Cloistered Christianity

Two things happened this week that got me thinking about the brand of Christianity (as though there are more than one!) that I would like to live.  Over a cup of coffee at the Emporium an old friend used the term “cloistered Christianity.”  I don’t know if the term was original to my friend, or if he borrowed it from someone else, but it evoked an image that stayed with me in a way that disturbed and challenged me.

Later in the day a different friend sent me the following  quotation from Erwin McManus.

“If those who prepare for leadership are looking for the safe place, who will lead the church into the dangerous places?”

These two quotations reminded me of another writer, G.K. Chesterton who once observed, “Christianity has not been tried and found difficult.  It has been found difficult and left untried.”

Christianity wasn’t meant to be safe and comfortable…it was meant to storm the gates of hell.  “Cloistered Christianity” is faith tucked away somewhere safe and secure, faith shut off from the problems and dangers of the real world.  My sense is that “cloistered Christianity” is faith based on fear rather than hope.  The tendency to cloister our faith isn’t based on a love for our faith, nor upon love for the object of our faith.  Rather, I think it is based on fear that our faith won’t hold up to the rough and tumble of the real world.   Cloistered faith has its biggest arguments over the smallest issues, it’s grandest victories over imaginary foes.

Cloistered faith is neat, tidy, and polite but rarely noticed by those who are not practicing it.

At its best, cloistered Christianity misses out on the impact it could have building God’s kingdom whether that be around the world, or down the street.  At it’s worst, it’s primary objective of cloistered faith is to defend the status quo, spending more and more of its time arguing over smaller and smaller matters,  be they periphery matters of doctrine or the color of the church carpet.  While there is nothing wrong with tea parties, potluck dinners and attractive carpet, these should not be the focus of the church’s energy.  True religion cares for widows and orphans, and dirties itself by following the example of the Good Samaritan, stopping along the roadside to rescue those brutalized by sin.  Faith that is uncloistered is more about sacrifice than security, less about defending ours and more about being His.

Those who dare to take their faith out of the monastery and into the marketplace will find that Jesus is big enough to take on all challengers.  He stands with those call out the evil of sex trafficking.  If the challenge involves leaders who oppress others, turning faith into consumerism and greed, he braids whips and flips tables.  When the threat comes from self-righteous teachers who shut the doors of heaven in men’s faces, he calls them “sons of hell.”  When they neglect justice and mercy he calls them “blind guides.”  When the leaders of the day valued image more than substance, he said, “on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”  Strong words from a bold Savior.  And the scariest part is that he invites us to follow him… out of the monastery or the safety of the Christian ghetto, and into a real world with big problems.

The good news?  He promises to go with us.

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11 Responses to Cloistered Christianity

  1. Great thoughts! Thank you for sharing. As a teacher, I am constantly seeking to discuss with my students the necessity to discuss hard cultural/social issues and to foster compassion, so that our faith is not isolated. My only hesitation is with your use of the word cloister. Coming from a more historic church tradition, I have been often challenged by the oftentimes radical faith of early monastics, many of them who lived withing “cloistered” communities. And while I am sure that many of them had issues of isolation, many of them were devoted to concepts of radical hospitality. In fact, Benedictine rule was to completely devoted to welcoming the stranger and allowing them to participate and be included within monastic life. I loved your article, I would have just perhaps chosen a term like “fortressed Christianity” or “barricaded Christianity”, but I guess they don’t have quite as good a ring to them:)

  2. Seems like you are on a bit of a rant here.
    1. When is “our faith” supposed to be the thing we take into the marketplace? Maybe our love for “our faith” is just like those little people with “little minds”, it’s just different in our perspective. So, you love your faith and you think your faith is amazing. It is my sense that Chesterton would think that you are just fighting with other Christians (because their minds are not as large as your’s and don’t possess your enormous vision)
    2. I would enjoy a discussion with you about how your sense of cloistered Christianity is based on fear. Concerns yes. Of course. But, then again, you have concerns. Why not share the gospel with 10 people this week and then write a column about storming the gates of hell. After all, that you care about global issues enough to get exercised by it isn’t the same thing as sharing the gospel is it?
    3. Where does humility enter into your tirade? I mean, really?
    4. Jesus’ words against the Pharisees were not a stinging critique for their wimpy approach to true relationship with God. It is bogus to use it to pummel those Christians with whom you disagree or to use them as a prop to make your actions seem heroic.
    5. I suspect you are hurting greatly and feel for you. I heard you were a great guy and to read this…well, it is just disappointing. Anyone can lash out at other Christians. I just don’t think it gets a pass on the crap-meter.
    6. So, do you think that you think Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, and Chesterton would back you if they were here today? Or, do you think they would be offended by your utter confidence in yourself, viewing it as immodest and typically American?

