Christian Marriage: Hindrance to Holiness or Means of Grace?

As a follow-up to my last piece on male-female relationships in the Early Church, this is another adapted paper from my time at Wheaton on the formation of a coherent theology of marriage in the Medieval Church.  In reviewing this piece for publication a few key thoughts surfaced which may help you understand why I think the subject is important for us to study and ponder as Christians living in the Twenty-First Century (even in such a long winded format as the remains of a research paper).

First, several of the ideas discussed below reminded me of the crucial theological distinctions made between Christian and non-Christian marriages.  It is my belief that as we engage wider cultural questions regarding marriage and its role in society we cannot loose sight of these vital differences in purpose and function, even if we belong to traditions that reject or downplay the sacramental nature of marriage. 

Second, Aquinas’ contribution to the articulation of spiritual friendship in marriage provides a satisfying follow-up to the conundrum of the Virgins Subintroductae and their celibate male counterparts.  Moreover, the vision of sanctified companionship serves as a reminder for how Christians ought to see their marriages as an ongoing means of spiritual growth. 

Third, while I think the nature of divorce and re-marriage in our fallen state is far more complex than anything touched on here, it is helpful for us all to ponder the deepest purposes for marriage in the Church.  Especially considering how the current church culture of convenience far too easily dismisses past teachings of indissolubility as outdated or irrelevant to modern life. 

Finally, as we ponder the changing views of the Church not only on marriage but also on the potential for women (and men) to seek spiritual fulfillment in all walks of life, I hope that you are blessed by the great gift offered to us in the whole history of the Church and the saints of ages past.  The legacy of Christianity is never about the absolute perfection of the bride in the here and now, for we all stand together imperfectly stained.  But through the grace of our perfect Groom we are guided and corrected in the Spirit, often over the course of several centuries of faithful believers speaking Christ into the void.  One of the best ways to honor the developments for good in the Church’s history is to learn of the past sacrifices and struggles required to bear such fruit and to walk forward in thankfulness; striving with our lives to each do our own part, in our own time and place, to embody the power of the Gospel in a dark and broken world.

Christian Marriage: Hindrance to Holiness or Means of Grace?

Painting a Theology of Marriage with the Teachings of the Medieval Church

A first stoke is often said to be the deciding element of a piece of artwork.  The simple and incomplete nature of the stroke will fail to fill the canvas or reveal the finished picture, but it will determine the direction of every stroke that follows.  Augustine of Hippo’s work, On the Good of Marriage, provided just such a crucial first stroke in the formation of a medieval theology for Christian matrimony. Although still pervaded by patristic notions of marriage as a hindrance to holiness, Augustine’s description brought new reverence to the estate.  As these first lines were augmented by scholastic theologians of the twelfth century (namely, for the purposes of this study, Hugo of St. Victor and Thomas Aquinas), Christians began to affirm the basic sacramentality of matrimony but also came to describe marriage as an ongoing means of ordained grace.  The end result of this nearly millennial effort was a completed portrait of Christian marriage as an institution that actively fostered the virtues of fidelity and unity among the faithful through the unique form of Christian friendship which blossoms in the spousal covenant.

In his treatise on the benefits of marriage, Augustine discussed many elements of matrimony that represent a watershed in Christian thought on the subject.  The first, and most important, element of his thought was the benefit of sacramentum.  It was not new for the Christian tradition to explain marriage as symbol for the union of Christ and the Church, as expressed in the Pauline epistles.  However, Augustine’s treatment of this notion set two crucial precedents: his use of word sacramental and the concept of indissolubility.  Both of these ideas firmly established a distinction between a marriage covenanted by Christians and marriages formed apart from the body of Christ.  In essence, Augustine’s work made an early case that there are unique qualities to a Christian marriage that separate these relationships from those contracted as part of common social practice, both in purpose and function.

