In Defense of Lutheran Monasticism

In defense of Lutheran Monasticism:

Why Lutheran denominations should support the maintenance and growth of monasteries and friaries


Dear Pastors, Bishops, and all other benefactors,

Members of a Facebook group for those affiliated with confessional Lutheran churches were once asked if monastic life should be supported. The responses were very enlightening. There were a few who admitted to being Benedictine oblates or supporters whilst a large bulk were either in favor of monasticism or felt the matter was adiaphora. On the other hand, another great bulk of respondents asserted that monasticism was wrong either because Luther “was against it”, because we are supposed to “go forward and make disciples,” or because the Book of Concord says so. One person did not speak for or against it, but he merely said that there are “bigger fish to fry” than monasticism. In general, the opinion of monasticism in this group was split.

The question of supporting Lutheran monasteries and friaries in confessional Lutheran churches in 21st Century America is important because confessional Lutherans have not engaged in many serious discussions about it. As a result, the idea of a Lutheran monastery has become paradox. There is, however, one Lutheran monastery in North America. It is called Saint Augustine’s House, and it takes driving through a dusty road in the middle of a Michigan forest to get there. This particular monastery is not affiliated with any denomination, so it is open for all Lutherans drawn to monastic life under the teachings of St. Benedict of Nursia. There are also an order of Lutheran friars called Lutheran Franciscans. Point of clarification, the difference between friars and monks (from monasteries) is that friars, whilst taking essentially the same vows as a monk, do not live a cloistered life. In fact, most of their work is done in public--working with people. Monks, on the other hand, stay on monastery grounds and will only leave out of necessity. Returning to the Lutheran Franciscans, they are affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. For most confessional Lutherans, unfortunately, doctrinal and moral differences will not allow them to consider Lutheran Franciscans for this reason. This further necessitates our churches to at least maintain a discussion about supporting and building monastic institutions. Alas, there may be many who are called to be monks or friars (or nuns or sisters) but find themselves with no place to go.

With this fact in mind, my arguments for Lutheran monasticism will be based on the Order of St. Benedict, one of the original monastic orders. Unlike the Franciscan, Dominican, Cistercian, or Carmelite orders, which tend to have headquarters and central leadership, the Order of St. Benedict allows independent monasteries to govern themselves, provided they obey and live by the teachings of St. Benedict. Such teachings always point directly back to Scripture in all forms of communal life, be it something as complex as discipline[1] or as simple as how many times a day to gather for prayer[2]. Indeed, St. Benedict encouraged daily Bible reading. This makes Benedictine monasticism so adaptable amongst denominations that, while most Benedictine monasteries are Roman Catholic, there are also monasteries and convents amongst Anglicans, Lutherans (only St. Augustine’s House in North America), and even Methodists. Moreover, one does not need to be a member of the denomination with which a specific monastery is affiliated; being a committed Christian who agrees with the teachings of St. Benedict suffices.

While there is much to share about the blessings involved in monastic life, the main focus of my argument is to address the indictments against monasticism according to the Book of Concord. Besides Scripture, which does not condemn the purest essence of monasticism, confessional Lutherans also turn to the Book of Concord (specifically the Augsburg Confession, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, and the Smalcald Articles), which was designed to bring all Christians back to fundamental Christians teachings. It is also, of course, a collection of writings that teach core Lutheran standpoints. It is vital to address every utterance of the Book of Concord that is used to dismiss or denigrate monasticism, as the most orthodox Lutherans use them all to support the idea that monasticism is un-Lutheran. While Martin Luther was a remarkable man and a powerful reformer, he was just a man and made errors just as we do. Hence, not all he has written is useful for spiritual or practical life. Before attempting to disagree, one should learn their synod or denomination’s stance on his infamous pamphlet, “On the Jews and their Lies,” written in 1543. Yes, he repented of writing such poisonous words, but that is beside the point. As Christians, we are encouraged to take the words of those who claim to speak in the Name of the Lord and weigh them against Scripture. We are encouraged to take all of our endeavors and hold them to the Light of Christ. Then, as the Lutheran Church teaches, if it is not forbidden by Scripture, it is either beneficial or adiaphorous. I intend to support the evidence that monasticism is not forbidden but more than adiaphorous.

