Love your wife – A challenge from Chrysostom

Icon of John Chrysostom from Hagia Sophia, Constantinople (Istanbul), 11th century?

A couple of weeks ago, I led a follow-up study about ‘biblical manhood’, this time considering what the Bible has to say to husbands and fathers. We looked at Ephesians 5:22-33 in particular. I shared the passage quoted below from St John Chrysostom about Ephesians 5:25. I hope it challenges you, especially if you are a husband!

First, Ephesians 5:25:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her

St John Chrysostom, Homilies on Ephesians, Homily 20:

You have seen the measure of obedience, hear also the measure of love. Would you have your wife obedient unto you, as the Church is to Christ? Take then yourself the same provident care for her, as Christ takes for the Church. Yea, even if it shall be needful for you to give your life for her, yea, and to be cut into pieces ten thousand times, yea, and to endure and undergo any suffering whatever — refuse it not. Though you should undergo all this, yet will you not, no, not even then, have done anything like Christ. For thou indeed art doing it for one to whom you are already knit; but He for one who turned her back on Him and hated Him. In the same way then as He laid at His feet her who turned her back on Him, who hated, and spurned, and disdained Him, not by menaces, nor by violence, nor by terror, nor by anything else of the kind, but by his unwearied affection; so also do thou behave yourself toward your wife. Yea, though thou see her looking down upon you, and disdaining, and scorning you, yet by your great thoughtfulness for her, by affection, by kindness, you will be able to lay her at your feet. For there is nothing more powerful to sway than these bonds, and especially for husband and wife. A servant, indeed, one will be able, perhaps, to bind down by fear; nay not even him, for he will soon start away and be gone. But the partner of one’s life, the mother of one’s children, the foundation of one’s every joy, one ought never to chain down by fear and menaces, but with love and good temper. For what sort of union is that, where the wife trembles at her husband? And what sort of pleasure will the husband himself enjoy, if he dwells with his wife as with a slave, and not as with a free-woman? Yea, though you should suffer anything on her account, do not upbraid her; for neither did Christ do this.

Translated by Gross Alexander. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First SeriesVol. 13. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1889.Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

Biblical manhood?

I recently led a Bible study about ‘biblical manhood’. We looked at Genesis 1-3, focussing on specific passages, such as the creation of humans as male and female from the beginning, the fact that ‘it is not good for the man to be alone’, and what the curse entails for men and women, and what freedom in Christ should look like.

My inspirations were Fr John Behr on Genesis 1 when considering male and female together as comprising the fullness of humanity in God’s image, as well as Met. John Zizioulas, Being As Communion, for the fact that we are made in the image of the Holy Trinity, and St Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship for practical implications. Closer to my Protestant friends filling the room were Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, and Kelly Monroe Kullberg, Finding God Beyond Harvard.

Anyway, beyond these inspirations that lie beneath my interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis, chapters that are foundational for biblical anthropology and what it means to be male and female, I realised that there is not a lot in the Bible specifically about being male.

Now, there are many male characters throughout the biblical narrative. But these stories are a variety of things to us — some are good examples, others are definitely not to be copied, while still others are simply things that happened. And of the positive examples, it strikes me that very rarely are they specifically masculine examples, and if we might think they are, is that us reading masculinity into the text or is it already there?

Consider King David: Clearly adultery and murder come on the list of bad examples, whereas killing Goliath and playing the lyre were good things. But what does that say to us? That we are all to become literal warrior-poets? The one thing we know for sure was that he was a man after God’s own heart — so it is the inner life of King David that matters, I guess.

Although the list of good examples could go on, I don’t think that it’s that informative about the Christian view of manhood and masculinity. Generally, the principles we can draw from these examples are applicable to Christians of either sex, male or female.

Furthermore, I think there is a danger in reading the Old Testament this way, because it can reinforce a certain white Anglophone machismo, that real men are burly fellas like Samson, that the ‘great men’ of the Bible were soldiers like Joshua, Gideon, David, and others.

Christian history has actually tended to provide alternative masculinities, partly rooted in and inspired by the ‘household code’ passages of the epistles — you know, ‘Husbands, do x‘, that sort of thing. This alternative masculinity, coupling the household codes with the upside down kingdom preached by Jesus to persons of either sex, is full of men who fight on their knees, turn the other cheek, give up careers in the army, and die obscure deaths.

In the Middle Ages, alternative Christian masculinity found concrete form in the monk, the pray-er. The secular ideal of the Middle Ages is that of the Knights of the Round Table, who spent a lot of time involved in extra-marital sex and fighting with other people, not always for any good reason, or of Orlando/Roland (I’m reading Ariosto in my spare time). Orlando mostly just jousts with people and chases a woman who doesn’t really like him. He is big and strong and mighty. They were tough. They were macho. Knights were bros.

Monks were brothers. They were called to a different kind of life. Whether we’re thinking of monks in the strict sense — those cloistered ‘cenobites’ like Benedictines and Cistercians or semi-hermits like Carthusians — or of their more active brothers, the Franciscans and Dominicans (for example), members of religious orders abandoned their worldly responsibilities, their wealth, their power, the violent lives of their past, and romantic liaisons with ladies. Consider Francis, who went from fighting local wars to preaching poverty and salvation. He subverted the world of courtly love and called people to a better love, to the love of Lady Poverty.

I believe that the ideals of the monastic life are rooted in Scripture (so do monks), and I also believe that we are called to wage peace. We are to fight on our knees in the training of the holy life.

Back, then, to biblical manhood. The Kingdom of the Heavens is the upside down kingdom, where husbands love their wives sacrificially, where men submit to one another and, you will note, to their wives, where they do not provoke their children to anger, and where they give up all worldly pretension for their King. We have a high calling, but we have a mighty Leader.

What does biblical manhood look like? Turn your eyes upon Jesus. ↓

Fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre
Fresco in Sepulchre Chapel, Winchester Cathedral (my photo)