Cover: Cultural Christians in the Early Church
(Zondervan Academic, 2023)


“Ultimately, by choosing the desert, they chose themselves and their own desires, rather than striving to be a blessing to the world around them. And that is exactly the choice for anyone today, who thinks that they could leave the church and follow God alone.”

In the fourth century B.C.E., a philosopher temporarily living in Athens discovered asceticism. Fascinated by the idea of poverty and not relying on anyone or anything else, he gave away all his possessions, including much of his clothing, keeping barely enough to cover his body. At first, he kept a little wooden bowl as a drinking dish, but eventually he even got rid of that, after seeing someone else drink from cupped hands. Needing somewhere to live, he adopted as his abode a massive jar, a pithos, which he requisitioned from a temple precinct. 

Desert Saints as Cultural Christians

Diogenes’s extreme asceticism was an obvious predecessor of the asceticism that the Christian desert saints embraced. An additional cultural norm that the desert saints inherited from Diogenes and other Greek philosophers was the concept of a life of relative solitude as the best way of acquiring a true life of the mind. To be fair, Diogenes did not live entirely apart from people. Yet he lived apart from society and social expectations, even while living inside a city.

By the fourth century C.E., stories about Diogenes had become ingrained as cultural heritage for many in the Greek-speaking world, and his legacy of asceticism, processed through many generations of other philosophers, was appealing to Christians as well. 

Ultimately, whether or not the saints themselves recognized the cultural baggage associated with their ascetic life in the desert, they certainly did acknowledge, even while encouraging others to follow their example, that moving into the desert could not drive all trouble and sin away. The Desert Mothers seem to have been particularly outspoken on the futility of such escape. Amma Syncletica, Laura Swan writes in The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women, the mysterious Desert Mother to whom an immense number of sayings is attributed, is supposed to have said, “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is solitary to live in the crowd of personal thoughts.” Similarly, Amma Theodora is supposed to have said, “There was an ascetic who, because of the great number of personal temptations, said, ‘I will go away from here.’ While putting sandals on, saw another ascetic who was also putting on sandals. This other ascetic said, ‘Is it on my account that you are going away? Because I go before you wherever you are going.’”

But these concerns were not limited to the Desert Mothers. Ammonas, a Desert Father and disciple of Antony said, “I have spent fourteen years in Scetis (a solitary desert area) asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger.” The Inquiry about the Monks of Egypt echoes similar sentiments on a number of occasions. One leader of a monastic community, Pityrion, is reported to have a theory that each individual, monk or no, has particular demons associated with particular sins, always following that individual. Another monastic leader, Dioscorus, who led a community of one hundred monks, was particularly worried about temptation of sexual sin among his flock. There is, ultimately, nowhere we can run to flee our own culturally ingrained sinful dispositions and our sinful nature.

Cultural Sin in the Social Media Desert

The story of the saints and ascetics who populated the Late Antique desert landscapes brings out two new and surprising brands of cultural Christianity. First, the presence of these saints as new spectacles inspired a Christian yet culturally sinful version of the pagan grand tour of the empire. Indeed, the incredible fame that some of these desert saints acquired bears functional resemblance to the modern obsession with celebrities, whose homes and favorite haunts can also be tourist destinations. In other words, the church celebrity culture that Kaitlyn Beaty calls out in her recent book Celebrities for Jesus has this surprising ancient parallel. The virtual desert that is social media has only amplified the farcical nature of the pillar saints of our days. But second, the desert ascetics themselves were, ultimately, fleeing the church yet unable to escape their own sinfulness. It may seem shocking to think of individuals such as Antony as cultural sinners, but if we examine their decision to pursue solitary lives apart from society and the church in light of the original biblical texts, this becomes clear.

The biblical descriptions of qualifications for elders provide a striking foil to the desert saints. The elders receive significant consideration in the New Testament because they are individuals who serve their local churches in a particularly intensive way. The qualifications for elders leave no room for the desert ascetics (1Tim 3:1–7, Titus 1:5–9, 1 Pet 5:1–4). Only those married (husbands of one wife) and raising faithful children are deemed qualified for church leadership. In addition, there is discussion of the importance for older women to mentor younger ones (Titus 2:3–5).

In essence, the New Testament repeatedly emphasizes that people should strive to live, lead, and serve in community rather than alone. We have noted on several occasions already that unlike the pagan world around, the New Testament and the early churches recognized that some men and women have a calling for singleness. They saw these singles, nevertheless, living out even this calling as part of the local church community, ministering to others in deed and prayer. The examples of Jesus and Paul, who both remained unmarried throughout the duration of their earthly ministry, only highlight this further. Both remained in close contact with people, ministering to individuals and communities. While Jesus, in particular, had spent time alone in prayer, he always returned to minister to people. His entire ministry, overall, was categorized by relationships. His repeated emphasis on valuing children, furthermore, highlighted the importance of the next generation (e.g. Luke 18:16) .

By leaving the church to move into the desert, the Desert Fathers and Mothers rejected that model. Even those who formed monastic communities with churches in the desert did not replicate the New Testament model, as they did not have families, but only single-gender communities (with the occasional secretly cross-dressing woman monk). This might not have seemed to be a problem if there was evidence that these exceptional communities were bastions of human perfectibility here on earth. But that is not the evidence that the stories in this chapter provide. Rather, not only were the desert ascetics themselves continuing to struggle in the desert with the same sins as before, but their action of moving into the desert provided others, the tourists, with new opportunities for sinning. For some, the desert ascetics proved to be nothing but a stumbling block to spiritual growth. 

More important, perhaps, by moving themselves away from churches, communities, and families, the desert ascetics took themselves out of the circulation of real human society. The requirements for elders and deacons, which cite marriage, highlight how by rejecting marriage, the ascetics rejected the enormous responsibility of discipling other image-bearers in their homes and communities. By rejecting cities and churches in those cities, they rejected the opportunity to help others. Ultimately, by choosing the desert, they chose themselves and their own desires, rather than striving to be a blessing to the world around them. And that is exactly the choice for anyone today, who thinks that they could leave the church and follow God alone. In a world of ever-greater opportunities to work from home, worship from home, and live a life of solitude, anyone’s home could become a hermitage. But whenever you lock yourself inside that fortress in the video-call desert, you will, like Antony, still bring your demons along.

The siren call of the desert and its peace sings beautifully to me some days in my home, filled with the chaotic noises of three children. Someone is often upset with someone else. Very often, someone is yelling at someone else. There is much laughter, which is as wondrous as it is loud. As a result, sometimes, I have been known to say, “I cannot even hear myself think.” And that is the point. People are difficult. The ascetics were right. People, with all their incessant noise and sinfulness, distract us from God. Yet it is by serving other people, these noisy and distracting image bearers, that we are daily forced to confront our own sinful nature and can daily pursue sanctification. This is what counter cultural Christianity looks like.


Taken from Cultural Christians in the Early Church: A Historical and Practical Introduction to Christians in the Greco-Roman World by Nadya Williams. Copyright © 2023 by Nadya Williams. Used by permission of Zondervan.