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Laying Aside Every Encumbrance: Discipleship in the Christian Empire

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You may notice that things at TBC are a little different today. For one thing Pastor Jeff Miller isn’t with us. Remember that he is in Cambridge England photographing ancient manuscripts. Please be praying for him. In addition, today is different because we won’t be making announcements other than to say … . well I guess those were announcements so some things weren’t that different.

However, there are some significant differences in the worship service this morning. We entered the sanctuary differently. The sanctuary looks different today. This is not without purpose or reason. The service was specifically planned by Mark and Myself to cause us to think about a group of people from our Christian past. You see, just as we looked at the martyrs six months ago, today we are going to be looking back at a historical group of people who sought to follow Christ in radical discipleship. Many of you may think they are “different. Possibly even odd. We will be looking at the Monastic Movement or as will be familiar to more of you, Monks.

I would bet that most of us in this room have never had real meaningful interaction with any monk. Which makes it difficult for us to understand them. I remember In addition to that, they just seem like a movie character from the middle ages. Therefore, for many the only teacher we have regarding the monks is the media and we know what an accurate teacher that is! In fact you probably picture monks something like they are depicted in the following movie clip.

  • Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (meeting Friar Tuck and him being proud and excessive in drink)

Maybe that is not at all how you picture monks, maybe it is more like the monks in this clip.

  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail (monks chanting and repeatedly hitting themselves in the head with a board).

These Hollywood caricatures of monks may use humor to point out abuses that were found at different times throughout the monastic movement, but are not indicative of it. Instead, monasticism at its core was a radical call to “Take up your cross daily and follow Christ.” In fact, Dr. Jeffrey Bingham of Dallas Theological Seminary writes, “The monastic movement must be understood in the context of the Christian quest for holiness, separation, and discipleship.” Pocket History of the Church, 56

The reason we are doing things differently today is that we are following in their footsteps. Footsteps that sought to minimize the distractions in their lives and simplify them so they could pursue the best things in life.

Later in the service, we will have an opportunity to gain a better understanding with the hope that the monks burning desire to follow God in radical discipleship will encourage us to run the race with endurance. However, first let us spend time worshiping the God they longed to know and serve.



In many ways, the monks are a continuation of the heart of the martyrs. So, I want you to go back six months with me and remember where we started.

In the time of the martyrs that we focused on, the Roman Empire was persecuting Christians passionately. The lives of Christian leaders were threatened if they did not deny Christ and every Christian was at risk. However, Christians sought to take the teaching of Christ seriously and take up their cross and follow him. In this situation the Martyrdom was not to be sought but was considered the highest calling of Christian discipleship because it was literally following in the footsteps of Jesus to the cross.

However, as we approach the time when the monastic ideal flourished, things have now changed in the Empire and Christianity is not a persecuted faith, it is now an accepted faith. You see in 311, the edict of toleration was passed by Emperor Galerius making it acceptable to be a Christian. And from that time forward Christianity became more accepted to the point that Emperor Constantine after and encounter with God in a dream past the Edict of Milan in 313 that even returned confiscated property to Christians throughout the Empire.

Well, now there has just been another change–an even bigger change. In 380 Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of Rome. In fact, the empire embraced Christianity to the degree that according to LaTourette, “before the close of the fifth century the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the Roman Empire were professing themselves to be Christians, had been baptized, and were members of one or another of the bodies which bore the Christian name.” LaTourette, A History of Christianity, 21

How would you respond to such a change? How would you respond if Christianity became the official religion of the U.S.?

While our first inclination may be to think this was a good thing for Christianity as did many of those in the fourth century, others had a negative reaction for three reasons.

1. First, the church was leery about Rome and had seen it as the enemy. Therefore, trusting it was a difficult thing.

2. Second, this removed the ability to follow Christ in the highest calling of Christian discipleship! The church had to struggle with what it meant to follow Christ in a time of acceptance.

3. The third problem for the church was that its call to discipleship was weakened. For many, Christianity was now about not how we sacrificially followed God but how it could benefit their lives. You see many people began to enter the church not because of faith but because of socio-economic reasons, political reasons, for personal gain.