The source of Augustine’s chosen terminology comes from the Latin translation of the pertinent Biblical texts.  According to Ephesians 5:32 in the Vulgate, the union between a man and his wife is analogous to the union of Christ to his Church as a sacramentum.  However, the Septuagint translated this unique relationship as a mysterion.  The primary distinction between these two terms relates to the role matrimony plays within the context of the church.  For Augustine, according to scholar Phillip Reynolds, the use of sacramentum in this context indicated that “the word connotes a permanent personal bond”, that there exists an “analogy between the permanence of marriage and the permanence of baptism and ordination”, and that is “a ‘sacred sign’ of Christ’s union with the church”.[1]  It is important to note that while Augustine saw a connection between marriage and other recognized sacraments, he never spoke of it as an equal to the other sanctified rites of the church.  As Reynolds comments, “It is perhaps better to say that he posited a sacrament in marriage than to say that he posited a sacrament of marriage.” [2]

The legacy of sacramentum as a noted benefit of marriage, apart from the open-ended nature of Augustine’s description, is his firm insistence upon the indissolubility of Christian marriages as necessitated by their sacramental nature.  The marriage was indissoluble because it was made by God in the sight of God, and therefore was an unbreakable covenant.  The binding nature of the marital union would last even after a true divorce, which could only be obtained due to infidelity, hence the prohibition of re-marriage while the first spouse was still alive.

In the treatise On the Good Of Marriage, Augustine clarified, “That marital partnership is not destroyed by the intrusion of divorce, so that even when they are separated they are still each other’s husband and wife, and they commit adultery with anyone with whom they have union even after they have been divorced.”[3]  It is from the aspect of indissolubility that Augustine likened marriage to the other sacraments.  Reynolds notes, “Augustine perceived an analogy between the fact that marriage survives the breakdown of the marital fellowship or societas and the fact that the indelible consecration effected in baptism survives apostasy and even excommunication.”[4]   Similarly, the connection between marriage and baptism is found in the unique application of these standards to the Church.  For Augustine as continued, “This is the status of marriage, however, only in the city of our God, on his holy mountain (Ps 48:1).”[5]

The role of sacramentum is to separate the marriages of baptized Christians from their civil counter-parts by emphasizing the sacredness of the sign and it’s unique role for believers alone.  Part of the power of the bond forged between Christian married couples involved creating a hierarchy of purpose in relation to marriage and divorce.  Responding to contemporary pressure to justify divorce on the grounds of fertility, Augustine made clear the preeminence of the marital bond over the good of procreation with the pronouncement, “In the marriages of our women the sanctity of our women is worth more then the fecundity of the womb.” [6]  Infertility was, therefore, not a sufficient justification to merit divorce, for the intended motive would be a re-marriage that was adulterous in nature.  Augustine’s notion of indissolubility altered the Church’s understanding of the Christian union and the significance of its role as a sign of something greater than a mere remedy against sin.

Augustine’s second unique contribution in his description of marriage is the emphasis he put on the spiritual relationship that develops apart from the physical union of sexual intercourse.  Reynolds elaborates, “Augustine tends to regard the spiritual relationship as the very essence of marriage: in other words, that which must exist if there is a marriage, and without which there would not be a marriage.”[7] This is justified firstly, by the practical example of the elderly who are commonly regarded as married despite lack of sexual desire and practice, and secondly, by the example of Mary and Joseph.  According to Augustine’s logic, if Mary was Joseph’s wife despite her virginity, then the essence of marriage must be found in something other than the physical union of sexual intercourse.

The concept of indissolubility also appears to be connected to this emphasis on the spiritual relationship, for, “There is no doubt that Augustine closely associates one thesis with the other.”[8]  However, he did distinguish between “the natural sociability that exists between the different sexes”[9] and the indissoluble nature of the marital bond, for even if the companionship ceases or becomes strained, the bond remains valid.  Yet, as Reynolds contends:

Augustine never coordinated these two aspects of his conception of marriage, or the lines of argument and discourse associated with them, although there is no doubt that he believed them to be closely related.  This failure is one manifestation of the fact that his conception of marriage as a holy condition representing Christ’s union with the Church focused upon indissolubility rather than upon the relationship of being married.[10]

The overall focus of Augustine’s treatment of marriage is therefore predominantly negative in nature.  Although he reaffirmed certain goods of marriage and countered Manichean teachings that degraded the matrimonial estate, he maintained a discouraging view of the potential for married life to bolster the spiritual health of either spouse.

