Golden Tongue & Iron Will
John Chrysostom had little patience with sins of any sort, but he was especially piqued at the misuse of wealth:
“It is foolishness and a public madness,” he once preached, “to fill the cupboards with clothing and allow men who are created in God’s image and our likeness to stand naked and trembling with the cold so that they can hardly hold themselves upright.… You are large and fat, you hold drinking parties until late at night, and sleep in a warm, soft bed. And do you not think of how you must give an account of your misuse of the gifts of God?”
This type of preaching—eloquent and uncompromising—would eventually earn John of Antioch the name by which he is now distinguished: Chrysostomos, “the golden mouth.” It would also contribute, though, to his exile and premature death.
Anthusa, a pious Christian woman, gave birth to her only son near the middle of the fourth century in Antioch, the city where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” Her husband, Secundus, a senior government official, died when she was about 20, leaving her with John and a daughter, both quite young. Shunning remarriage, Anthusa devoted the rest of her life to her children.
John was given the best education available in Antioch, a leading intellectual center of the day. He studied under Libanius, the famous pagan rhetorician. Rhetoric—the practice of public address used in the courts and politics—was the leading science of the era; teachers of rhetoric were the pride of every major city. Libanius had traveled the world, having been a professor in Athens and Constantinople; he believed in the pagan cults and disdained Christianity.
John apparently was planning a career in law. But sometime in the years of his formal education, he determined to give himself to the service of God, first by going into monastic seclusion. Like many in his day, he longed for a time apart from the world to grow closer to God. But his mother begged him to wait.
She took him to the room where he was born and in tears told him the one thing that made her widowhood easier was that John resembled his father. She reminded him that the young have their lives in front of them but that she would soon face death. She asked him to spare her a second loneliness and not leave her before she died.
“When you have committed me to the ground and united me with your father’s bones,” she pleaded, “then set out on your long travels and sail whatever sea you please. Then there will be nobody to hinder. But until I breathe my last, be content to live with me.”
John relented and put off his plans for a few years.
In the early 370s, after his mother died, John entered monastic seclusion. He studied under the monk Diodore for a time and then lived as a hermit. John’s ascetic rigors were so strenuous they damaged his health for the rest of his life. Still, this period hardened his spiritual resolve and focused his calling. In addition, he memorized large passages of Scripture, and his ability to quote passages from memory would empower his later sermons.
Though John eventually rejected monastic life for service in the church, he always prized contemplation. In one later sermon, he asked, “For what purpose did Christ go up into the mountain? To teach us that loneliness and retirement is good when we are to pray to God.… For the wilderness is the mother of quiet; it is a calm and a harbor, delivering us from all turmoils.”
Before he had left for seclusion in the nearby hills, John had been ordained a “lector,” a minor church official responsible for reading Scripture in worship. When he returned, he became active in the church of Antioch, serving under Meletius and then Flavian, successive archbishops. Both had suffered for their orthodoxy when Arians (who denied the divinity of Christ) had controlled church and state.
During this time, John and a close friend named Basil heard they were being considered for the ministry. Both felt inadequate for the heavy responsibility, but Basil finally agreed to be ordained when John implied they would do so together. Basil went forward with ordination—unaware that John had gone into hiding. John feared the demanding responsibility of the priestly office, but he did not want to deprive the church of Basil.
This act of duplicity led John to write one of his most famous works, On the Priesthood, a justification of his deception and his dodging of the office he esteemed. It also contains glimpses of his core values and a mature philosophy of ministry—though John wrote it in when only in his twenties. For example: “I do not know whether anyone has ever succeeded in not enjoying praise. And if he enjoys it, he naturally wants to receive it. And if he wants to receive it, he cannot help being pained and distraught at losing it.… Men who are in love with applause have their spirits starved not only when they are blamed offhand, but even when they fail to be constantly praised.”
Eventually, John was ordained a deacon (381) and finally a priest (386). Basil probably became bishop of a rural town in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). John, though, would eventually minister in one of the largest churches in Christendom.
First, however, John spent twelve years in Antioch, a city of great wealth and the capital of Syria. It was known for its Olympic games, theatrical presentations, and festivals. It was also the city where Chrysostom’s preaching began to be noticed, especially after the infamous Affair of the Statues.
In the spring of 388, a rebellion erupted in Antioch over the announcement of increased taxes. Statues of the emperor and his recently deceased wife were desecrated. Officials of the empire then began punishing city leaders, killing some, for the uprising. While Archbishop Flavian rushed to the capital in Constantinople 800 miles away to beg for clemency, John preached to a city in turmoil:
“Improve yourselves now truly, not as when during one of the numerous earthquakes or in famine or drought or in similar visitations you leave off your sinning for three or four days and then begin the old life again.… Stop evil slandering, harbor no enmities, and give up the wicked custom of frivolous cursing and swearing. If you do this, you will surely be delivered from the present distress and attain eternal happiness.”
