A religious order is a group of men or women who have chosen to live within the confines of certain religious vows established by the leader of that religion. For example, Buddhist monks and nuns have chosen to sequester themselves in like-minded communities for the purpose of devoting themselves to the teachings of Buddha. Within Christianity, religious orders are found primarily in the Roman Catholic Church but can also be a part of the Episcopal Church, Eastern Orthodox, and other liturgical branches.
In Catholicism, there are three main types of religious orders: monastic (monks, nuns, and hermits), mendicant (friars), and what are called canons regular (priests living in a community and following an order—usually Augustinian—yet active in a particular parish). Another type of religious order, clerics regular, is similar to canons regular but places fewer demands on the practitioner. The three most common vows taken by those in religious orders are the vow of poverty (relinquishment of all personal possessions), the vow of obedience (surrender of all authority), and the vow of chastity (forsaking all sexual relations). Religious orders within the Catholic Church include the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Jesuits, the Trappists, and about 35 other groups.
When people “take the vow,” they are committing the rest of their lives or a specific number of years to the religious order. Most religious orders adhere to strict daily schedules that revolve around personal meditations, prayers, corporate services, and often humanitarian work. They strive for a minimalist existence in order to devote body, soul, and spirit to the religious ideals they have chosen.
The purposes behind many religious orders are admirable, and the motivations of many who join them may be pure. However, Scripture does not support the idea of cloistering ourselves within like-minded communities and not engaging in the real world where we can be “salt and light” to unbelievers (Matthew 5:13–15). Those in religious orders often do not hold full-time jobs, interact on a daily basis with those outside the order, or face the daily struggles of life that the average person faces. They do not marry, manage a household, balance a checkbook, or deal with the kind of stress and anxiety that give them insight and understanding about other people. The Bible actually warns us against those who would forbid marriage and restrict what types of food we can eat (1 Timothy 4:2–4).
Second Corinthians 1:3–4 explains that we can best help and comfort others when we have gone through the same things they have. Those who spend their lives in religious orders are not experiencing the same kind of life that those outside the walls of the monastery are experiencing. Since Jesus is our model, we should seek to be involved in the culture where we have been placed, as He was (Hebrews 4:15; John 2:1). It would have been understandable if Jesus had sequestered Himself inside the temple during His years on earth so that He could devote Himself fully to the things of God. But He didn’t. He did the opposite. He got up early in the morning to seek a lonely place to pray (Mark 1:35). Then He spent the rest of the time living among the people He had come to serve. He shared our hurts, our temptations, and our lives so that He could be our compassionate Advocate (1 Timothy 2:5). Neither He nor the apostles ever taught religious orders or tried to form special groups who follow “extra” (manmade) rules in order to please God.