St. John Chrysostom: Identification and Communication in a Culture of Compromise

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St. John Chrysostom:  Identification and Communication in a Culture of Compromise

William L. Mullen, Ph.D.
Chair of Communication Studies and Professor of Communication Arts

Journal of Christian Teaching Practice Home Page

Abstract:  John Chrysostom (354 to 406 CE), literally translated as “Golden Mouth,” remains today one of the most popular preachers in church history, and is described by many as the greatest homiletic preacher or pulpit orator in the Greek Church. Some of Chrysostom’s more popular and controversial manuscripts include his Discourses against the Judaizing Christians. “Discourse I” represents Chrysostom’s attempt to persuade his church to refrain from participating in fourth century A.D. Jewish fasts and festivals. Throughout the discourse, Chrysostom utilizes the rhetorical strategy of identification, which operates from the perspective that rhetoric is the presentation of symbolic forms, or language based upon a shared understanding or connection, in order to achieve identification with the audience and ultimately persuade them. Understanding identification will motivate Christian communicators today to be connected with and concerned for people around them in order to share God’s truth relevantly and practically, for it is in the reality of love and the practicality of Truth that identification takes place, and from identification the possibility of changed lives.



Sometime during A.D. 372, and after the death of Anthusa, his mother, Chrysostom moved to the mountains outside of Antioch and entered the monastic life.  He viewed monasticism as necessary for spiritual growth and purity and embraced the monastic life as “the true philosophy” for the development of moral and spiritual growth.1 However, because of his severe austerity, Chrysostom’s health deteriorated to the point he was forced to return to Antioch where he was ordained deacon by Meletius in 380/381, a position he held for five years.

Chrysostom’s experiences had a great impact on his preaching style.  As a deacon he learned the importance of serving the practical needs of his people.  As a monastic he learned the value of self-denial, spiritual discipline, and personal holiness.2   Together, they created in him a passion to teach his people how to live a life of service to God while remaining spiritually pure in the midst of a culture of compromise like Antioch. Her reputation among many ancient, contemporary, and modern authors was as a “city of pleasure-loving, riotous, and satiric citizens.”3 There, Chrysostom faithfully proclaimed the Scriptures for over 12 years, establishing his popularity as a preacher and pulpit orator.  Yet, for all his success, “John sometimes became discouraged with the seeming deafness of his listeners as they failed to apply the truths he spoke week after week. He once complained, ‘My work is like that of a man who is trying to clean a piece of ground into which a muddy stream is constantly flowing.’”4

Today, according to the Barna Group, casual Christians represent 66 percent of the American population and are described desiring a “low risk” Christianity that seeks a comfortable, pleasant and peaceful existence.5   Barna’s results suggest that, like Antioch, the struggle for Christians to remain free from compromise in the midst of a culture of distractions is timeless.  Additionally, it suggests that Christian communicators may experience John’s discouragement in their struggle to proclaim spiritual truth that meets the practical needs of the listener resulting in a changed life.

This essay explores the first of John’s Discourses against the Judaizing Christians.  Throughout the discourse, John’s preaching provides examples of the rhetorical concept of “identification” and has important implications for effectively communicating the Word of God.   The purpose of this essay will be to understand John’s use of the rhetorical strategy of identification by examining the context, the Christians and the concept of identification as they appear in the discourse.  The essay will conclude with practical suggestions for connecting spiritual truth with practical living and for connecting the communicator with the listener.

A Culture of Compromise

Acts 11:19-26 records the arrival of Christianity to Antioch where a “large number” became Christians and were added to the church. The success was so great that the Apostle Paul came to Antioch and remained for one year for the purpose of preaching and teaching. In fact, Antioch was the place where the disciples, or followers, of Jesus “were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26) around 40 CE.6 Christianity continued to grow and prosper, so that by the end of the fourth century, the “majority” of the population at Antioch was considered Christian.7 The estimated population of the Christian community would range between 100,000 and 150,000. However, the Christian community was not as pure as it had once been, due to the two dangerous influences of heresy and paganism. While heresy threatened the Christianity community through infighting and controversy, paganism sought simply to neutralize the church through complacency and compromise. Antioch was also a city of great wealth and luxury, possessing a wide assortment of activities to please the senses and appetites of even the worldliest individual.

