Is There a Place for Asceticism in the Christian Life?
Can we make ourselves more holy if we treat our bodies more harshly? A great question from a listener named Garrett in Houston, Texas. “Pastor John, hello! I’ve recently been studying the life of St. Anthony through a book by Athanasius. I’m curious about your thoughts on asceticism, a practice of many Christians throughout the church age. Is this a biblical way to live and pursue holiness? Does it work? Is it biblical to hold such rigid self-discipline? I ask because of Colossians 2:23, where Paul defines ‘asceticism’ as ‘severity to the body,’ and that practice being ‘of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh’ (Colossians 2:23). What are your thoughts on the place of asceticism in the Christian life today?”
When Garrett says, “Is it biblical to hold such rigid self-discipline?” I don’t know what the word such refers to because I’m not familiar enough with the life of St. Anthony to pass judgment on his pattern of asceticism. So, let me just speak more generally, especially from the text of Colossians, because I think that’s what he’s really getting at. Is there a legitimate place for severity to the body called asceticism?
Self-Denial Gone Wrong
Whenever we hear the apostle Paul criticizing some teaching or warning against some practice, we have to kind of piece together from what he says what the false teachers are saying, like listening to one end of a phone conversation. That’s what we’re up against in Colossians.
There was some kind of false teaching going on that Paul was very concerned about, and it involved some kind of asceticism, some kind of severity to the body. It seemed to involve special visions — “worship of angels,” he mentions (Colossians 2:18) — and the insistence upon certain religious holy days (Colossians 2:16). And it seems that there are clusters of very basic rules — “elemental principles” he calls them (Colossians 2:8, 20) — being forced upon the church so that, if you don’t follow these ascetic rules about food and drink and days and visions and angels, you’re not a Christian.
Now, Paul’s main criticism of what was happening is that it diminished Christ: Christ, the all-supplying Head of the church (Colossians 2:19); Christ, the Creator of the world (Colossians 1:16); Christ, the one who upholds all things (Colossians 1:17); Christ, supreme over all things (Colossians 1:18). The whole system of this false teaching was diminishing Christ in all those ways.
So, let me read some texts, and let’s listen for those kinds of false teachings.
Merely Human Traditions
First, Colossians 2:8:
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to elemental [principles] of the world, and not according to Christ.
Now, we’ll see what those elemental principles are in just a moment. But notice: the problem here is that these merely human traditions and these basic religious elemental principles are replacing Christ. It says, “not holding fast to Christ,” “not exalting Christ,” “not living according to Christ.”
Forgetting the Head
Now, Colossians 2:16–19:
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. [Like a body casting a shadow, Christ is the body and the shadow is all those things that are being exalted above 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.
So again, we see that the issue is not holding fast to Christ. What he’s being replaced with is food, drink, festival, new moon, Sabbath. And since asceticism is mentioned, probably the reference to food and drink means, “Don’t eat them; don’t drink them,” rather than, “You must eat them; you must drink them.” Either way, the elemental rules are replacing the way of Christ.
Then one more text. Colossians 2:20–23:
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 regulations — [and I think these are the elemental principles he’s concerned about:] “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used) — according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and a severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
So there you get something of a picture of the false teaching in Colossae involving worship of angels, visions, severity to the body by abstaining from certain foods and drinks, keeping certain religious holidays, following these elemental principles and rules — “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.” Twice we’ve heard Paul say that the problem is that these are not “according to Christ” — you are not “holding fast to the Head.” All the other defects with this false teaching about asceticism and severity to the body, all of them are of “no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”
Killing Sin or Feeding Sin?
So, this false teaching at Colossae is failing in two ways: one, it isn’t glorifying Christ, and two, it isn’t defeating sin. It’s producing puffed-up Christians, and it is diminishing Christ.
So here’s the issue with asceticism. Asceticism has a legitimate place in the Christian life, as does the thankful enjoyment of food and drink that God gives us. Eating and drinking can become gluttony with a loss of self-control, and not eating and drinking can become boastful and Christ-diminishing. That was happening at Colossae.
“Is Christ being exalted or is self being exalted? Is asceticism killing sin or feeding sin?”
So the question is not simply, Do you eat or don’t you eat? Do you drink or don’t you drink? Do you sleep or don’t you sleep? Do you deny yourself certain legitimate pleasures or don’t you? That’s not the main question. The main questions are, Is Christ being exalted or is self being exalted? While crucifying the sin of gluttony, are you feeding the sin of pride? Is asceticism killing sin or feeding sin? Those are the key questions.
We can’t just say that asceticism is bad because the false teachers at Colossae were using it. Paul himself and Jesus taught that we should make sure by self-denial that we are not being enslaved by any good thing. For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:25–27, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. . . . So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” And the word discipline there means “give my body a black eye.” I mean, this is a pretty strong word, sometimes translated “I pummel my body.” In other words, Paul is hard on his body when he needs to be hard on his body in order to protect himself against sin and unbelief.
And then, in 1 Corinthians 6:12, he says, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated [or controlled or enslaved] by anything.” In other words, the issue is not that food and drink or other legitimate pleasures are sinful, but that we ought not to be enslaved or dominated or controlled by anything — good or evil. Part of the strategy by which we discern whether we are enslaved is self-denial — called asceticism, if you wish. And so, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). In other words, we dare not treat all asceticism as bad. And of course, we should not treat God’s good gifts — of food and drink and friendship and marriage and hundreds of other delights in this life — as evil.
“Deny yourself in order to defeat sinful bondage and show that the Giver is more precious to you than the gift.”
Paul was probably warning against the same false teaching of Colossae when he wrote 1 Timothy 4:4: “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”
Enjoy and Deny
So, one way to sum up things would be to say, one, we will glorify Christ if we receive his good gifts with thankfulness, which shows that he’s the good and generous Savior. And two, we will glorify Christ by strategically denying ourselves some of his good gifts in order to show that he, and not his gifts, is our greatest treasure. And the problem of the false teaching at Colossae was that severity to the body was being put into elemental principles or rules that, instead of exalting the worth and beauty and grace of Christ, were feeding the ego of the ascetics. This calls for great wisdom and insight into our own hearts.
So, two guidelines to close:
- Enjoy God’s good gifts with thankfulness to make much of him and his grace and his generosity.
- Deny yourself in order to defeat sinful bondage and show that the Giver is more precious to you than the gift.