John Chrysostom on Pastoral Ministry

John Chrysostom (4th century) is well known for his prolific writings that have left their mark on the Church down through the generations. One of his significant contributions to the realm of Christian spirituality is his understanding of pastoral ministry, most notably discussed in his work On the Priesthood.

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Life and Context

According to On the Priesthood, Chrysostom was troubled in his youth. The work retells the events of  the attempted forced ordination of both him and his long time best friend, Basil. Chrysostom loved the idea Basil being ordained, but felt strongly that he personally should avoid the ministry because he believed himself to be unqualified.

Because of their close bond, Basil desired to approach the question of whether they should resist or accepting ordination together. But, being persuaded of his friends gifting for the ministry and of his own lack of qualification, Chrysostom deceived his friend into accepting ordination while he himself hid from the ordination delegation.[1] Despite  initially dodging  the ministry, we know that John would agree to willingly be ordained as a deacon in the year 381, and later to the office of priest in 386. Because of his reputation as a preacher (later to be known by the name “Chrysostom” because of his “golden mouth”), he would later be made bishop of Constantinople against his desire.[2]

In his recounting of his young life, John admits to being more concerned with worldly pleasure than his friend Basil. This hindered them as they came to the phase of life in which they would have become monks, as Basil sought to live a life of self-denial and John found himself enticed by worldly pursuits. But this backsliding only lasted for a time (1.3). Later, Basil entreated John to come and live with him in a common home (1.4). He tells of his mother’s concern for him to remain with her and not send her into a “second widowhood (1.5)

At that point, the two young men caught word that they were being considered for ordination to the priesthood. At this point, Chrysostom confesses his realization of his unworthiness for the office. To him, the calling is an “awful” (or “weighty”) task that should be treated with respect. But he believed that Basil was noble enough for it. When Basil begs him to promise to either resist ordination together or accept together, John verbally agrees. Thus, he ends up deceiving Basil when the ordination representatives come and ordain Basil alone, having been abandoned by Chrysostom (1.6).

The rest of the On the Priesthood retells the confrontation between Chrysostom and Basil concerning his justification for tricking Basil and avoiding the ministry. Chrysostom builds his argument by discussing the character qualifications and the shepherding duties of those who shepherd the flock. Within the 4th century context, the strange practice of forced ordination was commonplace, as can be seen in the ordination of Augustine of Hippo.[4] It is out of  this context of disregard for careful un-forced selection of candidates that Chrysostom’s concern for the  qualifications and duties of the pastoral office arise.

The Importance and Difficulty of Pursuing Ministry

Evidence of Love for Christ

It becomes clear in Chrysostom’s discussion of the high calling of ordained ministry that he did not make his decision to avoid the office lightly. His view of the priesthood is high and full of reverence and respect. When Basil asks him why he should consider taking on the priesthood to be advantageous, Chrysostom responds by arguing that there is no greater show of love for Christ. Drawing upon the story of Christ restoring Peter and calling him to pastoral service in John 21, Chrysostom argues that the greatest display of love one can have toward Christ is to take up the role of shepherding his sheep, noting the great price which Christ paid for his sheep, even to the point of shedding his own blood. For Chrysostom, this suggests how great an award there must be for those who care for something that the Lord values so highly. For Chrysostom, the main point of John 21 is not how much Peter loved Christ, but how deeply Christ loves his sheep, and therefore how much we should love his sheep in turn (2.1).

The Difficulty of Caring for Souls

Chrysostom further fleshes out the difficult task of caring for the souls of the Church. He states that the pastor cannot force correction upon people, lest they are driven away. A pastor is to instead shepherd wayward members of the flock into correction by means of persuasion. He notes that it takes much skill to get patients to submit willingly to treatment, much less to acknowledge the outcomes with gratitude (2.3). But herein lies another struggle: walking the line of being too severe with the waywardly, or too gentle. Either way, Chrysostom notes the detrimental results that can occur in correction that is not well suited to the situation and individual. If treated too gently, the problem can fester again. If treated too strongly, the wayward individual may be plunged into despair. Thus, it is not just the severity of the sin that must be taken into account, but also the individual’s disposition. Thus Chrysostom concludes that pastors need discretion and “many eyes to observe on every side the habit of the soul” (2.4).