“Monasticism is form of entrapment and a hideout from real life”

These two statements form a great bulk of the indictments against monasticism in the Book of Concord. For the former, Martin Luther and his comrades called the monastery a “carefully-planned” prison[3]. By this, the reformers reflect on the conditions of the 16th Century monastery, which was rife with abuses. What was meant to be a place of learning, prayer, and refuge became a place where the unloved and unwanted were disposed of by their families. Originally, boys and girls whose parents could no longer take care of them were surrendered to the care of monasteries and convents, respectively. While the children were welcomed as part of the community, they were not expected to live the way the monks of the community would. They still had the responsibilities and freedoms of children. [4]

During Luther’s time, however, boys who were not of legal age could become monks. This meant that a juvenile who was not mature enough to make decisions would have been expected to stay in the monastery and live by the vows of a monk for the rest of his life.[5] This is also true for adults, who, out of deceit or intellectual deficits, could not demonstrate understanding what life as a professed monk really means. This was a common abuse in monasteries at the time, and those who could not be tricked were often forced to take monastic vows. Regardless, once the vows were made, he was bound to the monastery and could not, outside of the fear of fire and damnation, unmake the vows. Even if that were not frightening enough to prevent a monk or nun from leaving the cloister, Abbots and Abbesses often had legal authority and could even be placed into prison if aforesaid parties wished. [6]

Today’s monastery presents a completely opposite picture of monastic life. First, there are no children or adolescents who reside in monasteries anymore. For centuries, the care of abandoned and orphaned children transferred from the monastery and into orphanages run by monks or nuns from the local cloister. Even today there are children’s homes run by local monasteries or convents. Additionally, people cannot even live in the monastery unless they are of legal age, which forbids the idea of child monks altogether. Regarding being deceived into rashly taking monastic vows, this is no longer an option either. The total process for becoming a full, professed monk can take up to ten years, which is ample time for one to reconsider life in the cloister. Even if one were to become a full monk, he could still ask for a release from his vows. St. Benedict declared that one who leaves (insinuating the freedom to leave) can be welcomed back up to three times.[7] As the United States is not a theocratic country, forcing someone to stay in a monastery not only sullies its purpose, but it also subjects its inhabitants to scandal and legal consequences. Hence, if Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and their colleagues would see the state of today's monasteries and convents, vows taken under duress, by minors, or by those deceived would unlikely be an issue for them.

Regarding the monastery as an alleged hideout from the world, many Lutherans and Protestants assert that it is a Christian's duty to "go out and spread the Gospel" and "be fruitful and multiply." Martin Luther and his colleagues support their stance with Scripture, in which believers are instructed that "it is not good to be alone," and that "every man should have one wife."[8] Indeed, it is not good to be alone. It is important to have someone to comfort us, advise us, and hold us accountable. Still, to say that marriage is the only way to achieve this undervalues the relationship with a child and the parents, with the teacher and student, with the mentor and protégé, with the hosts of friends, and, more to the point, between brothers of a monastery and between sisters in a convent. This is why God has blessed us with four types of love: agape (divine), philia (brotherly) , storge (familial), and eros (intimate). Love between a choir of monks has the capacity to be brotherly, familial, and divine.

Additionally, St. Paul speaks of how it is better, if possible, to remain single if they possess the rare gift of complete celibacy. [9] A single person is able to do the work of God and make the extra distance if they do not have families and spouses depending on their support. If someone has the true gift of celibacy, who has the right to deny them such a gift? Besides, not everyone is meant to be married. If a man cannot settle to a life with a woman and children because he is called to a different life, everyone suffers. Putting marriage on a pedestal higher than the single life is damaging to those who choose to be single but devastating for those who, for medical, emotional, or social reasons, cannot be married if they wish. While God did tell Adam and Eve to "be fruitful and multiply," what does that mean? Do we only fulfill this via procreation and childbirth? If so, are those who are barren, sterile, or cannot hold a pregnancy to be considered rebellious to this command?