    • Bob – I edited out your first point because I felt it was a more personal concern. I would be happy to discuss it with you in person if that would be helpful. My contact information is available on this website.
      1. My main point was to address an approach to Christianity that is insular, disconnected from the culture in which we live. I would cite the book of Acts as great example of faith engaging culture. There are many great Christian organizations, but a few that I think are doing a great job focusing outward rather than inward are Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA, International Justice Mission (IJM), an World Vision. There are also many great more traditional mission agencies are taking the gospel into difficult and hostile parts of the world. My own faith is often faltering. One of the bible characters with whom I can identify is the father in Mark 9:24 who says, “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.”
      2. I grew up in a form of Christianity that seemed to measure holiness by how disconnected we were from culture. There was a long list of things we didn’t or shouldn’t do that had little or nothing to do with scripture or the example of Christ. I am not arguing in favor of non-discerning acceptance of everything our culture throws at us. I am suggesting that we should be able to engage and even produce culture without fear. We should be able to have civil and thoughtful conversations with those with whom we disagree. We should also be allowed to critically examine our own faith. Over my career I have received many angry and accusatory letters, usually unrelated to an essential matter of doctrine, but to some aspect of cultural engagement. Over time I came to realize that that these letters came from basically good people who loved Jesus, but who were afraid to critically examine their extra-biblical traditions, or to give a fair hearing to people with other opinions. It seemed like common denominator of these individuals was a fear that if we thought critically, or examined other points of view our faith might collapse. Your warning is a fair one. My perspective seems true to me but it is equally susceptible to error.
      3. I hoped my post would be seen as a challenge, not a tirade. I apologize if I have erred on the side of venting. Based on your feedback, I removed the first McManus quotation because it was too self-serving and was a distraction from the point I was trying to make.
      4. I don’t mean to focus Christ’s words of Matthew 23 to all with whom I disagree, but I think it is fair to apply the critique to those who are doing the things listed in the chapter, focusing merely on externals and driving people way from the Kingdom of heaven.
      5. Thanks for your concern and honesty. I hope that your critique will help to make future postings better and more balanced. All of are susceptible being more concerned about the specks in the eyes of others than to the boards that obstruct our own vision.
      6. I don’t claim to be a Wilberforce, a Bonheoffer, or a Chesterton but I do admire them and am seeking to learn from their examples. I do suspect that they were also viewed as over-confident and immodest at times. There is a legitimate tension between boldness and over-confidence and our fallen state often causes us to ere in our self-appraisals.

      • I was going to respond to Bob, but Dr. Ruby beat me to it and said basically everything I was going to say. He’s right, and those of us who’ve left the church could tell you that one of the reasons we left is that we didn’t hear this often enough.

  3. Bonhoeffer has a lot to say about living a Christian life. Not only did he write about the topic but he lived it. In Bonhoeffer’s book “Life Together” he states:

    “Emotional love lives by uncontrolled and uncontrollable dark desires; spiritual love lives in the clear light of service ordered by the truth. Self-centered love results in human enslavement, bondage, rigidity; spiritual love creates the freedom of Christians under the Word. Emotional love breeds artificial hothouse flowers; spiritual love creates the fruits that grow healthily under God’s open sky, according to God’s good pleasure in the rain and storm and sunshine”

    Thanks for writing Carl. Be well and grow healthy under Gods’ open sky!

  4. Thank you so much for posting this today. I needed this message, this reminder of purpose, this call to true living. I will only keep my head above these raging waters if I look to Jesus…

  5. Enjoyable to read, I particularly enjoyed “bob’s” interpretation of your writing. Apparently he has some preconceived notion that you are stuck on yourself. FYI chesterton was a catholic for a reason. . . applying the things he says to any sort of protestant ideas just seems awkward. Overall your message is very close to home for me. I grew up in a very conservative Christian situation and the ‘cloistered’ that you speak of was terribly apparent. I think you’re dead on, everything you’re saying about the comfortable rational christians is true. Kudos.

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