John Chrysostom (c. AD 347–407) was an Eastern church father and archbishop of Constantinople. He was born in Syrian Antioch and named John; he was known as Chrysostomos (“golden-mouthed”) because of his excellent speaking ability. His mother, Anthusa, was widowed at the age of twenty and refused to remarry in order to devote herself to her son’s education. John studied the Greek classics and rhetoric. For a time, John Chrysostom practiced law, but, after his baptism in 368, he became a monk.
After his mother’s death, John Chrysostom practiced a severely ascetic life. During this time, he spent two years living in a cave on a mountain near Antioch where he dedicated himself to memorizing the entire Bible. Finally, ill health forced him to abandon the hermit lifestyle. John Chrysostom was ordained in 386 and preached some of his best sermons in Antioch until 398 when, much against his will (he was actually kidnapped and taken by force to Constantinople), he was made the patriarch (archbishop) of Constantinople by a government official. Rather than fighting the kidnapping and appointment, John submitted to it, seeing it as the providence of God.
As archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom attempted to reform the moral climate of the capital city but met strong opposition from within and without the church. On the secular side, the Empress Eudoxia called for John’s removal because of his attacks on sin in high places. On the ecclesiastical side, local clergy and the bishop of Alexandria also took issue with Chrysostom’s high standards. Together, they led the movement to have John Chrysostom deposed in 403. The people of Constantinople wanted Chrysostom back and rioted in his support; the Emperor Arcadius, frightened by the public response, had John reinstated the next day.
But John Chrysostom did not compromise his standards. He bravely continued to use his “golden mouth” to preach against sin, and the proud and vengeful Eudoxia was angered once again. Specifically, Chrysostom preached against vain and ostentatious modes of dress and against Eudoxia’s act of placing a silver statuette of herself near the church of Saint Sophia, where he preached. The Empress had John banished in 404 on charges of treason. John Chrysostom died in exile in 407. His remains were brought back to Constantinople in 438 and buried in the Church of the Apostles.
More than 600 of John’s homilies and sermons still exist today. John was particularly adept at homilies, designed to apply the Scriptures to the challenges of living the Christian life. Most are expositions of Paul’s epistles, emphasizing the practical application of their meaning to the people of his day. Chrysostom loved Paul, calling him the “vessel of election” and the “trumpet of heaven.” True to his own moral compass, John Chrysostom preached that there must be no separation of morals from religion, that the cross and ethics must go hand in hand. His homilies railed against the sins of abortion, prostitution, gluttony, and swearing and against popular entertainments of the day, especially the theatre, horseracing, and the revelries surrounding the celebrations of holidays.
Among John’s favorite themes was care for the poor and needy, a duty he found lacking in the wealthy classes. He frequently exhorted the rich to lay aside their materialistic habits and rebuked them for caring more about their possessions than about their fellow creatures (see Matthew 5:42 and 1 Timothy 6:17–19). In one especially blistering homily, John shamed the selfish rich by asking, “Do you pay such honor to your excrements as to receive them into a silver chamber-pot when another man made in the image of God is perishing in the cold?”
Because of his rhetorical skills, John Chrysostom is still hailed as one of the greatest pulpit orators the church has ever known. He is considered a saint by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Coptic, and Anglican churches. Catholics have given him the title “Doctor of the Church,” and the Orthodox Church honors him as one of the Three Holy Hierarchs.