What if being fruitful and multiplying also means to multiply the number of those who trust Jesus? A monastery has the real capacity to do this by showing hospitality to those in need and providing an atmosphere of prayer and devotion so that people can come to know Jesus as their personal Savior. This is what St. Anthony of Egypt, the predecessor of St. Benedict, did. He spent his life in the desert and in mountains, praying, fasting, and reading Scripture. His example encouraged others to join him, and he had different types of people coming to him for prayer—especially for a sick relative—or to receive teaching from him. Imagine how many people came to Christ because of St. Anthony’s salt and light. Did he not multiply? Was he not a blessing to the world—even unbelievers? What of the Essenes, a Jewish monastic community that lived in the desert? If not for these “monks” and “nuns”, we would not have the “Dead Sea Scrolls.” What about Anna the Prophetess, who prophesied when Jesus was a baby, that he would bring redemption to Israel? It is written that she never left the Temple and that she prayed and fasted day and night.[10] Does this not sound like a nun? It would therefore not be very bold to say that Scripture, God’s Word, does not refer to the heart of monasticism negatively or even neutrally. Anna will always be remembered positively as one of those who prophesied what Christ would do for the world.

“Monasticism teaches salvation through works”

This is the more serious indictment the reformers had against monasteries during their time. This is for a very good reason; the heart of Lutheran Christianity is that salvation is through grace alone. We cannot earn salvation by good works; our sins are far too great to atone for our sins through work. This is why Christ died on the cross--to pay the cost for our sins because we cannot do it for ourselves. Therefore, any accusation that one is trying to earn salvation and a place in God's Kingdom is serious.

One observation the reformers found is that 16th Century Christians joined monasteries in hopes of "earning grace," particularly to receive forgiveness of their sins. As a result, too many lives of medieval monks were wracked with guilt, shame, and despair.[11] To further entice such poor wretches to take monastic vows, abbots at the time were so bold as to equate monastic vows with baptism.[12] Just as false and spiritually dangerous, the reformers found that monks believed that monastic life was a "state of perfection."[13] In other words, being a monk is a greater vocation than any other and that monasticism makes people perfect in the sight of God. Naturally, this not only contradicts the Lutheran confessions but the Gospel. If we could earn grace or perfection, then Christ died for nothing!

First, pertaining to the notion that monastic life is a state of perfection, this is a corruption of a statement from St. Benedict. He wrote that the basics of monastic life is only the beginning of perfection. He further wrote that reading Scripture, the truest guide for human life, along with the writing of church fathers can help one to "hasten" to perfection.[14] In other words, monastic life is not a state of perfection but is a mere stepping stone on the path to perfection. As Christians, we know that we are too full of sin to be perfect, but we are taught to strive for it nonetheless. After all, did not our God say, "Be Holy, for I am holy"?[15] Loosely defined, holiness means being set apart for God's use or purpose. The Lutheran Church teaches that holiness can be found in the attorney, the grandmother, the teacher, and even the garbage collector. While monks and friars are not above these instruments of holiness, they are still a part.

Regarding baptism, the Lutheran Church teaches that there are only two sacraments: baptism and communion. Monasticism is not mentioned. Even amongst the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, monasticism is not mentioned. This blasphemous notion that monastic vows are equal to baptism suggests that, either baptism is not needed if one takes monastic vows or a person's baptism prior to monastic vows is not valid. For clarification, Trinitarian baptism requires believers to recognize their lowly estate as poor, miserable sinners who put their trust in Jesus Christ for their salvation. It requires faith and trust.