The pastor must be cautious so that his zeal does not prove useless through misapplication. He adds that a pastor must exercise great patience and not give in to despair at the slow progress that some may make when corrected, having a disposition of soul that hopes that the Lord will restore those who wander. Chrysostom goes on to confess that he fears the condition of his own soul for the ministry, fearing that his lack of skill would cause him to waste the spiritual health of the congregants in his care. He later adds that evaluation of character for the office should be based on personal investigation, not just public opinion (2.4).


The Weightiness and Danger of Pastoral Ministry

The Greatness of the Office

Chrysostom notes that even Paul, the great apostle who suffered, endured, and to whom  so much was revealed, approached his ministry with fear and trembling (2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Cor. 2:30), did not invoke his authority, and bore the weight of his ministry in mind. Chrysostom goes on to argue that it is right for someone such as himself to avoid the high call of ministry; that he would be blameworthy if he did accept such a call. He states that it is better for those who take on ministry to have understanding, and even more so grace from God than to take on the ministry carelessly (3.7).

Temptation Due to Human Frailty

It becomes clear in Chrysostom’s discussion that his own conscious is heavy at the thought of taking on such a high calling. Whether or not he is too hard on himself, he feels the weakness and frailty of his own spiritual well-being. While his trickery in avoiding ordination with Basil seems wily (and perhaps confirms his confession about being unqualified), there is much to be said for the sobriety with which he approaches the care of the souls of others. For him, it is a serious task, and he implores Basil to understand his plight in the matter (3.8). This is certainly a challenging self-evaluation that any and all who would consider a pastoral calling should seek to imitate. The list he provides of potential snares of the pastoral life that he wishes to avoid are dangers to ministers in any era, including pride, envy, contempt, hypocrisy, and much more (3.9). He recognizes that it is not pastoral ministry itself that is to blame for these evils, but its misuse (3.10). Chrysostom is careful to note Paul’s remark indicating that desiring the office of overseer is a good thing. He rightly argues that it isn’t desire of the service that is the problem, but the desire for the power and authority that come with it (3.11).

Ability With the Word

To Treat by Teaching

Another admirable element of Chrysostom’s understanding of the call to pastoral care  is his emphasis on the qualifications of ability and moral character that he fleshes out in books 4-6. His previous argument largely serves to show why the task is so difficult, and why some should avoid it. Now he turns to explain the fundamental necessity of ability in rightly handling the Scriptures. First, he says that a minister must to be able to teach well, noting that while medical doctors employ many means of treating ailments, there is one central means of treatment for the pastor: “the powerful application of the word” (4.3).

Credit: Aaron Burden, Unsplash

To Confront Error

Not only does the pastor use the word to treat spiritual ailments and urge others to spiritual health, but Chrysostom also argues that one must be able to use Scripture to  engage error in battle. Chrysostom portrays the cunning of the devil in knowing which weaknesses to exploit to mislead the flock unless he becomes aware that the shepherd of the flock comes well equipped for war. Thus the pastor serves not only as spiritual guide to those who are lost, but as a warrior and protector arming himself to do battle with any possible scheme that the enemy might employ (4.4). The pastor also has need of being able to put to end useless speculation amongst the congregation that ends up doing more harm than good (4.5).

Incompetence With the Word

For those who would emphasize character for ministry qualification while neglecting the need for training in knowledge and defense of sound doctrine, Chrysostom sounds a clear warning. He suggests that a minister’s high moral character would be of no use to anyone if his flock were to be carried away by heresy due to his inability in knowledge and doctrinal argumentation (4.9). This is not to say that character is of less importance than knowledge, but that both qualities are equally important to the task of caring for souls.