Together, the outward attractions of Antioch combined with the pagan culture woven into the very fabric of Antiochene life created an intense and dangerous distraction for individual Christians, as well as for the Church as a whole, often diverting them from being wholly devoted to their faith. Chrysostom clearly realized the danger of the situation.

As for the Jewish community, they were legally protected by Imperial Law though they were also forbidden by law to proselytize and to refrain from punishing converts from Judaism to Christianity.8 The Jews were seen by the Christian emperors and the ecclesiastical community as a threat or danger to the unity of the Church and were, therefore, legally restricted in their religious and political practices. The danger stemmed basically from the attraction Judaism held for Christians.

C. Mervyn Maxwell observes that “what attracted Christians the most . . . was not the Jewish religion as such, but its outward aspects, the Sabbath and the ceremonies.”9 Christians were also attracted to Judaism because the Jews possessed synagogues and the Holy Scriptures.10 No one can argue that Christians in Antioch were not attracted to Judaism. Indeed, many Christians were strongly attracted to and participated in Jewish festivals and rites, viewing such participation not as contrary to Christian teaching and practice but rather quite similar to the Christian faith. Hence, Christians viewed their participation in Judaism as healthy and complementary to Christianity.

However, Chrysostom and a large portion of the ecclesiastical community were not of the same opinion. Chrysostom viewed any association between Christians and Jews as dangerous and intolerable for one very important reason:  to Chrysostom, Judaism was a serious threat to the unity of the church. The issue was not theological or intellectual, but practical. As Wilken explains, “Here, then, was the nub of the issue:  one had to choose . . . between Christian baptism and Jewish circumcision, between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sunday. There was no middle ground. The legitimacy of the rites was measured . . . by participating in the ritual. If one participated in the Jewish festivals, the very act of doing so established the legitimacy of the rite.”11

Chrysostom’s people were mainly Gentiles who had professed to be followers of Christ and the Christian faith but were also aligning themselves with Jewish religious beliefs, practices, and festivities. As a result, Chrysostom’s sermons against the Judaizing Christians may be more clearly understood as Chrysostom’s struggle to preserve the unity of the church by drawing the Judaizing Christians back to the fold and to prevent any further compromise of their faith.

Compromised Christians

Chrysostom’s Discourses against the Judaizing Christians include eight discourses.12 “Discourse 1” is the focus of this essay and was directed toward Judaizing Christians, not the Jewish community as a whole. Judaizers were those individuals in John’s congregation who had professed Christianity but were actively participating in Jewish practices and festivities.

With the numerous forms of heresy, paganism and other religions and it is easy to understand why John Chrysostom felt he and his church were in a dangerous struggle, a fight for the very existence of their spiritual welfare. “John felt himself besieged by foes, on the defensive. In his view, the church had but a fragile hold on the allegiance of its followers.”13

Although Chrysostom himself believed that “the greater portion of the city is Christian,”14 they were “occasionally not far from being so in name only,” because they had not succeeded in “weaning themselves from heathen customs,” their faith “being intermingled with reminiscences of paganism, debased by the influence of all sorts of hazy doctrines.”15 Such actions, according to Chrysostom, were not appropriate to their confession of faith in Christ. Hence, this sermon was directed at those who had strayed away from the “true” faith. He encouraged them to return to Christian doctrine and remain faithful to their calling and confession. As a priest, his pastoral concern for his people was taken very seriously, and any threat to the spiritual health and well-being of his people was strenuously opposed.

John Chrysostom (354 to 406 CE), literally translated as “Golden Mouth,” or “Golden Tongue,” remains today one of the most popular preachers in church history and is described by many as the greatest homiletic preacher or pulpit orator in the Greek Church.16 His popularity and greatness as a preacher and theologian is evidenced by the preservation of his extensive collection of manuscripts, sermons, homilies, and correspondence.17 Yet he was not one to avoid controversial topics or to be “politically correct.” “Throughout his preaching career, he demonstrated little patience with anyone, whether Pagans, Jews, or Christians, who failed to live up to Chrysostom’s standards.”18 Much like John the Baptist, Chrysostom even confronted the Empress Eudoxia, Theophilus, and the Bishop of Alexandria, who later conspired against him and ultimately sent him into exile where he eventually died.19

Therefore, it is not surprising that Chrysostom took exception with those in his church who had professed Christianity but were actively participating in Jewish practices, ceremonies and festivities.  Hence, the term “Judaizer.”  Such behavior, according to Chrysostom, was not appropriate to their confession of faith in Christ. His message, therefore, was directed toward those who had strayed away from the “true” faith by following one of the many distractions available in Antioch. He encouraged them to return to Christian doctrine and remain faithful to their calling and confession. How he accomplished the task of persuasion is based upon his ability to identify with his listeners.

