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

6.  Implications for the present

Chrysostom’s homilies leave no doubt that men and women are spiritual equals and that marriage was intended to be a bond of sacrificial love. However, as it was mentioned, the degree to which these Orthodox teachings regarding have been understood by the Orthodox believers has been impeded by a host of historical, ecclesiastical, sociocultural and individual factors. Chrysostom’s explications of apostolic teachings could help to alleviate some of these distoritions of the faith and other socio-cultural pernicious attitudes, provided that they are explained with caution.[1]

Within the Orthodox phronema, as highlighted in Chrysostom’s homilies, male and female are understood to have been fashioned alike and with equal honour and to have been originally one, a union that is re-achieved in the Orthodox marriage. While Chrysostom suggested that a certain order in authority needed to be respected so as to preserve the harmony in the couple, his emphasis on the husband serving as the head and the wife as the body was motivated by his concern to underscore their mutual dependence and to deter them from mistreating and alienating each other. Such pronouncements could be deployed to obliterate misperceptions of divinely-instituted husband superiority and to enforce wives’ dignity. They can also become a counter-discourse to rigid gender-segregated arrangements of married life that place disproportionate burden on women, since they evidence that a husband and wife are one soma and should share the burdens of their life together.

Furthermore, Chrysostom clearly condemned husbands using any type of forceful and demeaning behaviour with their wives. As he aptly put it, if the husband hates his own body, he will perish with it. He advised that husbands earn their wives’ reverence by giving them steady, kind and considerate love to achieve a harmonious and mutually gratifying relationship. Such messages could help to counter some male abusiveness by cultivating Orthodox masculinities that emphasise spiritual leadership and altruistic giving. On the other hand, his discussion of sex in marriage, which emphasised mutual consent, dignity and modesty, could help to discourage practices such as sexual coerciveness in the bedroom (including marital rape), excessive sexual demands by husbands, or other perverse acts (including the use of pornography), all of which can further impair the dignity and wellbeing of the wife and the quality of the conjugal relationship.

Finally, Chrysostom’s pragmatism regarding the difficulties of marriage and his nuanced counsels that simultaneously taught patience in marriage but allowed separation in cases of conjugal enmity could help women living with harmful husbands to realise that showing forbearance for the sake of preserving the family might become unjustifiable where their or their children’s (and even their husbands’) spiritual progress is hindered. This may be an especially pertinent message for women in Orthodox societies who have typically prioritised their family or their marriage and have endured pernicious conjugal situations. Chrysostom’s suggestion for spouses to live separately could be a pragmatic option for some women, while wives’ departure could provide husbands with the motivation to reconsider their pernicious practices and to take concrete measures to alleviate those. This, of course, would need to consider a host of other practical and material parameters in a given context hindering women’s departure.
There can be no single solution in this situation, not least because this depends on the women’s own diakrisis, but Chrysostom’s commentaries help to enlarge the options.

Three caveats need to be mentioned briefly. The first consideration must be that not all Orthodox are expected to be motivated by Church teachings, not least due to a different spiritual state. In addition, these teachings cannot be expected to address more ontogenetic, psychological or environmental parameters motivating pernicious or abusive behaviours in the individual, which could require psychological remedies or other measures.[2] Finally, the communication of such teachings to the laity could be hindered by a limited understanding among some clergy of the Orthodox marriage, problematic attitudes about conjugal abuse and unhelpful counselling approaches to spiritual children, possibilities that would require understanding intimately the conditions of the clergy in a given context.[3]

[1] The potential of Chrysostom’s commentaries to change attitudes and misperceptions has been suggested also in Gassin, “Eastern Orthodox Christianity,” 2015.
[2] James Gilligan, Violence: Reflections on our Deadliest Epidemic (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1999); Donald Dutton, The Abusive Personality: Violence and Control in Intimate Relationships (New York: Guilford Publications, 2007); Linda Mills, “Shame and Intimate Abuse: The Critical Missing Link between Cause and Cure,” Children and Youth Services Review 30 (2008): 631–63.
[3] Within the Orthodox tradition, most believers will have a spiritual father to whom they go for confession. The spiritual father is usually involved in the life of the couple and may be approached first when problems in the family arise.

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