St. John Chrysostom: The family as Micro-Church

In recent Church history there has been considerable reflection on the family as a domestic Church. One of the Patristic contributors to this revival is the great Doctor of the Eastern Church, St. John Chrysostom (347-407). As a bishop he promoted baptized Christian families in his diocese to be what he termed “micro” or “mini” Churches of the home. He developed this from his reading of St. Paul where Paul addresses Priscilla and Aquila about Church in their house, and, more importantly, Paul’s reference to Christ as groom and the Church as His spouse. The family for Chrysostom is a community of persons in love and in unity like the Trinity. Along with St. Augustine, the fathers at the Second Vatican Council are indebted to him for laying the groundwork for our modern theology of the family in relationship to the larger ecclesial Church (see Lumen Gentium 11). My intention is to briefly share a few insights from St. John’s thought, in honor of his memorial in our Rite, in order to promote what Pope Francis in Amoris laetitia, the Joy of Love, advocates: “reflecting on the interplay between the family and the Church will prove a precious gift for the Church in our time. The Church is good for the family, and the family is good for the Church” (AL 87).[1]

St. John of Antioch, better known by his golden tongued title Chrysostom, gave considerable attention to marriage as a vocational path for holiness. As a former monk turned bishop, he thought marriage could be a path to sanctity similar to monastic life. The key was to structure one’s home like the larger Church. Similarly to those living in religious community, husband and wife as community are to pray together, discuss Scripture together, attend Mass together, teach others, especially their children in the faith together, work for the Church and do community service together such as opening their home to the poor. In his Homily 20 on Ephesians he explains, “Remind one another that nothing in life is to be feared, except offending God. If your marriage is like this, your perfection will rival the holiest of monks.” A model of Chrysostom’s vision is, I think, to be found in the married life of Sts. Louise and Zélie Martin, parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The Martins, canonized as a couple on October 18, 2015, arranged their joyful and peaceful family life around prayer, work, Mass and social service which in many ways resembled the religious life.

johnchrysostomThe family, for Chrysostom, is like the Church as a communion of baptized persons living in unity under the Headship of Jesus Christ that has visible and invisible dimensions. Two types of activities make homes as Churches, he says, prayer and the centrality of Scripture. In his Homily 26 on Acts of the Apostles St. John preaches, “Let the house be a Church consisting of men and women…“For where two”, He says, “are gathered in My Name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt 18:20) Where Christ is in the midst, there is a great multitude. Where Christ is, there needs must Angels be…” He advocates praying regularly according to hours and to let children participate as much as possible. This, I think, shows his monastic perspective. Along with prayer reading and thinking about the Scriptures is the key to keeping the Devil at bay. In his commentary on Genesis St. John thinks two tables should be set up at home. One is obviously for food but another should be for instruction on the Bible. At this second table, the family should gather regularly, especially after returning from Mass for lessons on the larger Church’s Liturgy of the Word.

He sees the family as being structured like the Church in the way the Father serves a role similar to that of the Bishop. The father should take responsibility to give lessons on the Bible and to lead and model prayer. He will be held accountable for the salvation of his children and his servants. One should keep in mind the position of the pater familias as an institutional structure of society in the context of the time of St. John Chrysostom. The father had absolute authority over the household by civil law. He also served as a priest for the family gods in pagan society. In his homily 20 on Ephesians he, in a way, Christianizes the institution and sees the husband as like Christ the Head of the Church, and like the Bishop as the head of the local Church. This, however, is in the sense of service and not for the sake of power. Like Christ, the husband is to offer his very body for the sake of his wife. He is to sacrifice himself for her, and this means possibly unto death. Like the Bishop, being the head of the Church is not about a career in power, but for service.

The union of the two in becoming one is a Divine image for it is bound up with the image of Christ and his Church. In his Homily 12 on Colossians he says, “Shall I tell you how marriage is a mystery of the Church? The Church was made from the side of Christ, and He united Himself to her in a spiritual intercourse.” In his Homily 20 on Ephesians 5 he preaches, “How foolish are those who belittle marriage! If marriage were something to be condemned, Paul would never call Christ a bridegroom and the Church a bride.” Here he also preaches, “From the beginning God in his providence has planned his union of man and woman, has spoken of the two as one: “male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27) and there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). There is no relationship between human beings so close as that of husband and wife, if they are united as they ought to be.” In his Homily 12 on Colossians he says that the marriage ceremony itself should be treated with reverence and sanctity for it is an imago Dei. He writes,

Marriage is a bond, a bond ordained by God. Why then do you celebrate weddings in a silly and immodest manner? Have you no idea what you are doing? You are marrying your wife for the procreation of children and for moderation of life; what is the meaning of those drunken parties with their lewd and disgraceful behavior?…Camels and mules behave more decently than some people at wedding receptions! Is marriage a comedy? It is a mystery, an image of something far greater. If you have no respect for marriage, at least respect what it symbolizes: “This is the great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the Church.” (Eph 5:32) It is an image of the Church and of Christ, and will you celebrate in a profane manner?

St. John Chrysostom preached a Pauline vision for the family, a Church in miniature, to a culture steeped in paganism 1600 years ago. He envisioned the family to be a sanctuary of holiness, under the guidance of the parents, and structured on lines similar the larger ecclesial reality. His ideas have in the past half century been emphasized in official Catholic teachings, and they are as relevant as ever. On the 1600th anniversary of Chrysostom’s death, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed that to some extent we are responsible not only for working out our own salvation but the salvation of others. “This all takes place between two poles: the great Church and the “Church in miniature”, the family, in a reciprocal relationship” (Benedict XVI, General Audience 19 September 2007).

[1] The short book, St. John Chrysostom On Marriage and Family translated by Catherine P. Roth and David Anderson (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir‘s Press, 1986) shows the wisdom of Chrysostom on the subject and gave me inspiration for this article.

smeyerDr. Meyer currently serves as an assistant professor in theology for the University of St. Thomas School of Theology at St. Mary's Seminary in Houston, TX. He holds a S.T.D. in Dogmatic Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, and S.T.L. from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. He has a Master and Bachelor’s  in Theology from Franciscan University. He currently resides in the Houston area with his wife and four children.
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