After eight weeks, on the day before Easter, Flavian returned with the good news of the emperor’s pardon.
John preached through many of Paul’s letters (“I like all the saints,” he said, “but St. Paul the most of all—that vessel of election, the trumpet of heaven”), the Gospels of Matthew and of John, and the Book of Genesis. Changed lives were his goal, and he denounced sins from abortion to prostitution and from gluttony to swearing.
He encouraged his congregation not only to attend the divine service regularly but also to feed themselves on God’s written Word. In a sermon on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, he said, “Reading the Scripture is a great means of security against sinning. The ignorance of Scripture is a great cliff and a deep abyss; to know nothing of the divine laws is a great betrayal of salvation.”
His applications could be forceful. About people’s love of horse racing, he complained, “My sermons are applauded merely from custom, then everyone runs off to [horse racing] again and gives much more applause to the jockeys, showing indeed unrestrained passion for them! There they put their heads together with great attention, and say with mutual rivalry, ‘This horse did not run well, this one stumbled,’ and one holds to this jockey and another to that. No one thinks any more of my sermons, nor of the holy and awesome mysteries that are accomplished here.”
In early 398, John was taken by a senior military official to a chapel outside the city’s walls. There he was seized by soldiers and transported 800 miles to the capital, where he was forcibly consecrated as archbishop of Constantinople.
John’s kidnapping was arranged by Eutropius, a government official, who wanted to adorn the church in the capital city with the best orator in Christianity. John had never sought the office, but he accepted it as God’s providence.
The archbishop in the capital of the eastern empire could be a potent force for Christianity. John’s oratorical skills were second to none, and he had the potential of building a power base that would have enabled him to reform the city for decades. In his first few years, in fact, John saw two key victories for the church.
The first came when Eutropius fell from power. John had already taken aim at the extravagances that marked the ruling class. So when Eutropius fled to the church for sanctuary (believing the emperor sought his execution), it was a great vindication for John.
The following Sunday, while Eutropius stood in front of the congregation, John began his sermon, “O vanity of vanities; all is vanity!”
After rebuking Eutropius for his worldly behavior, John turned to the people: “I say this now, not in order to shame the fallen, but to exhort to prudence those who are still upright; not in order to push a shipwrecked person into the deep, but to warn the others before they are also shipwrecked.”
After the sermon, John worked out with Emperor Arcadius an agreement to save the fallen official’s life. (Eutropius, however, later broke the agreement and was beheaded.)
John’s second victory came the next year, in 400. Gainas, an imperial general in charge of an army of Goth mercenaries, threatened to revolt and take over the city. He took three prominent officials as hostages. He also demanded that his troops, Arians by faith, be given a church in the capital in which to hold services. (Arianism had been condemned and outlawed 19 years earlier.)
Chrysostom inserted himself into the situation and negotiated the release of the hostages. Then he convinced the emperor to refuse Gainas’s request for a church. The political and military momentum turned, and Gainas was defeated.
Afflicting the Comfortable
Within three years, however, John found himself in deep trouble.
John’s blend of strengths and weaknesses had been ideally suited to his ministry at Antioch. His enthusiasm for the Christian life, his oratorical skills, and his knowledge of the Scriptures powered his preaching to great heights. Under the tactful, politically skillful leadership of archbishops Meletius and Flavian, the church at Antioch thrived.
In the capital city, however, the situation was more difficult for John. Archbishops controlled vast wealth, lived in palaces, and led thousands of church officials. By Chrysostom’s day, the churches in Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople each had approximately 100,000 members and hundreds of officers of various ranks. The coupling of economic and political power with the church’s spiritual mandate attracted some people into ministry with wrong motives.
John’s preaching against abuses of wealth and power affronted the imperial family and the ruling class. He was not skilled in church politics, and his lifestyle itself was a scandal to them: he lived an ascetic life, used his considerable household budget to care for the poor, and built hospitals. Furthermore, he always ate by himself, refusing to take part in the social life of the capital, which would have given him better relationships with those in power.
John’s reforms began with celibate clergy who lived with “spiritual sisters”—single women who lived in monks’ residences to tend to domestic matters. He preached that some of the “spiritual sisters” became “spiritual mothers.”
John also ordered reforms in the order of widows: he advised some to enter a second marriage, and for those who remained in church service, he instituted stricter standards. He also disciplined bishops in Asia Minor for simony and financial misappropriation.
John exhorted his people to pray daily, and he held evening services for those who had to work during the day. He preached against the great public sins: horse racing and gambling, public swearing and vulgarity, and the indulgent use of wealth.
