Ministry Lessons from Chrysostom


This ended up being the summer of the "Fathers" for me and I have gained an immense appreciation for John Chrysostom (349-407), also known as 'Golden-Mouth" because of his eloquent preaching. He was raised by a single Christian mother, converted around age 20, became a monk, then became a deacon, then an elder at Antioch. In 397, he was forced to leave and become bishop at Constantinople, where he was faithful in his work until he stepped on the toes of the empress and was eventually exiled (in large part due to Theophilos, patriarch of Alexandria). He was old and sick and ended up dying on the journey. His dying words were, "In all things, glory to God." Here are some ministry lessons from the bishop:

  • He felt unworthy of the task of ministry. Early in life, he bailed on a ministry opportunity to head for the hills. He viewed the priesthood with awesome dignity and terrifying responsibility.
  • John was an "expositional" preacher, so much so that historians wonder if what we have are his sermons or are just written commentaries. Bryan Litfin writes, "There is scarcely any biblical book, moral topic, theological point, or issue of his day, that John Chrysostom did not tackle" (197). John preached through books of the Bible, verse by verse. The first of many such records we have are 67 sermons on Genesis, verse by verse, from beginning to end. This forces the preacher to tackle all sorts of things he normally could avoid.

  • He was a dynamic preacher. The comment above may make it sound like he was simply a running commentary, but John, unlike some Fathers, was a favorite among the lay people. His illustrations were colorful and is topics timely (Litfin, 201). He was very concerned about making the literal meaning of Scripture relevant to his congregation's needs. As Wilken writes, he was "ever mindful of the limitations of his hearers" (47).
  • Chrysosotom practices what we would call "grammatical-historical exegesis." He was a "stickler for literal exegesis" (Kelly, 60). Seeing the Spirit as the true author, he sought to explain Scripture in the plain historical sense and make application based off of that. As Kelly writes, he was always ready "to go beyond strict comment on the text and draw out whatever useful lessons he thinks he can discern in it" (Kelly, 95).
  • John avoided allegory but pursued typology (what they called theoria). He writes, "One thing is to be watched: theoria must never be understood as doing away with the underlying sense; it would then be no longer theoria bu allegory. For whenever anything else is said apart from the foundational sense, we have not theoria but allegory." We would say that typology must have textual warrant.

  • John set out to reform the clergy immediately upon arrival in Constantinople. He enforced higher standards for worldly clergy. Ministers are to be above reproach.

  • He loved the poor and marginalized. He sold church treasures to help the poor and build hospitals. Kelly says he was indignant against conspicuous affluence. He was a champion for the poor. A person's true glory does not consist in things, but in gentleness, humility and charity.

  • He showed no favoritism. Regardless of office, all were in need of the gospel, and were subject to the rule of Christ. In a memorial service to Emperor Theodosius I, John remarks that he deserves respect, not because he was royal, but because he had been a devout Christian. While many would have done all they could to stay on good terms with the imperial family, John referred to the emperor's wife as Jezebel.

  • John was a practical theologian. Chris Hall writes, he had "an amazing ability to bring Scripture to life, both in its theological richness and practical implications" (94). He loved to explain and apply deep truths of Scripture to his people.

  • John was a biblical theologian. He was equally at home in either the Old or New Testament, and understood the progressive nature of revelation (to my surprise). He argued that one must read the OT in light of the fuller revelation that Christ brings. Though I need to read more of his stuff, his comments on Galatians 3 and Matthew 5 is sympathetic to New Covenant Theology.

  • He memorized vast portions of Scripture. Master the Bible. John believed that the cause of all evils was the failure to know the Scriptures well. He strove to see all of life from a biblical perspective. Calvin would say he never removed the "spectacles of Scripture."

  • John accepted suffering as a gift from God. The gospel had effectively sucked the poison out of the Christian's suffering and now was used by God to conform us to Christ.

  • John was an ascetic. He took self-control and discipline very seriously, and wasted little time on "vain" activities. He warned against the corrupting influence of the theatrical shows which "conspires to undermine moral standards, make men discontented with their wives, and break up homes" (Kelly, 97).
  • The bishop was also characterized by an "incurable optimism." He was quick to give a favorable interpretation of providence and believed that the tomb is empty and that makes a world of differences.

Sources:
Getting to Know the Church Fathers - Litfin
Golden Mouth - Kelly
Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers - Hall
The Spirit of Early Christian Thought - Wilken