Conceptualizing Identification

In addition to understanding the context of Antioch, the Judaizing Christians in the church, Chrysostom and the text of “Discourse I,” the rhetorical concept of identification needs to be understood. Kenneth Burke defines rhetoric as “the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or to induce actions in other human agents.”  Burke adds that rhetoric is “rooted in an essential function of language itself . . . [and uses] language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols.”20

For Burke, the central core of rhetoric is persuasion. Fundamental to understanding the persuasive nature of rhetoric is Burke’s concept of identification. Identification simply refers to commonality of interests or what two parties have, or appear to have, in common with each other. Burke states, “A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are.”21 Identification is synonymous with substance. “Substance in the old philosophies, was an act; and a way of life is an acting together [italics original]; and in acting together, men have common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, and attitudes.”22 Consequently, “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his.”23

Identification, then, is the precursor to persuasion, and identification is achieved by communicating “signs.”  That is, a speaker “talks his language.”­  These “signs” are recognized by Burke as common “strategies.”  Day clarifies the relationship between identification and strategy.  “Identification itself is the ‘strategy’ which encompasses the whole area of language usage for the purpose of inducement to action or attitude. It stands as the head of an implicit hierarchy of strategies, the totality of which includes all the available means of persuasion.”24

For Burke, identification is the overall communication strategy to be utilized in attempting rhetorically to persuade. Additionally, every available means of persuasion then becomes identifiable as being supportive of and secondary to the essential strategy of identification.

Chrysostom’s strategy of identification is inextricably expressed through the metaphor of “struggle,” specifically, the metaphors of a medical struggle and a military struggle. His rhetorical strategy of identification combines his knowledge of Antiochene culture and its worldly distractions with the common knowledge of medicine and the military to identify with, i.e., connect with, share property with, speak the language of his people, in his attempt to persuade them to abstain from worldly, non-Christian beliefs and practices. That is to say, Chrysostom’s preaching was grounded in the reality of the Antiochene culture in which he and his people lived, moved and had their being.

In Chrysostom’s discourse against the Judaizing Christians, the rhetorical concept of identification is expressed through two variations of the metaphor of “struggle.”  The medical metaphor describes the struggle of the body to remain healthy, whole and free from illness by combating sickness, disease, and injury, and by administering treatment with the goal of recovery and restoration.  Likewise, the military metaphor describes a struggle against opposing forces which includes defense and counter measures. The struggle may also result in victims or casualties to include wounded or those who would desert to the opposing forces.  The ultimate goal is victory, either on the battlefield or in rescuing the deserters.

The medical metaphor appears first and most often throughout the first discourse. Chrysostom demonstrates that the Judaizing Christians are sick, ill, suffering an illness which not only threatens the spiritual health and well-being of the individual but also of the church. The patient, i.e., the Judaizing Christian, therefore, needs to seek proper medical treatment from a physician. Receiving various treatments will promote healing and restoration to good health.  He states,

Another very serious illness calls for any cure my words can bring, an illness which has become implanted in the body of the church.  We must first root this ailment out and then take thought for matters outside; we must first cure our own and then be concerned for others who are strangers.25

Clearly Chrysostom sees Judaizing Christians as having an illness which needs to be treated, but notice that the goal of such treatment is restoration.  Restoration of the believer also keeps the body of the church healthy so that it is able to effectively reach those who do not know Christ and are, therefore, outside the church.

Chrysostom exhorts the faithful church members to do their utmost in treating and restoring those who suffer.  He reminds them that it is the responsibility and duty of physicians to treat those who are ill.  “That’s what physicians do.  They first check the diseases which are most urgent and acute.”26 But as members of the body of Christ, believers also have a responsibility to watch out for and to care for their brothers and sisters.

