The Family and Christian Education According to St. John Chrysostom

"As for me and my family: we will serve the Lord"
(Joshua 24:15).

Very Reverend and Reverend Fathers, Deacons, Seminarians and Faithful:

Glory to Jesus Christ!


I greet you in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the great Teacher of the ages Who calls all people to the knowledge of the truth for the salvation of their souls. I welcome you to this Diocesan Conference which brings to the forefront our common ministry of educating our young people in the Faith and in the knowledge of God. This is a ministry that we share, whether bishop, priest, church school teacher, parent, grandparent, godparent -we all influence the spiritual growth and development of the children who have been entrusted to our care and whose lives we touch. We are the ones who build their faith, shape their character, inform their conscience, instill the values that will create the foundation upon which a life of godliness and sanctity can be built. Certainly many things influence the lives of our young people, but it is on our influence and efforts as Orthodox Christian educators, pastors, parents, that I would like to focus our attention, especially the parental factor and the environment of the home, for this is of primary andfundamental importance. Our success or failure, our faithful efforts or negligence in this area is something for which God will hold all of us accountable.

Saint John Chrysostom

As you should all be aware, His all-holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has proclaimed this 2007 calendar year as the "Year of St. John Chrysostom," urging the faithful to study his work and more closely examine his life. As a Diocese we join the Orthodox world in remembering this great Saint of the Holy Church on the 1600th anniversary of his falling asleep in the Lord.

In reflecting upon the life, witness and influence of St. John, it is clear why he is ranked among the greatest of Saints and heralded as the "golden-mouthed" preacher of the ages. His words were truly inspired by the Spirit, flowing from the wellspring of Divine wisdom. They continue to invite all to the true knowledge of God and offer practical advice for the life of piety and holiness. His counsel on family, education and Christian upbringing will be of particular interest for us today. By way of background, let us consider briefly the life of St. John Chrysostom.

Early Life

St. John was born to wealthy parents, in Antioch, Syria, in the year 347 A.D. His father, Secundus, was an officer in the imperial army and died shortly after the birth of his son. His young widow, Anthusa, was left to raise St. John and his elder sister alone. Fortunately, she was a woman of wisdom and means and provided her son with an exceptional education within the best schools of Antioch. Under the tutelage of Libanius in Antioch and further studies in Athens, he excelled as a reputable legal and philosophical scholar as well as a brilliant orator at an early age. While in Athens, St. John was inspired to pursue the monastic life. He was encouraged in this by his close friend, St. Basil the Great. His intention was to immediately forsake wealth, prominence and the ways of the world in pursuit of the monastic life, but he was dissuaded in this by his mother who could not bear the thought of surrendering her son and being forced into what she considered a second widowhood:

"I beseech you, my child: do not force a second widowhood upon me, nor arouse by your departure the sorrow within me which has scarcely abated since the death of your father. Wait until my death, which I expect with each passing day. After you have buried me alongside the bones of your father , you may do as you wish. But remain with me now for a short time while I am still alive!"

St. John was tonsured a reader of the Holy Church but honored the wish of his mother and remained with her until her death. Thereafter, he entered the monastery and lived a life of prayer, fasting and ascetic struggle in humble service to the Lord. After four years in the monastery, St. John departed secretly and spent two years in the solitude and silence of the desert where he communed only with God. He observed such ascetic discipline that his physical body was severely weakened. Thus, he was forced to return to Antioch according to the will of God. It was at this time that St. John was ordained to the diaconate by St. Meletius, Patriarch of Antioch. Following the death of Patriarch Meletius, St. John returned to his former monastery where he lived for three years.

