(St John Chrysostom’s commentaries on man-woman relations,  marriage and conjugal abuse)

1.  Introduction

The One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the full name of the Orthodox Church, traces its beginnings in the revelation received by the Disciples of Christ at Pentecost. Through the Apostles and their followers the Orthodox message was disseminated to peoples in the Middle East, Asia Minor, Mediterranean Europe, Africa and the Indian subcontinent in a short period of time, where Orthodox communities exist to this very day. In the early centuries Christians experienced extensive persecution by different Roman Emperors until Christianity was accepted as the official faith of the Roman Empire. While early Christians all belonged to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, different historical, political and theological factors grew the hiatus between Eastern and Western Christians.

Political events had led the Western Church to steadily differentiate itself on important doctrinal/theological matters, which fostered an eventual schism in the eleventh century.[1] The Eastern Church Fathers relied on ancient Greek texts and redefined the philosophy critically to express the soteriological message of the ancient apostolic Church, without adding new doctrine. It is understood within Orthodox conscience that their work was not the product of intellectual exercise and syllogistic philosophy, but rather theology as a result of ascesis[2] and enlightenment. St John Chrysostom (original being ‘Chrysostomos’ which means ‘Golden-mouthed’) is considered one of the most prolific theologians/saints in the line of Orthodox Church Fathers.[3] Chrysostom was born in the mid of the fourth century in the city of Antioch, a prominent Roman capital. He studied Greek philosophy under Libanius, a great orator of the time, but he eventually turned to Orthodoxy. After living some time an ascetic life, he was ordained a priest at Antioch’s cathedral, before becoming Archbishop of Constantinople. Chrysostom produced numerous homilies (speeches delivered to the faithful) that commented on or explained the works of the apostles and especially the epistles that the apostle Paul had written to different early Christian converts in the first century.[4] In his commentaries, Chrysostom was driven by the concern to edify his audiences in the apostolic message and to counter the worldliness and licentiousness that he perceived to be thriving in the city of Antioch.[5]

This paper is dedicated to St John Chrysostom’s commentaries regarding man-woman relations in marriage and the conjugal relationship as they emerge from seven homilies. An attempt is made to provide a reading of these homilies through the Orthodox phronema[6] understood here as the experience-based historical conscience of the Church. The aim is to bring the works of the Church Fathers closer to the conditions of the Orthodox faithful and improve their awareness of the Orthodox faith. It is the belief of this author that Chrysostom’s commentaries in particular can become an important resource for the alleviation of pernicious attitudes regarding women and marriage associated with tradition-oriented Orthodox communities.

These are well-known customary attitudes in tradition-oriented Orthodox societies and may emanate from the public’s lack of familiarity with Orthodox theology combined with a socio-cultural emphasis on aspects of life that appear to be valued also within the faith. They may have been unwittingly enforced through the discourses of Church hierarchies and clergy when Church teachings about man-woman relations and marriage are imparted without proper exegesis. For example, an ecclesiastical emphasis on the preservation of marriage or the family or the commandment to show forbearance and forgiveness in challenging times may lead wives who are abused by their husbands to endure harmful situations indiscriminately. The aim of this essay is to enhance the understanding among laity and clergy of Orthodox teachings on man-woman relations and marriage so as to alleviate distorted perceptions about the faith and to contribute toward reversing some pernicious socio-cultural attitudes where these may exist.

[1]/span> As Fr. John Romanides has aptly put it, the schism was not between Western and Eastern Christians, but between Eastern Romanίa and the Frankish conquerors or the Western Roman Empire who distorted the previously uniform Christian doctrine and tradition for their political ends. See John Romanides, Romiosini, Romania, Roumeli (Thessaloniki: Pournaras, 1975).
[2]ἄσκησις’; translates in English as ‘practice.’
[3] According to the Greek Synaxarium, about 804 homilies of his have survived. See Ορθόδοξος Συναξαριστής, “Άγιος Ιωάννης ο Χρυσόστομος Αρχιεπίσκοπος Κωνσταντινούπολης,”
[4] Traditionally the Orthodox Church has accepted some fourteen letters/epistles to have been authored by St Paul. These are: Romans, First/Second Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, First/Second Thessalonians, First/Second Timothy, Titus, Philemon and Hebrews. Thirteen of these bear his name while one (Epistle to Hebrews) does not. Notably, modern scholarship has questioned the Pauline authorship for a number of these epistles.
[5] Disagreements as to where different commentaries were produced exist among modern scholars. Nonetheless, there seems to be agreement that the bulk of homilies were spoken in Antioch.
[6]φρόνημα’; can be translated in English as ‘conscience.’ It is implicit in this terminology that the phronema emanates from one’s practice/embodiment of the faith. Why it is also called historical will emerge later in this paper.

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