The New Monasticism or How Protestantism Lost Sight of the Doctrine of Vocation
Many years ago, I had an epiphany that hit me like a ton of bricks. I was listening to a pastor talk about how people confuse being a Christian with doing “Christian things” and thereby, effectively, give every indication, to everyone around them, that unless and until a person was physically doing “something” at the property of a congregation, or engaging in specifically “Christian” activities, or plastering everything within site with Christian bumper stickers, one was not really and truly glorifying God. It hit me that day that the great Reformation insight about vocation had been, and remains, virtually lost. I had been reading the Lutheran Confessions about monasticism at about the same time and it struck me that what we have here in much, and nearly all, of Protestantism, is simply a new form of monasticism. For all the good the monasteries did, and they did do much good, particularly in their early years: zealous missionaries, preserving Christian literature, etc. they set in motion the idea that unless, and until, a person is doing “churchy” things they are not truly and really and sufficiently “honoring God.”
I was reminded of all this today as I was reading Christian Retailing International, the industry publication serving the Christian retailing business. It’s fascinating. The issue in the mail today features a photograph of a husband and a wife, she holding up a large wrench, he a Bible, with this caption: “Christina Knox opened Christine’s Christian Bookstore in Statesville, N.C., inside the auto repair shop of her husband, Terry, to make the business a place “that God could be glorified.” Let’s think about this for a moment. What was her husband doing in there without her Christian bookstore? Ripping off customers? Engaging in shady dealings? Doing bad repair work? And why is it necessary to open up a Christian bookstore to make sure her husband’s business place is a place where God is glorified?
This is a dramatic example of something that has gone terribly wrong in most of modern American Protestantism. People are allowed, and even encouraged, to think that they “do their Christian/church thing on Sundays or at the church” and have to go about the business of life the rest of the time, which may, or may not, have anything much to do with “glorifying God.” New monasticism! You see it was deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds of people by the time of the Reformation that the way truly to know you are serving God and doing all you can to glorify him was by entering a monastery and “leaving the world.” This notion is deeply ingrained in Roman Catholics to this day. It is common to speak of “the religious” as opposed to the laity of the church. Think on that for a moment.
But it is no better in much of Protestantism. Consider Christina Knox who is opening her Christian bookstore to make her husband’s place a place where God could be glorified. How sad! The point here is that we know that by virtue of our calling in Christ our lives do give glory to God no matter what we are called to do in this life. Christina’s husband’s work is a fine and noble calling. He is serving others by repairing their cars, well and faithfully. That is a glorifying God! Perhaps as he is given an opportunity he speaks to his fellow coworkers and customers about Christ. He certainly does not need his wife setting up a Christian bookstore in his shop to make it a place where God is glorified. Jesus said, “Let your light so shine that others might see your works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Jesus was not talking about opening Christian bookstores in car repair shops.
This kind of thinking is so dangerous and I see it at work all the time in the church today. We lead people to think that as long as they are “busy” up at the church property, doing something in connection with the church building, why then, they are “serving God.” Of course we need people to volunteer and serve at our congregation. Obviously, but it is a great temptation to lead people on to think that it is precisely by so doing that they are really serving God, really being good Christians, really being about their Father’s business.
The reality is that we are called, at all times, and in all places, to be giving God glory, and we do this precisely by doing our jobs well, in whatever station in life in which we find ourselves, in any vocation. The mother changing the child’s diaper, the dad taking out the trash, the woman working to support her family, the man slogging it out on yet another business trip, these are all opportunities to serve God by serving the neighbor, be that neighbor a family member, a coworker or a client at work.
I detest the new monasticism that has infected the Christian Church. I rejoice that Lutheranism does have such a clear doctrine of vocation. I regret that Lutherans do not make better use of it.