthermore, the idea of disconnecting ourselves from the local assembly of Christ-followers is completely contrary to everything that is taught in the New Testament. Living and learning and serving in the context of the local church, is a central theme. There is no good reason, no biblical grounds for separating ourselves from God-ordained church authority and church ministry.

Note the following verse:

(Colossians 2:19) — 19 He doesn’t hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, grows with growth from God.

We as a corporate body of believers, are Christ’s Church, both universally and locally. Christ is the Head of the Church. The local church is the outworking of the Church worldwide. The Church is universal, but it’s lived out on the local level. Each church, and every member of each church, are all connected, and we all have a vital function to perform in each of our respective geographic locations. This is God’s will. This is God’s plan. It’s through the local church that God carries out His purpose in the world. It’s through the local church that God advances the Kingdom of Christ. Church involvement is central in the life of every believer in Christ. God never intended Christians to live their lives in seclusion, in separation from the local body of believers. Neither did He intend Christians to live their lives in isolation from the world. That idea is not found in the NT Scriptures.

Those who choose to disconnect themselves from the environment and authority of the local church, are on very dangerous ground — for they do not “hold on to the head,” which is Christ. They may think they do by claiming Christ, but one cannot hold on to the Head while not holding on to the Body. The two are joined together. They are inseparable.

Therefore, for one to separate themselves from the local Body of Christ, is to separate themselves from the Head of the Body. They’re deceived into believing that they’re true believers, true servants of Christ. True believers have a love for the people of Christ (1 John 2:9-11; 3:14-17; 4:20-21, not just for Christ Himself. To love Christ is to love His people. Love for other Christians is demonstrated by one’s involvement with other Christians, which is done in the context of the local assembly of believers. Those who refuse to join a local assembly, who refuse to submit to God-ordained leadership and teaching, are only fooling themselves. True believers in Christ serve together, each doing their part so that the Body of Christ properly functions and grows together (Eph 2:19-22; Eph 4:11-16).

Those who refuse to live their lives in the context of the local Christian community, brings their salvation into question. For this is not the proper or normal response of one who claims Christ as Lord and Savior. Jesus gave His life for the Church (Acts 20:28; Eph 5:22-26), and so to isolate oneself from that which Christ died for, reveals a spiritual problem that goes right to the very soul. Our salvation is in Christ, but salvation brings us into unity with the Body of Christ. To live in isolation of the Body, reveals a lack of salvation. It should be the most natural desire and inclination to join with other believers in living out our faith. If that is not present in the heart of those who profess Christ, then that is ample evidence of a false faith, and a false religion, a “self-made religion” (Col 2:23).

These ascetics may profess Christ as Savior, and they may believe certain doctrines of the Christian Faith. However, if they continue to live this kind of life, if they continue to refuse to submit to God-ordained church authority and God-ordained teaching, if all they want to do follow a belief system of their own design, then it’s quite probable they haven’t experienced the new birth. A new nature in Christ produces a whole new life in Christ. It gives us a whole new outlook, a whole new perspective and mindset that is according to the heart of Christ. Therefore, to refuse to submit to God-ordained church authority and God-ordained church ministry year after year, is not the fruit of one who has experience new life in Christ.

If professing Christians continually resist the simple teachings and clear commands of Scripture – year after year – while manufacturing their own ideas about what the Bible teaches (seeing things that aren’t actually there), then that is another sign that we’re looking at a false conversion, that they’ve come to believe a false form of Christianity. There’s no other explanation for such uncommon resistance to the truth. Because those who are born-again, who are spiritually in-tune, do not have to be convinced about basic truths of Christianity. They will be easily persuaded about the clear teachings of Scripture. If it’s a war to get them to see and accept the basic teachings of the Christian life, then we’re likely dealing with someone who is still in darkness. With these individuals, there’s an absence of true light. Instead of spiritual vitality, there’s lifelessness. There’s a darkness about them, a deadness that we don’t see in true Christians. Those who are of the light, will see the things of light, they’ll be drawn to the light. If there’s no convincing them about the true Christian way of life, then that’s a sure indication that they’re still in darkness (1 John 1:5-7; 1 Cor 2:10-16).

In addition, those who profess Christ, but lack a clear understanding of the gospel message, this also – obviously – reveals a false conversion. For no one can be saved without a true understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, if they don’t have a concern for the salvation of the lost, this too reveals an absence of their own salvation.