Priesthood in Antioch

At the age of 41 St. John was ordained to the Holy Priesthood by Patriarch Flavian of Antioch. His reputation as a powerful and eloquent preacher spread quickly throughout the region. Initially his oratory style was so lofty that many found his sermons difficult to understand. It is said that one simple woman commented to St. John: "Oh, Father, you are truly golden-mouthed and your words are beautiful. But your teaching is like a deep well and my poor mind is like a short rope; it is difficult for me to dip up the water of your wisdom." Thereafter St. John was known as "Chrysostom," "the golden-mouth." He departed from the rhetorical refinement of his early education and proclaimed with simplicity and power the message of the Gospel with its call to a moral and righteous life.

St. John's ministry came on the heels of not only the legalization of Christianity under Emperor Constantine, but its establishment as the formal and primary religion of the state. This led to a vast influx of pagan converts and, of course, extensive moral and pastoral concerns. Pagan converts maintained many of their superstitious beliefs and followed a superficial devotion to the Faith. Church attendance was often characterized by frivolous conversation, laughter, gossip, fashion displays and general confusion. People would come and go during the course of the Liturgy as if they were attending a show or social event. St. John addressed these issues in his homilies, refusing to compromise the Gospel call to moral purity , sincere piety and holiness of life. The power of his words cut to the heart of his hearers. Though he often sternly admonished the faithful for their impiety and wayward lifestyles ( especially with regards to the pursuit of wealth and the neglect of the poor) he was truly loved by all. The faithful were mesmerized by his preaching. They were fascinated with the fact that he preached without a written text, a practice that was unheard of at the time. Applause would often break-out at the conclusion of his sermons (a practice that St. John found unacceptable and made sure that it did not persist). Often people would come to church just to hear him preach and then leave after the sermon. It was for this reason that St. John began to deliver his sermons at the conclusion of the Liturgy rather than after the Gospel. He repeatedly addressed such concerns as wealth and poverty , popular entertainment and requirements for the Christian family.

Archbishop of Constantinople

In 397 St. John Chrysostom was elected Archbishop of Constantinople following the death of Patriarch Nectarius. He was consecrated on February 26, 398, by Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria. St. John celebrated the Divine Liturgy daily and often preached twice a day in addition to his other Episcopal responsibilities. He cared for the poor and infirm, the hungry and naked, the orphans and widows. Through his saintly life and homiletic eloquence, he quickly gained the admiration and respect of the people. Unfortunately , his vociferous reproof of the vices and corruption of the political elite had quite the opposite effect upon various clergy and members of the aristocracy .His unpopularity was fueled by his petulance and tenacity. St. John was unflinching in his vocal criticism of moral transgression and uncompromising in his homiletic faithfulness to the tenants of the Gospel. The Empress Eudoxia was especially disturbed by his censure and eventually became the instrument of St. John's demise. The Empress took personal insult from many of St. John's sermons, criticizing and condemning as they did the excesses and social injustice that characterized her own life. St. John made decisions based on righteousness and divine judgment, without consideration or deference to the opinions or feelings of the Empress. Eudoxia was maddened by his indifference and uncompromising refusal to be a puppet of the state. This, coupled with his great influence over the people, including the Emperor Arcadius, hastened her resolve to see St. John removed from the Patriarchal Throne.

Exile and Death

Eudoxia so pressured the Emperor that he finally had St. John arrested and sent into exile. However, the people of the imperial city were enraged by the unjust treatment of their beloved hierarch. If fact, there was such civil unrest and protest that the royal court had no recourse but to restore him to the Throne. Unfortunately , political intrigue and deception, spearheaded by the Empress, would insure that his return was short-lived. A council was convened and on June 24, 404. St. John was unjustly removed from the Patriarchal Throne for the second and final time and sent into permanent exile.

By military escort St. John was conducted to Cucusus in eastern Armenia. In the summer of 407 he was ordered to Pithius, to the extreme border of the empire. His escorts subjected him to great abuse and physical exertion, far beyond his ability to endure. St. John made it as far as Comanan in Pontus. Unable to endure the rigors of the journey any longer, St. John reposed in the Lord on September 14, 407. His last words were: Doxa to theo panton eneken (Glory be to God for all things).

