Small Groups and Monasticism

Church Leadership


by Joel Comiskey

This chapter is taken from Comiskey’s book “2000 Years of Small Groups.”

Saint Anthony the Great (251–356 AD), also called “star of the wilderness” was certainly not the first Christian to leave the cities for a life of solitude. But he was probably the most famous because of his austere and rigorous Christian spirituality, which he spread to Palestine, Syria, Greece, and across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. It all started when he headed out into the desert region of North Africa, some sixty miles west of Alexandria, Egypt.

According to Athanasius, an early church father, the devil fought Saint Anthony by afflicting him with boredom, laziness, and phantoms of women, which he overcame by the power of prayer. After that, he moved to a tomb, where he closed the door on himself and depended on local villagers to bring him food. When the devil perceived his ascetic life and his intense worship, he was envious and beat him mercilessly, leaving him unconscious. When his friends from the local village came to visit Anthony and found him in this condition, they carried him to a church.

After he recovered, he made a second effort and went back to the desert where he lived strictly enclosed in an old abandoned Roman fort for some twenty years. According to Athanasius, the devil again resumed his war against Anthony, only this time the phantoms were in the form of wild beasts, wolves, lions, snakes and scorpions. They appeared as if they were about to attack him or cut him into pieces. But the saint would laugh at them and say, “If any of you have any authority over me, only one would have been sufficient to fight me.” With these words, they disappeared, and God gave him the victory over the devils.

While in the fort, he only communicated with the outside world by a crevice through which food would be passed and he would say a few words. He did not allow anyone to enter his cell. Whoever came to him, stood outside and listened to his advice.

Then one day he emerged from the fort. By this time, most had expected him to have wasted away, or gone insane in his solitary confinement, but he emerged healthy, serene, and enlightened. Everyone was amazed that he had been through these trials and emerged spiritually rejuvenated. He was hailed as a hero, and from this time forth the legend of Anthony began to spread and grow.1

Many followed the example of Anthony and became known as monks. The word monk means alone (from Greek monos = alone, solitary) and by definition, a monk lived apart from others. Saint Anthony’s example stirred many to seek God alone, but eventually monks decided they would be more effective by gathering together into monasteries for fellowship and protection. Although Saint Anthony’s story is one of the earliest and most famous, all monks had one thing in common: the desire for a sacrificial, second level commitment to Jesus Christ that went beyond the status quo.

Resisting the Status Quo

Those who chose the monastic way of life renounced worldly pursuits and devoted themselves fully to God’s work. Monks were willing to deny themselves and live by established spiritual norms that went beyond the religious requirements for lay people and other spiritual leaders.

The monks resisted the lavish gains of the church under Constantine. They realized that the church’s political gains were sinking the cause of Christ. They viewed the church as lukewarm and compromised with the world. Joseph Lynch writes, “Some of them, mostly men, abandoned urban life and ordinary careers and sought remote places, where they lived lives of systematic and severe self-denial, coupled with prayer and meditation on the Scriptures. These were the first monks.”2

Many of these lay monks were drawn to a life of isolationism in order to pursue their own salvation. They kept entirely to themselves. Judith Herrin writes,

While this organized and most visible feature of Christianity continued to grow, a quite different form of expansion was under way in the countryside, in the wildest and most deserted parts of the empire, furthest away from urban civilization. It sprang from a desire to shun the world and all its evils, to escape to the desert and commune with God alone. The practice had older pre-Christian roots, which were taken over by Christians seeking to live by Christ’s command: “leave all thou hast and follow me.”3

They went out into the desert or wilderness to seek God alone, to deny the pleasure of marriage, and to practice extreme asceticism. This total withdrawal became quite common by the close of the third century. However, the balance between individual isolation and Christian community began to occur. We know that from 300 to 700 AD many monks gathered together to practice the life of self-denial. Part of the reason why these isolated individuals couldn’t practice their faith alone was the repeated hostile attacks by pagan forces, both near Rome and in Africa. Some of the monasteries even built defenses to keep out the intruders.4

Discovering the Need for Community

Many of the monks formed monasteries on the edges of the cities in order to avoid isolationism. These monks connected a relationship with God with the need to relate to other believers.5 For example, Basil (329–379 AD) established a monastery in Asia Minor where brotherly love and care was promoted. Brown writes,

Gradually some of these hermits discovered that if they grouped together in small communities, they experienced spiritual as well as practical benefits. In time many of the features of the Christian community in Acts 2 were reincorporated into monastic life, and yet there was still a separation from the people.6

Even when living together, chastity and obedience were strictly practiced. Restrictions were placed on diet and hard work was required.

