John Chrysostom – Preacher Par Excellence

Quote: “I know my own soul, how feeble and puny it is: I know the magnitude of this ministry, and the great difficulty of the work; for more stormy billows vex the soul of the priest than the gales which disturb the sea.”

John Chrysostom (c. 347 – 407) is a bishop of Constantinople and known for eloquence in preaching—hence, his name Chrysostom, meaning “golden mouth.” So captivating are his words that his congregation is sometimes moved to tears. On other occasions they applaud and stomp their feet, a response he finds utterly out of place in a worship service. In fact, he is so disturbed that he devotes one sermon to proper worship conduct. So moved are the people that they give him rousing approval with their hands and feet.

Born in Antioch, John is raised by his widowed mother, Anthusa, who arranges for his education with Libanius, one of the most renowned teachers of rhetoric in the ancient world—and a pagan. On his deathbed, Libanius confides to a friend that John would naturally have been his successor “if the Christians had not taken him from us.”

Initially living as a hermit, John denies himself sleep and stands most of the day and night reading and memorizing Scripture. After two years and in ill health, he returns to Antioch, where he is ordained a deacon and then a priest. In this capacity he develops his rhetorical skills. His sermons reveal a wide range of perspectives, from deep theological and spiritual insights to outright anti-Semitism and spiteful notions about women.

In the meantime he preaches thousands of sermons based on a literal rather than an allegorical interpretation of Scripture. His application is often pointed. He asks his wealthy parishioners if they believe they honor Christ, saying, “Do not imagine you are doing so when you show up at worship in your finest attire, bowing before an ornate altar, while you neglect the poor all around you.” He also preaches on childrearing, instructing parents not to parade their boys around in “fine raiment and golden ornaments.” Rather, funds should support a “strict tutor.”

The home is to be ordered with husbands and wives fulfilling their assigned roles, though the husband, in Chrysostom’s construct, is not head of the home.

To woman is assigned the presidency of the household. . . . She cannot express her opinion in a legislative assembly, but she can express it at home, and often she is more shrewd about household matters than her husband . . . and frees him from all such household concerns . . . about money.

With so much freedom for women, John might appear to be a fourth-century feminist, but he is not. He restricts women in church leadership because “the woman taught the man once, and made him guilty of disobedience, and wrought our ruin.” But he is inconsistent. In reference to Junia, in Romans 16, he writes, “Think how great the devotion of this woman must have been, that she should be worthy to be called an apostle!” Yet again, he suggests that men would be better served by being taught by lower forms of animals than by women.

Women, however, fare much better in John’s sermonizing than do Jews. His harshest attacks against Jews come in 386 while serving as a presbyter in Antioch. Christians are freely participating in Jewish holidays and rituals, which John regards as “Judaizing.” He preaches eight sermons timed to correspond with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Here he rails that the synagogue is no better than a theater or brothel. And worse: “The Jews have degenerated to the level of dogs. They are drunkards and gluttons. They beat their servants. They are ignorant of God. Their festivals are worthless. . . . [They are] the Christ killers”—words used by Christians (and Nazis) to persecute Jews in later generations.

In many ways, John is an equal-opportunity slanderer. His attacks reach the inner sanctums of power where Empress Eudoxia reigns in extravagant luxury. When a silver statue is erected in her honor within sight of his cathedral, he explodes. “Again Herodias raves, again she is troubled; she dances again; and again desires to receive John’s head in a charger.” He is banished a second and final time and dies in exile.

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