The Rise of Monasticism in the 4th-Century Christian Church

The following two momentous events impacting the 4th-century church serve as contextual bookends to this discussion:

  • In AD 313 The Edict of Milan was issued by Constantine Augustus and Licinius Augustus.  It legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire and ended Christian persecution.
  • In AD 380 The Edict of Thessalonica was issued by Theodosius I, Gratian, and Valentinian.  It made Nicene Christianity the State Religion of the Roman Empire.

After Constantine I legalized Christianity, under the Edict of Milan in 313 (first bullet, above), pagan elites in search of notoriety and political gain filled the institutional church. In this season of significant transition in the Roman Empire, opportunists took the title “Christian” and sought ecclesiastical positions to improve their socio-political status. People became Christian in name only, thus compromising the morality of the church. Already at the Council of Nicaea in 325, church officials recognized that too many ill-prepared pagan converts had been promoted to positions of leadership.

At the same time, there remained many faithful Christians who endured the final persecution under Emperor Diocletian (AD 305). These Christians abhorred the apathy of the recent status-seeking converts. They wanted a deeper, disciplined expression of worship. But as the church became more politicized and dominated by people with imperial connections, the faithful remnant increasingly lost their voice, and eventually their hope of change. So, in a public display of protest, many fervent Christians made an exodus into the Egyptian, Palestinian, and Syrian deserts as solitary (eremitic) monks. To these Desert Fathers and Mothers, this ascetic life replaced the institutional church as the means to salvation. On some occasions, their deep animosity towards the institutional church turned into physical aggression and violence. They had zeal and passion, but frequently lacked leadership or spiritual guidance.

By the mid-300’s Christianity was divided into two extremes—the institutional church, corrupted by Byzantine politics, and protesting monks who were living as independent Christians. Both sides needed reform and visionary leadership if the church was to survive long-term.

St. Basil (329–379) was born into a wealthy Cappadocian family. As a young man Basil studied in Athens.  In 357, Basil traveled to Egypt, Palestine, and Syria to study ascetics and monasticism. This included visiting not only the eremitic monks of the lower Nile region, but also the first cenobitic (communal) monasteries founded by St. Pachomius in the upper Nile region at Tabennis.

Basil sensed that retirement to a solitary eremitic monastic life was selfish. He felt called to use his education, zeal, and leadership abilities to restore Christians and the church to their true calling. Basil seized upon communal (cenobitic) monasticism to both renew the institutional church and reform the marginalized solitary monks. Vibrant monastic communities could address the dire problems on multiple fronts.  

By 358, Basil had gathered around him a group of like-minded disciples, including his brother Peter (later Bishop of Sebaste).  Together they founded a monastic settlement on his family’s Pontus estate near Annesi (modern Uluköy, Turkey, near the confluence of the Iris and Lycos rivers). His widowed mother Emmelia, sister St. Macrina, and several other ascetic virgin women, joined Basil and devoted themselves to pious lives of prayer and charitable works (some claim St. Macrina actually founded this community).  Its asceticism was dedicated to the service of God, which was to be pursued through community life and obedience. Here Basil wrote about monastic communal life. His writings became pivotal in developing monastic traditions of the Eastern Church. The Rule of St Basil (aka, Asketika) called for obligatory liturgical prayer and manual and mental work.  It also enjoined or implied chastity and poverty.  Basil’s rule was strict but not severe.

In 358, Basil invited his friend, St. Gregory of Nazianzus to join him in Annesi.  When Gregory eventually arrived, they collaborated on Origen’s Philocalia, a collection of Origen’s works.  This was the fulfillment of Basil’s monastic dream.

But, during this period of monastic retreat, Basil became increasingly concerned about the mounting problems in the church and society. He lamented the injustice of poverty, the oppressive “Christian” aristocracy, the church’s marriage to politics, and the spread of the Arian heresy. The institutional church had lapsed and disgruntled believers were continuing to withdraw to the desert. Both forms of Christianity needed restoration.

By the 360’s and 370’s, Basil considered the institutional Church as heading to “utter shipwreck… in addition to the open attack of the heretics, the Churches are reduced to utter helplessness by the war raging among those who are supposed to be orthodox.” (to the Italians and Gauls, Letter 92.3)  

In 362, Bishop Meletius of Antioch ordained Basil as a Deacon.  Bishop Eusebius then summoned Basil to Caesarea (Mazaca) and ordained him as presbyter (priest) of the Church there in 365.  Basil described the situation of the collective institutional Christian church leadership in dire terms:

“The doctrines of true religion are overthrown. The laws of the Church are in confusion. The ambition of men, who have no fear of God, rushes into high posts, and exalted office is now publicly known as the prize of impiety. The result is, that the worse a man blasphemes, the fitter the people think him to be a bishop. Clerical dignity is a thing of the past. There is a complete lack of men shepherding the Lord’s flock with knowledge. Ambitious men are constantly throwing away the provision for the poor on their own enjoyment and the distribution of gifts. There is no precise knowledge of canons. There is complete immunity in sinning; for when men have been placed in office by the favor of men, they are obliged to return the favor by continually showing indulgence to offenders. Just judgment is a thing of the past; and everyone walks according to his heart’s desire. Vice knows no bounds; the people know no restraint. Men in authority are afraid to speak, for those who have reached power by human interest are the slaves of those to whom they owe their advancement.” 

~ Basil, Letter 92.2

In 370, Bishop Eusebius died, and Basil was consecrated as Bishop in June 370.  His new post as Bishop of Caesarea (Mazaca) also gave him the power of exarch of Pontus, and influence over all of Cappadocia.