Some monasteries asked for a lifetime commitment while others, like Celtic monasticism, practiced permeability. That is, people were able to move freely in and out of the monastic system at different points of life. Young boys and girls would enter the system to pursue Latin scholarship. Students would sometimes travel from faraway lands to enter the Irish monasteries. When these students became adults, they would leave the monastery to live out their lives. Eventually, these people would retire back to a secure community provided by the monastery and stay until their death. However, some would stay long-term within the monastery and become leaders. Permeable monasticism popularized the use of the vernacular and helped mesh the norms of the secular and religious, unlike other parts of Europe where monasteries were more isolated.

Most monasteries developed their own rules and strategies, along with their customs and traditions.7 However, the rule of Saint Benedict became increasingly adopted by monasteries because of the way it balanced the spiritual disciplines, work, and community.8 The rule of Saint Benedict is a collection of precepts written by Saint Benedict of Nursia (480–547 AD) for monks living communally under the authority of a spiritual leader called an abbot. During the one thousand five hundred years of its existence, it became the leading guide in western Christianity for monastic living in community. The two key principles of Saint Benedict’s Rule are:

  • Peace (pax)
  • Pray and work (Ora et labora)

Compared to other monastic orders, the Rule of Saint Benedict provided a moderate path between individual zeal and institutionalism. Because of this middle ground, it became widely popular. Benedict’s concerns were the needs of monks in a community environment, to establish order, to foster an understanding of the relational nature of human beings, and to provide a spiritual father to support and strengthen the person’s spiritual growth. It organized the monastic day into regular periods of communal and private prayer, sleep, spiritual reading, and manual labor. In later centuries, intellectual work and teaching took the place of farming, crafts, or other forms of manual labor.

Monasticism and Missions

Patrick was born around 385 AD in Roman Britain, a province of the Roman Empire from 43 to 409 AD. As a boy of fourteen, he was captured during a raiding party and taken to Ireland as a slave to herd and tend sheep. Ireland at that time was a land of Druids and pagans. Patrick learned the language and practices of the people who held him captive. During this time, he turned to God in prayer, and God revealed himself. Patrick wrote,

The love of God and his fear grew in me more and more, as did the faith, and my soul was roused, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers and in the night, nearly the same. I prayed in the woods and on the mountain, even before dawn. I felt no hurt from the snow or ice or rain.9

Patrick’s captivity lasted until he was twenty. He then escaped after God showed him in a dream to leave Ireland by going to the coast. There he found some sailors who took him back to Britain, where he reunited with his family. He then had another dream in which the people of Ireland were calling out to him saying, “We beg you, holy youth, to come and walk among us once more.”

Before going back to Ireland, he studied for the priesthood, was ordained as a bishop by Saint Germanus around 430 AD, and was then officially sent to establish Christ’s church in Ireland. He arrived in Ireland on March 25, 433 AD. One legend says that he met a chieftain of one of the tribes, who tried to kill Patrick. Later this chieftain, Dichu, was converted after he was unable to move his arm until he became friendly to Patrick.

Patrick began preaching the gospel throughout Ireland, converting many. He and his disciples preached, made disciples, and planted churches all over the country. Kings, their families, and entire kingdoms converted to Christianity when hearing Patrick’s message. God performed many miracles through Patrick, and he wrote about God’s power and love in his autobiography called Confession of Saint Patrick.

Patrick’s model of reaching out to others was highly relational, hospitable, and community-oriented. He and his followers would move into a pagan area and then become part of the community. They took seriously the passage in the book of Psalms that says, “Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (34:8). Patrick believed that the truth is first caught and then taught, so they tried to make the church accessible to the people.

They modeled what they wanted others to follow. They lived life in community, but this was never an end in itself. They never lost sight of giving their community away. In fact, their evangelistic strategy resembled the prayer of Jesus in John 17 where he tells the disciples that the world would know and believe by their unity. Patrick’s band of believers talked a lot about the love and unity within the Trinity and used the three-sided shamrock to explain the Trinity. They would then demonstrate the love of the Trinity in their communities. The evangelistic bands knew their own lives needed to reflect God’s character if they were going to win the unreached Irish.

Those who entered the group saw transformed lives, love in action, and how disciples were supposed to act. The seekers were then invited to become Christ’s disciples. As a result of this strategy, many received Jesus, new groups multiplied, and missionary bands infiltrated unreached areas. The discipleship and the outreach were intimately connected together.

Inspired by Patrick’s model, waves of missionary bands were sent out over the continent. A community of monks (ten to twelve) would settle in a non-Christian area and establish a Christian church. They would preach until a number were converted, and then they would teach the new converts. Once they had established the church, they would leave to go to another part of Europe, believing their purpose was to establish the monastic community throughout the land.