A resulting difficulty with Augustine’s teachings on Christian marriage is his seeming incoherence in naming the chief essence of marriage as spiritual while still declaring the primary purpose of marriage as a last-ditch refuge for those who are physically weak.  Augustine noted in the defense of matrimony, “We do not call it good merely because it is good in comparison with fornication”[11] yet he devoted an entire section shortly thereafter to explain how, “Marriage Is for Those Who Lack Self-Control”[12].  In part, this critical focus can be attributed to the assertion, first made by Elizabeth Clark, that “he did not rate the possibilities for companionship and conversation between man and woman very highly.”[13] Accordingly, Reynolds concludes that he “was content to regard marriage above all as a loss of individual freedom and a form of a sacrifice” and therefore “did not think highly of marriage.”[14] In his hesitancy to embrace the goodness of matrimony, Augustine’s view was tainted by the beliefs of his contemporaries that marriage was a hindrance to holiness.  Nonetheless, his treatise on the subject was to play a vital role in directing the sacramentalization of marriage nearly 800 years after his death.

As is often the case for theoretical issues, many of the ideas expressed herein do not communicate much about the actual practice or common understanding of marriage in the Medieval period.  Additionally, it can be difficult to know when theological teaching impacted the praxis, or when common practice shaped the final conclusions of the theologians.  Throughout the Middle Ages the wedding ceremony was gradually incorporated into the realm of church, connected to both the increased civil influence of ecclesiastical oversight and an eventual desire for marriages to be blessed by a priest after the ceremony was completed.   By the eleventh century marital benedictions were formally introduced into the church liturgy, thus ensuring that the wedding ceremony was a regulated part of the Church life and under the supervision and blessing of Church leadership.

There were, over time, numerous points of disagreement regarding the best application of teachings on Christian marriage, including debates about when a marriage officially began (betrothal, speaking of vows, consummation, etc.) and in what circumstances a marriage could be annulled or appropriately end in divorce.  Such “real life” difficulties prompted Medieval scholars to carefully examine the role and nature of marriage in the hopes of finding acceptable answers to these pressing social problems.   While the exact interplay of theological discourse and political or pastoral needs will have to be left for the subject of another study, it is vital to understand that the theological statements of the thirteenth century were built upon the devotional striving of several centuries worth of Christians meting out the proper nature matrimony in the Church.

The most important Medieval resurgence of the Augustinian notion of marriage is found in Hugo of St Victor’s De Sacramentis.  When listing the sacraments of the Church, Hugo noted marriage among them and predominantly justified it’s inclusion through the writings of Augustine.  One Augustinian notion that surfaces in Hugo’s description of matrimony, found in Chapter 11 of Book 2, is emphasis placed upon the fact that Eve was created out of Adam’s side (or rib), rather than from his feet or head.  This observation, as first articulated by Augustine and expanded upon by Hugo, symbolizes how God ordained companionship between man and wife, an aspect given greater credence in the latter scholastic work.  Following the Augustinian heritage, Hugo also emphasized the indissoluble nature of the marital union, continued to advocate marriage as a remedy for sin and fornication, and upheld the three goods of marriage first articulated by Augustine: procreation, fidelity and sacrament.  Hugo differs from Augustine by offering a sharpened definition for the nature of the marital sacrament, as explained following the pattern for all of the standard sacraments of the Church.

As Hugh of St. Victor elucidated, there are three classic elements to a sacrament: similitude/creation, institution/dispensation, and sanctification/benediction.  “The first was imposed through the Creator, the second was added through the Saviour, and the third was administered through the Dispenser.”[15] Utilizing this pattern, marriage is justified as a foundational sacrament of the church. The marital estate was first created naturally in the beginning of time, thus explaining the presence of marriages before the coming Christ and those now contracted between unbelievers.  Through the ministry of Christ on earth, the institution of Christian marriage, as a sign of Christ’s unity with the Church, was ordained.   Finally, in the blessing of the priest as a vessel of the Holy Spirit, the individual marriage vow and covenant is sanctified.  Through the working out of all three facets of the sacrament, marriage serves as a “visible sign for an invisible truth”[16], although scholars debated throughout the thirteenth century as to the exact nature of the third element of sanctification.  This dispute led many Medieval theologians, most notably Peter Lombard in The Sentences, to conclude that marriage differed from the other six sacraments because marriage – at the time – was not viewed as cause of grace, merely as a sign of the sacred.