It was now “easy to be a Christian.” On this thought Sören Kierkegaard writes,

“Imitation, the imitation of Christ, is really the point from which the human race shrinks. The main difficulty lie here: here is where it is really decided whether or not one is willing to accept Christianity. If there is emphasis on this point, the stronger the emphasis the fewer the Christians. If there is a scaling down at this point (so that Christianity becomes, intellectually, a doctrine), more people enter into Christianity. If it is abolished completely (so that Christianity becomes, existentially, as easy as mythology and poetry and imitation of an exaggeration, a ludicrous exaggeration), then Christianity spreads to such a degree that Christendom and the world are almost indistinguishable, or all become Christians; Christianity has completely conquered--that is, it is abolished.” from Judge for Yourself

I believe we find ourselves in that same situation. We don’t fear martyrdom, it is not a reality for us. And in our area of the country large parts of the population claims to be Christian yet in their daily lives don’t look at all like disciples of Christ.

I remember when this first became apparent to me. My wife and I moved to the Dallas area in the summer of 1999 from the Philadelphia area. My wife was working as a fund-raiser for the United Way–a secular organization. Early in her time working there, she was repeatedly asked a question that was foreign to our ears. She was asked, “What church do you attend?” You may be wondering what was odd about that question to us. The question demonstrates a presupposition. The presupposition is that we did attend church. You see in Dallas everyone goes to church and the reasons for attendance vary. However, where you attend church is often related to social status in Dallas. In addition, it may be good for business. People often attend church because they will gain something from their association with their church. In the Northeast this is a foreign idea. Most people would assume you don’t attend church. And if they found out you did, a more likely question would be, “Why do you attend church?”

In fact, I am excited about looking at the monks because I believe the monks search to understand how they should follow Christ has more to say to us here today than that of the martyrs. While the martyrs taught us how to die for Christ, the monks teach us to live for him.

I believe that Hebrews 12 gives us insight into the heart of the monks and the monastic ideal. Open your Bibles with me to Hebrews 12.


Hebrews 12:1-2

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.(NASB)

The core of this passage is the exhortation to run with endurance the race set before us, the race of faith, the race of discipleship. But what exactly does this mean?

Run the Race

Running the race would have been an image that the reader’s would have been familiar with because of the Olympics. Unlike today, running was one of the most popular of the Olympic games, it always began the games, and was the only one that was for an extended period.

Just as those entered in the Olympics had to run the race before them, so we too as Christians must run well the race of discipleship that has been set before us by God. The race to become more like Christ.

And we are called to run it with endurance. It is not a sprint, it is a marathon. The idea of endurance tells us that the commitment to maturity will include struggle. We must therefore be resolved to finish the race and not drop out despite hardship or exhaustion, or pain.

While we would all recognize this, I think our view of endurance in America is often revealed by our prayers. When facing difficulty we often pray to be delivered from it. Much of the world and the monk’s prayers were different. Instead of asking for deliverance, they would pray for strength to stand under the weight of difficulty. They prayed to run well. Our ease leads us to expect ease. However,

Jerome (347-420): God has entered us as contestants in a racecourse where it is our lot to be always striving. This place, then, a valley of tears, is not a condition of peace, not a state of security, but an arena of struggle and of endurance.

The Author does not simply command us to the run the race but provides us with the motivation.

Motivation 1: Great Cloud of Witnesses

The passage begins with “therefore”. Any time you are studying a passage and see the word “Therefore” it is an indicator to look back. It is establishing a link with that which has come before. In this passage the author of Hebrews was demonstrating what it meant to walk in faith by looking at good men of old who followed God even though they never received the promise that is found in Christ. In fact, many of them died as martyrs.

“cloud”, means a great mass of cloud covering the entire visible space of the heavens, and therefore without definite form, or a single large mass in which definite outlines are not emphasized or distinguished. It thus differs from, which is a detached and sharply outlined cloud..

The emphasis in v 1 thus falls on what Christians see in the host of witnesses rather than on what they see in Christians. The appeal to their example is designed to inspire heroic Christian discipleship. It is ‘what we see in them, not what they see in us, that is the writer’s main point’ Watching those who have run the race before motivates us to run it well.

