What is a religious order?

A religious order is a group of men and women who choose to live under certain religious vows set by the leader of that religion. Religious orders are most common in the Roman Catholic Church, though there are also orders in the Episcopal Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, and other liturgical churches.

In Catholicism, there are monastic orders, which include monks, nuns, and hermits; mendicants, which include friars; and canons regular, who are priests that live in community and follow a specific order yet are active in a parish. There are also clerics regular, which is similar to canons regular but with fewer restrictions.

Usually, those who are part of a religious order take vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity. The vows are sometimes for a lifetime, and sometimes for a set number of years. Most orders create strict routines of personal meditations, prayers, services, and work.

Catholic orders include Dominicans, Benedictines, Franciscans, Jesuits, Trappists, and about thirty-five others.

Though most religious orders have admirable purposes and those who join them desire to honor God, the Bible does not call Christians to separate their existence from the wider culture. Consider these words of Jesus:

"You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:13–16).

Many in religious orders rarely interact with "normal" people and have limited opportunity to influence them with Jesus' love and truth. Christians are properly taught that their struggles and way of life can be of use when comforting or helping those who go through the same things Christians do. First Timothy 4:2–4 says to avoid imposing restrictions about marriage and foods on Christians. We are not to be "of" the world, but we are still "in" it (John 17:14–21).

Jesus did not remove Himself from society, but dove in, eating with some of the most despised people in culture, attending religious services, working, walking, and doing life with those around Him. His pattern was to get away to spend time with His Father early in the morning and at other times when He could. The majority of His time, as recorded in the Gospels, was interacting with people. Jesus did not sequester Himself from the world, but interacted with it and shared the gospel truth. It is good and right to spend time alone with God and to fellowship with other believers. But the regulations of religious orders often go far beyond this into an ascetic lifestyle to which God does not call believers.

Another common problem in religious orders is a tendency toward works-based salvation or works-based righteousness. Again, the things many in religious orders seek to do are good things, but they do not earn salvation or garner favor with God. Our salvation is based solely on God's grace and received through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8–10).

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