The works of Thomas Aquinas added the final touches to the Medieval theology of marriage through the Aristotelian notion of Lebensgemeinschaft,[17] as indicated by Joachim Piegsa in his work “Das Ehesakrament.”  By incorporating Aristotelian concepts of friendship into the Christian understanding of the marital estate, Aquinas connected the dots where Reynolds bemoans the missing connection from Augustine’s otherwise coherent articulation of Christian matrimony.  The redeeming nature of Aquinas’ theology of marriage is grounded in his belief that those who marry are not separated in some way from God’s grace but rather, through the marital estate, participate in said grace.  He concluded in Volume 4 of the Summa Contra Gentiles:

And seeing that the sacraments cause what they signify, we must believe that the sacrament of matrimony confers on those who are joined in wedlock the grace to take part in the union of Christ with His Church: since it is necessary that they should so seek carnal and earthly things, as not to be separated from Christ and His Church.[18]

Effectively, this statement reverses the purely negative view of sexuality held by the church fathers and instead connects the physicality of marriage to the very essence of the spiritual sign and sacramentality of matrimony.  Like those who came before him, Aquinas advocated for the necessity of desiring procreation and utilizing a form of reverent restraint within the marital sexual union.  What he added to this tradition was a belief that the daily physical expression of the unity of the husband and wife (sexually and otherwise) was an active partaking in the grace of God.

Filling out this vision, Aquinas pointed to the spiritual, or communal, nature of the marital relationship to explain the indissolubility of marriage within the Church.  In Volume 3, he stated:

The greater the friendship the more stable and lasting is it.  Now, seemingly between husband and wife there is the greatest friendship: for they are made one not only in the act of carnal intercourse, which even among dumb animals causes an agreeable fellowship, but also as partners in the whole intercourse of daily life: so that, to indicate this, man must leave father and mother for his wife’s sake.  Therefore it is right that matrimony should be altogether indissoluble.[19]

Much of the above understanding is directly attributable the Aristotelian explanation of friendship found in Nicomachean Ethics.  Aristotle notes in his description of marriage that it can produce a good or virtuous friendship, especially between two virtuous people, “for each has its own virtue and they will delight in the fact.”[20]

It is easy to see how Aquinas may have projected the Aristotelian view of marriage onto the church in an application of “virtuous” to mean those baptized in Christ.   He thus concluded that it was precisely within Christian marriages, blessed by the church, that the highest form of friendship would be present.  Also included in this notion of friendship is Aristotle’s understanding that virtuous friendship is attained and nurtured through the act of living together,[21] hence the importance of Lebensgemeinshaft to Aquinas’ theology.  Through the daily activity of marital life, the Christian couple – having been sanctified in an indissoluble union by the marital benediction – may find grace through their mutual expression of fidelity and unity.

For Aquinas, the most important aspect of the matrimonial sacrament remained the indissoluble nature of the union, both in what it signifies and how it is practiced.   Yet, he affirmed the positive role marriage can play in the spiritual life of married couples.  In describing Augustine’s notion of the spiritual relationship between husband and wife, Reynolds declares that “He sketched it out but did not know how to color it in.”[22] Between the affirmation of the sacramental nature of matrimony by Hugo of St. Victor and the completed vision of Aquinas to connect the graces of the Lebensgemeinshaft with the indissoluble power of the sacrament, Augustine’s theology of marriage finally found its color.

N.B. None of these longer posts are to be read as exhaustive surveys of contemporary scholarship for a given topic.  Rather, these pieces are exploratory and introductory in nature; hopefully inspiring further reflection and study at a later date.

Bibliography

Augustine, David G. Hunter, John E. Rotelle, Ray Kearney. Marriage and Virginity:

The Excellence of Marriage ; Holy Virginity ; The Excellence of Widowhood ; Adulterous Marriages ; Continence. Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 1999.

