Chrysostom on the Ministry: A Review Article

D. Scott Meadows

Ordained Servant: May 2024

Planned Giving

Also in this issue

Seeing Red

Planned Giving as a Christian Duty

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Develop Your Whole Person, Chapter 14[1]

Spiritual Warfare for the Care of Souls, by Harold Ristau

Passio Jesu
On Buxtehude, Membra Jesu Nostri

Six Books on the Priesthood, by St. John Chrysostom. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977, 160 pages, $20.00, paper.

What is the most difficult and dangerous calling in this world? Climbing Mount Everest? Establishing a base camp on Mars? Hand-to-hand combat on the battlefield? No. Everything else is mere child’s play compared to one particular calling, according to John Chrysostom: the priesthood.

John Chrysostom (347–407) authored one of the three best known patristic writings of pastoral theology, entitled Six Books on the Priesthood. The other two titles are “De Fuga,” also known as Oration 2, by Gregory of Nazianzus (329–90) and “The Book of Pastoral Rule” by Gregory the Great (540–604). The first Gregory’s work is the most similar to Chrysostom’s, though it is simpler and more sympathetic. John was of the Antiochene school of Bible interpretation that emphasized the literal, plain meaning of biblical texts, unlike Gregory of Nazianzus, of the Cappadocian or Alexandrian school, that favored and emphasized a spiritual sense, indebted to Origen. John’s rhetoric was powerful, even if his substance was not so profound as that of Gregory of Nazianzus, who was less eloquent. Gregory the Great’s book is a classic on counseling, which deals mostly with how to advise congregants with diverse traits and needs, and so it is not really comparable to John’s treatise.

This edition of “Six Books on the Priesthood,” is number 1 of sixty-five so far in the Popular Patristics Series. The translation into English from the original Greek is copyright 1964 by the late Rev. Graham Neville (1922–2009) of the Anglican communion, also contributing the helpful preface and introduction. Chrysostom’s work that follows is newly divided into sixteen chapters instead of the original six “books.” The original book divisions were somewhat arbitrary. This edition helpfully correlates each page with the original book and paragraph divisions, making easier comparisons to the Greek text or other translations and allowing standardized citations in academic work.

My attention for this book was captivated by a remark of Nick Needham, author of the church history set of five volumes, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power (Christian Focus). Needham wrote,

In addition to his published sermons, Chrysostom continued to write Christian treatises at Antioch, the most famous of which was On the Priesthood, an exposition of the nature and duties of a Christian pastor. This has been reprinted and translated into other languages more often than any of Chrysostom’s other works. Another early Church father, Isidore of Pelusium said of this treatise: “Everyone who reads this book must feel his heart filled with the fire of God’s love. It sets forth the office of presbyter, its dignity so worthy of our esteem, its problems, and how to fulfil its duties in the most effective way.”[1] (emphasis added)

Having read and summarized its contents in twenty pages of my personal notes, this older pastor’s heart certainly was so filled. While Chrysostom’s time, place, culture, and ecclesiastical situation is far removed from mine, passage after passage resonated deeply with my own observations and practical experiences in the pastoral ministry.

One potential hindrance to appreciation of this book is precisely some of those differences, especially when they arise from distinctive doctrines and forms of church government. I would encourage interested parties to adopt to some extent the advice of the late theologian John Webster concerning the will of a person reading Scripture.

A crucial area for theological reflection is the nature of the reader’s will. If sin renders us unwilling to hear and manipulative in our reading, then properly-ordered reading is characterized by a certain passivity, a respect for and receptivity towards the text, by a readiness to be addressed and confronted. Attention, astonishment and repentance, together with the delight and freedom in which they issue, characterize the reader of Holy Scripture when he or she reads well, that is, with courtesy and humility.[2]

While repentance may not be required by something that challenges us in extra-biblical literature like Chrysostom’s work, courtesy and humility are still in order. Before we become critics, we must first become learners of any with potential to instruct us. We owe authors a sincere attempt to understand and to sympathize, as far as truth allows, with their written substance. A well-rounded education requires us to read widely, reflect thoughtfully, and think critically.

