St. John Chrysostom and Sexual Disobedience in Early Christian Marriage

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June 16, 2019

Taymaz Tabrizi is currently Director of Research at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He holds a PhD from McMaster University, Canada from the Department of Religious Studies where he specialized in the anthropology of religion and Imāmī Islamic law. He also holds a doctoral diploma in Gender Studies and Feminist Research from McMaster University from the Department of English and Cultural Studies.

For early Church Fathers like St. Chrysostom, marriage was primarily a means for chastity. Sexual disobedience and denial by either spouse risked endangering the household and the Church community.

INTRODUCTION

St. John Chrysostom (Greek: Ἰωάννης ὁ Χρυσόστομος, d. 407 AD) was the Archbishop of Constantinople in the 4th century AD and one of the early Church Fathers. His epithet Chrysostom or Χρυσόστομος (Chrysostomos) means “golden-mouthed” because of his charismatic and eloquent way of speaking that aroused his large audiences.

His audience would regularly stand in applause for his eloquence, yet St. Chrysostom would chastise them for showing up for his sermons only to leave the church before liturgical prayers and the holy Communion. Such a substitute was unacceptable to him.[1]

As an early Church Father who preceded the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632) by about two centuries, his views on the telos of marriage seems to have been more in line with the coming new religion – namely Islam – where marriage was seen as a means for promoting chastity and preventing sin. In some sense, this was in contrast to some of the dominant Christian and Jewish views that held the institute of marriage as primarily a means for procreation.

CHRYSOSTOM, THE PURPOSE OF MARRIAGE AND SEXUAL DISOBEDIENCE AS A WAR ON CHASTITY AND THE CHURCH

The dominant view in Islam held that the purpose of marriage was to prevent zinā or illicit sex and thus save the normative Muslim from damnation in the Hereafter. Put differently, it was a means for preserving chastity (ʿiffah) and the salvation of the Muslim subject. The near consensus among Muslim jurists was that if a bachelor (or bachelorette) risked committing sexual sins, then marriage (or other forms of licit means) was obligatory upon him. As a result, Muslims held that sexual disobedience in marriage (nushūz)[2] was a sinful deed (especially on the part of the wife) since it increased the risk of zinā[3] and put the whole Muslim community in danger. These views were especially prominent among the Imāmī Shīʿah.[4]

For St. Chrysostom, although procreation was most certainly of fundamental importance for marriage, he believed that its central purpose was to prevent illicit sex and other forms of sexual sins that could potentially destroy the salvation of believing Christians, at least from what I can gather.

As a natural corollary of this principle, he held that wives who abstained from sex out of religious devotion or outright denied their husbands were sinful and went as far as calling their behavior an act of theft. He wrote that

[i]f one abstains without the other’s consent, it is an act of fraud; but if consent is given, it is not, just as if you took something of mine that I had already given you, I could not call it an act of theft. Theft occurs only if you take something by force; without my consent. This is what many wives do when they refuse their husbands. They commit a sin which outweighs the righteousness of their abstinence. They are responsible for their husband’s licentiousness and the broken homes that result. Instead of behaving this way, they should value harmony above everything; nothing is more important.[5]

When a wife abstains from sex out of religious abstinence or outright refusal, St. Chrysostom argues that it leads to “great evils – adulteries, fornications, and broken homes…”[6] He goes as far as arguing that even those licentious men who commit adultery are likely to become more “depraved” as a result of abstention.[7] Their abstinence or denial, even if it is understandable, simply makes matters worse for the household and the Church community.

st john chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom is one of the most revered early Fathers of Christianity for both Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

St. Chrysostom compares marital conflict to a storm-tossed ship. When the pilot and captain disagree with each other, he suggests that “their household is in no better shape.”[8] When husband and wife are at odds with each other, the household, along with the children, are at risk of crashing. As such, the wife’s fulfillment of her sexual duties towards her husband are not a matter of bestowing a favor upon him, but a matter of her duty towards God that is meant to safeguard her household, the future of her children (if she has any) and maintaining the integrity of the Church community by preventing sexual sins from spreading. St. Chrysostom continues:

The love husband and wife is the force that welds society together. Men will take up arms and even sacrifice their lives for the sake of this love. St. Paul would not speak so earnestly about this subject without serious reason; why else would he say, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord”? Because when harmony prevails, the children are raised well, the household is kept in order, and neighbors, friends and relatives praise the result. Great benefits, both for families and states, are thus produced. When it is otherwise, however, everything is thrown into confusion and turned upside-down. When the generals of an army are at peace with each other, everything proceeds in an orderly fashion, and when they are not, everything is in disarray. It is the same here.[9]

Obedience to the husband for God’s sake, and particularly sexual obedience, is a means through which salvific harmony is achieved. Men are not obeyed because they are superior beings, nor are they obeyed for the sake of being males; they are obeyed as means of preventing fornication and lust from spreading and maintaining familial and wider social harmony in the service of God.