If there’s no desire to serve Christ in the context of the local assembly of Christ’s people, and if there’s no true concern for the lost or interest in spreading the gospel message, then these are all indications of a false conversion. If there’s no true interest in serving side by side with other believers in a local church environment, then quite obviously their focus is not on other Christians or on the unsaved. Rather, their focus is on themselves, where it’s all about receiving something from God for personal benefit, rather than giving of oneself to God in service to Him. As we’ve been discussing, we know that the primary sphere of ministry that God has ordained for His people is the local assembly of Christ-followers. One cannot claim to be a servant of Christ while refusing to serve Him in the assembly of fellow-believers.

In such cases, these ascetic individuals should not be regarded as fellow-believers, but as those who are still in need of new life in Christ. Thus our concern should not be about their walk with Christ, but about their salvation. Their salvation is what we should be praying for. The true gospel of Jesus Christ is what we should be sharing with them, not about how to live the Christian life. One cannot live the Christian life before they become a Christian.

People who profess Christ, but live secluded lives, are fairly uncommon. But if you know someone like this and have always considered them true Christians, then I think it’s wise to begin to consider that they may not actually be saved. Even though they may profess Christ, their lives reveal something contrary to their profession.

Significant point: The centrality of the local church in the New Testament is unmistakable. Therefore, a heart for the local assembly of believers is one of the most unmistakable marks of true salvation, for it reveals the same heart for God’s people that Christ has — for whom He gave His life (Acts 20:28; Eph 5:25). There is salvation in no one but Christ alone. However, what is salvation? It’s being forgiven of our sins and being brought into a right relationship with God. Therefore, our salvation is not only a right relationship with God, but also a right relationship with the Body of Christ, which is the Church (Eph 5:23; Col 1:18,24), of whom He is Head. Upon faith in Christ, we’re brought into union with His Body, where we become members of His Church. Accordingly, those who are true members of the Church, will have a heart for the Church, which functions on the local level, where Christians gather together to worship and learn and serve Christ side by side. Those who are in a right relationship with the Church, will have a heart for the members of the Church. Thus they’ll be drawn to the Church of fellow-believers.

For someone to live the “Christian life” apart from the local assembly of Christians, is like a husband and wife living out their marriage apart from one another, for Paul compares the Christ/Church relationship to the marital relationship (Eph 5:22-33). To live in separation from the local church is a totally unnatural relationship. Not only does it reveal an absence of a true relationship with the Church, but also with Christ Himself, who is the Head of the Church.

Before I close, I want to address the nature of a true New Testament church. While it’s important to be in a local church, they’re not all created equally. We must make sure that we choose a church that follows the NT pattern. Be sure to find a church where its leaders serve humbly and sincerely, and teach the Bible faithfully, verse by verse. Find a church where the leaders are level-headed, who serve with true wisdom and not given to bizarre practices. A lot of far out stuff go on in many churches today. Avoid them like the plague, for they are not true NT churches. Find a church where the emphasis is on expository teaching, and where they faithfully preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In other words, find a church that is totally Christ-centered and Word-centered, where the church services are geared for believers. Avoid churches that gear their services to please the unsaved, rather than providing an environment of worship for Christians. Church is primarily for followers of Christ. Therefore, services must place the focus on the corporate worship of believers. Avoid churches that place an emphasis on the “felt-needs” of the unsaved. If a pastor teaches the Bible faithfully, the unsaved will be drawn to Christ. It’s simply wrong to limit teaching to select topics that may be of interest to the unsaved.

One final note. While we’re called to submit to God-ordained church leadership, avoid churches where the pastors and elders rule like corporate CEO’s, rather than leading in love and humility — as true caring shepherds of the sheep, as co-servants of the True Shepherd.

 

Conclusion

Not every ascetic will fit the same mold. But what they all have in common is extreme self-denial and withdrawal from the world, in one degree or another. In the most extreme cases, they will also withdraw from the local church, seeking to live a type of life that is contrary to the common teachings of New Testament Christianity, independent of the local assembly of Christ-followers. They seek God on their own terms. They don’t trust the teachings of others, so they seek to establish their own understanding of the Bible, totally independent of local church authority. However, nowhere in the Bible is Lone Ranger Christianity taught. True faith and true Christianity is lived out in community with other true believers.

Ascetics are on very dangerous ground, for outside of God-ordained church authority and church life, one will find deception. Our beliefs, our interpretation of Scripture, must be validated by God-ordained pastors and teachers. They must be validated by the teachings of historical Christianity. This is our place of safety. It’s God’s way.