Aristotle, W. D. Ross, and J. O. Urmson. The Nicomachean Ethics. The World’s classics. Oxford (Oxfordshire): Oxford University Press, 1980.

Aquinas, Thomas. The Summa Contra Gentiles of Saint Thomas Aquinas. London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1924.

Brooke, Christopher Nugent Lawrence. The Medieval Idea of Marriage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Hugh, and Roy J. Deferrari. Hugh of Saint Victor on the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (De Sacramentis). Cambridge, Mass: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1951.

Martos, Joseph. Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981.

Piegsa, Joachim. Das Ehesakrament. Freiburg: Herder, 2002.

Reynolds, Philip Lyndon. Marriage in the Western Church: The Christianization of Marriage During the Patristic and Early Medieval Periods. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, v. 24. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994.


[1] Reynolds, Philip Lyndon. Marriage in the Western Church: The Christianization of Marriage During the Patristic and Early Medieval Periods. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, v. 24. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994, 282.

[2] Reynolds, 280.

[3] Augustine, David G. Hunter, John E. Rotelle, Ray Kearney. Marriage and Virginity: The Excellence of Marriage; Holy Virginity; The Excellence of Widowhood; Adulterous Marriages; Continence. Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 1999, 39.

[4] Reynolds, 294.

[5] Augustine, 39.

[6] ibid., 49.

[7] Reynolds, 257.

[8] Reynolds, 306.

[9] Augustine, 34.

[10] Reynolds, 308

[11] Augustine, 39.

[12] ibid., 41.

[13] Reynolds, 258

[14] ibid., 299.

[15] Hugh, and Roy J. Deferrari. Hugh of Saint Victor on the Sacraments of the Christian Faith (De Sacramentis). Cambridge, Mass: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1951, 155.

[16] Hugh, 155.

[17] Piegsa, Joachim. Das Ehesakrament. Freiburg: Herder, 2002, 61.

[18] Aquinas, Thomas. The Summa Contra Gentiles of Saint Thomas Aquinas. London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne, 1924. Volume 4, Chapter LXXVIII.

[19] ibid. Volume 3, Part 2, 115-116.

[20] Aristotle, W. D. Ross, and J. O. Urmson. The Nicomachean Ethics. The World’s classics. Oxford (Oxfordshire): Oxford University Press, 1980. VIII 12.

[21] Aristotle, IX 12.

[22] Reynolds, 258.

Yearning for Complementary Companionship: Virgins Subintroductae and Male-Female Relations in the Early Church

The following piece is adapted from a paper I wrote while a student at Wheaton.  It is quite long for a blog post, but – for those who ponder the proper boundaries of male-female relationships in the context of Christianity – I think you will find it to be of some interest.  Enjoy!

ImageAsceticism, and especially female asceticism, was a defining feature of the Early Church – including a requisite commitment to celibacy.  Although reminiscent to the modern, or even medieval, notions of nuns and monks, Christian men and women of the first centuries of Christendom often practiced this celibacy in a different form than latter adherents to the virginal lifestyle.   Just as the ecclesiastical structure of the church was still forming, these early ascetics existed without the regimented organizational structure of monasteries and orders.   Social historian Peter Brown notes, “These informal structures meant that ascetic women were free to seek protection and spiritual guidance from males of any kind – from relatives, from ascetic soul-mates, and from men of exceptional insight and learning.”[1]  These newly granted freedoms were occasionally used in ways that pushed the limits of social and spiritual convention.  One such example is the phenomenon of the Virgins Subintroductae, also referenced by patristic experts as the Agapetae.  Called “one of the most fascinating groups of women encountered anywhere in the annals of church history”[2] by esteemed scholar Elizabeth Clark, the controversy which surrounds these virgins provides unique insight into the role of women and their interactions with men in the Ancient Church.