For most professed monks and friars (as well as nuns and sisters), there are three vows: poverty, obedience, and chastity. Within Benedictine cloisters, the vows are obedience, conversion of life, and stability (poverty and chastity are considered a part of life conversion). What, then, is so wicked about these vows, as the reformers declared? What is so sinful about them? Absolutely nothing, provided these vows are not taken under duress or as a way of earning salvation.[16] The reformers also speak against "distinctive clothing, meats, and renunciation of property," stating that the Gospel does not "advise concerning them."[17] The question is, does the Gospel or any part of the Bible advise against them? Consider the habit. There is nothing majestic of it. There are only two purposes to it: it is modest and practical. Are not modesty and humility celebrated biblical virtues? Practicality is important because one does not need to decide each morning what to wear. Traditionally, a professed member of an order only receives two habits--one for wearing and one for laundering for the next day. As for surrendering property, did not the first Christian communities do this? This is where Ananias and Sapphira had erred; they sold their property but only dedicated a fraction of the profit to the community, lying about the rest.[18] By giving up property and limiting one's clothing, monastics are truly able, free of worldly entanglements, to dedicate themselves to prayer and devotion.

Hence, baptism is for all Christians, but monastic vows are only for those who have been especially called to monastic life. Baptism is ordained by God according to Scripture, but monasticism is neither divinely ordained nor denigrated. It is one of many ways we can service the Lord and receive His blessing. While medieval monastics did not understand this, both original and modern monks do. Therefore, all indictments against monastic life found in the Book of Concord concern the misrepresentations and abuses of the 16th Century and generally do not reflect modern monastics.

What today's monasteries are really like

In order to get an idea of how the monastery of Luther's time differs from today's monastery, it is necessary to visit a monastery--not just for a day, but for a few days. If possible, one should visit more than one. In addition to St. Augustine's House, there is Monastery of the Cross in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood. While the former is in the countryside, the latter is in an urban area. The former is ecumenical Lutheran, and the latter is Roman Catholic, but they are both Benedictine. Both locations have the seven offices of prayer, in addition to a full worship service in the mid-morning, but the order of worship is much earlier for the latter than the former, with the first prayer service beginning at 3:30AM and the last at 7:15PM. For the former, the first prayer service begins at 5:10AM, and the last ends at 8:30PM.

At both monasteries, silence is more of a gift than a rule. Only at certain times of the day can people talk freely, but only in soft and gentle tones so as not to disrupt those in prayer and contemplation. Both observe "The Great Silence," which begins after Compline (the bedtime prayer) and ends after Lauds (the dawn-time prayer). During this time, there is no talking or socializing. This time is used, in addition to sleeping, for prayer, meditation, or preparation for the day. Otherwise, the monks are very hospitable and eager to answer questions. Both have spare rooms and encourage people to come for retreats, with Monastery of the Cross having two apartment suites that serve as a bed and breakfast. In addition to retreaters and monks, St. Augustine's House is also home to novices, postulants, and oblates. For Lutherans who are not familiar with these terms, a postulant is one who is not a monk but has officially stated their intention and has begun the process of becoming a monk. A novice is a "junior monk" or "simple monk"; that is, one who has been exposed to monastic life after a few years and has taken temporary monastic vows. They live simple lives and are not attached to material possessions, keeping their focus on spiritual matters and on the welfare of the community. An oblate, on the other hand, is one who, for life circumstances, cannot be a monk but are drawn to monastic life. They dedicate themselves to God, His Church, and to the monastery of their choosing. While they do not take vows, they promise their dedication each year (in most circumstances). While they can live in the monastery, many do not.

To become an oblate or a monk, one must have love for God, His creation, and all He has done for them in their hearts--to start. They must also learn the liturgical prayers and appreciation for the psalms. After all, psalms are chanted at each prayer service (or daily office). Next, they are expected to read Scripture daily and also learn about church history and the teachings of the church fathers. These are things that Martin Luther and the reformers lamented were missing from the 16th century monastery--a learning environment, such as Sts. Antony and Benedict practiced in their faith communities.[19] Such communities not only provide adult Christian education, but they have the potential to support and possibly produce clergy. This is why, of all of the oblates of St. Augustine, many are many who are pastors. If such monasteries existed in Luther's time, peradventure he would have nearly as much to say against monasteries as he did in the Book of Concord.