The Importance of Family
and the Environment of the Home

The lives of our children today are influenced by many factors. They are influenced by the media, television, magazines, music, friends, teachers, parents, etc. So many conflicting forces challenge their values and vie for their loyalties. The media teaches materialism, immorality, and violence; peer pressure often instigates experimentation and the adoption of peer values; teachers are consumed with the task of maintaining a learning environment with some semblance of order in the chaos of disrespect and indifference that has come to characterize classrooms across the country. Is it any wonder that violence among teenagers has reached epidemic proportions; that thousands of children run away from home every year; that suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 24; that one out of every nine children find themselves in juvenile court by age 18; that approximately 15 % of all school-age children have moderate to severe mental and emotional problems; that drug abuse and alcoholism among teenagers has become a serious national health issue; that teen pregnancy has become commonplace. We are living in a culture and a society that is in crisis, and all of us to some extent bear the responsibility , because it is a society that we have allowed to be created.

It must be noted that among the factors that influence children in every aspect of life, the most decisive are the parents and the environment of the home.

St. John Chrysostom was adamant about the importance of the family and the environment of the home as being crucial for the spiritual and moral education of children. In fact, he identifies the parental role in the education of children in virtue as among the most important and primary responsibilities in life. He instructs in Homily 21 on Ephesians: "Let everything take second place to the care of our children, our bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord." And who among us would disagree? Children truly are a most precious gift of God. As the Psalmist David says, "Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of ones youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them" (Psalm 127:3-5). However, with this gift comes the most fearsome responsibility of training, educating and raising them properly. The unfortunate reality is that this responsibility is often neglected outright or otherwise transferred to institutions outside the home.

Parental Responsibility

The parental duty goes beyond simply providing the basic necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter and education. There is a sacred duty that calls for the formation and transformation of the heart and soul.

Certainly parents desire to prepare their children to be responsible, contributing and successful members of society. We go to great lengths to provide them with an adequate secular education, instilling priorities that will hopefully insure their financial stability and social distinction. However, the spiritual and eternal dimension of the human person, the divine calling to Christ-Likeness and purity of heart, the necessity of preparation for the Day of Judgment and life in the Kingdom of God is too often neglected. St. John sternly admonishes parents for their indifference to their children's spiritual wellbeing and warns that the responsibility to train young hearts in virtues and piety is "a sacred duty which cannot be transgressed without thereby becoming guilty of the children's murder..." Strong words from the lips of St. John the "Golden-mouth." Noting the questionable priorities that obviously characterized many families of the 4rh century Church, St. John continues:

"We spare neither labors nor means in order to teach our children secular sciences, so that they can serve well the earthly authorities. Only the knowledge of the holy Faith, the service of the Heavenly King are a matter of indifference to us. We allow them to attend spectacles, but we care little whether they go to Church and stand within it reverently. We demand an account from them of what they learned in their secular institutes --why do we not demand an account from them of what they heard in the Lord's house?"

When it comes to things that are essential for the good and well-being of their children, parents insist that they be observed, and rightly so. Children are required to get up in the morning and go to school. Parents are diligent about making sure that this is taught and understood. Why? Because, like it or not, it is important for their future, and therefore, a priority imposed and enforced by the parents. But are we teaching them the importance of the Church and a relationship with God as essential for their eternal future? Not if everything from sporting events to Sunday morning cartoons are allowed to take priority over attending the Sunday Liturgy. There was a time not so long ago when going to church on Sunday morning was a foregone conclusion, regardless of where one was the night before. What has changed to no longer make this a reasonable expectation?

St. John makes it abundantly clear that the Lord will hold parents accountable. Consider these words placed on the lips of our Lord:

"''Was it not I,' the Lord will say to us, 'Who gave place to these children in your family? Was it not I Who entrusted them to your care, making you masters, guardians and judges over them? I gave you complete authority over them; I placed all care for their upbringing in your hands. You will tell me that they did not want to bend their necks to the yoke, that they threw it off. But this should have been averted from the very beginning; you should have mastered their first impressions, placed the reigns on them before they had the power to break away from them. You should have bent their young souls under the yoke of duty , accustomed them to it, educated them in accordance with it, bound the wound when it first opened. You should have uprooted the tares when they first began to sprout around the young plant, and not have waited until they put down deep roots, when the passions have become uncontrollable and untamable through gradual strengthening in their formation.'"