This past year we saw Nastia Liukin receive the Gold for the overall women’s individual all-around competition. Nastia trains not far from our church in Plano. I believe that Nastia not only achieved the gold because of her ability. She was surrounded by other Olympic champions. Her father 20 years earlier earned the silver in the men’s all-around losing to his teammate by one tenth of a point. In addition, four years earlier the women’s individual all-around gold went to Carly Patterson who trained in Plano and is a teammate of Nastia’s. Nastia knew she could do it because she was surrounded by others who demonstrated to her that it was possible.

The Means

But how do we run the race?

1. By throwing off the sin which so easily entangles us

It is obvious to any Christian that sin keeps us from running the race well and therefore we must do all we can to rid ourselves from it and run the race well. However, this passages also tells us to do something else. Throw off every encumbrance.

2. By throwing off every encumbrance.

Encumberance in Greek is ogkos. It is any material that is ponderously large, bulky or that which hinders one from doing something.

The combined expression covers any encumbrance that would handicap a runner, and by analogy anything that would interfere with responsible commitment to Jesus Christ.

In ancient Greece, runners would even remove things that in other situations would be considered good, even highly important. In fact, the runners in the stadium would run with no clothes on.

The Means and Motivation Par Excellence!:

Jesus is the ultimate means and motivation. We do not see Jesus as the prize here but as the example par excellence. He ran the race well, he succeeded, and he has set not the world record, or Olympic record, but the eternal record. It is our goal to run as well as he did! Therefore, we must fix our eyes on him and run as he did!

But what did this mean for the individual who was looking for a way to deny themselves, throw off every that hindered them and run the race well in the Christian Empire? What did it mean to be radical disciples of Christ? What did it mean to keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus? And how do we live for Christ? The answer to those questions came in the form of a question, WDJD? “What DID Jesus Do?” became their model as they sought to follow Christ in radical discipleship.

The Example of Good Men of Old

(It is important to understand that the monastic movement did not begin as a strongly organized movement. In fact, it began in the third century but found its greatest expression following the fourth and fifth centuries. It was people seeking to follow God and it had it’s own characters like Simeon the Stylite who lived on a platform on a pole for 37 years. However, monasticism eventually became united under one major rule of life, the rule of Saint Benedict. When we hear the word rule, we think of rules but a rule is not a list of what to do and what not to do. Instead, it is the prescribed way of life for a community to live together.)

The monastic ideal contained three things which the monks sought to throw off. These things were not seen as bad. They were however seen as things that could hinder someone from following Christ. They were encumbrances that needed to be cast off. It was a giving up of good things for the best thing.

1. Material Possessions:

They saw in the words and life of Jesus a willingness and call to give up possessions for the sake of the kingdom.

Matthew 8:19: Jesus *said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the 1 air have 2 nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head. “

Matthew 19:20 The young man *said to Him, “?All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking??” 21 Jesus said to him, “?If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.

Chrysostom (347-407): Why do I trifle in saying these things to people who do not even choose to disregard riches but hold fast to them as though they were immortal … Keep what is sufficient, not what is superfluous …Nothing is indispensable or necessary, without which we are able to live. These things are superfluous … Let us see, if you please, what we cannot live without.”

2. Obedience

They saw in Christ the call to absolute obedience to him, and in the New Testament an obedience to their leaders.

Matthew 16:24: Obedience to Christ: Then Jesus said to His disciples, If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.

Hebrews 13:17 To one another: Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.

3. Chastity

They saw in the Bible that Christ never married and Paul called us to first consider celibacy, then marriage as a second option.

1 Corinthians 7:8-9: But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

Amazingly I think the monks had a good idea of some of the things that do easily encumber us. The things that we cling onto: money, freedom, and physical pleasure. In fact it sounds a bit like an American slogan. While there is nothing wrong with owning things, or being married, or freedom/independence they are often the things that weigh us down. These are often the very things that keep us from running well the race laid out before us.

Therefore, the monks choose to give up the gifts of God and to instead prize more highly the giver of those gifts.