The greater portion of the city is Christian, yet some are still sick with the Judaizing disease.  And what could we, who are healthy, say in our own defense?  Surely those who are sick deserve to be accused.  But we are not free from blame, because we have neglected them in their hour of illness; if we had shown great concern for them and they had the benefit of this care, they could not possibly still be sick.27

To neglect a member of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) who is ill or allowing them to become ill is something that the body cannot do, and physicians would not do.28 To neglect or ignore them when it is in our power to rescue them is to bring blame on ourselves for our lack of love and concern.  To illustrate his point, Chrysostom provide his own personal example.  He witnessed a man “reputed to be a Christian” forcing a Christian woman to enter a synagogue for the purpose of participating in an oath concerning some dispute between them.  Upon seeing Chrysostom, the woman begged him to rescue her, which he did.  He also drew the man aside and reasoned with him from the Scriptures about refraining from swearing oaths (Matthew 5:33-37).  When he asked the man “why he rejected the Church and dragged the woman to the place where the Hebrew assembled….He answered that many people had told him that oaths sworn there were more to be feared.” 29 Chrysostom’s example illustrates prevention for the sister and restoration for the brother.

Likewise, Chrysostom employs descriptions which support the military metaphor. His use of the military metaphor is appropriate and easily comprehended by his audience. During the fourth and fifth centuries, Antioch was the military headquarters for various emperors as they prepared for their military expeditions to the north and the east. Antioch was a Roman provincial capital, which necessitated the presence of a large contingent of Roman soldiers on a permanent basis, as well as the numerous soldiers brought to Antioch in preparation for battles elsewhere.

Chrysostom considers his struggle with the Judaizers to be an ongoing battle. Fellow soldiers, comrades and generals are called upon to engage the enemy and to prepare strong fortifications to assist in the battle. The ultimate goal, of course, is victory with little or no casualties.  But in any conflict, there are many types of casualties including the wounded and the dead, as well as those who may desert.  For Chrysostom, the Judaizers are viewed as those believers who have abandoned their post and deserted, or are in the process of deserting to the opposing force.

In any branch of military, soldiers have many duties, one of which is to not give aid or comfort to the enemy.  “If any Roman soldier serving overseas is caught favoring the barbarians and the Persians, not only is he in danger but so also is everyone who was aware of how this man felt and failed to make this fact known to the general.”30 In other words, the soldier(s) are responsible for the safety of their comrades in particular and the entire army in general.  Failure to make the danger known brings judgment on the soldier.  Likewise, Chrysostom warns his audience that if they ignore the Judaizers in their midst, they are as liable as the soldier who has knowledge of an alien in the camp and fails to report him to the commander:

Since you are the army of Christ, be overly careful in searching to see if anyone favoring an alien faith has mingled among you, and make his presence known—not so that we may put him to death as those generals did, nor that we may punish him or take our vengeance upon him, but that we may free him from his error and ungodliness and make him entirely our own.31

Every member of the church has a responsibility to protect not only their own spiritual life, but the spiritual life of every other member in the church.  And the goal is the same as with the medical examples above, rescue and restoration rather than judgment and punishment.  Soldiers protect soldiers from physical dangers.  Believers should protect believers from spiritual dangers.


Chrysostom’s use of identification in his preaching is as valid today as it was in his time. He believed that the spiritual health and well-being of his people and his culture required that he address the unhealthy practice of conformity to a culture of compromise. Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan observes that Chrysostom “saw the task of preaching principally as one of interpreting the biblical text and applying it to the hearers.”32 And the only way to effectively make application is to know, understand, and connect with the audience, i.e., through identification. So what lessons can be learned from Chrysostom’s preaching?

First, we need to learn that biblical truth must be communicated practically.  Chrysostom’s experience as a monastic taught him that knowing biblical truth can be lived in the real world.  He learned theology, Scripture, prayer and a disciplined life on the mountain.  But he came down from the mountain because he knew those important lessons had to be lived in the real world. As Christian communicators, we need to understand that what we say or write has to be real and practical for the listener.  Chrysostom’s communication was not only biblical but practical.  He never compromised biblical truth, but it was always proclaimed practically, so that the average person would know how to make the right choice when faced with the real everyday world.

