Sunday, October 29, 2006

St. John Chrysostom, Mutuality and Marital Fidelity

It seems that I've started a series on John Chrysostom and family life without fully realizing it. Well, okay, I had a suspicion last week because I realized that I wanted to write about more on John's view of the family and of marriage than I had room for in a single blog entry (unless I would start a blog tome).

What I want to look at is John's Homily 19 in which he discusses a passage from 1 Corinthians 7
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.
From this starting point, John goes on to set out a sexual ethic, based on Paul's teaching in his letters which I really think we would be well to listen to in this age of ethical confusion.

What is striking about John's discussion about marital relations is the degree to which John emphasizes that one's control of our body and sexuality is no longer our own (if it ever was) when we are married. This is, of course, a sore point for many feminists who react instinctively to any suggestion that any man can tell a woman what to do with her body. And, in a sense, John fuels that reaction because he states very explicitly that the wife has not control over the body and is the slave of her husband. That certainly isn't going to play well among feminists.

Yet, if we focus only on that point, we've lost entirely John's point almost entirely. The very passage which affirms that the wife is the slave to the husband in regard to the body also makes it clear that she is his ruler. He elaborates his position by commenting that Paul speaks of conjugal rights in the terms of a mutual debt. That is, both husband's and the wife's body are not their own anymore. John's point is that, since both husband and wife no longer are sole masters over their bodies, adultery, for one thing, should be considered almost like theft:
As for you, husband, if a prostitute tries to seduce you, tell her "My body is not my own, but my wife's". And let the wife say the same to any man who is undermining her fidelity: "My body is not my own, but my husbands"
The obligation to remain faithful in body and (I think we can understand) soul is binding on male and female.

What is interesting here is that John openly admits that he is preaching an egalitarian idea here about the bodies of married people (and also, interestingly, about the money of married people). You can sense a bit of discomfort here, I think, because John recognizes that this could be taken to fly in the face of the headship image he promotes elsewhere. Yet, he closes off the possibility of the double standard enshrined in Roman divorce laws, at any rate in which a husband could divorce a wife for infidelity, but a woman generally couldn't do so on her own power.

I think John here is emphasizing here something that we in this enlightened modern age have forgotten. He emphasizes that marriage isn't a contract between autonomous individuals, but a giving of each other in service to each other in God. Sexual fidelity, I think, is only a symbol of this kind of mutual self-giving which is so essential in a marriage. In our individualism and the selfishness that comes from that, we, as a society, have tended to only ask what is in the relationship for me, me, ME! What John points out is that we are called to serve each other in marriage. If we only got that point clear, just among Christians even, I'm sure our divorce rate would plummet. From my mouth to God's ear.



Elin G. said...

It is not just in marriage that our bodies belong to another: at 8 months pregnant, it is more than obvious to me that my body belongs to my child as well. I think the giving of one's body to one's spouse in marriage helps to prepare a woman for this. To what extent is the reluctance of "giving one's body" to another a factor not only in the contemporary distrust of marriage but the contemporary distrust of fertility?

Of course for Christians, both men and women, our bodies, indeed our selves, are not our own but Christ's (1 Cor. 6:19-20), of which we are reminded directly before the passage on marriage which Chrysostom is discussing. I wonder if the whole concept of mutual self-giving isn't meant to be seen in this context (just as marital submission is in Ephesians 5:21: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" comes before the particular directions to wives and husbands)

I think this lifts the discussion of Christian marital relationships out of a mere male-female dynamic; to see Paul's (or Chrysostom's) view of marriage only on the level of male-female interaction is to miss the point.

Phil S. said...


I think you're basically right. I think our culture's resistance to 'giving one's body' is part of a larger picture which is related to any idea of giving oneself to other people. This can be seen in the specific cases you set out: pregnancy (fertility) and the church.

In many ways, our individualism starts to define a 'private' space which includes our body and some small distance beyond. Of course, that is appropriate on one level, but it does make it difficult to get the idea that we can have ties (whether marital, parental or communal) which goes beyond the mere space of the body.

I'm not sure all this makes sense, but those are a few ideas to throw out.