When I say "monk" most people already have an idea of what I'm talking about. They imagine something from Medieval Europe. This is what, in Roman Catholicism, is called the "religious life" as per the "regular" clergy. These men and women live apart from general society in their own cloistered life. Sometimes this is for the purposes of being utterly alone. Most other times, the monks and nuns live in small communities.
Nothing wrong with this, per se, yet. But in certain streams of Roman theology, the monk is given a particular calling that revolves around the "council of perfection". In other words, the "religious" devote their lives to living out the Sermon on the Mount and the true Christian life. The rest, whether "secular" clergy or just regular lay people, are held to a different set of ethics. This is a particular kind of Augustinian logic. The original motive was a kind of understanding compassion. Most people can't live up to the heroic lives of the many saints, so, instead, there are different forms of obedience for common folk. If they listen to the ordained authorities, participate in Church, then they're on a good path.
Considering Jesus Christ never equivocated on such matters, one speculates that this particular compassion is really an impious compromise. In Dostoevksy's parable of the Grand Inquisitor, put in the mouth of the compassionate atheist Ivan, this sort of reasoning is unmasked in the Cardinal. The rule of the Church is liberative because God is a tyrant. People are too weak to live the life God asks, so the Church replaces the living God with a more responsible image and speak on behalf of it. Thus, people will be given bread, sex, and the decent pleasures of life until they tumble into the eternal sleep called death. The Grand Inquisitor curses God after a life of asceticism and devotion. He loves Humanity, and thus must subjugate them for their own good, and his love for God becomes bitter hatred.
Now, this is a fictional composite and a part of a much more complex argument. This is a kind of slippery slope and psychoanalysis combined, and it is fallacious to apply to actual monks living the kind of life I described above. But it ought to raise one's eyes to the implications of such a world.
I am not contesting the existence of hierarchy, rather I am contesting the kind of hierarchy that is constructed. St. Paul talks about the immature and the mature. All of the Apostles speak of different gifts and the fact of ordained offices for leadership (diaconate, presbyterate, bishoprics), however one wants to understand it. Christ speaks of harvests bringing in different bounties (30, 60, 100).
But this is never to commend lukewarmness and a social conformity for the sake of a created social order. In this way, Medieval Western Europe was an exercise in building Babel.
While Orthodoxy has tended to a better vision, there is still too sharp a divide and, functionally, the monks exist as better Christians. Groups like the Moravians, in their brief radical existence, contest the notions implicit in these static categories. In someways, they heralded the kind of life Christians are to live, inadvertently drawing together common life in towns and cities towards the life lived in the Desert. Many Moravians revealed that it is possible to keep both sets together. Unlike many radical groups among the Reformed, the Moravians brought about a life in the Spirit that was very different than the kind of moral reform promised by the former groups.
This may sound harsh, but the Puritan vision was pretty abysmal. I am aware of some benefits to living within Puritan communities in comparison to the times. However, Puritan New England was more akin to the Medieval experiment, especially its fall into worldliness and subsequent lax adjustments, than unleashing the Gospel. Perhaps the Moravians use of Luther saved a collapse of the Gospel into moralizing social formation. But I digress.
However, if we view the monk as a particular vocation towards creative experimentation, perhaps there's still something necessary and beautiful about it. There's a contingency towards the order and particular arrangement, but we might group them into anchorites and cenobites. The former are those who live in near isolation, and the latter who live in small communities separated from larger society. Both have purposes.
The monk is not one who pursues a kind of perfection distinct from other Christians. Instead, he/she is taking a particular, and usually peculiar, road towards the virtue that the gospel calls us into.
Those monks who isolated in the desert were those who sought to seriously understand themselves and combat the demons that afflicted them. All Christians prosper from those battles, and the wisdom that was revealed through them. These particular Christians engaged in a brutal kind of self-examination, humility before God, and spiritual warfare. We all profit from this.
Those monks who lived in separate communities have purchased, through their time and work, greater understanding in building and sustaining community. The lessons learned among fellow Christians is translated for Christians living in cities on how to be peace-makers. These lessons also help us learn to navigate all our relational networks, whether at work or at home. We all gain from this.
So, perhaps the term "monk" is a stupid one. It connotes a kind of categorical difference between the "others". But, then again, those who engage in the above kinds of life have given themselves to something different. They are like the Scouts of Israel, telling all what they see in the Promise Land. Indeed, some return with absurd stories, but there are those (like Caleb) who bring the unadulterated truth. If there is a difference, it is only in that.
In this kind of definition, "monasticism" is a more wide term then many might expect. My last year in undergrad might be termed a particular kind of monastic living, as we lived communally (relatively) and the shared space brought about strange growth and challenges (8-9 of us lived in one large apartment). Like cenobitic communities of old, our living arrangement provided a kind of oasis from the alienation that can dominate college life.
Of course, this wider definition helpfully challenges the arrogance of prestige found within organizations that declare themselves "better". As per most arrangements in life, the monastic disciplines begin and end in contingent ways. They are not ontologically real in the same way that the Church is, but represent parts and fragments of such a catholic entity.
Hopefully this redeems the vision of the monk for those of you who are Protestant and/or wary of these kinds of things.