Marriage & Family Life (John Chrysostom)

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Puritanboard Clerk
St John Chrysostom. On Marriage & Family Life. trans. Catherine Roth and David Anderson. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986.

I am tempted to title this “Chrysostom’s Ten Steps to a Healthy Marriage.” Out of respect to one of the greatest fathers of the church, I will not do that. It would not be a bad idea, though. I think I can find ten steps in this book. It would be even more of a cliche to call them “timeless truths for modern man,” though it is certainly that. In many ways, Chrysostom might not even see it that way. By and large, he is addressing abuses and immorality in his own community, though the reader can make his own applications with ease.

In four homilies taken from 1 Corinthians 7 (Homily 19), Ephesians 5 (Homily 20), Ephesians 6 (Homily 21), Colossians 4 (Homily 12), and a “Sermon on Marriage,” Chrysostom gives us the basic outline of Christian marriage and family.

Homily 19

Chrysostom raises an interesting question: if intercourse with a harlot makes a man one flesh with her, with the negative results that brings, then why does not intercourse between a Christian and an unbelieving spouse make the union unholy? This is behind Paul’s claim that the Christian’s faith in Christ makes the union holy, or perhaps keeps it from becoming unholy. The now unequal state in marriage does not render the sexual act defiled, as would be the case with a prostitute.

Homily 20

Few will warm to Chrysostom’s remarks on physical beauty, but they are more or less correct. He reminds us that outward beauty gives pleasure “for one or two months, or a year at most but then no longer.” The situation is somewhat different today with cosmetics, diet, and dentistry, but the point is basically true.

Chrysostom recommends husbands and wives share one bank account, though he does not call it that. As they are one flesh, they should be one finance. Because they are one organism, they cannot say “my own.”

Homily 21

Regarding child rearing, Chrysostom admonishes against, as might be expected, accumulating wealth. He takes Hannah for his example. From this he urges parents to “purify the soul” of their child (note the Stoic language). In what can only be a response to real conversations he had, he tells parents that having their children read the bible will not make them monks. From this we can deduce something interesting: there was some regular access to the Scriptures of which families could avail themselves.

Homily 12

In this homily on Colossians, Chrysostom rails against extravagant wedding celebrations. The main reason is not so much the bizarre fixation some families have about bankrupting themselves for a wedding; rather, extravagant celebrations invite debauchery, and where debauchery is, Christ is not. In another homily (see below), he warns that some of these songs “invoke demons.”

Sermon on Marriage

If the church fathers have a somewhat justified reputation for begrudging marriage and hating conjugal love, Chrysostom represents, if not a complete break, at least a welcome relief from that tradition. What, then, is the point of marriage? Most of the tradition said procreation. Sex is for making babies. Chrysostom does not deny that, but neither does he make that argument. Rather, “Marriage is a remedy to eliminate fornication.” Indeed, in what can be only a complete break with the tradition, he writes “chastity [i.e., eliminating fornication] takes precedence. This is on page 85 if anyone does not believe me. In fact, he clarifies his point further (if that is possible), “So there remains only one purpose for marriage, to avoid fornication, and the remedy is offered for this purpose” (86).

Continuing his jeremiad against extravagance, Chrysostom describes what can only be an average wedding at Constantinople: “Nowadays on the day of a wedding people dance and sing hymns to Aphrodite, songs full of adultery, corruption of marriages, illicit loves, and many other impure and shameful themes.” He then asks of the husband, if such is the case, then “How can you expect chastity of her [the bride]...if you accustom her to shamelessness from the first day?”

Chrysostom and Stoicism

It goes beyond the evidence to call Chrysostom a Stoic, but the language is certainly there. A slave, for example, experiences freedom when “he is freed from the passions and from vices of the mind” (Hom. 19). This is quite true, but it might be cold comfort for the slave. We should not dismiss Chrysostom’s cold argument, though. He has a larger point: a man who is slave to his passions can never be free, “but the passions–they won’t be satisfied until they have destroyed you!”


I would not have expected an ancient monk and patriarch to write a sane manual on married life. Against today’s machismo patriarchalists, he does not recommend the husband be one. To be sure, he does hold to male headship, but he does not hold to the line that the woman must be denied the opportunity to improve herself. We should not read too much into this silence, however. In the ancient world there would have been little women could have done in that regard. On the other hand, he did expect wives to be intelligent and industrious and while the opportunities in his day for that would have been limited, that is not the case today.
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