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. ...

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