Thursday, January 21, 2016

John Chrysostom, Manhood, and the Pastorate

A little over a year ago I read J.N.D. Kelly's biography on John Chrysostom. It's a very readable, even-handed account of one of the most interesting and fascinating (in my opinion) Christian preachers. I find Chrysostom to be a kind of Spurgeon. In the same mode, both were amazing orators and eloquent speakers. They both had a natural feel for a crowd. This can lead to a kind of base presumption of certain sophist practices. In layman's terms, this means both were given to emotional manipulation and justified themselves in doing it. It's nowhere near as bad as a figure like Finney, who made an evangelical replica of Barnum & Bailey's.

However, where John differed from Charles was that he was active in politics in a unique capacity. Some of this was due to circumstance. In John's time, there was only one Church which the Emperor was both beholden to and attempted to control. In some ways, Constantinople's bishop operated as a kind of imperial chaplain. In most cases this implied the negative connotation of the word: an authoritative, "religious" figure who sanctioned all sorts of murder and crime. Spurgeon lived in a day of many different divisions, where religious authority meant little politically. Besides that, Spurgeon acted as a non-conformist, against the state-sponsored Church of England. This would remove much influence.

However, Charles Spurgeon still had influence and applied the Gospel to social realities and the public square. One little known detail was that Spurgeon was a huge critic of Britain's imperial policies in China. This is the operations of neo-Imperialism, a kind of global conquest done by markets and trade. The British didn't have to overrun Asia with Redcoats. Rather, they dominated ports with cheap goods and, in China's case, crushed the population with a massive opium trade. The British predated the Cartel, and equaled them in brutality. Charles Spurgeon decried such a trade and all imperial ventures. Charles Spurgeon was an advocate against war and conquest, an proponent of non-violence.

John Chrysostom was also an advocate against imperial policies. The difference was in the nature of John's church community. Constantinople was a meeting place of both the "monastic" tradition and the imperial tradition that overshadowed many Church struggles in the East. I put the former in quotes because it's not exactly a monastic tradition. It's a kind of pessimism and moral rigor combined with Apostolic Christianity that demanded individual and personal discipleship. It could be abberant at times, but still maintained Biblical imperatives. The latter was the kind of hodgepodge scrambling when the Empire began to endorse Christianity. It was a religion for the masses that wiped away conditions for repentance, personal growth, discipline etc. The Church became an organ of the Empire, rather than an alien and prophetic community that maintained a tension. There was many times an internal tension and struggle in the Capital.

John represented someone who had lived in the desert, knowing well the costs of following the Lord Jesus, and yet eventually ended up in the heart of the Roman Empire. He was constantly beset with the anxiety of such a precarious position. And yet he took up his labors with effort and zeal. He tried to preach an uncompromised gospel to a people generally lackadaisical. Yet the beauty and power of his preaching drew crowds nonetheless.

I'm not saying John's theology is perfect. He many times seem to do whatever it took to whip his congregation into listening. But what I want to talk about is how his imperatives got him into trouble. John preached the life of the Christian to many who were in a deluge of nominal attachment. The court dabbled in all sorts of political sorcery, Machiavellian machinations, and general wickedness, yet John never was a political upstart. He did not call upon mobs, or try to create a utopia in old Byzantium. He was not a Savanarola.

Rather, he got in trouble by speaking the truth. He died in exile, hated by the emperor and the empress and the eunuchs in court. He was replaced by a more amenable ladder-climber. He was attacked by politicized bishops who used a theological controversy to blacken John's name and embroil him in heresy because of his kindness.

Why John is a hero is because he represents a kind of model for a masculine pastorate, one that should draw men to as a place of leadership, or to inspire those who work elsewhere. John preached hard things. Yet his hard things were both theologically rich (i.e. Christ trampling down Death by death) and socially meaningful (i.e. the implications of Christianity for homelife, wealth, etc.)

Many times the pastorate functions as guidance councilors, Oprah-esque spiritual uplifters, stern fear-mongerers, or just a strange kind of custodian for weird rites that no one really seems to understand. Yet John brought forth the truth of the Resurrection and Ascension of the Son of God and brought it to bear on those whom he lived amongst. He preached the dangers of wealth, the meaning of the marital vocation, the rigor of spiritual disciplines, the necessity of prayer.

He was political by being faithful, not faithless by being political. He engaged in no intrigue, but was attacked for his social concern. He was not trying to transform the world, but by preaching the truth, he turned the world upside down. This is a vocation for men and women, but in the context of the pastorate (which is intended for men) he represents what sober-minded, responsible male-leadership looks like. It isn't soft-handed and delicate. It isn't hard-nosed, bookish and cerebral. It isn't a 'bro' culture. It isn't the emotionless, stoic work ethic German. It's something bizarre and strange.

John Chrysostom ought to be searched out by any man who is interested in becoming an Episkopos or Presbyter of God's Church. He is a very Human, and flawed, model to give attention to. His life and his works reveal what preaching the Gospel might actually look like in a particular time and space.

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