A Fundamental Shift in Influence

As a culture we have witnessed a tremendous and, what I would consider, tragic shift within the fundamental factors that influence the family dynamic. We have watched the family surrendering to the dictates of secularism and materialism. We have experienced the Church-centered family fall from the heights of faith and commitment to the depths of an indifferent, immoral, valueless and godless society .Many will remember a time not so long ago when the Orthodox Christian family, our families, were characterized by two parents at home, both of whom were faithful, committed Orthodox Christians. The Church was the center of spiritual, educational, social and cultural life. Church and

family life were intertwined to such a degree that they literally helped to define each other. It was a time when young people knew the meaning of discipline, respect, responsibility and commitment. There was a clear sense of morality and decency .The faith was taught through life and inherited as a lifestyle. Tradition was a vital part of family life, providing a tangible bond with the spiritual life and our identity as a people -this is who we are; this is what we believe. There was a pattern of life that allowed for the faith to naturally take root in the next generation. Sadly, such is not the case any longer.

Based on the witness of Scripture, the counsel of the Saints and the experience of history, what we can know for certain is that the greatest influence upon the faith of the next generation is how that faith is lived and practiced at home within the dynamics of the family. St. John Chrysostom makes the obvious connection between the educative process and the role of the parents: "Generally, the children acquire the character of the parents, are formed in the mold of their parents' temperaments, love the same things that parents love, talk in the same fashion, and work for the same ends." The truth is that children learn more by what their parents do than what they say. If parents are unfaithful in attending services, the children quickly learn to be unfaithful. Children observe that getting up Monday through Friday for work is an unchanging, unquestioned discipline for parents- rain or shine, summer or winter, like it or not. When parents fail to make the effort on Sunday morning to attend the Divine Liturgy, the children assume that God and His Church are not worth their time, energy or attention. What a tragic disservice to God, the Church and the children entrusted to our spiritual care when we fail to teach them through our example that God is the priority in our family and in our life.

A Church School program can only reinforce what is being taught in the home. It was not intended to, nor can it ever replace it. Thirty hours a year, at best, in Church School can never make-up for spiritual neglect at home. How can the T en Commandments be taught effectively, for example, when family violation of the fourth Commandment, to keep the Lord's Day holy, is habitual? How can children maintain a sacred respect for the Name of Jesus Christ and be expected to observe the third Commandment when the Holy Name is desecrated by the lips of their parents? This cannot be. The religious education of our children must be a cooperative effort. The values and disciplines of the Church can only be taught as they are persistently and consistently modeled at home. This is why God prescribed the following directive for the household of faith: "And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children~ and shall talk of them when you sit in your house~ and when you walk by the way~ and when you lie down~ and when you rise " (Deuteronomy 6:3- 7) .

What Can Be Done?

Having expressed this concern for our children and emphasized the crucial role of the parents in the transmission of the faith and the molding of our children into children of God, what can practically and reasonably be done to make a difference? I would suggest that a significant part of the answer to this question, the solution to many of our concerns, is simply the rediscovery of those basic disciplines that have epitomized the Orthodox Christian home throughout the ages, disciplines that have been neglected and disregarded for far too long.

