The Definition of Extreme Poverty from John Chrysostom

What happens to an organization when it moves from the “grassroots” phase to becoming a conglomerate? And seemingly overnight?

The term “conglomerate” can refer to business or geology. In business, a conglomerate is defined as “a corporation consisting of more than one previously unrelated industries or divisions that is usually the result of a merger or acquisition.”In geological terms, a conglomerate is “a group or cluster of rocks of various kinds that become ‘cemented’ together in some way.”

This is more or less what happened to the Church in the fourth century. In the decades following THE Council of Nicea (AD 325), the grassroots movement that was the Church throughout the Roman Empire became “cemented” to the Roman state. The Church and the Empire became a conglomerate . . . and the Imperial Church was born. The church became the cathedral, the struggle became easy, and the persecuted became the persecutors.

Bust of Constantine I that I viewed at the Met in NYC


From a hindsight perspective, these fourth century changes were a series of bad ideas which inaugurated a dark period in the history of Christianity. It is popular these days to blame the whole thing on Constantine I (co-Emperor and Emperor from AD 306-337). Constantine took advantage of the growing influence of Christianity and garnered support for his cause in the more remote parts of the Empire.

Early historians also recorded Constantine’s belief that allegiance to Christ would help to guarantee political and military victories. As a result, the cross and the initials of Christ (chi rho) would become synonymous with the Constantinian regime. Constantine and Jesus – together in victory and domination. But before we give Constantine all the blame – we ought to be reminded that he was not even baptized until he was on or near his deathbed. Church leaders and individual believers didn’t seem to put up much of a fight against having the Imperial stamp of approval placed on their faith.

At the same time, who among us can fault the ancient church leaders for accepting their almost instantaneous Imperial endorsement? Many in the Church had suffered terrible persecutions or heard about them from their relatives. For centuries, being a Christian was a life of volatility. If the most powerful Empire in the world wanted to endorse Christianity and merge its domination with evangelism, who could stop them anyway?

Nevertheless, the grassroots phase came to an end and the Church became a ruling authority. Whereas the early days were characterized by the struggle and an absolute reliance on the Holy Spirit; the fourth century brought on apathy. In many ways, the church lost its personal touch. This leads me to point out what I consider to be a timeless truth with regard to the Christian faith: The Church often thrives when persecuted, but becomes complacent when comfortable.


If there is one person from history I would like to treat to a nice dinner, it is definitely John Chrysostom (AD 347-407). During his lifetime, he was known as John of Antioch. As his reputation and effectiveness as a preacher grew, he came to be known as Chrysostom, or “golden-tongued”. He is one of history’s greatest preachers; and also one of history’s greatest advocates for the poor.

To be honest, I owe a lot to John Chrysostom. He was not only the subject of my doctoral dissertation, but he also provided me with an entirely new framework from which to view ministry among the needy. John was deeply spiritual, absolutely brilliant, and an innovator in ministry. He was a major influence who helped to bring care for the poor back to the forefront of the Imperial Church during a time when the church had clearly turned inward as a result of its new found “Nicene” success. One the areas where the church had become most apathetic and complacent was with regard to its care for the poor – and John would not stand for it.

Now let me be clear, John wasn’t perfect. He clearly made some mistakes regarding his enemies and his language towards certain groups of people. Nevertheless, he brought the the churches in two major Christian capitals – Antioch and Constantinople –  back down to earth regarding the inclusion and care for the poor.

Is the Church in the developed world of today – the Church of the Western world – really that much different? Fortunately, I think many Christians are beginning to realize that we have become apathetic towards the needy around the world and a desire to make a difference is growing.

Many Christians are beginning to realize that widespread poverty is not limited to the developing world, but is also a formidable obstacle to physical, emotional, and spiritual health in the developed world. Most evangelical churches, particularly those located in major urban areas, witness various degrees of poverty daily within their immediate context.

I believe Jesus came to give a fresh start to those who were poor – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. For that reason, Jesus chose to go where the needs could be found. He was intentional about spending time with the poor, the sick, the despised, and the despicable.

Jesus modeled the perfect starting place for those of us who truly want to minister to the poor according to clear biblical principles – WE MUST SEE THE POOR.

John Chrysostom had much to say concerning the idea of seeing the poor. Many of the people in his churches were wealthy, and they paraded their wealth through the marketplace in Antioch on a regular basis. Several of them moved around with an entourage, always putting their wealth and perceived piety on display, while passing by the suffering men, women, and children who lived on the streets in that very marketplace. For many of the rich, the poor were nothing more than a nuisance or a spectacle to behold. The only way many of the poor gained the attention of the rich was to develop some sort of street performance or to harm themselves publicly in some way.


According to John Chrysostom, some parents were even compelled to blind or disfigure their children in order to gain sympathy from those who passed by so that the children receive food or be clothed during the winter. In this passage from one of John’s sermons on 1 Corinthians, the tragedy of this type of behavior is described.

