Freedom in Marriage

In the prior essay on marriage and the theme of unity, we explored a bit how Saint John Chrysostom might answer the critics of marriage and family, who level against the institution of marriage the charges that it is too atomising and too alienating. We have seen from Saint John’s writings that the standard for marriage is that of a complete dissolution of ‘mine’ and ‘yours’, even at the level of the body and the breath. But how do we answer the charges we saw before, that marriage and the family are too stifling, too conformist, too rigid – a straitjacket which curtails any hope of personal liberation and happiness? Chrysostom has an answer for this as well.

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The second theme to which the homilist gives notice, which follows immediately from that of unity, is the theme of freedom in marriage. This may be somewhat counterintuitive – not to mention, to modern sensibilities, perhaps even morally offensive – to those who read Homily 19, and Chrysostom’s assertion therein that slaves ought not to pursue legal freedom. But consider the context: Chrysostom has just called upon the husband to be a slave to the wife, and the wife to be a slave to the husband.1 It is necessary to examine this defence of mutual slavery in the marital context in order to understand both the nature of freedom insofar as Chrysostom understands it in the context of marriage, and also its fundamental worth. 

But how does Saint John understand freedom in the context of marriage? The freedom that matters in marriage is not an outward freedom, a legal freedom of choice. Once one is married, the freedom of ‘the market’ no longer applies! Indeed, once one marries one’s outward liberties are sharply curtailed as though one is sold into bondage. It is, indeed, a form of ordination, a kind of priesthood, which is itself inevitably an obligation to servitude. This is a theme to which Saint John returns again and again in his ‘Sermon on Marriage’ and his advice on ‘How to Choose a Wife’. 2

This outward legal definition of liberty, however, is contrasted to the inward freedom to do the will of God, which is not curtailed by marriage. ‘If he is freed from the passions, and from vices of the mind; if he disdains riches, and refrains from anger and all the other passions, then he is truly free.’3 And again: ‘When he does everything for God’s sake, deceives no one, and doesn’t shirk the work assigned to him: that is how someone held in bondage to another can be free.’4 Each spouse, being enslaved to the other, is nonetheless still free to do the will of God. He illustrates this deftly by using the examples of Joseph (a bondman who is free in God) and the wife of Potiphar (a free woman who is enslaved to sin) in Genesis.5

When one is within a marriage, one is not free to satisfy his lust with someone outside the marriage, and one is not free to end the marriage on any terms other than adultery or abuse. But within this constraint, within this bond, Saint John returns to the theme of freedom with remarkable consistency, as something to be cherished, cultivated and striven for. It is abundantly clear from Saint John’s sermons that the husband is not to regard his wife as a slave, as property or as a chattel. ‘What sort of satisfaction could a husband himself have, if… not with a woman by her own free will?’ —‘Ask for the respect due you from a free woman, not… a slave’ —‘A free woman of equal honour to yourself’ —and so on.6

The mutual service of a marriage is not characterized by abject servility or by the degrading conditions of slavery, but instead by a mutual obligation that produces freedom. Here as well we see a parallel with the thought of the later Russian Church: in particular the 19th-century religious-philosophical idea of ‘sobornost, which is sometimes translated as conciliarity.7  The Orthodox Church is not characterized by dictatorial demands, by majority rule, or by the feudal relations of lord and serf. The Orthodox Church is characterized by the mutual and active assent to be bound to all for the sake of all, and freedom is found within this assent. Though naturally Chrysostom does not couch his commentary in this later (and peculiarly Russian!) philosophical term of art, we can see that in concrete terms the marriage, which is an icon of the church and which is a church in miniature, is meant to model this.

Recognising that the ideal of marriage is one in which each spouse serves the other and each spouse is supported and freed by the other to serve God, it must be acknowledged – and Saint John indeed did acknowledge and deplore this! – that many marriages fall short of that ideal. It was common even in Saint John’s day for men to treat their wives like chattel or possessions. And women in turn found ways to manipulate and exploit their husbands for selfish or materialistic ends. It is common to see such examples used in contemporary polemics against marriage, which are meant to show it as fundamentally exploitative or oppressive. 

And yet, surveys and observational studies conducted in Western countries like the UK continue to show that people who are married report higher levels of life satisfaction than people who are divorced, widowed or single, and that marital status is as significant an indicator of life satisfaction as health or economic security.8 Of course, the indicator of ‘life satisfaction’ itself could be critiqued as a consequentialist fig-leaf for any number of different factors, but such studies would still seem to suggest that married couples in fact do conform, at least a significant amount of the time, to the sort of self-giving, self-emptying support and attention that frees the spouse to follow God. This remains the ideal to be repented of if unmet, and to continue to be striven for.

  1. Saint John Chrysostom, ‘Homily 19 on 1 Corinthians 7’, in On Marriage and Family Life, trans. Catharine P Roth and David Anderson, p. 26. ‘Neither is his or her own master, but rather are each other’s servants.’
  2. Chrysostom, ‘Sermon on Marriage’, in On Marriage and Family Life, p. 85: ‘When desire began, then marriage also began. It sets a limit to desire by teaching us to keep to one wife.’ & ‘How to Choose a Wife’, in On Marriage and Family Life, p. 89: ‘When we take a wife we cannot return her to her family, but we must keep her with us until the end. If we reject her because she is bad, we are guilty of adultery according to the Law of God.’ Also, p. 96: ‘You must consider that marriage is not a business venture but a fellowship for life.’
  3. Chrysostom, ‘Homily 19’, pp. 35-6.
  4. Ibid., p. 36.
  5. Ibid., pp. 36, 38-9.
  6. Chrysostom, ‘Homily 20’, p. 47; Ibid., p. 56.; ‘Sermon on Marriage’, p. 88.
  7. For a decent treatment of the concept of sobornost’, I recommend Aleksei Khomyakov and Ivan Kireevsky, On Spiritual Unity: A Slavophile Reader, trans. Boris Jakim. Lindisfarne Books, 1998.
  8. Settembre, Jeanette. ‘Married couples are happier than everyone else, especially in middle age’, Market Watch, 23 May 2019. Accessed online 21 Feb 2021 at https://www.marketwatch.com/story/married-couples-are-happier-than-everyone-else-especially-in-middle-age-2019-05-23.
mfcooper

About mfcooper

Matthew Cooper is a fourth-grade teacher at Ascension Catholic School and a parishioner of St Herman's Orthodox Church (OCA) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has a master's degree in international relations and has worked as a microfinance advisory intern, an ESL and European history teacher in China, a data analyst and a machine-shop worker. His interests include Russian religious philosophy and modern Arab nationalist thought as well as the material culture and history of Central and East Asia - China in particular.

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