One example of our potential offense immediately confronts us in Chrysostom’s title, Six Books on the Priesthood. So deeply are we, as Protestants, committed to the priesthood of the believer, that we can barely suppress our dismay over the term being applied to the church’s ordained ministers of the Word. Recall, however, that this title appeared in the fourth century. In his lectures on church history, Dr. Robert Godfrey explained that in this early period, “priest” was merely a synonym for presbyter or elder. It lacked the full-blown connotations of the later Roman Catholic developments of sacerdotalism. Knowing this assists Reformed readers to appreciate Chrysostom’s book.

Other examples might be mentioned. Rather than being limited to ministers of the Word, elders, and deacons, fourth-century churches had ranks of ministers and the potential for promotions. Monks and hermits were respected for their spiritual devotion to Christ. Not only widows but also virgins (young women) were enrolled as a group living together for special care and oversight by the church. A high view of ordained clergy possessing the power of the keys also prevailed. These and other differences with twenty-first century Reformed ministers and churches may be found off-putting. However, it is with good reason that Chrysostom’s book has endured sixteen centuries. Most of it transcends its own peculiar setting and is of universal experience and application. These passages are typically golden.

It is well-known that John “Chrysostom” (lit., golden-mouth) was one of the greatest preachers of all time. His second name was given posthumously—a help to his humility no doubt. Eventually he did accept ordination to the pastoral ministry, later becoming, rather against his will, the patriarch of Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey). He was plain spoken, passionate, fearless, and sometimes tactless, leading to many sufferings as a minister, and he eventually was banished to the eastern shore of the Black Sea, where his health failed, and he died.

Concise Chapter Summary

This very concise summary of the book’s chapters is a distillation of the aforementioned twenty pages of my notes.

The entire book is a dialogue between John Chrysostom (hereafter, John) and his bosom friend named Basil. It is not certain which Basil this was, whether Basil the Great of Caesarea (330–79) or, more likely, Basil who attended the Council of Constantinople in 381 as Bishop of Raphanea. These two young men with very similar upbringings, advantages, views, and aspirations, had imagined becoming monks together one day. Then things happened they did not anticipate. First, church officials marked John and Basil as good candidates for the priesthood rather than a monastery. John and Basil thought that whatever they chose, they would do it together. Then John’s widowed mother made an impassioned plea for him never to leave her until she died. Basil would have none of it. Without quite saying he had changed his mind about ordination, John said the decision was not urgent and should be postponed.

When the day came for their ordination, Basil proceeded, being under the mistaken impression that John, too, was to be ordained. John ran and hid, letting Basil be deceived on purpose. John believed he was far from qualified and that Basil would be a great blessing to Christ’s church as a minister.

John’s book explains all this and then rehearses the difficulties and dangers of the priesthood, which allegedly excuse John’s resistance to it. Basil grows increasingly upset, realizing more and more, as John speaks, the nearly impossible charge he had accepted. At the end, John promises to support Basil with encouragement and entrusts him and his ministry to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Note: Remarks in quotation marks below are not direct quotations but summaries and paraphrases of thoughts from John or Basil.

Chapter 1, John’s Deceit. John explains the circumstances leading up to Basil’s ordination without John. Basil discovers what has happened, comes to John very upset, and John laughs, hugs Basil, and tells him the little trick was all for the best.

Chapter 2, Basil’s Reproaches. Basil explains he does not know what to say to people who are judging John harshly for evading ordination this way. Basil’s main concern seems to be protecting John’s good reputation, though Basil has an underlying angst about being tricked into ordination alone.

Chapter 3, John’s Reply. John boldly says he misled Basil for his own good, since he should be a priest. John also testifies to his own spiritual inferiority as a reason for running from the priestly office. John comes very close to defending “the lie of necessity,” but prefers to call it the skillful management of affairs for the best possible outcome.

Chapter 4, The Difficulty of Pastoral Care. John says the pastorate is the best possible way to prove one’s love to Christ, as Jesus’s counsel to Peter shows. Three times Peter affirmed his love and Christ said in response, “Feed my sheep.” Yet, only the best men, like Basil, can fulfill this calling.