Using the same small group strategy, Columban and twelve companions went to Gaul (modern day France) around 590 AD. They preached and taught, living with any who shared hospitality with them.10 Columban was so successful that he started three monasteries and continued to work with the uncivilized barbarians, trying to convert them to Christianity. This went against the practice of the local bishops, who preferred to stay in the larger towns and cities. The bishops summoned Columban to curtail his activity, but he refused; instead, he sent them a letter in which he told them that they weren’t doing their jobs. Columban felt a bishop should live in the countryside and reach the pagans.

The Celtic spirit of evangelism and missions continued with such men as Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), Saint Dominic (1170–1221), and Saint Francis of Assisi (1181–1226). These men were dedicated saints who followed hard after God, as they understood him.11 The early monastic missionary bands were very similar to evangelism in the early church, where neighbors could see and hear what was happening in the house churches. Speaking of the inner drive that motivated these Celtic missionaries, Hardinge writes,

Individual response to a divinely placed inner drive to spread their faith, singly or in groups, impelled Celtic missionaries to go forth. Without credentials or material support, self-reliant and trusting in God, they accomplished more than their numbers would warrant. Spontaneity, lack of traditionalism, and individuality were the features of this movement.12

For the most part, Monasticism was a purifying element to the Roman Catholic Church, as well as a powerful evangelistic outreach. It did not, however, bridge the gap between the laity and the clergy. The clergy continued to have their own small groups, while the monastic lay movement met separately. Brown writes,

At first this movement developed quite apart from the clergy dominated Catholic Church. In fact, it was looked down upon by those in authority. Yet, by the end of the fifth century, monasticism had become so extensive that it became characteristic of the Catholic Church.13

One of the Monastic groups that tried to reform the church, met in houses, and had a significant impact during its time was a movement called the Brethren of the Common Life.

Brethren of the Common Life

This monastic movement originated in the Netherlands under the leadership of Gerard Groote (1340–1384). Groote was born during a time of papal crisis in which there were two reigning popes and eventually three who claimed Peter’s throne. Those living in the latter part of the fourteenth century expressed their discontent in literature as well as in rebellion.14 They wanted economic and spiritual change and sensed a new liberty to communicate through literature. Gerard Groote exemplified this new mood.

Groote became a successful educator. God converted him and stirred him to preach the gospel and live a simple lifestyle. John Neale, who wrote an extensive history of this movement, says, “The first effect of his conversion was his intense zeal to bring back his countrymen to real, vital religion.”15 He spent two years in a monastery but then left to preach the gospel. Groote went from place to place calling men and women to repentance, proclaiming the beauty of Divine love, and pinpointing the degradation of the clergy. He would often preach three-hour sermons, and the people hung on every word.16 When the clergy rose up against him, Groote humbly submitted and didn’t incite the people against them. In 1380, Groote chose twelve disciples who met regularly with him in a house. He prepared them to preach God’s Word. Yet, Groote’s disciples were also very intellectual, studying the ancient texts and preparing themselves spiritually.

Members of the clergy even enrolled themselves in his brotherhood, which eventually was approved by the pope. They devoted themselves to doing charitable work, nursing the sick, copying Scripture, and preaching the gospel. They later made extensive use of the printing press to publish their spiritual writings widely. They also obtained qualified teachers for their schools and revived the spiritual and intellectual life of the Catholic Church. Books and learning were central to the communities of the Brethren, whose scrupulous copies of works of piety supported their houses.

When Groote first started, education in the Netherlands was rare. Very few people apart from the clergy had studied at the universities and cathedral schools in Paris or in Cologne, so there were very few scholars in the land. The goal for many was simply to ensure that their children could read and write when graduating from school. Groote and the Brethren of the Common Life determined to change this. They started a number of schools that became famous for their high standards of learning. Many well-known people attended their schools, including Nicholas of Cusa (German philosopher, theologian, jurist, and astronomer), Thomas á Kempis (author of The Imitation of Christ), and Desiderius Erasmus (classical scholar, social critic, teacher, and theologian).