And second, we need to learn how to become involved in and with the lives of people.  Chrysostom’s service as a deacon taught him the value of loving and serving the needs of others.  But to do so, he had to be involved in the everyday lives of the people around him in order to know their needs and problems.  He had to “get his hands dirty,” so to speak.  He lived life with them, alongside them.  Chrysostom shared his own life experiences, providing his listeners with real, genuine examples of how to live biblical truth in the midst of an Antiochene culture of distraction and compromise.  Together they experienced the everyday culture of Antioch, with all of its benefits and its distractions.  As Christian communicators, we need to be involved in living life with those around us for our message to have any hope of influence.  They need to see that we are part of their lives and they are part of our lives.  They need to know that we face the same culture, struggles, problems and distractions they do. Chrysostom’s examples and his teachings were grounded in the everyday experiences of Antiochene culture. This sharing of common ground is the essence of identification, and makes our listeners more likely to accept our communication.

Chrysostom’s preaching teaches us that our communication should be motivated from our genuine love and devotion for our people, that it should be genuinely practical and biblical, founded on an experience of culture that we share with our listeners.  For it is in the reality of love and the practicality of Truth that identification takes place, and from identification the possibility of changed lives.



               1 Philip Schaff, Ed.  A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. IX (New York, 1889), 935.

               2 F. W. Farrar, Lives of the Fathers, vol. ii, (London, 1889), 637.

               3 Fred A. Grissom, “Chrysostom and the Jews:  Studies in Jewish Christian Relations in Fourth Century Antioch,” (Ph.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY, 1978), 19.

               4 Kevin D. Miller, “John Chrysostom:  Did You Know?”, 1994,, (accessed September 28, 2017).

               5 Barna Group, “Casual Christians and the Future of America,” May 25, 2009, accessed August 18, 2016,, paragraph 2.

               6 Glanville Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria: From Seleucus to the Arab Conquest (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1961), 275.

               7 C. Mervyn Maxwell, “Chrysostom’s Homilies against the Jews:  An English Translation,” (Ph.D. Diss., University of Chicago, 1967), xxxix.

               8 Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews, 51; Maxwell, “Chrysostom’s Homilies against the Jews,” xlvii.

               9 Maxwell, “Chrysostom’s Homilies against the Jews,” xlvi.

               10 E. S. Bouchier, A Short History of Antioch, 300 B.C.—A.D. 1268 (Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1921), 131; Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews, 80.

               11 Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews, 93.

               12 Maxwell, “Chrysostom’s Homilies against the Jews” (1967) and Harkins, vol. 68, The Fathers of the Church (1979) provide translations of the discourses.

               13 Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews:  Rhetoric and Reality in the Late Fourth Century. (Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 1983), 32.

               14 John Chrysostom, Discourses against Judaizing Christians, trans. Paul W. Harkins, vol. 68, The Fathers of the Church  (Washington, DC:  The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 15.

               15 Aimé Peuech, Saint John Chrysostom, trans. Mildred Partridge (London:  R. and T. Washbone, 1917), 2.

               16 Chrysostomous Baur, John Chrysostom and His Time, 2 vol.’s., trans. M. Gonzaga (Westminster, MD:  Newman Press, 1959), and George A. Kennedy, Greek Rhetoric under Christian Emperors (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1983). Both attest to Chrysostom’s popularity and greatness concerning his homiletical skill.

               17 Both Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., The Preaching of Chrysostom: Homilies on the Sermon on the Mount (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1967), and Kennedy, Greek Rhetoric under Christian Emperors document the preservation and extent of Chrysostom’s collected works.

               18 Grissom, “Chrysostom and the Jews,” 107.

               19 Philip Schaff, ed., A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. 9 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 13.

               20 Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), 41.

               21 Ibid., 20.

               22 Ibid., 21.

               23 Ibid., 55.

               24 Dennis G. Day, “Persuasion and the Concept of Identification,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 46, no. 3 (October 1960):  271.

               25 John Chrysostom, Discourses against Judaizing Christians, trans. Paul W. Harkins, vol. 68, The Fathers of the Church, 3.

               26 Ibid., 4.

               27 Ibid., 15.

               28 Ibid., 13.

               29 Ibid., 12.

               30 Ibid., 17.

               31 Ibid., 17.

               32 Pelikan, The Preaching of Chrysostom, 26.

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