Review of John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood

It was the fourth century and Christianity was becoming the official religion of Rome while the priesthood was becoming infatuated with the new-found power structure that was encapsulating it. More pious believers were turning to monasticism. One man who embraced the monastic life was John Chrysostom however he would eventually become a priest and finally Archbishop of Constantinople. John was known his eloquence in preaching and public speaking and was even given the Greek surname Chrysostomos which means golden tongue. John would also become know for his stance against ecclesiastical abuse. Before he would be made Archbishop or even priest, John wrote a short treatise entitled On the Priesthood, in which he would argue for the dignity of the priestly office. Richard Baxter in The Reformed Preacher and Charles Spurgeon in Lectures to My Students will both make the protestant call for respect and commitment to the calling but it is this early church father who first makes this case crystal clear.

Interestingly, On the Priesthood is written as a conversation between Chrysostom and his friend Basil. From the beginning, it is really an apology or defense of a betrayal of sorts by Chrysostom. It seems that Chrysostom and his life long friend had made a pact to refuse their election into the office of priesthood if it were to occur. Both John and his friend Basil had grown up together and had decided to enter the monastic life. Basil grew in stature while Chrysostom admits that he was “still entangled in the lusts of the world.” Basil stood by his friend Chrysostom and when the rumor came that they were to be ordained, Basil said that he would go along with Chrysostom on whatever he decided. Chrysostom did not feel qualified for the honor but did not want “to deprive the flock of Christ of a young man who was so good and so well qualified for the supervision of large numbers….” Instead, Chrysostom decided to deceive Basil. He convinced Basil that there was nothing to worry about but when the men came to ordain them, Chrysostom hid.

It is with this deception that Basil comes to speak to his friend. Basil, of course is hurt and wants to know why his life-long friend had seemingly abandoned him. John Chrysostom thus begins his treatise on the office of priesthood with first a defense of deception. I found it to be a strange way to begin but I did find myself agreeing in some way that not all deception could be bad. John Chrysostom argue that the deception was for the benefit of the deceived. He argues that his intentions was to make sure that his friend did not follow him in rejecting the office of priest. He even compares the deception to a strategy that would be used by generals. And if generals can use it for the victory on battle field then how much greater is it when used to provide a victory for the priesthood. In fact is such cases it should not be called deceit, “but since a kind of good management worthy of all admiration.” I don’t think it would be wise to keep this principle as some kind of hard and fast rule but as Al Mohler recently preached, “We should be shrewd in our dealings with the gospel.”

After have given his defense for his deception, Chrysostom turns his attention to defending his refusal of the priesthood. The rumor was that the reason he rejected it was that he looked down upon the office of priest. People thought he was full of “vainglory” and that he thought the priesthood was below such a noble monk like himself. It is to this charge that Chrysostom spends the rest of his time addressing.

He begins his defense by explaining the advantages that the priesthood would offer Basil. “What advantage, pray, could be greater than to be seen doing those things which Christ with his own lips declared to be proofs of love to Himself.” Using John 21:15-17 and the restoration of Peter, Chrysostom exegetes that the reason Jesus asks Peter if he love him is not to get the answer to that question but instead to teach importance Jesus sees in the shepherding of his sheep. “This being plain, it will likewise be manifest that a great and unspeakable reward will be reserved for him whose labors are concerned with these sheep upon which Christ places such a high value.” He continues “s now also when He (Jesus) says, ‘Who then is the faithful and wise servant?’ he speaks not as being ignorant who is faithful and wise, but as desiring to set forth the rarity of such a character, and the greatness of this office.”

Thus Chrysostom does not look down upon the office of priesthood but the opposite. He sees the office of priesthood not as a lowly office beneath him but as an overwhelming honor requiring the greatest amount of faithfulness. In fact, the office of priest is greater than the monastic life. “Yet He (Jesus) might have said to him (Peter), ‘If you love me practice fasting, sleeping on the ground, and prolonged vigils, defend the wronged, be as a father to orphans, and supply the place of a husband to their mother.’ But as a matter of fact, setting aside all these things, what does he say? ‘Tend my sheep.’”

Anyone says Chrysostom can do those things but the majority can not be priests.

With this high honor in mind, Chrysostom delves into the difficulties that the priest must face. First the priest must be able to heal the spiritual sicknesses of his flock. He must be able to discern the treatment necessary for each different case. Not only must he be able to discern the treatment he must convince the patient to take the medicine. “For Christians above men are not permitted forcibly to correct the failings of those who sin.” Sometimes it seems like it would be much easier if that was the case, but instead skill is required to not only get the patient to take the treatment but to make them “grateful for the cure.”

I can clearly see in John’s writings an idea of the gospel in a therapeutic sense. The gospel not only saves but it heals he soul from the sickness that sin has put upon it. The gospel slowly brings about a sanctification in the same way medicine might heal a disease. Thus it is up to the priest to help apply the gospel to every part of ones life. “Therefor the pastor has need of much discretion, and of a myriad eyes to observe on every side the habit of the soul.”

In defending himself from the accusation of pride, Chrysostom says that he is not worthy of such a high calling. “For the fact that one of my age, who had so recently abandoned secular pursuits, should suddenly be deemed by all worthy of so admiration as to be advanced to honor before those who have spent all their life in labors of this kind…” was a mistake. “For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among heavenly ordinances” because it was instituted by God himself. Chrysostom points to the fear in which the priests in the old testament were to have in the working of their office. If they who only had a shadow of the gospel were to be in fear, how much more than shall we who have its fullness be in awe.

While speaking of the highly callings of the priest, Chrysostom is not afraid to speak out against those who abuse the office whether for financial gain or to please women. “The divine law indeed has excluded women from the ministry, but they endeavor to thrust themselves into it; and since they can effect nothing themselves, they do all through the agency of others; and they have become invested with so much power that they can appoint or eject priests at their will.” It seems that not much has changed in 1700 years.

In attacking those who would misuse the priesthood, he defends the office itself from attack. “For men of understanding do not say that the sword is to blame for murder, nor wine for drunkenness, nor strength for outrage, nor courage for foolhardiness, but they lay the blame on those who make an improper use of the gifts which have been bestowed upon them by God.” It becomes clear that Chrysostom holds an incredibly high view of the priesthood. Chrysostom warns those who would seek after the office for power or authority that terrible judgement would await them.

In concluding his argument, Chrysostom reasons that the needs of the office are so above him that he must pursue the lesser honor, monasticism. It is clear to both Basil and myself though that in his defense of the office, Chrysostom has proven himself to be among the few qualified. But if Chrysostom is himself not qualified than who can be. Chrysostom answers with a smile, that if Christ calls then Basil will receive assurance and qualification.

It is refreshing in a day when many look down upon the calling of God, that Chrysostom stands to remind that the calling of God is the highest. It is a calling that demands the highest amount of respect and the highest amount of commitment.  I struggled for a long time in my personal call to the ministry because in many ways I thought it would be boring and beneath me. How arrogant I was to ever think that? After reading this treatise, I have felt a renewed call to the ministry but also a sense of awe that God would still call me. I like Chrysostom do not feel worthy of such a high calling. I only pray that I can be like Chrysostom and eventually be made worthy of that calling.


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