The monks also realized that simply giving up things would not help them run the race. They realized the best way to release us from the sin that easily entangles us is to know God and his Word. Therefore, they ordered their lives around times for prayer and study. In fact their knowledge of scripture could be staggering.

  • Times of prayer in Benedicts Rule: Set prayers composed primarily of scripture
  • Times of the Word in psalms: Benedictine Monks sang all 150 psalms weekly.

What are the things that God’s word reveals to us that encumber us in the race?

How seriously do you take your need to be in the word?

Think in silence.

WORSHIP: Scripture Reading and Prayer Time

The Work of Good Men of Old

So far what we have seen of the monks is largely a personal desire to follow Christ. In fact one of the major criticisms leveled against the monks is that they engaged in trying to follow God so radically, they disengaged from the world. That they were so heavenly minded, they were no earthly good. That they viewed running the race as something personal or spiritual that had no impact on their world. While this may be true of some monk and some times within the movement of monasticism, it would again not be fair to paint such a picture of the monks.

Remember, monks engaged in the practices we spoke of and submerged themselves in the scriptures so that they would be changed by God. When we engage God in such a way, it ALWAYS impacts the world around us. That is why God tells us to watch one another’s fruit. In fact, Mark Noll, again states,

“The rise of monasticism was, after Christ’s commission to his disciples, the most important–and in many ways–the most beneficial institutional event in the history of Christianity. For over a millennium, in the centuries between the reign of Constantine and the Protestant Reformation, almost everything in the church that approached the highest, noblest, and truest ideals of the gospel was done by those who had chosen the monastic way or by those who had been inspired in their Christian life by the monks.” pg 84 Turning Points

The monks throughout time have taken the great commission seriously. They engaged in:

  • Teaching. Not only the wealthy but the poor and unlearned.
  • Preserving the Word. Through special and diligent care of the word, they copied the scriptures so that we have them today.
  • Missions. In the Christian Empire, they were the missionaries. They went to hostile lands to take the gospel.
  • Orphanages and hospitals. They founded some of the first hospitals and orphanages in their areas.
  • Poor Ministry. They often took care of the indigent, clothing, feeding, and housing “the least of these”.
  • Reformation in the church. Throughout their history, they constantly called the church to reformation. In fact, Luther himself was an Augustinian monk who had no desire to leave the church.

From Augustine to Luther the giants of the faith were at one time monks.

  • If we read the Bible in our native language it is possible because of the work of men like Jerome
  • If we sing Trinitarian songs we follow in the footsteps of the men who wrote them like Gregory
  • If we pursue theology to know God and the deep things of his character we stand on the shoulders of Augustine and Aquinas
  • If we pray for the success of Christian missions and ourselves go foreign lands we walk the paths of Patrick, Boniface, and Cyril
  • If we glory in the creation of God we echo the wonder of God as seen in Francis of Assisi
  • If we constantly long for the reformation of God’s church we stand alongside of men like Luther


If this is truly who the monks were, why have we viewed the monks they we have? While a part of it may be that Hollywood and even at times evangelicalism have painted them to be someone they weren’t, I think there is a deeper reason.

I believe that when we see how radical the monks were in throwing off every encumbrance to run the race with endurance, it makes us too uncomfortable. And it easier to marginalize them than to ask what God might require of us.

One of I am happy to be a part or TBC is because I believe our vision reflects well the heart of these great men of old. Over the past few years we have been stressing:

  • Living below our means. While not poverty, it is a realization that our things are of less importance than our Savior and his work.
  • Accountability to one another. This is a form of submitting ourselves to one another in obedience to Christ.
  • Keeping our sexuality in check.
  • Emphasis on the Word. Even as I speak our senior Pastor Jeff Miller is in Europe using modern technology to preserve the work of the monks in hand-made copies of the scripture.
  • Reaching out and missions. Our vision is not to become a mega-church but a church that plants other churches worldwide.
  • Commitment to community

But God needs to work in all of us to achieve that which he has called His body to. What encumbrance is God calling you to cast off so you can better run the race?

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (NASB)

Related Topics: Prayer, Discipleship, History, Worship

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