Ancient Christians Answer Modern Questions: John Chrysostom as a Model of Bible Study

Ancient painting

Ephesians 5 is both celebrated as a beautiful picture of the husband-wife relationship and debated for its calls of submission. John Chrysostom (347–407)—the “golden-mouthed” preacher, as he came to be known—sought to illuminate the teachings of this text in his homily on Ephesians 5:22–33, accessible in a compilation of his sermons titled On Marriage and Family Life.1 It is fascinating to see that questions that feel modern to us were very much present in his day.

Mutual love

Chrysostom begins by observing that God in his wisdom created men and women not to be self-sufficient; their very bodies are made so that they cannot propagate their kind without one another. They need each other, and their mutual love is “the force that welds society together” (44).

So how are two people, prone toward independence but forced into interdependence, to live together? First, in explaining “Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord”2 (Eph 5:22), Chrysostom considers the meaning of “as.” It cannot mean that a woman is to subject herself to her husband in the exact same way that she does to Jesus, Chrysostom observes—for Jesus demands ultimate submission from all (and as proof Chrysostom cites Luke 14:33 and 18:29). Instead, he says, it could mean “as knowing that you are serving the Lord” or “as part of your service to the Lord” (45). Either way, a woman’s submission to her husband is framed as a form of devotion to her Savior.

Does this teaching then allow a man to force his wife into submission? Chrysostom answers by highlighting the man’s devotion to Christ. In explaining “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (Eph 5:25), Chrysostom points to Christ’s sacrificial love as a model for how a man should treat his wife: if Christ honors his bride “through His untiring love,” just so ought the husband to honor his wife (46). Thus, far from pressuring his wife into subjection, a husband can encourage her to submit to his headship “through affection, kindness, and [his] great regard for her”—never “with fear and threats” (46–47).

But what should a husband do if his wife refuses to submit to him? Chrysostom answers, “Never mind! Your obligation is to love her; do your duty! Even when we don’t receive our due from others, we must always do our duty” (54). Christ himself exemplifies love for his bride even when she fails to honor him.

These patterns of love and respect as a form of devotion to Christ carry over to the children in the home, for children typically pick up their parents’ attitudes and affections. A household “united in harmony and piety” is indestructible, while a family at odds is in danger of being “easily broken up and destroyed” (57–58).

All other good things will flow

Though the fourth century was different from ours in many ways, people then wrestled with the same types of challenges that destroy marriages and break up families today. While Chrysostom may not have solved all the debates over this passage, he does offer insight into applying Ephesians 5 to bring peace and security to our homes.

In doing so, Chrysostom underscores devotion to Christ. As husbands and wives love and honor each other with reference to Christ, they can experience harmony and delight. It is ultimately through learning to fear God that “all other good things will flow” (63). The marriage relationship is one place where we can live out such patterns and find joy in Christ.

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This article was originally published in the November/December 2021 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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  1. “Homily 20: On Ephesians 5:22–33,” in On Marriage and Family Life, trans. Catherine P. Roth and David Anderson, Popular Patristics Series (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986), 44.
  2. Roth and Anderson’s translation of Chrysostom’s original.
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Written by
David P. Barshinger

David P. Barshinger is the author of Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms (Oxford University Press, 2014), and he blogs at exploringchurchhistory.com. He currently serves as a book editor at Crossway.

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