As Gillian Cloke explains, the Virgins Subintroductae were women who “set up a virginal lifestyle, [but] lived in conjunction and cohabitation with a member of the opposite sex in what amounted to a partnership.”[3] A male celibate would agree to live with an avowed virgin, while both claimed to maintain their respective chastity within the confines of this cohabitation.  In the late 4th century, Church Father John Chrysostom described the practice in the following way:

There are certain men who apart from marriage and sexual intercourse take girls inexperienced with matrimony…and keep them sequestered until ripe old age, not for the purposes of bearing children (for they deny that they have sexual relations with the women), nor out of licentiousness (for they claim that they preserve them inviolate).[4]

The exact origins of the practice and term remain unknown, however, the cohabitation of male and female celibates was eventually called syneisaktism, (suneisaktai in Greek)[5] and represented a spiritual marriage, although this facet was never thought to supplant the spiritual marriage of the celibate virgin to Christ.[6]  Also unknown is the full scope of the Subintroductae, however, the practice appears in documents as early as the second century and was addressed by Church Fathers and other church letters in multiple cities.  As best as we can deduce, syneisakitsm was practiced widely throughout the Roman empire and likely continued well into the 6th century.

Patristic scholars point to passages in both the Shepherd of Hermas and the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla as early examples of syneisaktism in Christian tradition and literature.  It is known that Thecla was highly revered by early female ascetics as a model for pious living, and some scholars, including Clark and Cloke, have asserted that the example of Thecla influenced the persistence of syneisaktism, even after it had been formally banned by church leadership throughout the empire.  Condemnation of the practice can be traced throughout the early councils and decrees, beginning with the council of Antioch in 268 A.D., and a ban on the practice was even included at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.[7]

Rampant disapproval from church leadership failed to eradicate the phenomenon, suggesting that there were enduring advantages of the arrangement for celibates, both male and female alike, which outweighed any threatened discipline by the Church.  Cloke suggests that some of the primary benefits included material assistance, mutual inspiration, “and, ideally, [to] avoid the pitfalls open to those who became tired or deceived or lonely through isolation in their struggle.  This system may have proved vastly more attractive to many than more orthodox methods of asceticism.”[8]

Interpretations of motive are hard to validate due to the lack of primary sources actually from the Subintroductae.  Much like the problems encountered in scholarship of heretical movements, most of the accounts of syneisaktism are found in documents which condemn the practice and are written from the perspective of their detractors.  As Clark expounds, “no other treatises provide us with comparable information concerning the practice or manifest as clearly as the reasons given by church authorities for censoring it.”[9] Therefore speculation as to reasons for the survival of celibate cohabitation is limited to the realm of guesswork and secondary interpretation.  Weak as the primary evidence may be, these restrictions have not silenced commentary on the seemingly scandalous behavior of the Virgins Subintroductae.

Although syneisaktism is referenced in the works and letters of several Church Fathers, John Chrysostom gave the most thorough treatment of the phenomenon in his two treatises, “That women under vows should not cohabit with men” and “Against those men who cohabit with virgins”, each addressed to their respective gender.  In speaking to men, Chrysostom points to the primary motive of sexual pleasure fulfilled in the arrangement.  It is important to note that unlike other Church Fathers, such as Jerome, Chrysostom gives these men and women the benefit of the doubt that their claims to chastity are true.

Yet his trust in their sustained chastity did not mean that Chrysostom believed sexual desire was removed from the relationship, for “the men who live with them are stirred by a double desire: they are not permitted to satisfy their passion through sexual intercourse, yet the basis for their desire remains intensely potent for a long time.”[10]  In speaking to the virgins, he makes a similar claim, “The practice exists for no other reason than to satisfy unnatural pleasure, both his and yours.  I am not talking about sexual intercourse, for what would be its advantage when even the communion of eyes accomplishes the very same thing?”[11]  His concern over the motives of the cohabitants leads into his true reasons for writing, namely, the offenses of the practice to their celibate vows.

