John Chrysostom: Ahead of His Time – and Ours

This might be John Chrysostom week here on the blog, but if I have to read a whole book about him, I may as well take you along for the ride.

Chrysostom was by no means a liberal, at least not as defined by our modern context. He frequently called his Antioch congregation to forsake the customs of the secular culture and embrace a separation that recalled more the radical teachings of Jesus and Paul than the compromising practicality that arose in subsequent centuries. Consider his description of dancing:

For where there is dancing, the devil is also there. For God did not give us feet for this purpose, but for us to walk with discipline: not for us to disgrace ourselves, not for us to leap like camels. [159]

Any quotes from or summaries of Chrysostom’s sermons come from Jaclyn Maxwell’s Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity: John Chrysostom and His Congregation in Antioch.

Even more entertaining, Chrysostom’s decision to go after fancy shoes. As Maxwell notes,

Chrysostom promotes a very puritanical Christian aesthetic in this section, condemning paintings and decorations, and especially the gaudy shoes some of the sandal-makers were producing. Weaving was fine, but not when it was too fancy, because shoes decorated so elaborately caused men to become irresponsible and effeminate. The audience’s reaction to this condemnation was evident in Chrysostom’s defense of himself:

“I know that to many I seem to be concerned with petty matters, meddling in other people’s affairs. I shall not stop on account of this. For the cause of all evil is this: that these sins seem to be petty and because of this they are ignored. And you say, ‘What sin can be more worthless than this, of having a decorated and shining sandal fitted on one’s foot, if it even seems right to call it a sin?'”

Either Chrysostom had heard his audience’s opinions, or he merely expected that the average Christian considered fancy shoes to be a very negligible sin, or maybe not a sin at all. The preacher even expected the congregation to be angry at him for denouncing these shoes. He later explained that their refusal to acknowledge that wearing fancy shoes was immoral had forced him to expound upon the subject. The possession of such shoes was cruel, not only because unnecessary luxury was sinful, but also because they were wasting money that could have been given as alms to the poor. [153-54]

So that’s a long way of saying Chrysostom was not particularly liberal. Yet he was ahead of his time, at least in a couple of key areas, where he remains a voice the church could use today.

One of those areas, as discussed previously and glimpsed above, is his overriding concern with the poor and how Christians should sacrifice much to help them. The other is rather surprising, given the excerpts quoted above.

John Chrysostom was rather liberal when it comes to sex.

I don’t mean that he was particularly lenient about sexual sins, but that in a culture – then as now – that was quick to condemn sexual sinners, Chrysostom was surprisingly merciful and quick to place such sins within a healthy and proper context. Maxwell again:

Chrysostom believed that the sex drive shared by all humans was stronger than the love of money, and so succumbing to the lesser temptation of greed was more sinful. Likewise, envy was worse than fornication, even though most people clearly believed otherwise. The congregation knew that those guilty of fornication were not allowed to enter the church, but many probably began to worry when they heard their preacher say that fornicators were more worthy of being there than people who felt envy.

The laity understood quite well that adultery was a sin: there seems to have been no confusion about that. On the other hand, when their preacher explained that dancing was a sin, because it could lead to adulterous thoughts and actions, he faced an incredulous audience. Chrysostom juxtaposed long-established sins, such as illicit sex, to the less obvious types of sins that were not prevented by traditional communal and family vigilance. The preacher did not downplay the danger of sexual sins, but he emphasized the corrupt nature of other actions, by comparing them with sex, in order to make his listeners take these other actions seriously as offenses to God.

He wanted their habits of thinking about sin to change, and he wanted them eventually to stigmatize and ridicule whoever ignored beggars as much as or more so than the loose woman or gluttonous man. The love of money and the accumulation of possessions were at the top of his list as the peak of evil. At the opposite end of the scale, sins motivated by poverty were more easily overlooked than sexual misbehavior.

Accumulation and protection of wealth were premeditated, long-term sins in comparison to the momentary weakness of fornication or theft. Chrysostom was well aware of the time and energy that becoming or staying wealthy required – nobody could claim that their corrupt business practices had been an accident on one drunken night. Also, attachment to wealth worked against the highest virtue, almsgiving, while illicit sex only violated the lesser virtue of celibacy.

More than 1,600 years later, Chrysostom likely would have the same message for us today. Not only was the golden-mouthed orator ahead of his time, he was ahead of ours, as well.

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