Chapter 5, Love—the Chief Thing. Basil retorts, “You say you love Christ, and yet you are showing your love by not doing the thing that most shows love to Christ. Explain that to me.” John replies, “I know I am not qualified, so it would not be the best way for me to show my love.” Basil humbly rehearses his own faults. John begins praising Basil’s unselfish love demonstrated for others and is about to proceed to illustrate Basil’s wisdom, too, when he becomes embarrassed and changes the subject. He says, “Explain how I should answer your critics, John.”

Chapter 6, John Continues His Apologia. John, “They have no grounds to accuse me because, being unqualified, it was humble and prudent of me to decline.” Basil, “If I tell them this, they will admire you.” John, “Right, which only goes to show people find fault without knowing all the facts. We both have acted honorably.”

Chapter 7, The Glory of the Priesthood. John, “The priesthood is the highest of all callings, because it is a heavenly one. People should respect ministers far more than they do. I know it is a lofty calling, so no one can accuse me of pride for refusing it.”

Chapter 8, The Difficulty of the Priesthood. John, “If even the apostle Paul served with fear and trembling, how much more do we have reason to fear ruining ourselves and others in the priestly office? Disqualified men do disastrous things in other responsibilities like taking the helm of a merchant ship when they really do not know what they are doing. They should refuse the honor. Likewise, most should refuse to be priests, it is so lofty and difficult.”

Chapter 9, The Character and Temptations of a Bishop. John rehearses three indispensable traits of the sacred ministry: no ambition to be elevated, exceptional spiritual discernment, and endurance of provocative mistreatment. Basil argues that John has these traits and John disagrees strongly.

Chapter 10, Particular Duties and Problems. 1) Promotions, where ordinarily men are promoted due to earthly considerations rather than spiritual and moral, and this causes ministers much vexation in those circumstances. 2) Widows and the sick, where ministers have complex and social tasks to perform, which can hardly be done without coming under popular censure. 3) Virgins, where ministers are supposed to protect and guide young women toward holiness, and yet ministers lack important advantages of a girl’s own father in securing these aims. 4) Arbitration, visiting, and excommunication, where ministers are hated unless they secure an outcome favorable to the complainant, no matter what other factors may be involved, and unless they have the right expression upon their face at all times, and unless they can rebuke and discipline people with no backlash at all, which is extremely unlikely. You must train yourself to endure the mischief of the mob.

Chapter 11, The Penalty for Failure. John, “A severe penalty from God for failure attaches whether one grasps for the ministry or enters it reluctantly.” Basil, “Now I am really afraid of what I have done.” John, “Punishment is not unavoidable by the grace of God for qualified men like you. People have more common sense when choosing a contractor to build a house than a man for the priesthood.”

Chapter 12, The Ministry of the Word. John, “There is nothing like the ministry of the Word for the spiritual health of Christ’s body, the church. Great knowledge and skill in the Word and theology are needed for pastoral ministry. We must not build up one error by tearing down its opposite, but handle complex matters in a balanced way, like legalism versus antinomianism, and insisting on the oneness of God’s essence without losing the truth of the three distinct Persons, and vice versa. Paul’s denial of excellence of speech is abused by some as an excuse to be careless and lazy preachers, when all he really meant was that he did not adopt the rhetorical standards of the pagans. Paul’s true eloquence and doctrinal depth were stellar and continue helping churches everywhere today. Examine his epistles for evidence of this.”

Chapter 13, Temptations of the Teacher. John, “A priest must work hard in sermon preparation and use great skill to connect with and persuade a congregation. He must not care too much about their praise or blame, nor disregard it altogether. A thin-skinned pastor is headed for much more vexation than necessary. Expect people to judge you more than your sermon and to discount your whole ministry for one perceived fault. Only experience can fully acquaint you with the greatness of the challenge of disregarding the concern of popularity.”

Chapter 14, The Need for Purity. John, “God requires at our hands the blood of those we fail to warn. A minister needs extraordinary Christian virtue, both in public and in fulfilling his private duties like prayer. Some have testified of extraordinary spiritual experiences, sometimes as they are dying, and I believe them. I am not in that category of saintliness.”