The Church historian Rufinius of Aquileia in 397 AD explains Basil’s course of actions as Bishop:

“Basil went round the cities and countryside of Pontus and began by his words to rouse that province from its torpor and lack of concern for our hope for the future, kindling it by his preaching, and to banish the insensitivity resulting from long negligence; he compelled it to put away its concern for vain and worldly things and to give its attention to him. He taught people to assemble, to build monasteries, to take care of the poor and furnish them with proper housing and the necessities of life, to establish the way of life of virgins, and to make the life of modesty and chastity desirable to almost everyone.”

~ Rufinius, Church History, 11:9

Even though Basil was a prominent theologian and Bishop of Caesarea (Mazaca), he always remained committed to founding, developing, and strengthening Cappadocian monasteries. Basil corresponded with the satellite communities about various aspects of the Christian life. Basil’s book The Rule of St. Basil became the foundational text for Christian monasticism.

Through communal monasticism, Basil reformed Christianity at both the institutional and grassroots level. Monasticism had been pitted against the church, but Basil, ever the ecclesiastical statesman, incorporated the monastic movement into the church so they could benefit each other. As a powerful bishop over Cappadocia, Basil used his ecclesiastical authority to speak against the secularizing forces, refute the heresy of Arianism, appoint monk-bishops to leadership positions, publish theological treatises, and advocate for the poor among the elite.

At a grassroots level, Basil organized monastic communities of love-motivated disciples. These groups strengthened the church by providing true teaching, spiritual ministry, and capable leadership. Monks cared for lay people, both physically and spiritually. Monasticism expressed the true character of Christianity and thus restored confidence in the church. Monks would also purify the church by modeling faithful devotion to God. Their lives summoned the politicized church back to holiness and mission.

The following sections explain how Basil developed the cenobitic monastic communities to strategically address the social and ecclesiastical problems of his day.

1. Love in Community

Basil never developed a standardized rule for monasteries. In his view, love was the guiding rule for all the Christian life. The opening questions of Basil’s Asketika explain how the “utterly ineffable love of God” compels and guides the entire Christian life, including monastic communities. To fulfill the rule of love, each monastic community was free to develop in its own way. Byzantine monasteries constructed their own rules based on the monastic principles laid out in Basil’s books Moralia and Asketika.

Basil’s emphasis on love and community was a deliberate corrective to the lifestyle of the solitary (eremitic) monks. They practiced extreme forms of asceticism, such as competing to see who could most severely torment their body. Basil said asceticism without love was useless. This echoes the Apostle Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 13:3, “If I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” In serving one another in a community of love, Basil encouraged the moderation of austere practices. Basil insisted that self-denial must be rooted in love and the power of the Holy Spirit. For Basil, the purpose of the monastic life was cultivating a true love for God and fellow humans.

Basil placed a strong emphasis on work as service. Monks were to work in groups for mutual edification, protection and to conduct prayer. Work was an expression of love. Monks assumed vows of poverty and shared property in common. This act resisted the allure and love of private property. Basil highlighted the loving purpose of mutual labor. In earlier models of asceticism, work was a way to overcome the lust of the flesh. But for Basil, work was an expression of love toward others.

2. Social Care

The monastic community not only served itself, but it was located near towns to serve as a public example and to help lay Christians. Social service was another overflow of the monastic life. Monks cared for the marginalized and poor. In 369 a severe famine caused mass starvation throughout Cappadocia. Strange weather patterns devastated crops and the rich stockpiled food. Basil explained, “The hungry are dying…The naked are stiff with cold. The man in debt is held by the throat.”

In response Basil constructed a large complex next to the original monastery at Annesi to care for the poor. So many people came to receive services that the growing region became known as “New Caesarea.” The Basilian complex was a source of great stability for the community. Both church and the State supported the work, and other monasteries followed suit by helping the poor. Almsgiving and generosity to the poor were defining aspects of monasticism.

3. Preaching and Teaching

Basil peppered monasteries throughout the populated areas of the Roman world to stop the spread of Arian heresy. Arianism taught that Jesus was not eternally God, but only “similar” to God. In the 360’s and 370’s when Basil was bishop, Arians controlled most episcopal leadership and enjoyed political support from the emperors in Constantinople. According to Basil, the champions of Arianism were waging war against Apostolic teaching, and were to be resisted. In Basil’s monasteries, monks studied the Nicene doctrines, learned rhetoric, and went into nearby towns to preach. Monasticism became a frontline defense against Arian heresy. As Christianity expanded into new areas, monks were ordained and sent out to evangelize.

4. Church Leadership

The leadership of the church had fallen into moral decline. Basil lamented there was “a complete immunity to sinning” among church bishops. As Arians gained political power, many Orthodox bishops were banished into exile and replaced by incompetent church leaders. In this perilous time, Basil developed the vision of the “bishop-monk.” The contemplative life at monasteries provided the biblical education and character development essential for church leadership. As a prominent bishop, Basil labored assiduously to recruit monks to serve as bishops. Their monastic training equipped them to shepherd local Christian communities. Monasteries trained and restored church leadership.


After Constantine’s political and religious reforms in the early 300’s (first bullet, above), the church quickly became diluted by political opportunists, neglected the needs of the marginalized, and fell into Arian heresy. Pious Christians grew disillusioned and retreated into isolated asceticism. In response to these crises, St. Basil of Caesarea formed monastic communities. These groups emphasized community, strived towards love, served the poor, refuted heresy, and trained leaders. These monastic communities that Basil shepherded became the antidote to the social and ecclesiastical problems that arose after Constantine. By the late 300’s, Theodosius I was confident enough in the church reforms and direction to declare Nicene Christianity as the sole State Religion of the Roman Empire (second bullet, above).

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