For example, in a sermon against the theater, he said: “If you see a shameless woman in the theater, who treads the stage with uncovered head and bold attitudes, dressed in garments adorned with gold, flaunting her soft sensuality, singing immoral songs, throwing her limbs about in the dance, and making shameless speeches … do you still dare to say that nothing human happens to you then? Long after the theater is closed and everyone is gone away, those images still float before your soul, their words, their conduct, their glances, their walk, their positions, their excitation, their unchaste limbs—and as for you, you go home covered with a thousand wounds! But not alone—the whore goes with you—although not openly and visibly … but in your heart, and in your conscience, and there within you she kindles the Babylonian furnace … in which the peace of your home, the purity of your heart, the happiness of your marriage will be burnt up!”
The horse track in Constantinople was across the main square from the church where John preached, and he often condemned the noise that interrupted the services: “Still there are those who simply leave us here alone and run off to the circus and the charioteers and the horse races! So far have they yielded to their passions that they fill the whole city with their cries and unrestrained yelling, at which one would have to laugh if it were not so sad.”
More than once, he threatened to withhold Communion from those who continued in immorality: “If some will still persevere in their moral corruption, they will finally be separated and cut off.… They will be excluded from the congregation. If you shudder with horror at this judgment, then let the guilty ones simply show repentance, and the judgment will be lifted.”
Ironically, John’s most formidable enemy turned out to be someone far outside his jurisdiction: Theophilus, the archbishop of Alexandria. Theophilus’s hatred of John was doubly fueled. John had been consecrated bishop of Constantinople rather than his own candidate; furthermore, the influence of the Constantinople church had for some years been growing at the expense of his own in Alexandria.
Politically, John was no match for Theophilus and his allies. Even though John’s powerful preaching drew great crowds, Theophilus’s party easily mobilized the imperial couple and the ruling class against Chrysostom.
In the spring of 403, Theophilus’s opportunity came. John welcomed four monks (the so-called “Tall Brothers”) who had opposed Theophilus’s management of church funds (Theophilus had a reputation for expensive building programs and for living lavishly). Theophilus, in turn, charged the monks with heresy, contending they adhered to the then-condemned views of Origen, the third-century theologian. John asked Theophilus to provide evidence for the charges.
When Theophilus came to Constantinople, he brought enough Egyptian bishops to declare a church council, which he quickly did, at an estate across the Bosporus from Constantinople. The illegitimate council forgot the four monks and proceeded to condemn John, based on trumped-up charges brought against him by disaffected clergy. He was deposed from the office of archbishop, and Emperor Arcadius removed him from the city.
When news got out, a riot erupted, and within days John was brought back and reinstated. Theophilus retreated to Alexandria.
Unfortunately, John again quickly alienated Empress Eudoxia with his preaching. Emperor Arcadius ordered John to leave the church and the city. John retorted that rulers could use force to remove a shepherd from his flock but no minister should abandon his divine calling.
Eventually troops were sent.
John, to forestall another riot, cooperated. To distract the people, he had his horse saddled and put by the public entrance to the cathedral. He then said farewell to loyal deaconesses and priests and left through a side door.
After his removal was discovered, the people again rioted, and somehow the cathedral church was set on fire; the flames spread to the senate house and other public buildings. Imperial troops forcefully put down all resistance. Some of John’s followers were tortured and at least two died as a result.
John was transported across the plains of Asia Minor in the heat of summer but was allowed to stop in Caesarea because of failing health. He was visited by many loyal followers and was popular among the Christians in that region. He wrote letters to Olympias, his closest deaconess in Constantinople, describing the hard times he had endured and reminding her that God was in control:
“When you see the church scattered, suffering the most terrible trials, her most illustrious members persecuted and flogged, her leader carried away into exile, don’t only consider these events, but also the things that have resulted: the rewards, the recompense, the awards for the athlete who wins in the games and the prizes won in the contest.”
Orders were given for him to be moved, this time to a remote village on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. But with his health failing, he collapsed on the way, on September 14, 407, and was taken to a small chapel outside of Comana. After he was dressed in a baptismal robe, he gave away his clothes to local villagers. He received the Lord’s Supper and offered a final prayer that ended with his usual closing words, “Glory be to God in all things. Amen.” He was buried in the small chapel at the end of the empire.
After John had been deposed, many of his supporters, called “Johnites,” were driven into exile. Palladius, a bishop and friend of John, wrote a biographical defense of his friend. John himself wrote a letter to Innocent, archbishop of Rome, and other western bishops. These western leaders wanted to call a synod to investigate the matter but were politically powerless to force such a decision on the emperor in Constantinople.
Thirty-four years later, though, after John’s chief enemies had died, his relics were brought back in triumph to the capital. Emperor Theodosius II publicly asked forgiveness for the sins of his parents, who had sent John into exile.
Robert A. Krupp is the librarian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is author of Shepherding the Flock of God: The Pastoral Theology of John Chrysostom (Peter Lang, 1991).
Copyright © 1994 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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