What possessed early Christians to withdraw from society, living simple lives either alone or in isolated communities? My answer to this question has previously been an merely sociological terms, but it turns out there might be a biblical explanation as well.
Having just read Wayne A. Meeks’ The Moral World of the First Christians (Fortress, 1986), I was struck by his account of how early Christian asceticism developed (p. 105-8). Meeks begins by noting that many of Jesus’ sayings “seem to demand an ascetic detachment” from the world and all of its basic social structures. And it’s not hard to think of several examples of this, e.g., the sending of the twelve in Mk 6.8-11 (“take nothing for the journey except a staff…”). In the canonical gospels, the context for this ascetic lifestyle is relatively clear: it “does not appear to be a model for life in the kingdom. It is, rather, in an odd way, functional for the apostles’ extraordinary mission.” In other words, the eschatological urgency of the first apostles’ message necessitates this kind of lifestyle.
In the early church period (and even into contemporary times with certain missions strategies), the role of itinerant (“mendicant”) preachers has endured. But, then as now, this kind of itinerant ministry is dependent on the hospitality and charity of strangers. As such, the canonical Gospels seem to suggest that their audiences “are not asked to imitate the itinerants, but only to listen to them and support them–and the latter requires that they not abandon the world.” That is to say, if all Christians led the ascetic lifestyle that Jesus describes in Mk 6.8-11 and elsewhere, the mission would ultimately be self-defeating. The point of these verses, then, was to help early Christians (and Christians today?) discern between true mendicant preachers and false prophets, a theme that is picked up and developed through later first-century Christian literature (e.g., 2-3 John; Didache 11.22). The specialized role of the mendicant preacher would have made a great deal of sense in the ancient world, with both Jewish (the prophets) and Greco-Roman (the Cynics) parallels.
Still, it’s easy to see how this “specialized role” could give way to a de-contextualized understanding of these verses that would instead call all Christians to a radically ascetic lifestyle. Particularly under the influence of Cynic and Gnostic ideas, some Christians in the tradition of the Gospel of Thomas believed asceticism to be not “for the sake of an extraordinary mission, but because the world itself corrupts and kills.” As noted above, however, the NT primarily emphasizes staying within one’s social roles and structures, in part to be better able to support those who are in fact called to the mendicant, ascetic lifestyle. But for those in the Cynic-Gnostic tradition, “an eschatological ethos, adopted by prophets who called on people to confront an imminent transformation of life by God, becomes a way of life to be internalized.”
I think all this is quite interesting simply as an example of an early de-contextualized reading of Jesus’ Gospel ethics, but it’s also relevant for today: we can’t simply read every statement or command of Jesus (or Paul) as speaking directly to us. This may complicate our reading of Scripture, but it is nevertheless the right thing to do. Moreover, this does reinforce the point that not all modern Christians are called to “give up everything.” But some are, and it is the duty of the rest of us to provide for them, partnering with them with prayer, finances, and perhaps even housing. And we are called to be discerning, to (as far as we are able) make sure that those ministers of the gospel are truly called by Christ, and not by Mammon.