Privatized virtue is not enough for salvation; salvation is love, it is reciprocal and intra-social by nature. As praiseworthy as one’s own virtues may be, it is not enough for salvation. Chrysostom emphasizes that “one’s own virtues is not enough for salvation, but the virtue of those for whom we are responsible is also required.”[10]

Adultery and fornication are ‘evil things’ St. Chrysostom stresses. A healthy marriage is to remedy these. Although some may see parenting as the primary aim of marriage, this is not so for St. Chrysostom. Marriage was primarily designed for the safeguarding of chastity or σωφροσύνη (sophrosyne) and the prevention from sin. He writes:

Listen to what Paul says: “Because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.”[11] These are the two purposes for which marriage was instituted: to make us chaste. Of these two, the reason of chastity takes precedence. When desire began, then marriage also began. It set the limits to desire by teaching us to keep to one wife. Marriage does not always lead to child-bearing, although there is the word of God which says, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”[12] We have as witnesses all those who are married but childless. So the purpose of chastity takes precedence, especially now when the whole world is filled with our kind.[13]

As the editor of the translation remarks, St. Chrysostom views chastity positively. It not just an avoidance of sin and immorality, but the “integrity of the person, body and soul, and the direction of oneself towards holiness.”[14] Like in the Islamic narrative, the telos of marriage for St. Chrysostom is chastity which St. John Cassian the Ascetic (d. ~435 AD) understood as the purity of heart. As the Orthodox, Catholic and Islamic traditions held, the pure heart (al-qalb al-salīm) was the quintessential goal of man’s existence on earth.[15] For Christ in the New Testament, it is this state that allows for the beatific vision of God.[16] For St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. ~373), chastity was the pinnacle of the human’s participation in the divine. He stated that

 “Every man who loves purity and chastity becomes the temple of God.” There is no greater blessing than to have God Himself dwelling within you![17]

For the early Church Fathers, upholding chastity is therefore not primarily aimed at meeting a utilitarian goal at the physical and material realm, but keeping a man or woman from falling away from grace and the divine life which is thought to be critical for the salvation of humanity.

Perhaps the best and most comprehensive modern summary of the early Church view of the relationship between sin, the individual, the community and the divine realm was best described by the Russian Orthodox Saint, Archmandrite Sophrony:

Sin is primarily a metaphysical phenomenon whose roots lie in the mystic depths of man’s spiritual nature. The essence of sin consists not in the infringement of ethical standards but in a falling away from the eternal Divine life for which man was created and to which, by his nature, he is called.

Sin is committed first of all in the secret depths of the human spirit but its consequences involve the individual as a whole. A sin will reflect on a man’s psychological and physical condition, on his outward appearance, on his personal destiny. Sin will, inevitably, pass beyond the boundaries of the sinner’s individual life, to burden all humanity and thus affect the fate of the whole world. The sin of our forefather Adam was not the only sin of cosmic significance. Every sin, manifest or secret, committed by each one of us affects the rest of the universe.

The earthly-minded man when he commits a sin is not conscious of its effect on himself as is the spiritual man. The carnal man does not remark any change in himself after committing a sin because he is always in a state of spiritual death and has never known the eternal life of the spirit. The spiritual man, on the contrary, does see a change in himself every time his will inclines to sin – he senses a lessening of grace.[18]

CONCLUSION

Chrysostom’s position is significant for modern readers as the popular doctrine of marriage for Western traditionalist Christians has often been touted as primarily, if not sometimes exclusively as a means for procreation. This narrative has often been adopted as or served the purpose of being used as an argument against the validity of homosexual marriages.[19]

In this early Patristic view, if the Church exists as a binary of itself and Christ, the Christian community is the essential Other and the foundation of this community begins with a harmonious household. If the household is broken, then the natural order of the Church as the body of God is ipso facto broken. For Church Fathers like St. Chrysostom, if a woman (or man) denies or abstains from her spouse (without his consent), she commits an act of violence against the body of God.

