Ascetic Vows vs. Scriptural Liberties

by Bryan Matthew Dockens

Members of religious orders of the Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox churches, most prominently priests and nuns, commit themselves to particular ascetic vows. Asceticism, by definition, is extreme self-denial. Self-denial, of course, is enjoined upon all those who would follow Christ (Luke 9:23-24). However, the Lord never placed such restrictions as vows of chastity and poverty on His followers.

The Vow of Chastity

The apostle Paul made it abundantly clear that preachers and others are not bound by such a vow when he asked rhetorically, "Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?" (I Corinthians 9:5). To ask the question is to answer it – preachers have a "right" to be married.

In another letter, Paul warned "that in latter times some will depart from the faith… forbidding to marry" (I Timothy 4:1-2). To forbid it is apostasy since "Marriage is honorable among all" (Hebrews 13:4).

Granted, Paul found bachelorhood beneficial (I Corinthians 7:1-7, 32-33), but that was his personal choice, not a requirement. While preachers have a right to lead about a believing wife, the elders who oversee the church are actually required to do so (I Timothy 3:2, 11), and so must the deacons (I Timothy 3:11-12). The so-called "vow of chastity" is not from God, but the devil.

The Vow of Poverty

This one is just as unscriptural as the last. Nowhere does God's word even hint that preachers should be deprived of their livelihoods. On the contrary, Paul wrote, "the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel" (I Corinthians 9:14). He emphatically illustrated this point by referring to soldiers who are paid for their service, farmers who enjoy their produce, shepherds who live off their livestock (I Corinthians 9:7), beasts of burden who should not be hindered while working (I Corinthians 9:8-9), and the priests of Israel who partook from the offerings of the altar (I Corinthians 9:13). He argued that spiritual service should yield some material benefit (I Corinthians 9:11). Even Jesus accepted contributions from His disciples (Luke 8:1-3).

Churches indeed owe "wages" to preachers (II Corinthians 11:8) and elders (I Timothy 5:17-18). Such wages should be comparable to the earnings of others in the church. If the average member can afford the basics of life, so should the preacher. It is only reasonable that the preacher be at least able to provide food, shelter, clothing, and medicine for himself and his household (I Timothy 5:8). This is not an unrealistic expectation of churches. After all, if members contribute an average of ten percent of their income to the church, then the offerings of only ten members should be sufficient to meet the preacher's needs! Of course, when a church lacks the ability to provide such needs, it is important to practice contentment (Philippians 4:10-20), and, if necessary, to rely on a secular trade (Acts 18:3; I Corinthians 4:11-12), but this is not what is intended by the Lord (Matthew 10:9-11).

Poverty is not God's plan for anyone, as Agur declared, "Give me neither poverty nor riches – feed me with the food allotted to me; lest I be full and deny You, and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God" (Proverbs 30:8-9). The principle of self-denial remains intact (Luke 9:23-24), but God does not demand of his ministers the sacrifice of these specified liberties.