Why did early Christians shun high office?
I've read of several early church leaders who tried to avoid being ordained preacher or bishop of a certain area. Why exactly did they shun high positions?
Your question identifies a perennial pattern. It began after Constantine's rise to power in 312, when strongly committed Christians began entering monasteries in significant numbers. Such devout believers, craving the discipline and reflection provided by the monastery, often shunned the worldly whirlwind of high ecclesiastical office. Bishops, after all, not only had religious responsibilities (such as administering confirmation); they also had administrative duties (such as overseeing the clergy in their dioceses) and judicial authority (Roman law empowered bishops to arbitrate in cases). Yet many of the most dedicated disciples of Christ-read, the best "bishop material"-were to be found in the monasteries, and so the pattern you mention developed.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) may be the best example of this in the early church. The son of a prosperous landowner in Thagaste, North Africa, Augustine lived lavishly in his youth-seduced by the loose-living city of Carthage. But after his conversion in 386, he resolved to leave secular life and enter a monastery, and he returned home intending to build one. Yet it was not to be. During a visit to the town of Hippo, the people there, knowing his reputation for saintliness and wisdom, abducted him and charged the aged bishop Valerius to ordain him, even though Augustine did not wish it. Though he tried to retain monastic disciplines in his new position, Augustine now lived much more publicly, for example occupying the bishop's house, where he was expected to show hospitality to guests.
History remembers Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) as the father of the medieval papacy, but Gregory, in fact, never wanted the responsibility. Like Augustine, Gregory was born into a wealthy family, his father being a senator in Rome. Following his conversion, he left his secular office, sold off extensive property holdings in Rome and Sicily, and entered the monastic community. But the pope at the time wouldn't allow him to stay in seclusion, and he appointed Gregory a deacon of the Roman church and later, ambassador to the emperor in Constantinople. So Gregory once again found himself, in his own words, "plunged into the sea of secular affairs."
A stranger case is that of Peter of Monroe (c. 1215-1296). Widely revered as an ascetic and father of a monastic order, Peter lived in a cell high up on a remote mountain in Italy. But in July, 1294, Rome's cardinals elected him as pope and sent a party to fetch him. The 80-year-old hermit, knowing any escape was cut off, threw himself on the ground, pleading for them to reconsider. But they insisted, and for five short months, Peter, now Celestine V, created havoc in the papacy-offending cardinals, scattering privileges, and in general botching his new administrative duties. Celestine was only too happy to abdicate his position when the corrupt Cardinal Gaetani offered to succeed him.
The pattern seems fairly clear-first, adoption of the monastic habit, then reluctant consent to ecclesiastical office under immense pressure from church authorities. Still, individual cases do differ, and Christians have had various reasons for objecting to positions of authority. Certainly Jesus' stern reminder to his disciples that "the first shall be last, and the last shall be first" has influenced more than one leader faced with the choice.
*For a brief summary of all these leaders, see The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F.L. Cross.
*For more information on Augustine, see Christian History issues 15 and 67.
*Christian History issue 70 gives brief mention to Celestine, while E.R. Chamberlin's The Bad Popes tells the story in full.
Steven Gertz is editorial coordinator for Christian History
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