In order to demonstrate the biblical and doctrinal harmony of monasticism, the intention was to expose the criticisms the writers of the Book of Concord declared against monasticism and compare them to original and modern monastic communities. For instance, while the reformers found that monasteries were dens of entrapment for those who cannot defend themselves due to age, powerlessness, or mental deficits, today's monasteries are for adults of sincere desire for a contemplative spiritual life, and candidates (postulants and novices) are given years of opportunities to reconsider their decisions before becoming fully-professed monks. For those who become monks, they are following a specific life vocation instead of hiding from the world and denying worldly obligations. After all, as St. Antony has demonstrated, one can "be fruitful and multiply" outside of marriage and procreation simply by offering weary Christians an oasis in which to rest and focus on what truly matters.

Furthermore, monasticism provides a way for one to pursue and seek perfection, but it is not a state of perfection itself. The average monk knows he is as much of a poor, miserable sinner as any other man. He did not take vows for his salvation, and he does not do good works for it either. He is aware that his vows and his vocation are not included in the sacraments, and that the day of his baptism is far more important than the day he became a monk. Finally, fundamental monasticism precedes all post-canonical saints and church fathers as models of monks and nuns include the Essenes, the first churches, and St. Anna the Prophetess.

What made monasteries and convents corrupt and evil during Luther's time are the abuses that plagued them. When these institutions became less about Christ and more about power and false guilt, they grew the fruits of hypocrisy, greed, and the slavery of souls. Luther was wont to say that, as humans are sinful, human institutions, as spiritual and God-fearing as they may be, can become sponges of sinful desires and behavior. That does not diminish their potential. Internet, for example, has been used for the most sinful practices in history, but it is a comfort for those who can watch the livestream of church services for those who have not been able to attend church because of the COVID-19 pandemic. If one were to merely dismiss everything because of past abuses, many vital Christian treasures would also be dismissed. Namely, the Holy Bible would, to the joy of some, also be dismissed and disregarded. Indeed, the Bible has been abused for thousands of years, especially to justify practices like slavery, racism, class discrimination, and misogynism.

Even Martin Luther admitted that monasteries in their original form should be encouraged. The vast majority of today's monastic communities are far closer to their original form than they were in Luther's time. This is where the Lutheran Confessions and those similar to them have done most Christians a great service. After centuries of debate and dissent, most of the church abuses written about are almost nonexistent in all levels and forms of Christianity--especially in monasteries of all orders and denominations. As a result, the criticisms Lutherans use to discredit or dismiss monastic life are based on confessional indictments that are no longer true. For this reason, Lutheran churches should see such a life for what it is now and what its possibilities are: devoted to loving service to God and humanity and full of prayer and reflection. For these reasons, Lutheran monasticism, as a reality instead of just an idea, should be encouraged, appreciated, and advocated.

In His Service,

Devin M.L. Andrews, Oblate Novice of St. Benedict

[1] Matthew 18

[2] Psalm 119:164

[3] 27:2

[4] Rule of St. Benedict 1980; Chapter 37

[5] Augsburg Confession 27:2; Apology of the Augsburg Confession 27:9

[6] Apology of the Augsburg Confession 27:9

[7] Chapter 29

[8] Augsburg Confession 27:18-21

[9] 1 Corinthians 7:8-9

[10] Luke 2:36-38

[11] Augburg Confession 20:20-22

[12] Augsburg Confession 27:10

[13] Augsburg Confession 27:16

[14] The Rule of St. Benedict in English (1980)

[15] 1 Peter 1:15-16

[16] Augsburg Confession 27:38-40

[17] Apology of the Augsburg Confession 27:26

[18] Acts 5:1-11

[19] Augsburg Confession 27:15-16; Smalcald Articles Part II 3:1-2