Asceticism and monasticism are two religious disciplines designed to de-emphasize the pleasures of the world so the practitioner can concentrate on the spiritual life. Both asceticism and monasticism have been adopted by worshipers of various faiths. In general, asceticism is the practice of strict self-denial as a means of attaining a higher spiritual plane. Monasticism is the state of being secluded from the world in order to fulfill religious vows. While most monks are ascetic, ascetics do not have to be monks.
Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, meaning "exercise, training, practice." Ascetics renounce worldly pleasures that distract from spiritual growth and enlightenment and live a life of abstinence, austerity, and extreme self-denial. Asceticism is common in Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam. Asceticism is not to be confused with Stoicism. Stoics believed that holiness can reside only in the spiritual realm, and all physical matter is evil. Ascetics do not necessarily believe that the flesh is evil, but they do go to great lengths to deny the flesh in order to transform the mind or “free” the spirit. Historically, asceticism has involved fasting, exposing oneself to heat or cold, sleep deprivation, flagellation, and even self-mutilation. Asceticism is usually associated with monks, priests, and yogis.
The voluntary Nazarite vow could be seen as a mild form of asceticism. People of the Old Testament who took the vow consecrated themselves to God and refrained from drinking wine and cutting their hair (Numbers 6:1-21). Modern Christian ascetics use passages such as 1 Peter 2:11 and 1 Corinthians 9:27 to support their lifestyle, and they exhibit their austerity in different ways. Some choose to be celibate. Others practice religious disciplines such as meditation, keeping vigil, and fasting.
Monasticism is similar to asceticism, but with a slightly different focus. Whereas ascetics practice extreme self-denial, monks seclude themselves from all earthly influences in an attempt to live a godly life and to keep their personal religious vows. Christian monasticism is based on an extreme interpretation of Jesus’ teachings on perfection (Matthew 5:48), celibacy (Matthew 19:10-12), and poverty (Matthew 19:16-22). Monks and nuns attempt to control their environment and surround themselves with like-minded devotees. Many followers of Eastern religions also practice monasticism, the Buddhist monk perhaps being the most recognizable.
Christian monasticism draws from the influence of Judaic tradition. The Essenes, a Jewish mystical sect, were similar to monks. They were as devout as the Pharisees but lived in isolation, often in caves in the wilderness. It’s possible that John the Baptist was an Essene, and many scholars believe the Dead Sea Scrolls were written by Essenes. Monasticism in Christianity became popular during the time of Constantine. With the government’s endorsement of Christianity, many believers found it more difficult to live a godly lifestyle. Some of them turned their backs on society and fled to the desert, where they believed that quietude and self-induced hardship would make following Jesus easier. Today, most Western monks and nuns are Catholic, although there is a movement among Protestants for individuals and families to live communally.
Followers of Christ are told to deny self (Luke 9:23), but asceticism takes this command to an extreme. The Bible never suggests that a Christian should purposely seek out discomfort or pain. On the contrary, God has richly blessed us “with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). The Bible warns of those who “forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods” (1 Timothy 4:3); thus, it is erroneous to believe that celibates who abstain from certain foods are “more holy” than other people. We are under grace, not under the law (Romans 6:14); therefore, the Christian does not live by a set of rules but by the leading of the Holy Spirit. Christ has set us free (John 8:36). In many cases, the ascetic practices self-denial in order to earn God’s favor or somehow purge himself from sin. This shows a misunderstanding of grace; no amount of austerity can earn salvation or merit God’s love (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Monasticism is not biblical in that it ignores our responsibility to go into all the world and preach the gospel (Matthew 28:19). While we are not part of the world, we are in it, and the church was never intended to be isolated from people in need of Christ (1 Corinthians 5:9-10).