In 1979, Ken Davis published an article that outline the characteristics of an orthodox Charismatic movement (as opposed to heretical ones), and then proposed that the 16th Century Anabaptists were such a movement. Taking up his work, I see the 4th Century Desert Fathers and Mothers were another such movement. This series explores those characteristics and shows how they were expressed among the Desert Saints.

Leadership in Orthodox Movements

Orthodox charismatic movements acknowledge that the Spirit calls who He wills, and distributes His gifts “just as he determines”. Leadership and ministry are “charismatic in nature, raised up directly by the Holy Spirit and unable to be restricted by any institutional parameters, apart from its recognition or acceptance by the local fellowship”.

There was no formal process for recognizing a monk as an abba. Anyone could leave the city and become a monk in the desert, and any monk could build a reputation for holiness, asceticism and spiritual power. In fact, there are stories that tell of the most unexpected people repenting and going on to great achievements in the monastic life, including robbers, prostitutes and murders. Like the thief on the cross, the great intensity of their repentance would sometimes lead to progress occurring in an astonishingly short period of time, especially considering the general expectation within the desert that maturity typically comes through long and arduous course of asceticism.

The Desert Fathers took great pains to be submissive to the wider Church. They had a high  regard for the priests and bishops, and usually considered themselves unworthy of ordination. However, when ordained (sometimes by ambush!), they submitted to the call and served in their new role faithfully, even though it meant leaving behind the desert life they loved:

One day Abba Matoes went to Rhaithou, in the region of Magdolos. A brother went with him, and the bishop seized the old man and made him a priest. While they were eating together the bishop said, ‘Forgive me abba; I know you did not want it but it was in order that I might be blessed by you that I dared to do it.’ The old man said humbly to him, ‘I did not wish it, to be sure; but what really troubles me is that I must be separated from the brother who is with me and I am not able to keep on saying the prayers quite alone.’ The bishop said to him, ‘If you know that he is worthy, I will ordain him too.’ Abba Matoes said, ‘I do not know if he is worthy of it; I only know one thing, that he is better than I.’ So the bishop ordained him also.

Another aspect of the monks’ submission to the Church was the great value they placed on theological orthodoxy, despite being a movement not prone to much theologizing. They studiously avoided heresy and convinced heretics to return to the orthodox church whenever they could. Sometimes when simple but earnest monks would stray into error, they would be corrected by means of a vision. Regardless of whether such events actually occurred or whether they are merely parables, the underlying concern of the movement to be found within the bounds of orthodoxy is clear.

Leadership In Heretical Movements

In heretical charismatic movements, prophets are self-authenticated rather than recognized by the elders or the congregation. The Lausaic History contains a striking tale of how the abbas responded to those who were tempted in this way:

[Abramius] was smitten in his mind with troublesome self-conceit; he went to church and argued with the priests, and he said: “I was ordained priest just this past night by Christ; now allow me to perform the functions of a priest.” The fathers took him away from the desert and brought him to a less ascetic and less exacting way of life, and they cured this man of his arrogance.

No such self-authentication was tolerated; one’s actions over a long period of time were all that mattered out in the desert

Davis also observes that a heretical charismatic movement often demands “total loyalty and commitment from its followers”. The abbas did make some radical statements regarding obedience. They emphasized its importance to spiritual progress. For example, in cenobitic monasticism – where the monks lived in a community under the care of an abbot – obedience was considered even more important than asceticism, because “the one teaches pride, the other humility”. For this reason an abba might test a potential disciple’s sincerity to become a monk. They also taught that beginners should reveal their inner thoughts to an abba regularly and to heed his advice concerning them. Obedience to one’s abba was important and those disciples that obeyed well were held up as examples for others. At first glance, it appears that the Desert Fathers exhibit this symptom of heretical charismatic movements.

However, it was to the pursuit of virtue that the abbas demanded total loyalty and commitment, not to themselves personally. In fact, the abbas were reluctant to lord over others, as demonstrated by their repeated prohibitions against judging others. Even if a monk had committed himself into an abba’s care, the direction the abba exercised was one of example rather than legislation. When Abba Cronius was asked why he didn’t tell his disciple what to do, he responded, “I do not tell him anything, but if he wishes he can do what he sees me doing”. Another abba urged his monks not to imitate him, but rather to imitate the biblical apostles and prophets. They could also be remarkably gentle and tender to the earnest young monk who was trying but failing, even repeatedly.

Thus, the leadership practiced by the Desert Fathers does not have the same tyrannical bent found in heretical charismatic movements. Consider the difference between the abuse administered by a bully and a coach. The bully is inconsistent in the abuse because he is motivated by the pleasure he derives from it. Like many hedonists, he is lazy and will slack in his efforts when he grows bored. However, the coach never lets up, because his goal is not his own personal pleasure but rather the athlete’s peak performance. Ironically, because he wishes the best for the athlete, he pushes him harder than the bully ever would. The abbas were coaches, not bullies.