Chrysostom’s belief was that cohabitation negatively harmed their avowed state of chastity and – in effect – degraded what he believed to be the highest state of Christian existence in this world, that of sexual purity.  For the men, he was very concerned that their relationship with the virgins not only led them into sinful lust, but that it upset the perceived rightful order of human sexuality as the men began to assume effeminate qualities and tasks, such as running errands for the virgins and choosing to sit with the women as they weave.  Labeling friendship between the sexes as an “intoxication”[12] he goes on to worry of the virgins’ affect on their male protectors:

They render them softer, more hot-headed, shameful, mindless, irascible, insolent, importunate, ignoble, crude, servile, niggardly, reckless, nonsensical, and, to sum it up, the women take all their corrupting feminine customs and stamp them into the souls of these men.[13]

Corruption by the feminine crucially meant for the man that “he becomes unfit for any of the splendid deeds of virtue.”[14]  Similarly, “When a virgin learns to discuss things frankly with a man, to sit by him, to look at him, to laugh in his presence, to disgrace herself in many other ways, and does not think it dreadful, the veil of virginity is destroyed, the flower trampled underfoot.”[15] Although Chrysostom offers the possibility of marriage to the virgins, he reminds them of the “slavery” entailed and implores them to remember their commitment to Christ.[16]  In both documents Chrysostom is primarily concerned with maintaining the purity of the servants of God and preserving their effectiveness in ministry and worship.

Modern scholarship has interpreted the motives of the Subintroductae in crucial ways that differ from Chrysostom’s emphasis on physical pleasure.  A typical feminist (or perhaps this could also be labeled as the liberationist) interpretation asserts that these women chose celibacy to be freed from their societal constructs and then used the practice of syneisaktism to avoid negative or more difficult consequences of the ascetic life.  Cloke, as her above quote implies, could be categorized under this interpretation.  She notes that syneisaktism “seems to have been a means whereby Christian women again liberated themselves from family restrictions and preoccupations, but with more than a suggestion that it was for their own ends rather than to free their minds for praising God.”[17] Feminist scholar and social historian Luise Schottroff echoed this theme with the claim that female celibacy was practiced “as liberation through the gospel.”[18]

Claims of liberation focus on the ability of women to fulfill roles as a virgin that would otherwise be denied to them based on their gender.  In denying their sexuality they were denying the inherent weaknesses of femininity.  Freed from the shackles of womanhood, these virgins were now able to be virtuous, and, quite literally, manly.  This is the premise of the patristic phrase Cloke chose as a title to her book, This Female Man of God.

Yet these scholars also point out the difficulty for women to be “liberated” in their own social and cultural contexts.  Cloke suggests that the popularity of syneisaktism among women “demonstrates an attempt to wean themselves from their subjection equally to their families and the regard of the church.”[19]  According to this logic, the Subintroductae found a middle ground wherein they could exist as spiritual and vocational equals to men yet continue to reap the benefits of male protection and companionship.

Clark, although making many of these points herself, focuses more on the relational benefits of syneisaktism over the liberation emphasis of the feminists.[20]  In her introduction to the translation of Chrysostom’s treatises she acknowledges “the fact that it solved a practical problem: how and where could female ascetics of the early Christian era live if they did not remain in their parental homes or take to the desert?”[21]  By recognizing this concern Clark reinforces some of the reasons Chrysostom lists as common defenses of the practice made by offending celibates.

Now to the most interesting part of this study.  Clark goes on to offer a second reason for syneisaktism, that “it gave an opportunity for spiritual and emotional intimacy with members of the opposite sex which must have been somewhat unusual, even in marriage, in the society of late antiquity.”[22]  The lack of historical precedent for genuine friendships between men and women explains, for Clark, the difficulty Chrysostom had in understanding the practice and suggests why he was so perplexed as to the possible benefits of this living arrangement if not for fulfilling some form of sexual desire.

Clark’s description of friendship within syneisaktism is more platonic in nature and therefore detached from the issue of physical attraction.  This does not mean that Clark denies the reality of the occasional acquiescence to temptation for the cohabitants or the accounts of births connected to the Subintroductae.  Instead, she focuses on the possibility that for many, if not most, an attraction of syneisaktism lay chiefly in a form of friendship that redefined relations between men and women in late antiquity.  For instance, Clark indicates that the rare usage of philia (as opposed to eros) to describe the love of the cohabiting celibates for one another  is a sign that the Subintroductae represent a vital shift in the history of inter-gender friendship.[23]

Examining the variant interpretations of syneisaktism leads to further possibilities for analysis regarding male-female relationships in the Early Church.   A new freedom for women and men to form friendships can be attributed to specific benefits gained from the practice of celibacy.  As Cloke summarizes, “If women were essentially sinful because essentially sexual, the first and most obvious need was to negate that aspect of their nature – or to stand it on its head.” [24]  Celibacy was not only a viable option because of it’s ability to liberate women, but also because it was a form of obedience to the church and therefore offered women a viable and respectable way to demonstrate their faith and earn equality with their male counterparts.

