This article presents the Christian understanding of marriage, based on St. John Chrysostom’s homilies. Although he lived in the 4th and early 5th centuries, yet his teachings are pertinent to every generation and present the best understanding of what a Christian marriage should be like.
The general Orthodox Christian view is that God created humanity in His own image and likeness as male and female with the intent that they should live together in harmony. God created Adam as the origin of all mankind, since Eve came forth from Adam. In His great Providence, God planned for the union of man and woman and has spoken of the two as one, making it impossible for either to be self-sufficient. Therefore, there is no relationship between human beings so close as that of husband and wife if they are united and live in harmony as God intended them to be. There is no influence more powerful than the bond of love, and when harmony prevails, the children are raised well.
In the Orthodox Church, marriage is a great mystery, because it is the human image of the “the great mystery of Christ and the Church.” (Eph. 6:21-33) The union in love of one man and one woman is made eternal by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Marriage. When the two become one in Christ, their love can enable them to transcend any limitations imposed by the world.
In the Church, marriage is a sacrament in which God perfects, completes, sanctifies, and blesses the love between the man and woman. This does not mean that having a Church marriage is an automatic guarantee for a successful marriage. It does mean that Christ is giving us the opportunity to complete and perfect the union by His presence. It is His grace that gives us the power to be patient, when we want to be impatient; to be loving when we want to be unloving; to be forgiving when we want to hold a grudge; to be kind when we want to insult; to be understanding when we want to be critical, etc. All this is possible only by God’s grace and power. True love, like God, is forever, and not for a year, two years, or even ten years! The goal in marriage is not to search for someone who will please me, but rather to please the one I have chosen.
Therefore, marriage is not seen just as a social and civil arrangement, neither is it a license for physical union. It is undertaken in the presence of God and regulated by God’s commandments. The two become one not only physically, but in spirit, heart, and mind. This total oneness is made possible through the Eucharist. This is why originally marriage was blessed during the Divine Liturgy. Both the bride and the groom received Holy Communion and became truly one in Christ.
Each of them enters this union with special gifts given to them by God. Depending on their spiritual gifts, they can learn from one another and teach one another. But together they must fill their common life with holiness. One’s own virtue is not enough for salvation, but also the virtue of those for whom we become responsible is required. This includes our spouse and children. Therefore, we fervently beg our Lord in our prayers to help us in our task and bring our work to perfection by His grace.
In Ephesians chapter 5, St. Paul compares the relationship of husband and wife with that of Christ and the Church. Their oneness is not just physical but implies total unity: one spirit, one mind, and one heart. Such total oneness is possible only through Christ when He sanctifies and perfects their love. Within the nuptial unity, husband and wife have different roles and together they must find a way to make their roles complementary to avoid rivalry. Marriage should provide a haven of comfort and happiness amid the storms and turbulence of life. St. John Chrysostom explains that there are two main reasons for marriage: procreation of children and the chastity of the couple themselves. The virtue of chastity should be understood in a positive sense. It is not merely avoidance of immorality, but the integrity of the whole person, body and soul, towards holiness. Both are expected to be faithful to one another. In Christianity, there is no double standard! St. Paul speaks of conjugal rights as a debt to show that neither the husband nor the wife is his or her own master; they are each other’s servants.
St. John Chrysostom exhorts them to speak to each other with terms of endearment, honor, and love. It is their bond in Christ, which strengthens their love and helps them endure difficulties. The husband must treat his wife with loving care and persist in loving her regardless of what her faults may be for Christ loved the Church and died for Her even before He had purified Her. Then the wife will respond willingly and freely towards him. The wife’s duty is to respect her husband and obey him considering her obedience a part of her duty to the Lord, even if it is not for her husband’s sake. But in fact, the husband’s duty is greater since love is a stronger force. We are not excused from our duties by our spouse’s delinquency. A woman should respect her husband as the head and he should love her as his body for Christ’s sake. According to St. John Chrysostom, this becomes possible if we strive for virtue above all things, and if we keep the fear of God before our eyes and are detached from money. Of course, if a husband asks his wife to do something against God’s commandments, she is not obligated to obey.
A husband should not be upset if a wife demands more of his time, because this indicates her love for him. He should enjoy being home with her and prefer her before all others. On the other hand, a wife should not nag her husband about making more money, but should value his company. A husband should always begin his admonitions by telling her how much he loves her. He should praise her in front of others, but advise her privately and patiently using gentle words. Each should be an example to the other by leading a virtuous life.
They should pray together, attend Church together, and at home discuss together the readings they heard in Church. When they give parties, they should invite not only their friends, but also the poor. St. John Chrysostom sees that alms-giving is one of the greatest Christian duties for those who have the means.
Husbands and wives should trust one another and consider both their bodies and all their possessions as common property. Neither should speak of “mine” and “yours”. Certainly, if they cannot call their body their own, they cannot call their money their own; their possessions become one. St. John Chrysostom eloquently said, “my own” is an abominable phrase, which comes from the devil. They should always remind each other that nothing in life is to be feared except offending God. St. John exhorts couples to seek things that are perfect and the secondary things will follow. “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matt. 6:33).
Married people who live like this can become as holy as any monk and will guide their children in such a way that the entire house will acquire holiness. The husband and wife along with their children can make a little church, which will promote spiritual growth of all its members. Generally, the children will acquire the character and mannerism of their parents. They are molded in the form of their parents’ temperament, talk in the same fashion, and hold the same values. It is the concern for spiritual things, which will truly unite the family.
When choosing a mate, the basis should neither be beauty nor wealth. Love, which is based on outward beauty, comes from an impure soul. Instead, one should seek beauty of the soul. With time, familiarity causes admiration to fade. However, love based on honest grounds continues ardently afterwards since its object is beauty of the soul and not physical beauty. Tokens of beauty include gentleness, humility, and affection. Also, neither wealth nor a high social position should be sought after in a mate. These are external matters. But true nobility is that of a pure soul, concerned with spiritual things.
Marriage should be celebrated in a holy manner. According to St. John Chrysostom, the songs should be edifying songs. There should be spiritual joy instead of drunkenness. Christ should be invited to the wedding celebration so that the whole married life may be a progress together towards holiness. In Homily 20 on Ephesians, St. John said, “If the bridegroom shows his wife that he takes no pleasure in worldly excess, and will not stand for it, their marriage will remain free from the evil influences that are so popular these days. Let them shun the immodest music and dancing that are currently so fashionable….. If you listen to me, you will understand the advantages of a sober-life style.” Doesn’t it sound as if St. John Chrysostom is addressing us now?!
A marriage should begin with God’s blessing; proceed in harmony and virtuous living. Finally, it leads the whole family to the Kingdom of God. Let us pursue holiness that we may be counted worthy to attain the Kingdom of God. May our Lord Himself help us bring our lives together to perfection, so that we all may be counted worthy of the blessings in this age and more importantly in the age to come.