Chapter 15, The Contrast Between Bishop and Monk. John, “To be a good monk is a lesser challenge than being a good priest. Monks live in private; priests in public. Monks practice ascetic disciplines; priests cannot do that but must eat and drink and talk with others regularly. Monks are not provoked to wrath by social relationships, and priests cannot avoid these provocations. Even though I am not a monk, I manage to keep mostly to myself, which makes it easier for me to manage my spiritual life. Given all these challenges of the priesthood, which are all but impossible to meet, I could not possibly consider that life.”

Chapter 16, The Conclusion of John’s Apologia. Basil, “Do you mean you have a life free of toil and anxiety?” John, “No, but I sail on a river of trouble while you, now a priest, navigate oceans of trouble.” Basil, “So do you hope to be saved while being of no use to others?” John, “I hope I am of a little use to others’ salvation, but whatever shortcomings I have will meet with a milder punishment from God. Let me tell you a little secret. Ever since we learned about the potential priesthood for both of us, I have been in deep distress of soul, never letting on to you about this.” Basil, “Now you have me all upset because I am terrified I will fail in the priesthood! Please help me, whatever you can do.” John, “I promise you I will encourage you whenever you have time to get together with me again. As Basil sobbed, I hugged and kissed him on the head and urged him to bear his pastoral charge bravely. I told him, I am trusting in Christ concerning you. He called you and set you over his own sheep, and he will help you to be faithful. I fully expect that on Judgment Day, you will be there to welcome me into glory.”

Concluding Remarks

I must say that only after finishing the entire book did my appreciation for it come to a peak. It held my interest throughout but at times seemed a tad tedious. In his own defense at declining the opportunity to be ordained, John belabors the point, though he says he could go on much more due to the extensive difficulties and dangers of the priesthood, most remaining unmentioned. However, the climax of the book, with his affectionate commitment to Basil in this calling, largely vindicates the whole project, in my judgment.

Without a doubt, men in the pastoral office should read this book. Some will be further equipped to serve well. Others may realize they have intruded where they do not belong and, with good sense, repent and resign their posts.

If this were the only book of pastoral theology read by aspirants to the office, many would likely change their minds and find some other way to invest their lives. In cases of persistent unfitness, that would be a good thing, for them and for the church. However, we would not discourage qualified candidates. Those who are most spiritually minded would probably be the most reluctant to proceed, and yet, if they have the requisite gifts and graces, they are the most suitable for the noble task with the greatest potential blessing to Christ’s church. It still would be great if pastors had a better idea of the occupational hazards of the ministry before their installation. Lest we terrify them too much, however, we ought to recommend to them great books on the topic with a complementary, encouraging message. A modern, commendable example is “Pastoral Theology” by Albert N. Martin, volume 1 of three, entitled “The Man of God: His Calling and Godly Life” (Trinity Pulpit Press, published 2018). He takes a moderate position on the divine call to the pastoral office, straddling the view of Charles Spurgeon, which bordered on the mystical, and the view of Robert Dabney, which was nearly as straightforward as choosing a career in the church. Martin’s counsel is wise and practical.

Looking inwardly, I am grateful that the bulk of my own pastoral ministry is now history and, God knows, by his grace alone, I have not disgraced my holy calling. Whatever days Providence yet affords me, however, present a temptation to anxiety, especially after reading Chrysostom’s sober analysis. This throws me all the more consciously upon the Lord. “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16). “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor. 3:4–5). Christ, have mercy upon me and all his servants.


[1] Nick Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power: The Age of the Early Church Fathers (Newly revised edition, Vol. 1) (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2016), 255.

[2] John Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 80.

D. Scott Meadows is a Reformed Baptist minister serving as the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church (Reformed), in Exeter, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, May, 2024.

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Ordained Servant: May 2024

Planned Giving

Also in this issue

Seeing Red

Planned Giving as a Christian Duty

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Develop Your Whole Person, Chapter 14[1]

Spiritual Warfare for the Care of Souls, by Harold Ristau

Passio Jesu
On Buxtehude, Membra Jesu Nostri

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