Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 1/28/2001

1 Timothy 4:1-5

The Error of Asceticism

"But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything God has created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude, for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer."

Last week re reached the high point of this epistle in 3:16--the mystery of godliness, the secret of pleasing God is now revealed, not as a work or a ritual but as a person: Jesus Christ, revealed physically, vindicated spiritually, beheld by angels, proclaimed to gentiles, received into glory. The first part of chp. 4 flows directly from that affirmation, and can only properly be understood by contrast with it. Now we get a warning about a particular perversion of this gospel which we have with us to this day. We may call it "The Error of Asceticism."


These heretics were forbidding people to get married or to eat certain foods. Many Protestants have seen in these verses a prophecy of the Roman Catholic church, which sometimes seems to elevate virginity as a holier state than marriage, enjoins priestly celibacy, and used to forbid meat on Fridays. While there may be an element of truth in this interpretation, for indeed there are some serious manifestations of the error in Roman Catholic theology and piety, they are only one example among many who show the same tendency. I know of a denomination which would claim to be Protestant and Evangelical which forbids its adherents to consume meat, cheese, coffee, or chocolate. No Christian college that I know of forbids marriage, but there are some that practically forbid dating!

So we need to understand the principle behind these problematic prohibitions. It is seen most clearly in another passage in which Paul deals with the same problem, Col. 2:20-23. Why, he asks, do Christians submit themselves to the "handle not, taste not, touch not" mentality? It has the appearance of godliness in self-made religion, but is of no real value against the indulgence of the flesh. The problem is the mistaken belief that the Christian life, that holiness, consists in negatives, that it can be defined negatively, by all the things we don't do. One thinks of the Fighting Fundies of the Forties and Fifties, my spiritual ancestors, who had reduced godliness to a jingle:

I don't drink, smoke, cuss, or chew,
And I don't go with girls that do;
I don't play cards or go to movies,
I don't listen to music that's groovy.

It is not that the taboos themselves were necessarily wrong (some were, some were not), but rather the idea that a sanctified, godly life could be lived by concentrating on such things. In reality, Paul says, such rules have no value (Col. 2:23). Take smoking as an example. It is just plain stupid. Most non believers know they should not smoke, and most of those who do wish they could stop. The christian has an extra motive for taking care of his body--it is not his, but belongs to the Lord. So of course Christians shouldn't smoke. But there is no special spiritual virtue in not smoking. Many pagans are capable of this!


This assumption that a godly life consisteth in the multitude of things we give up is not just an annoying quirk of our fundamentalist brethren. It is, Paul says in vs. 1, a departure from the faith. Though many (including most fundamentalists) who have this emphasis have not become apostate, nevertheless many others have denied the gospel altogether. The point is that this emphasis is inherently incompatible with the gospel of grace, that it tends toward a denial of it even when it has not pushed us that far. For it is ultimately a denial of the doctrine of creation. And if God is not the Creator, he is not qualified to be the Savior. The denial of the goodness of creation leads to an emphasis on physical things or bodily pleasures as inherently problematic, hence on abstaining from them as the essence of spirituality. And this also denies the first affirmation of 3:16, that Christ was revealed in the flesh. Once creation is rejected, it is inconsistent to continue really believing in the incarnation. Then the emphasis on don'ts leads to linking acceptance with God to abstaining, which leads to legalism.

All this confuses the real issues of spirituality. "Fleshly indulgence" does not mean indulging the body but the flesh, i.e., the principle of self will which is in competition with the Holy Spirit for control of our lives. What God wants is not negative, not abstentions, but positive: conformity to the positive goodness of Jesus Christ, i.e. the whole of the 10 commandments fulfilled in love: love of God with the whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, and the neighbor as oneself.

We must note that this true biblical ideal of spirituality is absolutely impossible in the flesh. It is only possible as Christ lives in us. And that explains the subtle attractiveness and power of this negative spirituality. It allows us to create a substitute ("self-made religion") which we can attain on our own and hence take credit for. It is a cheap route to looking spiritual. But it is of no value. Because you can refrain from smoking, driniking, dancing, cards, certain entertainments, and make the list even longer, and still be prideful, contentious, dishonest, scheming, bigoted, self-centered, and unloving. Paul says this error is nothing less than demonic. It is Satan's ploy to either lead us away from the faith altogether or, failing that, to get us off track, fighting mock battles against relatively inconsequential foes, leaving the real battles unfought, and becoming ineffective. But it is more than mere effectiveness: the very gospel is at stake.


Our counterattack against this deadly and corrupting error must have at least three prongs.

  1. Do Not Over-React.
    This is a temptation for many of us who were raised in strict, legalistic environments: once we have seen through it, to throw off all restraint and become libertines. But there is a proper place for the negative in the Christian life. There are things we should not do, and the Fundies were not all wrong about what they are. But the emphasis should not be there, and the definition of spirituality should not be negative but positive. It is not so much things we must give up as the self-will which competes with Christ for the lordship of our lives. I want Christ to be Lord of all; I will give up anything which stands in the way of that. But I will not say that you have to give it up too (unless it is explicitly forbidden by Scripture), and I will not define my spirituality (or yours) as having to give it up.
  2. Stress the Doctrine of Creation.
    It is not in the Bible just so we can debate Evolutionists. (We do need to debate them, but unfortunately that seems to be the only use the doctrine gets in the Evangelical world today!) It means stressing the goodness of the body and the physical world, full of things meant to be enjoyed. And it will mean emphasizing thanksgiving (1 Tim. 4:4-5). A good picture of this attitude is Eric Liddell, the Christian track star of "Chariots of Fire." When his sister accused him of being unspiritual for delaying his missionary career for a year in order to participate in the Olympics, he replied, "Jenny, God made me for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I can feel His pleasure in it." That is the doctrine of creation being practically applied.
  3. Remember the Centrality of the Incarnation, 1 Tim. 3:16.
    It is Jesus Christ as revealed in the flesh who is the essence and definition of spirituality for us. This will keep you from substituting a futile "self-made" religion for true holiness. And it will also keep you in touch with the only means of attaining it: "I am crucified with Christ. Nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).

Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams