Chrysostom on the Good of Marriage, Part 2

51VwMu+rXkLIn my final post on this subject, we encounter some truly beautiful words concerning marriage and family life as we arrive at the heart of Chrysostom’s positive view on marriage, which, I believe, stems from a principle found in his Homily 19 on 1 Corinthians. In this sermon, Chrysostom articulates the foundational point that all Christians, regardless of their marital status, are called to the same goal: holiness.

According to Chrysostom: “St Paul tells us to seek peace and the sanctification without which it is impossible to see the Lord. So whether we presently live in virginity, in our first marriage, or in our second, let us pursue holiness, that we may be counted worthy to see Him and to attain the Kingdom of Heaven, through the grace and love for mankind of our Lord Jesus Christ…[1]

Thus, Chrysostom is not so much concerned with one’s marital status as he is with how one uses that status to pursue holiness. Virginity is indeed, for Chrysostom, an excellent state of being, but it is most certainly not commanded, nor is virginity necessary to live a holy life; while there are heavenly rewards for virginity, there is surely no punishment for those who choose to live a married life.[2] In fact, as we will now go on to explore, there are ways in which marriage can bring training for holiness and blessing that are unique to the marriage relationship, and that are in no way inferior to those of virginity.

For the way in which Chrysostom envisioned marriage as a means to promoting virtue, we must turn to his Homily 20 on Ephesians, which takes up the famous passage on marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33. First, Chrysostom discusses the means by which marriage promotes virtue in society at large. “The love of husband and wife,” Chrysostom argues, “is the force that welds society together.”[3] Why is this the case? As Chrysostom goes on, “Because when harmony prevails [that is, within a marriage], the children are raised well, the household is kept in order, and neighbors, friends and relatives praise the result. Great benefits, for both families and states, are thus produced. When it is otherwise, however, everything is thrown into confusion and turned upside-down.”[4]

Marriage, therefore, functions as a leaven in society, and it does so in a way that appears to go beyond that of Augustine and the earlier Chrysostom (which had more to do with ordering society by means of regulating sex) to encompass the entire household, producing benefits for the entire community, presumably from the effects of the family being united in piety and harmony.

But not only does marriage produce virtue in society as a whole, Chrysostom goes on to argue, it produces spiritual growth and holiness in the individual. Proceeding from the Pauline notion that a well-ordered household is a necessary qualification for a church leader, Chrysostom makes a remarkable move, linking the household with the church: “If we regulate our households in this way, we will also be fit to oversee the Church, for indeed the household is a little Church [καί ἡ οἰκία γὰρ Ἐκκλησία ἐστὶ μικρά]. Therefore it is possible for us to surpass [ὑπερβαλέσθαι] all others in virtue by becoming good husbands and wives.[5]

This statement is extraordinary: the household, which proceeds from the union of man and woman in sexual intercourse, is in fact a “little Church.” That the home could be called a “little church” in the late fourth century, in an age of great basilicas and large congregations, is quite surprising; even in the earliest phase of the Christian movement, when small house churches were the norm, the literature of that time exhibits no collocation of ἐκκλησία and μικρά, nor is a single family unit ever itself referred to as an ἐκκλησία of any sort.[6] Just as the church is a place where sanctification and growth in holiness is to occur (at least ideally), so too within the home of believers. We should not miss the striking claim that “it is possible to surpass[7] all others in virtue by becoming good husbands and wives.” Implicit in this statement is that notion that a married person can pursue holiness just as well as a monk, a priest, or a virgin. In fact, Chrysostom continues, the household can be a uniquely helpful training ground for holiness. For, as Chrysostom illustrates, marriage offers, on a day-to-day basis, opportunities for spiritual growth, which occurs in the practice of the husband’s headship, the wife’s submission, and in the temptations to jealousy, quarreling, and nagging that are common to every marriage.[8]

Lest we miss Chrysostom’s point, he goes on to make a further comparison to illuminate the potential for the promotion of virtue within marriage: “If your marriage is like this, your perfection will rival the holiest of monks.”[9] By “this,” Chrysostom refers to his lengthy preceding description of the pursuit of holiness within the mundane business of married life, including esteeming one’s wife in the presence of her friends and children and furnishing one’s house neatly and soberly, the latter of which feeds into the broader theme of the couple’s renunciation of wealth, which is a major theme in this homily.[10] Here we have yet another extraordinary claim: the daily chores of married life and the couple’s approach to the finances of the household can be utilized for the purposes of sanctification just as much as the monk’s practices of chanting the psalter or keeping an ascetic lifestyle of physical and sexual renunciation.

Indeed, at the conclusion of this homily, Chrysostom further underscores the nature of the blessings that will follow from pursuing holiness within marriage. Summarizing his instructions for husbands, Chrysostom makes the following claim: “Teach her to fear God, and all other good things will flow from this one lesson as from a fountain and your house will be filled with ten thousand blessings. […] In this way we will be able to please God, and to pass through the course of this life in virtue and to gain the blessings which He has promised to those who love Him.”[11]

In marriage, Chrysostom is arguing, virtue and therefore blessing are available to those who are willing to work at growing in holiness. For learning “the fear of the Lord” is something that is available to all believers, whatever their circumstances. And thus we are back to the key principle from his Homily 19 on 1 Corinthians which we examined previously: that all Christians, regardless of their marital status, are called to the same goal of holiness. While virginity may bring extra rewards, marriage offers unique opportunities for growing in holiness; either way, what matters is that each Christian make the most of his or her station for spiritual growth.

Finally, Chrysostom argues for the good of marriage on the basis of marital love, which transcends this life. As Chrysostom writes, “Tell her that you love her more than your own life, because this present life is nothing, and that your only hope is that the two of you pass through this life in such a way that in the world to come you will be united in perfect love. Say to her, “Our time here is brief and fleeting, but if we are pleasing to God, we can exchange this life for the Kingdom to come. Then we will be perfectly one with Christ and each other, and our pleasure will know no bounds [μετὰ πλείονος τῆς ἡδονῆς].”[12]

Here Chrysostom speaks of how the love between husband and wife will, in the age to come, result in them being “united in perfect love,” in which they will be “perfectly one with Christ and each other.” Marriage, therefore, is not merely a temporary good (that is, for reproduction and chastity), but the basis for a relationship that will continue into eternity. Here we should also note the reappearance of “pleasure” [ἡδονή], which will likewise transcend any present-day notions of pleasure.

In conclusion, we should not be surprised when, in another of Chrysostom’s homilies, we hear him state that “there is nothing in the world sweeter for a man than having children and a wife.”[13] Though not himself married, Chrysostom had come to articulate a positive vision of marriage that would remain influential in the East. We are left wondering, however, what caused Chrysostom’s paradigm shift concerning marriage. Somewhat unfulfilling is Roth’s suggestion that, in contrast to his earlier lack of “fully appreciating the potential for grace in married life,” Chrysostom’s “experience as a pastor at Antioch and at Constantinople corrected this imbalance in his understanding.”[14] While this may well be the case, it is surely significant that many other Christian pastors and bishops of this time – Augustine comes to mind –did not change their views on marriage as Chrysostom did, despite what we may presume were similar pastoral circumstances. Thus, we are left with the intriguing question on what prompted Chrysostom’s expansive view of the “good” of marriage, but our sources do not appear to give us any firm guidance on this matter, and we will therefore have to leave this intriguing question unanswered.

To conclude: we have now examined two different accounts of the good of marriage from the late fourth and early fifth centuries, and concluded that while Augustine provides a measured, mediating perspective on the good of marriage, Chrysostom offers an expansive vision of the good of marriage centered around its ability to promote virtue. How then do we account for this difference? No doubt both Augustine and Chrysostom were shaped by their own personal experiences as well as the theological controversies of their day, some of which we have explored above. That being said, my sense is that these different accounts of the good of marriage roughly correspond to the tensions within the Pauline corpus itself (that is, between 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5). Scholars have long recognized differences in the approach to marriage in these two texts,[15] and indeed, read on their own, they appear to give somewhat different perspectives on marriage, with the latter granting something of a “higher” station to the joining of husband and wife. It should not be any surprise, then, that Augustine’s On the Good of Marriage is essentially an exposition of 1 Corinthians 7, whereas Chrysostom seems to draw on Ephesians 5 to illuminate both his view of marriage as a whole as well as his reading of 1 Corinthians 7 in particular.

In other words, this debate on the good of marriage, one in which Augustine and Chrysostom were neither the first nor the last Christians to engage in, can be traced back to a very real tension within the New Testament itself. Especially as questions of the good of marriage are inevitably bound up with divergent views on the nature of the body and of sexuality, we should not be the least bit surprised that consensus on the “biblical” or the “Christian” understanding of marriage was just as vexed in their day as it is in ours.


[1] In 1 Cor. hom. 19.168.

[2] Baur, John Chrysostom, 376.

[3] In Eph. hom. 20.143.

[4] In Eph. hom. 20.143.

[5] In Eph. hom. 20.151.

[6] Eph 5:22-33 compares husband and wife to Christ and the church, but this is nevertheless different from identifying household as church.

[7] Given the context of Ephesians, the choice of this verb ὑποβάλλω might be significant in light of the fact that 3 of the 5 NT usages of this verb are found in this book (1:19; 2:7; 3:19), though the references here are always in relation to the “surpassing” qualities of Christ.

[8] In Eph. hom. 20.153.

[9] In Eph. hom. 20.156.

[10] Cf. Hunter, Marriage in the Early Church, 20.

[11] In Eph. hom. 20.157-8.

[12] In Eph. hom. 20.155.

[13] In Matt. hom. 37.7, quoted in Kelly, Golden Mouth, 96.

[14] Roth, “Introduction,” 8.

[15] E.g., the emphasis on the subjection of the wife in Eph 5.24, an idea that is difficult to reconcile with certain texts from the undisputed Paulines; these differences, of course, are part of why some scholars dispute the Pauline authorship of Ephesians.


About krhughes14

Smyrna, Georgia
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