As Valentine’s Day rolls around, advice on love can be found not only in the seasonal aisle of the grocery store but also in the writings of the ancient past. One notable pastor from early Christianity to treat the topic of love and marriage is John Chrysostom (ca. 347–409), the “golden mouth” preacher of Asia Minor. Chrysostom’s best preaching on marriage is captured in his On Marriage and Family Life (St. Vladimir’s Press, 1986), from the Popular Patristics Series (see also my discussion of Irenaeus’s On the Apostolic Preaching from the same series). This volume by Chrysostom includes six of his sermons on the topic of marriage—aimed toward both those seeking marriage and those already married.
Catherine P. Roth, who writes the introduction to this volume, notes that while other fourth-century theologians focused on doctrinal matters, Chrysostom was drawn to “the practical problems arising for Christian life in a pagan society” (7). His writings on married life stand out so much that Roth calls him “the great apologist for Christian marriage” (8). She continues,
Between St Paul and the twentieth century, the best in Christian teaching on marriage is represented by St John Chrysostom. While he does not suggest any change in the outward structures of men and women’s relationships, he expects them to be transfigured by Christian love. (11)
This introductory word gives a nice sense of Chrysostom’s teaching on the topic. He sees marriage not as second best but as a good, joyful gift from God that, when shaped by Christian love, helps people avoid sin and live well.
Chrysostom, of course, does speak in a different time and place, and some of his advice will seem unusual or unfitting to some modern-day readers. Even so, he offers words that are ever relevant today. Much of the reason for his relevance is that he spends a great deal of his time engaging the Bible. In fact, it should be noted that this book is very much a specimen of the history of biblical interpretation. He treats expected passages, such as 1 Corinthians 7; Ephesians 5; and Ephesians 6, and he also discusses the story of how Abraham’s servant finds a wife for Isaac in Rebekah—a beautiful, glowing description of this godly woman. It bears mentioning that we can learn much from seeing how Christians in church history have interpreted the Bible, because it can both reaffirm and challenge our own exegesis.
To give a taste of John Chrysostom’s teaching on marriage and family life and to highlight some of the important themes in his discussion, I am providing a few selections from the book.
One theme he touches on at several points is the purpose of marriage. He says it a few different ways, but in his “Sermon on Marriage,” he succinctly states, “These are the two purposes for which marriage was instituted: to make us chaste, and to make us parents” (85). He observes that “when desire began, then marriage also began. It sets a limit to desire by teaching us to keep to one wife” (85).
In this view of marriage, Chrysostom set out a positive view of marital sex, in contrast to the Augustinian strain that often limited the purpose of sex to procreation alone. Chrysostom celebrates sexual relations—as long as they are constrained to marriage—as good and as having a positive effect on the morality of husband and wife. Elsewhere Chrysostom puts it this way:
What then is the reason for marriage, and why did God give it to us? Listen to what Paul says: “Because of the temptation to immorality let each man have his own wife.” . . . In order that we may avoid fornication, restrain our desire, practice chastity, and be well pleasing to God by being satisfied with our own wife: this is the gift of marriage, this is its fruit, this is its profit. (99)
Given the positive purpose that Chrysostom envisions for marriage, he spends a fair amount of time contemplating what to look for in a wife. He warns against marrying for wealth, which can cause all kinds of tension and can disappear in a moment, and even against marrying for physical beauty, which inevitably fades with time. Instead, he says this:
Let us seek just one thing in a wife, virtue of soul and nobility of character, so that we may enjoy tranquility, so that we may luxuriate in harmony and lasting love. (97).
Similarly, for women seeking a husband, Chrysostom advises the father to look for
a husband who will really be a husband and a protector. . . . When your daughter is to be married, don’t look for how much money a man has. Don’t worry about his nationality or his family’s social position. All these things are superfluous. Look instead for piety, gentleness, wisdom, and the fear of the Lord, if you want your daughter to be happy. (78)
Once a spouse is found, naturally a wedding follows. Even here Chrysostom has relevant advice, addressing the way people celebrate receptions (though here we may also find more resistance from people today):
Marriage is a bond, a bond ordained by God. Why then do you celebrate weddings in a silly and immodest manner? Have you no idea what you are doing? You are marrying your wife for the procreation of children and for the moderation of life; what is the meaning of these drunken parties with their lewd and disgraceful behavior? You can enjoy a banquet with your friends to celebrate your marriage; I do not forbid this, but why must you introduce all these excesses? Camels and mules behave more decently than some people at wedding receptions! Is marriage a comedy? It is a mystery, an image of something far greater. . . . How is marriage a mystery? The two have become one. This is not an empty symbol. They have not become the image of anything on earth, but of God Himself. How can you celebrate it in a noisy uproar, which dishonors and bewilders the soul? (74–75)
For Chrysostom, the ultimate question was not one of practicality but one of spirituality. The theology of marriage determines the manner in which it is to be celebrated.
Beyond the wedding, of course, is the delicate dance of relations within marriage. Chrysostom admonishes the husband not to “reproach her for lacking things over which she has no control. No; let us not reproach her for anything, or be impatient and sullen” (49). Here he calls for a gentleness, a forbearance on the part of the husband.
In speaking of the duties of wives and husbands, Chrysostom spends much time on Ephesians 5 and holds a fairly traditional view of wives submitting to their husbands and husbands as the loving heads of their wives. The call to the husband is striking because one finds the gospel proclaimed within it:
You have seen the amount of obedience necessary; now hear about the amount of love necessary. Do you want your wife to be obedient to you, as the Church is to Christ? Then be responsible for the same providential care of her, as Christ is for the Church. And even if it becomes necessary for you to give your life for her, yes, and even to endure and undergo suffering of any kind, do not refuse. Even though you undergo all this, you will never have done anything equal to what Christ has done. You are sacrificing yourself for someone to whom you are already joined, but He offered Himself up for one who turned her back on Him and hated Him. In the same way, then, as He honored her by putting at His feet one who turned her back on Him, who hated, rejected, and disdained Him, as He accomplished this not with threats, or violence, or terror, or anything else like that, but through His untiring love; so also you should behave toward your wife. Even if you see her belittling you, or despising and mocking you, still you will be able to subject her to yourself, through affection, kindness, and your great regard for her. There is no influence more powerful than the bond of love, especially for husband and wife. . . . Suffer anything for her sake, but never disgrace her, for Christ never did this with the Church. (46–47)
If husbands took the model of Christ to heart, how many marriages might, to use Catherine Roth’s phrase, be “transfigured by Christian love”? I close with Chrysostom’s command to the husband and wife to do their own duty, regardless of their spouse’s actions:
Your obligation is to love her; do your duty! Even when we don’t receive our due from others, we must always do our duty. . . . If your spouse doesn’t obey God’s law, you are not excused. A wife should respect her husband even when he shows her no love, and a husband should love his wife even when she shows him no respect. Then they will both be found to lack nothing, since each has fulfilled the commandment given to him. (54)
That’s not exactly the kind of sentiment one might find in the seasonal aisle at the store on Valentine’s Day, but John Chrysostom’s On Marriage and Family Life bears wisdom and substance that outlasts the season of cupid.