A Pattern

The basic necessity for fruitful education is a pattern. St. John conveys the importance of this when he says, " A pattern of life is what is needed, not empty speeches; character, not cleverness; deeds, not words. These things will secure the Kingdom and bestow God's blessings." All of our homes have a pattern, a personal and unique atmosphere in which we teach and learn. Obviously, some of those patterns are good and some are not. Consider a father who daily complains about his job, uses profanity, is verbally abusive to his family, criticizes others, rarely if ever goes to church, has little or no regard for the sacred -this is the pattern that will likely be repeated in the lives of his children. On the other hand, consider a father who is grateful for his job and the ability to provide for his family, who speaks with decency and love, who sees the good in others, who attends church faithfully with his family, who respects that which is holy and gives priority to God -this also is a pattern that will likely be repeated. This is the kind of pattern that Saint Paul recognized in the heritage of young Timothy as he called to mind the genuine faith that "dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice.. and I am persuaded is in you also" (2 Timothy 1:5).

The Church and the Home

What specifically should this pattern be based on and what should it entail? St. John makes an insightful parallel between and Church and the home as the basis for this pattern. He says, "If we regulate our households [properly] ..., we will also be fit to oversee the Church, for indeed the household is a little Church. As such, the parents are in effect the priests, the pastors, the shepherds of the flock entrusted to their care. The primary responsibility of a priest is to serve at the holy altar, offering the sacrifice of praise, thanksgiving and worship and leading the faithful in prayer. As a "little Church," the center of the home should be the "altar," an icon corner where the family gathers for prayer . This area does not have to be elaborate, but it should be special and sacred. It should face east and be located in a prominent area of the home. There should be an icon of Christ and the Theotokos. Icons of the patron Saints of the family members and other Saints can be included. There should be a Bible, vigil light or candle, a prayer book and holy water. The icon corner can also include blessed oil, incense, pussy willows from Palm Sunday and other sacred items. All of these things help to set aside this area as a sacred place within the home where the family gathers as the domestic Church " to offer prayer and thanksgiving to God.

All of this implies that prayer will be a daily family discipline, that the family will share a common rule of prayer . This does not have to be lengthy or involved; it can be as simple as a short prayer before meals and the Trisagion Prayers with personal petitions before bed. But whatever the family prayer rule consists of, it is imperative that it be kept persistently and consistently -that is why it is called a rule and a discipline. And this is not only a discipline for when the children are young, but for as long as they live under your roof. Consider what a powerful influence it is for children to hear their parents call their name before God, to bring their friends and family, heartaches, burdens, joys, hopes and concerns before the Throne of Grace. Prayer will become a .discipline etched in their hearts and one from which they will never be able to escape.

It goes without saying that Scripture reading should be a key element in the spiritual life of any Orthodox Christian family. How important it is for children to see their parents reading not just the sports page or gossip column in the local newspaper, but the word of God. Read the Bible stories to children at bedtime, the parables, the miracles of Jesus, the lives of the great prophets and Saints of the Old Testament. This would clearly benefit them more than The Three Little Pigs or Mother Goose. All of this, again, reinforces the pattern. St. John Chrysostom says, "Let us give them a pattern to imitate; from their earliest years let us teach them to study the Bible." St. John anticipates the response of his listeners when he says. "'He repeats this over and over again,' you say, 'we are sick of listening to it.'" I join him in declaring, "Never will I stop doing my duty!" Elsewhere St. John advises:

"Do not say, 'Bible-reading is for monks; am I turning my child into a monk?' No! It is not necessary for him to be a monk. Make him into a Christian! Why are you afraid of something so good? It is necessary for everyone to know Scriptural teachings, and this is especially true for children. Not knowing divine truths, they do know something of the pagan stories, learning from them about wondrous lives, about heroes in their sight, who served the passions and were afraid of death."

Sing the hymns of the Church with your children. The hearts and minds of young people today are filled with the melodies and lyrics of decadence and decay, with songs that advocate drugs, illicit sex, violence and godlessness. Would it be unreasonable to expect the home to be a sanctuary from these things, offering an alternative with music that promotes goodness, purity , sanctity , grace, mercy , forgiveness, righteousness and truth? Children know the words to "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer," but cannot sing "Divnaja Novina." This is a sin and a tragedy. Observe the Feasts and Fasts of the Church as a family. Would it somehow be out of place to discuss the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord or the Beheading of St. John the Baptist around the dinner table? Attend the Feast Day Liturgy as a family. If you cannot attend the Liturgy, what about Vespers the evening before? If this is not possible, at least read the account of the Feast being celebrated. But don't let them just pass by without acknowledging them as important events in the history of salvation.