The metaphysical ethics of sex (and its denial) in early Byzantine Christianity is shared by the Islamic discursive tradition. In a famous tradition attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, he is reported to have said:

إذا دعا الرجل امرأته إلى فراشه فأبت أن تجيء لعنتها الملائكة حتى تصبح

If a man calls his wife to his bed [for the conjugal act] and she refuses to come, the angels will curse her (laʿnathā al-malā’ikah) until the morning.[20]

Sexual acts, either as a form of chastity in marriage through the honoring of the conjugal act, sinful abstinence or outright sexual denial and disobedience is soteriologically operative, meaning that intermarital relations and one’s sexual choices have a direct bearing on the metaphysical health of individuals and the community as a whole. Human sin or charity does not exist in isolation but exists in a web and its effects may spread through a contagion or ripple effect in the physical and metaphysical web of social relations in the Church and in the Muslim community (ummah) as understood by Islam’s discursive tradition. In St. Chrysostom’s and for much of Islamic and early Christian thought, marriage and sexual acts are not privatized acts that the atomized individual performs as secular modernity and rights-based ethics may hold, but they are deeply metaphysical and communal in nature.

For St. Chrysostom, chastity is only possible within the confines of marriage between a man and a woman; anything beyond this limit debases the sexual act to sinful lust which obstructs the participation of the heart with God and subverts the Body of Christ.


[1] St John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, trans., Catharine P. Roth (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1981), 9-10.

[2] I am aware that nushūz for many Muslim jurists was not restricted to sexual disobedience only, but areas outside the periphery of sexual disobedience have not been areas of agreement among Muslim and particularly Imāmī jurists. Some have seen nushūz as sexual disobedience only and if other instances have also been subject to wifely obedience, they have been so in relation to – or as corollaries of – the problem of sexual disobedience. Men can also be subject to nushūz, which includes sexual denial. However, most of the juristic focus has been on his refusal to financially provide for his household or his persistence on abusive behavior. For more on this subject, see the source in fn. 4.

[3] Zinā may be translated as fornication or adultery, but it specifically refers to illicit intercourse that involves penetration between opposite genders. For many schools of law, penetration between males of the same gender is categorized as liwāṭ (male-male sodomy) many of whom saw the act as a greater form of sin than zinā.  There are traditions that also speak of the “zinā of the eyes” (zinā al-ʿayn) and other body parts (such as the ears) suggesting a more expansive meaning of zinā in the tradition that is outside the boundaries of its strict legal definition that has to do with prescribed punishments. The concept of zinā outside this definition is still sinful according to normative accounts of the Islamic discursive tradition.

[4] For more information on the relationship between marriage and zinā in Imāmī law, see Taymaz Tabrizi, “Marriage as a Technology of the Self: Sex, Gender and Juristic Inversion in the Soteriology of Imāmī Law” (PhD diss., McMaster University, 2016).

[5] St John Chrysostom, On Marriage and Family Life, trans., Catharine P. Roth and David Anderson (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986), 28.

[6] Ibid, 27.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 28.

[9] Ibid., 44-45.

[10] Ibid., 72.

[11] Cor 7:2.

[12] Gen 1:28.

[13] St. John Chrysostom, 85.

[14] Ibid., 22.

[15] For the Qur’anic narrative on the pure heart, see Q26: 89.

[16] Matthew 5:8.

[17] Orthodox Christian Parenting. “On Pursuing Virtue: Chastity.” https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2017/03/22/on-pursuing-virtue-chastity/ (accessed June 14, 2019).

[18] Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), Saint Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), 31-32.

[19] Christian views on marriage in the West are almost as numerous as there are Christians. I am by no means claiming that there is a uniform view on marriage in Western Christianity, I am merely pointing out popular trends. A case in point would be the Catholic Bishop Robert Barron who in his argument against homosexual marriages has used the procreation argument to support his opposition. This position seems to have a large standing and is in line with popular understandings of the current traditionalist doctrine on marriage.

[20] Muslims jurists are unanimous that the bed refers to sexual intercourse (jimāʿ). Other traditions state that God is angry with such women and will remain so until the husband is pleased with her. See Aḥmad b. ʿAlī b. Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, Fatḥ al-Bārī fī Sharḥ Ṣaḥīh al-Bukhārī. 10 vols., ed. ʿAbd al-Qādir Shaybah al-Ḥamd (Riyāḍ: Maktabat Malik Fahd, 1421/2001), IX, 205. The tradition has also come in Shīʿi sources, see for example Abū al-Qāsim Pāyandah, Nahj al-Faṣāḥah (Tehran: Dunyā-yi Dānish, [2003-2004]), 190.

2019-06-16T22:49:36-08:00
Published Date: June 16, 2019

Taymaz Tabrizi

Taymaz Tabrizi is currently Director of Research at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He holds a PhD from McMaster University, Canada from the Department of Religious Studies where he specialized in the anthropology of religion and Imāmī Islamic law. He also holds a doctoral diploma in Gender Studies and Feminist Research from McMaster University from the Department of English and Cultural Studies.
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