Spiritual Combat, Social Cohesion, and Monasticism

St Anthony the Great, founder of Christian Monasticism

St Anthony the Great, founder of Christian Monasticism

The experience of the early church is somewhat analogous to that of soldiers in combat — men (and women) who are motivated and held together by social cohesion. The early church lived within the Roman empire, and the presence of occupying soldiers served as an ever-present reminder that violence and death was never far away. The New Testament reflects this reality, and the language of warfare is often used as a description of the spiritual life.  The apostle writes: “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds)” (2 Cor 10:3-4). And again: “This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare; Holding faith, and a good conscience” (1 Tim 1:18-19). In his epistle to the Ephesians, the apostle exhorts them to put on their spiritual armor, reminding them: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph 6:12).

The early church saw itself as an army engaged in a spiritual battle. They were persecuted by the Roman Empire, which was a physical manifestation of the spiritual battles they faced together. This united them in common cause. Luke describes the situation of the primitive church in this manner:

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. …Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. (Acts 4:32, 34)

A study by the Strategic Studies Institute (Wong, et al) entitled Why They Fight: Combat Motivation in the Iraq War puts it this way:

Social cohesion appears to serve two roles in combat motivation. First, because of the close ties to other soldiers, it places a burden of responsibility on each soldier to achieve group success and protect the unit from harm. Soldiers feel that although their individual contribution to the group may be small, it is still a critical part of unit success and therefore important.

…This desire to contribute to the unit mission comes not from a commitment to the mission, but a social compact with the members of the primary group.

…The second role of cohesion is to provide the confidence and assurance that someone soldiers could trust was “watching their back.” This is not simply trusting in the competence, training, or commitment to the mission of another soldier, but trusting in someone they regarded as closer than a friend who was motivated to look out for their welfare. In the words of one infantryman, “You have got to trust them more than your mother, your father, or girlfriend, or your wife, or anybody. It becomes almost like your guardian angel.”

The presence of comrades imparts a reassuring belief that all will be well. As one soldier stated, “It is just like a big family. Nothing can come to you without going through them first. It is kind of comforting.” One soldier noted, “If he holds my back, then I will hold his, and nothing is going to go wrong.” Another added, “If you are going to war, you want to be able to trust the person who is beside you. If you are his friend, you know he is not going to let you down. . . . He is going to do his best to make sure that you don’t die.” (Wong, et al. 2003, 10-11)

Sebastian Junger, in the book War, describes the bond that unites people who have engaged in combat.

When men say they miss combat, it’s not that they actually miss getting shot at — you’d have to be deranged — it’s that they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life.

It’s such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake themselves in war. You could be anything back home — shy, ugly, rich, poor, unpopular — and it won’t matter because it’s of no consequence in a firefight, and therefore of no consequence, period. The only thing that matters is your level of dedication to the rest of the group, and that is almost impossible to fake. (Junger 2010, 233-234)

As the apostle notes, the church of Jesus Christ engages in warfare against “principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” But whereas the armies of this world mete out death and destruction on a horrific scale, the armies of the Lord are content to die with Him, and for Him. Therein lies the fundamental difference between the armies of this world and the armies of the Lord. In his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges writes of “the narcotic of war that quickly transforms men into beasts”, and of “the ecstatic high of violence and the debilitating mental and physical destruction that comes with prolonged exposure to war’s addiction.” (Hedges 2002, 87) Whereas war turns men into beasts, engaging in spiritual battle has the opposite effect — it turns individuals into persons, and persons into sons of God. War is about death and desolation, whereas spiritual battle is about re-creation, sanctification, and ultimately about salvation.

Soldiers may enlist for reasons of ideology and patriotism, but men do not fight and die for an ideology. They will, however, fight and die for each other. (Junger 2010, 243) Chris Hedges, embedded with the Marines prior to the invasion of Iraq, reports the following conversation:

No one ever charges into battle for God and country. “Just remember,” a Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel told me as he strapped his pistol belt under his arm before we crossed into Kuwait, “that none of these boys is fighting for home, for the flag, for all that crap the politicians feed the public. They are fighting for each other, just for each other.” (Hedges 2002, 38)

It would be easy to say that the early church was the same way — that early Christians were motivated more by their love for each other than their love for the Lord. There are two factors to consider here. First, the primary motivation of the primitive church was the living memory of Jesus as proclaimed by those who knew him in his life, death, and resurrection. This apostolic witness, which was later written down for subsequent generations, was the primary motivation for the growth of the church. It must be understood that for the early church, this was not a matter of ideology, nor of mythology, but the passing on of eye-witness and personally verifiable accounts. The primitive church was filled with people who were eyewitnesses of the risen Lord. The apostle John reminds us of what he personally witnessed, saying that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (Joh 1:14). Jesus was not the subject of a dead ideology; instead, He is the risen Lord of all. The author of Hebrews notes of Christ: “both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren” (Heb 2:11). Our Lord was made man, and remains yet a man; as Chalcedon says, He is: “consubstantial with us as touching his manhood; made in all things like unto us, sin only excepted.” (P. Schaff, NPNF2-14. The Seven Ecumenical Councils 2005, 388) What was true of Christians in the early church is true of us today: we are His brothers, which makes us all brethren in Christ.

But secondly, we must not discount the degree to which the teachings of the apostles and the witness of the martyrs and confessors served to create and reinforce the social cohesion of the early church. There is a clear historical distinction to be made between the early church and the post-Constantine church. After the edict of Milan that made Christianity legal, it became socially respectable and financially advantageous to attach oneself to the church. The witness of Christ and for Christ was weakened, as was the essential brotherhood of all believers. The desire to recover the living witness and brotherhood of the early church in all its intensity was (and still remains) the primary reason for monasticism.


Hedges, Chris. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. New York: Anchor Books, 2002.

Junger, Sebastian. War. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2010.

Schaff, Philip. NPNF2-14. The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005.

Wong, Leonard, Thomas A. Kolditz, Raymond A. Millen, and Terrence M. Potter. “Why They Fight: Combat Motivation in the Iraq War.” Strategic Studies Institute. July 2003. http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/pub179.pdf (accessed August 9, 2010).