Teach your children to observe the Lenten season. How? By observing it with them as a family. Attend the Lenten services; turn off the radio and listen to the penitential hymns of the season; no dancing; keep the fasting regulations. Lent can be and should be so much more than giving up chocolate. T each them to fast properly by doing it as a family. Attend the Divine Liturgy faithfully on Sunday, never allowing anything to come before this priority .If there are sporting events or other activities that pose a conflict, the children should know and understand that the Liturgy comes first, always and without exception. Talk with your children about what we believe as Orthodox Christians about God, the Saints, moral issues, life and death. Bring the faith to bear on the issues that concern them and the trials and temptations they are facing. Talk to them about purity and chastity and the sanctity of marriage. Help their conscience be informed by truth rather than the impiety that is rampant all around them. This is the responsibility of the parents.

All of these simple disciplines (and others) combine to form a learning environment within the family, a pattern for family life that is based on what the home should truly be - an icon of the Church. In the end it comes down to consistently living what we profess. If there is an inconsistency between profession and life, children think this way: "This is what my mom and dad believe, but this is they way they live. So if this is what they believe and this is how they live, there is a contradiction. So why should I worry about what they believe when it doesn't work anyway." The best way to teach our children and hand down our faith to the next generation is to simply live the faith, genuinely and consistently. The salvation of our children ultimately depends on it.


I wish to conclude with a powerful story that I read some years ago. It is not original with me though it does give expression to my thoughts and certainly the thoughts and spirit of our Holy Father, Saint John Chrysostom.


Some years ago, in Texas, an oil well was being dug. It was 180 feet deep and 12 inches wide. During the digging, a small child fell in to the well. From the depths of the well the child's cries could be heard, "Daddy, get me out!" Ropes were tied to the father's body and an effort was made to lower him into the narrow well, but to no avail. Other efforts were made to save the child, but all ended in failure. Fainter and fainter that child's plea was heard, "Daddy, get me out!" The cry finally ceased. Later, grab-hooks brought to the surface the lifeless form of the little child. The men who had been unable to rescue the child sat down and wept. Some neglect must have taken place among those who were digging the oil well or the hole would have been covered. Perhaps the parents were wrong in letting the little child play around this dangerous open hole.

As sad as this story is, there is a sadder one. What about all the children being lost in the pit of sin every day because someone was careless. When parents bring children into the world and then fail to teach them to know Jesus Christ, they are digging a pit into which those children will fall, and be lost. Children are so ready to respond to the love of God and so anxious to learn and obey God's will. No wonder the Bible says, "And ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" {Ephesians 6:4) .

Sadly, many parents never give their children a chance to get to know God's will for their lives during their formative years when they can be so easily taught and influenced. As these children grow older, it becomes much more difficult to mold and influence their lives.

Many parents, by their very example, are teaching their children that serving God is not really important, and that regular attendance at all the services of the Church is not important. This is a sad thought, but it is true; and many children will grow up to be lost eternally because of it.

God gives parents the responsibility of training and providing for all the needs of their children, including their spiritual needs. The Bible assures us that if we train up our children in the way they should go, when they are old, they will not depart from it {Proverbs 22:6) .

Just a little care at the right time would have saved that little child who fell in the well in Texas; but all the efforts were in vain later on. Parents who do not early prepare their children for heaven may be responsible for their being lost eternally. They are liable to hear the cries of their children echoing throughout all eternity, "Daddy, get me out!" May the words of the Old Testament Prophet Joshua be a true expression of commitment among us in the Church today: "As for me and my family, we will serve the Lord." (Joshua 24:15).


(Archpastoral Address to the Annual Diocesan Education Conference-September, 2007)