Although monastic tradition has been partially inspired by biblical figures such as Elijah, John the Baptist, and even Jesus Himself (during His 40 days in the wilderness), monasticism is not a practice promoted or even mentioned in the Bible. Monks and nuns follow man-made traditions that are not taught in the Word of God.
The Pharisees prescribed many man-made rules for others. In a way, the Mosaic Law had become salvation to the Pharisees, rather than a tool by which God shows us our need for a Savior (see Romans 3:20). Jesus came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17); because no one can live up to God’s righteous standard, Christ’s atonement for sin and the indwelling of His Spirit is the only way sinners can come before God and be made righteous (Ephesians 2:8–10; 1 John 5:11–13). Just as the Pharisees bypassed this truth with their many rules, so monasticism can dangerously sway toward a self-righteousness rather than “a righteousness that is by faith” (Romans 9:30).
Centuries before the first Christian monks began to cloister themselves, Paul warned the church of Colossae concerning rules imposed by men: “Why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules . . . are based on merely human commands and teachings” (Colossians 2:20–22). Paul opposed such religious traps in part because they were ineffective in producing true holiness: “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (verse 23). One’s sanctification does not depend on following a monastic rule or any other code of human regulations.
The call to follow Jesus is a call to die to our own will and submit to God’s will for our lives (Romans 6:1–8, 13; Colossians 2:20–3:3; Mark 12:28–34). It is not, however, a call to asceticism. Christians are not forbidden from enjoying the things this world has to offer. Although Paul admonishes the wealthy to not put their hope in riches, he states that God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). Of course the Bible forbids sin, but placing further strictures on one’s behavior, except to accommodate a weaker brother (Romans 14:21), goes beyond Scripture’s advice.
One of the problems with a Christian becoming a monk or nun, apart from the extra-biblical origin of the role, is that monasticism naturally divides Christians into two camps: those in “religious” vocations and those in “secular” vocations. Martin Luther, a former Augustinian monk (who married a former nun), wrote against the idea of a “super-Christian” inherent in monasticism: “Monastic vows rest on the false assumption that there is a special calling, a vocation, to which superior Christians are invited to observe the counsels of perfection while ordinary Christians fulfil only the commands; but there simply is no special religious vocation since the call of God comes to each at the common tasks.” In other words, a married man working as a circus clown can be just as holy as a monk of the most austere variety.
This is not to say that no good has come from monks or nuns who dedicated their lives to pious pursuits. Some, such as Brother Lawrence, have left profound writings that can be of aid in the Christian walk. Others have been forces of good in the fields of education and health care. And some, such as Gregor Mendel, have led scientific advances.
One good question to ask might be “what is the purpose of becoming a monk?” Is the answer “to better or perfect myself”? The Bible is clear that the key to the Christian life is faith, not rule-keeping: “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2–3). Or perhaps the reason for becoming a monk is to escape the temptations of the world. The problem is that we are tempted internally, not just externally (James 1:14). The Bible never advocates escape from the world; in fact, it tells us to engage the world (see 1 Corinthians 5:9–10). Jesus was criticized for eating “with tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11); obviously, He never cloistered Himself.
Should a Christian submit himself to God’s will and obey His calling? Always, the answer to that is “Yes!” Should a Christian be a monk or a nun? Given the lack of biblical precedent, the requirements to adhere to man-made rules, and the problems inherent in asceticism, we would say, “No.”