Necessity of Laborious Study and Humility for Preaching

Chrysostom’s discussion of the necessity of intentional labor to remain sharp in the skill

Credit: Chris Lawton, Unsplash

of preaching is especially interesting when one considers the level of renown he would later have for his preaching. He suggests that this skill does not come by nature, and must be continually cultivated (even adding that potential failure to gain the interest of the people to be reason to stay sharp, knowing that sometimes people will be uninterested) (5.5). He goes on to add that the preacher must take up his task without paying mind to praise or the opinions of the outside world (5.7). On this  point, Chrysostom’s life serves as a shining example as his bold preaching drew furious disdain from Empress Eudoxia, who worked with others to banish him, a banishment that would eventually lead to his death.[5]

The Great Responsibility of the Calling

Accountable For the Sins of Others

Chrysostom also suggests that those who hold ministerial office are held accountable for the sins of those within their care. Why such a statement may seem strange, it is difficult to question the reality of the feeling of responsibility that a caregiver would feel in the event that one of those they cared for had fallen away (6.1).

Greater Difficulty than the Monastic Life 

Chrysostom also compares the difficulty of pastoral ministry to the struggle of the monastic life, claiming pastoral ministry to be the most demanding of the two. This is an exceptionally strong claim when one considers the strong influence of the aesthetic monastic life during his day and its rigorous demands. Gerald Sittser notes that 4th and 5th-century monastic desert life had become a place of struggle and warfare for the spiritual life, protesting church extravaganza and seeking to live out discipleship a different way.[6] While Chrysostom had himself sought to live as a monk before the death of his mother, and did so after her passing,[7] He argues to his friend Basil that pastoral ministry is the greater and more challenging lifestyle. Not only is the minister to keep himself pure (as would a monk), but he must also be proficient at engaging with the world. To engage with both genders, all ages, all parts of society, the minister has to be (6.4) able to adapt himself in every aspect to the profit of those with whom he works. While the monastic life demonstrates patience, it is plunging into the fray of the world that demonstrates true fortitude of the soul (6.6). He notes that those who minister with people instead of escaping to solitude experience more practical character growth as they deal with the trials that come through relationships (6.7). The ministry requires all the moral virtue that is found in those who seek the life of a monk, but in a greater degree. He notes that the public position of the pastoral office brings greater trial on the soul as the minister’s imperfections are brought to light before others and made more painful.

The Providence of God

Personal struggle

           The events of Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood demonstrate his high understanding of the pastoral call. But this understanding and ability grew even at the end of his life in exile, where he would write On the Providence of God. This would lead him to grapple with ideas that  were difficult to  swallow medicine for his soul, and medicine that found proven affect in his trials.[8]


           There is much that can be learned from Chrysostom regarding ministry and the care of souls. His views of the pastoral call are reflected in his own life of struggle and sacrifice. On the Priesthood serves as a thorough overview of the many necessities and concerns that come with the serious work of pastoral ministry. It is not a calling to be taken lightly or mishandled. It requires character and skill. It can reveal deep love for Christ or enticement with power and authority. It requires humility, care, shrewdness, and self-awareness. May Chrysostom teach us to think soberly about pastoral ministry, assessing its demands accurately, and seeking to love Christ by loving his flock.

[1] John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood, 1.6

[2] Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 130-132.

[3] Harry R. Boer, A Short History of the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 154.

[4] Philip Schaff, ed., Saint Chrysostom: On the Priesthood, Ascetic Treatises, Select Homilies and Letters, Homilies on the Statues, vol. 9, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889).

[5] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 345.

[6] Sittser, 80.

[7] Boer, 154–155.

[8] Christopher A. Hall, “Nature Wild & Tame in St. John Chrysostom’s On the Providence of God,” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century, ed. by Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A. Hall (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 24.

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