And why do I speak of nakedness and trembling? Let me tell you about something which is even more disturbing. Some have even been compelled to deprive their children of sight at an early age in order that they might better touch our insensibility. For since when they could see and went about naked, neither by their age nor by their misfortunes could they win favor of the unpitying, they added to so great evils another yet sterner tragedy, that they might remove their hunger; thinking it to be a lighter thing to be deprived of this common light and that sunshine which is given to all, than to struggle with continual famine and endure the most miserable of deaths. Since you have not learned to have compassion for the poor, but are entertained by their misfortunes, they satisfy your insatiable desire, and both for themselves and for us indeed kindle a fiercer flame in hell.

From John’s Homilies, On 1 Corinthians, 21.9 (my modernized version)

One only needs to read about the atrocities in Somalia, Libya, Uganda, and even Philadelphia, to realize that some of the worst suffering that has ever taken place on planet Earth is happening right now. What will it take for us to finally see the poor?


St. John Chrysostom Cathedral in Pittsburgh, PA

John became a pivotal leader in the Christian church in the late fourth century AD as a result of his preaching, teaching, and ministry in his birth city of Antioch. It was there that the nickname “Chrysostom,” or “golden-tongued,” probably began to spread concerning John because of his great skills as an orator. John was born sometime between the years 347-349 and died on September 14, 407. His father, Secundus, was a prominent government official that had amassed an estate of some significance. Secundus died when John was very young. His mother, Anthusa, chose not to remarry and used the estate to help pay for John’s education.

John studied philosophy under one Androgathius and Greek rhetoric under the renowned Libanius of Antioch. He later studied Scripture and theology under Meletius, the bishop of Antioch, who eventually baptized John at the age of twenty. Soon after his theological training John committed his life to the service of the clergy. His calling and abilities were evident from the beginning. In 371, despite his youth, he was appointed lector, or preacher, for the Antiochene churches under the direction of Meletius.

Despite strong opposition from his mother, John was compelled to pursue life in a monastic community. For six years John lived the ascetic life under the tutelage of a Syrian monk. He spent two of these years in a cave where he committed the entire Old and New Testaments to memory. His experiences with poverty and sickness gave him tremendous insight into the disciplines of simplicity which he would spend the rest of ministry contrasting to the arrogance of wealth and vanity. After his health began to deteriorate, he resumed his duties as lector in 377. When John returned to Antioch, he witnessed the ambivalence of his former churches towards the Christian mission, especially with regard to the poor. He immediately directed the content of his messages in ways that contrasted vanity, entertainment, and earthly gain with the eternal fulfillment of participating in Christ’s redemptive activity in the world.

John was ordained as a deacon in 381 and then to the priesthood in 386. He became the most popular preacher in Antioch and his approach was both grounded and progressive. For John, the academic and rhetorical purposes of theology were not nearly as important as their practical and moral applications to the Christian life among the believers and churches in Antioch. This style of preaching gave John the benefit of combining what he considered to be biblical and theological orthodoxy with meaningful orthopraxy that had transformative effects in the religious life and social structure of the city of Antioch.

In 398, John was appointed to the highest religious position in the Eastern Empire – the archbishopric of Constantinople – following the death of Nectarius. It is likely that John had some reservations about this change of venue, but the choice was removed from his hands. He was brought to Antioch by force, and yet in secrecy, because of fears that the churches and community of Antioch would put up a fight to keep him in their city.

John’s relatively short tenure as archbishop garnered an enormous amount of public attention and intrigue as the result of his boldness in preaching and the practicality of his church leadership. He often faced political turmoil that surrounded the pagan and Christian controversies throughout the city. He also made great strides in reforming the clergy, as many in the priesthood had become corrupt. This led to a rejuvenation of the disciplines and practices of ordained priests throughout the Empire.

John’s troubles in Constantinople began when his constant barrages against unnecessary vanity and ignorance concerning the needs of the poor were directed towards the Empress Eudoxia. His situation was complicated further was complicated by a scandal concerning a group of Alexandrian monks of Origen’s school who had fled to Constantinople. When he refused to agree with the Alexandrian Archbishop Theophilus on the matter, Theophilus came to Constantinople and brought John to court on trumped up charges. In 403, John was found guilty and thus began a succession of exiles that lasted nearly four years. He returned to Constantinople more than once as a result of revolts among the people by whom he was beloved. After spending time preaching in Armenia, he was finally exiled to the eastern shore of the Black Sea, but he died in route.

Despite having died with some public disrepute among the elite of Constantinople, the legacy of John was one of righteousness and effectiveness in the centuries to follow. During the reign of Theodosius II, the son of Arcadius and Eudoxia, John’s body was returned to Constantinople to be honored with a procession through the city streets. He was then buried with nobility near the places of imperial interment.  Tradition holds that when John’s body was returned, Theodosius II met his coffin asked God to forgive his mother Eudoxia. In 451, John was honored as Doctor of the Church by the Council of Chalcedon.

Click below for more biographical details on John Chrysostom:

Click below for a series of English translations of John Chrysostom’s works:

6 thoughts on “The Definition of Extreme Poverty from John Chrysostom

  1. This is a great post! “Seeing the poor” is definitely one of the first steps. So much of our media pushes the reality of the poor aside, or dehumanizes them, or makes them some sort of threat.

    Jesus saw them for who they are, human beings that He loves, each bearing the Image of God, and worth far more than mere gold or earthly wealth.

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