However, recently I came across a sermon from the 4th century – Chrysostom’s homily on Ephesians 5:22-24 which has some helpful insights for the 21st.
He begins by pointing out that marital harmony between husband and wife is one of the greatest blessings we can experience. ‘Great evils’ are produced if marriages are not harmonious, and great benefits ‘both for the families and states’ if they are. ‘For there is nothing that so welds our life together as the love of man and wife’. If they are in harmony then children are well brought up, domestics are in good order and ‘neighbours, friends and relations, enjoy the fragrance. But if that is not the case then there is great confusion and disorder’.
After talking about the meaning of submission and pointing out that marriage is not a democracy, he then addresses husbands as to the extent of the love that they should show to their wives. They are to take the same care for their wives as Christ does for the church – ‘Yea, even if it is needful for you to give your life for her, and to be cut into ten thousand pieces, you should not refuse to endure any suffering for her’. Even if she scorns you and despises you, you must not retaliate and seek to get her to obey you through fear – but instead use ‘great thoughtfulness, kindness and affection’. It must always be love and ‘good temper’ – never fear and menaces. Your wife is a free woman, not a slave.
A man may ask: What if my wife does not reverence me.’ Chrysostom says: ‘Never mind, you are to love, fulfill your own duty’. We are to love, not just for her sake, but for Christ’s sake. A husband should ‘never once lift his hand … nor give expression to insults, or taunts, or revilings’. He insists, along with Paul, that men who cannot love their wives and manage their own homes, are not fit for loving and managing the church.
Chrysostom then suggests that men should not praise their wives for their physical beauty but for beauty of soul. ‘Outward beauty is full of conceit and great licence, and throws men into jealousy and makes them suspect monstrous things’. Husbands are to seek and encourage ‘loveliness of character’.Men are not to marry for money – nor are wives to insist that their husbands should work more to buy more goods.
It is better for a woman to have her husband near her, than for him to be away on business. ‘No, she will rather choose to have him near her, though gaining nothing, than gaining ten thousand talents of gold, accompanied with that care and anxiety which always arise to wives from those distant voyages’. It’s fine to have a ‘handsome’ house, but we should not degenerate into finery!
In an extraordinary passage he talks about the necessity of the husband leading his wife with love. ‘But rather first talk with her of your love for her’ … speak with hearty affection, learn to apologise and let her know that your feelings are true towards her. ‘Show her too, that you set a high value on her company, and that you are more desirous to be at home for her sake, than in the market place. And esteem her before all your friends and family’. ‘Let your prayers be common. Teach her that there is nothing in life to be feared, save only offending against God’.
Study the Scriptures together. Use your home to bless the poor – not give extravagant dinners for the rich. Never ever say ‘my own’; about money and possessions. You share everything.
Given the context of the culture he lived in, I found this teaching extraordinary and very helpful to us today. Perhaps Chrysostom should be used the next time I help in a marriage preparation class?!
I’ll leave the last word with him.‘Never call her simply by her name, but with terms of endearment, with honour, with much love. Honour her, and she will not need honour from others; she will not want the glory that comes from others, if she enjoys that which comes from you. Prefer her before all, on every account, both for her beauty and her discernment and praise her … teach her the fear of God, and all good things will flow from this as from a fountain, and the house will be full of ten thousand blessings’.
David Robertson is the Director of Third Space in Sydney