By the year 1475, the movement had expanded to some one hundred houses for women and over thirty men’s homes.17 Each house of the Brethren consisted of four or more priests, along with a few laymen who gathered together voluntarily.18 The Brethren never took monastic vows, such as the vows or promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience, which were common vows that other monastic orders bound themselves to fulfill. Nor did they ask for or receive alms. Rather they worked for their daily bread. Their chief aim in coming together was to cultivate the inner life, which they accomplished through sharing property and practicing the spiritual disciplines, such as praying and meditating on Scripture.19

They tried to live like their neighbors and practiced their communal lifestyle in normal neighborhood houses. They distinguished their lifestyle from their neighbors, not because they were part of a religious order, but simply because they were followers of Jesus. John Van Engen notes, “Brothers or sisters lived on ordinary city streets, walked with people to church and to market, maintained relations with family and friends; and yet lived a life apart in religious practice, in dress, in social structure.”20

The Brethren multiplied their houses when there were approximately fifteen to twenty people. Carol Geisler writes,

As the pious reputation of the Brothers and Sisters spread, the small and unassuming beginning of sixteen poor women living in Geert Grote’s house began to develop into a sizeable system of communities. John Brinckerinck, who became rector of Grote’s house in 1392, had to turn women away from that first small household due to lack of space, sending them to start foundations in other parts of the city. By 1391, the community of Brothers established by Florens Radewijns had outgrown his vicarage and moved to a larger house. Visitors, impressed by the lifestyle of the Brothers and Sisters, asked for assistance in establishing devout households in their own towns.21

They did not call their community a convent or a monastery, but a domus, a house.22 Albert Hyma describes this movement as a “. . . protest against the formalism of the church in the fourteenth century.”23 Because the Brethren didn’t operate as an official order, many priests and bishops attacked them. In response, the Brethren wrote, The Treatise on the Common Life. This document points out that the Brethren were just pious men who chose to meet together in private homes, to share all things in common, and to exhort one another.24 They didn’t want to become part of the establishment. They simply wanted to live out the Christian life and follow God wholeheartedly.

Lessons Learned

  • Monasticism was a response to formalism and ritualism in the church. The common monastic features were a total commitment to Jesus Christ and the desire to live apart from the world.
  • Eventually individual monks felt the need to come together for community, protection, and greater effectiveness.
  • Some monastic orders were unbalanced, emphasizing the abstinence from things normally considered good (e.g., marriage, family, sleep,and so forth). The nuclear family was underemphasized in monasticism.
  • The Celtic missionary bands were examples of life-giving small groups that evangelized and won people through community outreach. Many followed their example by planting community-oriented, vibrant churches throughout Europe.
  • The Brethren of the Common Life was a monastic movement that emphasized spirituality, scholarship, and the preaching God’s Word. They met in regular neighborhood homes and started new house communities when the group grew too large.


  1. Athanasius Jerome Sulpicius Severus Gregory The Great, Early Christian Lives, trans. Carolinne White (Penguin Classics: New York 1998), pp. 1–70.
  2. Lynch, p. 18.
  3. Judith Herrin, The Formation of Christendom (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 59.
  4. Ibid., p. 71.
  5. Brian Patrick McGuire, Friendship and Community (London: Cornwell University Press, 2010), pp. 38–60.
  6. Brown, p. 37.
  7. Edward A. Wynne, Traditional Catholic Religious Orders (Oxford, UK: Transaction Books, 1988), p. 24.
  8. David Knowles, Christian Monasticism (New York: World University Library, 1977), p. 40.
  9. Quoted in an article called “St Patrick,” Catholic Online, Accessed at on Tuesday, April 1, 2014
  10. As quoted in Paul Pierson, Historical Development of the Christian Movement, MH520 study notes for doctoral admission (Pasadena, CA: Fuller Theological Seminary, School of World Mission, 1989), p. 11.
  11. Brown, p. 37.
  12. As quoted in Pierson, p. 10.
  13. Latourette, p. 222.
  14. Margaret Aston, The Fifteenth Century: The Prospect of Europe (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1968), p. 144.
  15. John M. Neale, A History of the So-called Jansenist Church of Holland (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007), p. 76.
  16. Ibid., p. 76.
  17. Kenneth Strand, A Reformation Paradox (Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Publishers, 1960), p. 22.
  18. Neale, p. 96.
  19. Ibid., p. 97.
  20. John Van Engen, “Conversion and Conformity,” 50–51. On a middle order in medieval society, see “Appendix: Mediocres (Mediani, Medii) inthe Middle Ages,” in Giles Constable, Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995): 342–60 as quoted in Carol Geisler, An Obedient Defense of Disobedience: The Brothers of the Common Life and the Boundaries of Religion. Ph.D. dissertation for Concordia, Seminary (Concordia, St. Louis, MO, 2008), p. 37.
  21. Carol Geisler, An Obedient Defense of Disobedience: The Brothers of the Common Life and the Boundaries of Religion. Ph.D. dissertation for Concordia, Seminary (Concordia, St. Louis, MO, 2008), p. 54.
  22. Ibid., p. 187.
  23. Albert Hyma, The Brethren of the Common Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 7.
  24. Ibid., p. 73.