Catholic fact check: St. John Chrysostom on wifely obedience
Artwork: Greek Miniaturist, “Homilies of Ioannes Chrysostomos.” c. 1078. Manuscript (Ms. Coislin 79) Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
The following quotation, attributed to St. John Chrysostom, is extremely popular in Catholic and Orthodox circles:
When we speak of the wife obeying the husband we normally think of obedience in military or political terms, the husband giving orders and the wife obeying them. But while this type of obedience may be appropriate in the army, it is ridiculous in the intimate relationship of marriage. The obedient wife does not wait for orders. Rather, she tires to discern her husband’s needs and feelings, and responds in love. When she sees her husband is weary, she encourages him to rest; when she sees him agitated, she soothes him; when he is ill, she nurses and comforts him; when he is happy and elated, she shares his joy. Yet such obedience should not be confined to the wife; the husband should be obedient in the same way. When she is weary, he should relieve her of her work; when she is sad, she should cherish her, holding her gently in his arm; when she is filled with good cheer, he should also share her good cheer. Thus a good marriage is not a matter of one partner obeying the other, but of both partners obeying each other.
Its sole source is On Living Simply: the golden voice of John Chrysostom1, which is a collection of sermon excerpts arranged by Robert Van de Weyer. He cites it - at least, random internet posts do - as Chrysostom’s sermon On Christian Marriage. It is unclear if this is a chapter title, theme, or something else entirely.
In any case, one seeks in vain for a sermon of that name. Chrysostom does have an extensive sermon on the dreaded Ephesians 5:22-332, but that quote - or anything remotely similar to it - is not to be found in there.
A red herring
There is a blog post from Internet Monk3 that discusses cherry-picked Chrysostom quotes. While it doesn’t discuss our quote, it’s valuable for two reasons:
- It cites another sermon on this subject, “The Kind of Women who ought to be taken as Wives” in Patrologia Graeca 51:230” - which, by the way, is how Church Fathers should be cited - they should always have more than just a document title, because you’re dealing with very old, frequently translated works.
(As an aside, I was surprised that I was unable to verify the Chrysostom quotation in the blog post at the Internet Monk, even in the Greek-Latin editions. That can be a post for another day.)
- It gives a flavor of Chrysostom that doesn’t quite match the quote we’re seeking.
Typically, old and foreign language materials are hard to source. In Patristics, though, great care has been taken to publish complete (or mostly complete) and translated works (even if they’re not freely available online). So, checking a particular quote from, say, St. Bernard or St. Jerome should not be impossible.
Chrysostom’s complete works run to about 36 volumes, so it is possible that this quotation is buried in one of those volumes. However, I currently consider it unlikely, because:
- The quote’s existence springs from one source only, the On Living Simply book. It does not appear online before the publication of that book in 1997.
- …which is not convincingly cited - i.e., we are not given any Greek, a volume number, an authentic sermon name, etc. to cross reference
- It doesn't sound like anything else Chrysostom wrote
- And no one else, across a whole internet of people who love fact-checking, has managed to find anything to verify that this is Chrysostom.
Did he say it?
Given how long this quote has circulated without a source, almost definitely no.
Chrysostom, J., and Gross Alexander (transl.). “Homily 20 on Ephesians.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, edited by Philip Schaff. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1889. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/230120.htm.↩
Bell, Mike, “Quotable Quotes: Cherry Picking,” Internet Monk, March 29, 2019, https://internetmonk.com/archive/quotable-quotes-cherry-picking.↩