An unfortunate contextual consequence of the rise of female asceticism was a continued devaluing of marriage.  As Brown commentates, “Attacking the Catholic clergy, a Manichaean polemist in North Africa pointed out that while they claimed that marriage was instituted by God, what they preached most fervently was virginity.”[25]  Even though marriage was given some renewed value with the spread of Christianity, the emergence of celibacy as the higher of the two callings meant that an emphasis on the pure and virginal spiritual life dominated the church teachings of the time.

The critiques of Chrysostom, seen through modern eyes, still hold true, for we can understand why there would be concerns over men and women living together outside of the commitment or covenant of marriage.  It also remains true that there is dignity in his defense for the purity of the spiritual life.  This includes his fear that the bondage of marriage and worldly concerns might distract those, who through their devoted pledge to celibacy, ought to be free from these constraints and fully devoted to the work of the Church.

After surveying the current interpretations of the Subintroductae there remains one tentative thought to propose which may explain the persistent practice of syneisaktism in the early years of Christianity.  As already mentioned, Christian women were given many incentives to be chaste.  Clark, among others, asserts that female asceticism, a feature mostly unique to Christianity, allowed women and men to form friendships.  Speaking to the interactions of male and female ascetics, Brown highlights how “deep spiritual friendships, based on elective affinities, were free to develop.”[26]  The Subintroductae through syneisaktism sought a way to merge two developing realities of Christian life – celibacy and inter-gender friendship – in a practice that offered the possibility of a “spiritual marriage but without sexual sharing.”[27] In this way, it might be possible to think of syneisaktism not only as a foreshadowing of platonic friendship between the sexes, but also as a means for newly conceiving the divine purpose of Christian marriage.

After discovering the benefits of true friendship between the sexes, the ascetics had no formal way of properly expressing and living out such affection given the cultural constraints of their time.  To marry would mean losing the basis of the friendship, for their spiritual equality would be obliterated.  To follow the advice of the Church Fathers like Chrysostom would mean ending the friendship entirely, for to them (and Chrysostom in particular) friendship between the sexes would not be possible until heaven where believers would finally be free of the particular constraints of gender and sexuality.

Therefore, many men and women may have opted to live as close as they could to their friends of the opposite gender – thus receiving mutual benefits of protection and companionship – while still attempting to be pious (in their renunciation of sexual desire).  The Church was growing quickly and, as the feminists choose to emphasize, the liberating power of the gospel was radically changing cultural norms across the empire, perhaps too quickly for even the Fathers to fully understand or embrace.  We might fairly conclude, albeit speculatively, that the Subintroductae and their male cohabitants mutually yearned for the benefits of an equal and complimentary companionship at a level of intimacy that is only accessed through the little graces of a shared and common daily life.  A companionship that God has ordained through healthy and holy marriages.

The persistence of syneisaktism could be interpreted as just one symptom of an inadequate articulation by the Early Church regarding the implications of the Gospel for gender relations and the spiritual significance of the estate of marriage.  Such a proposition ought not read as a harsh criticism of the fore-bearers of the faith, as the contextual limitations of their time more than accounts for their own hesitations to embrace these new social and relational patterns.  Rather, this critique is an attempt to explain, just as Cloke and Clark have done before, why this banned practice of cohabitation was so appealing to otherwise holy men and women.

The power of the Gospel message far exceeds the cultural mores of any particular place and time and the healing work of the Spirit often calls forth new norms and desires that challenge the evils or injustices of each era.  Gender inequality harmed not only women, but also men, as it denied both sexes the opportunity to learn from one another and to grow together as we traverse our limited time on earth.  Although the practice of syneisaktism was (and is) outside the bounds of righteous living, the desire to seek out companionship with those who compliment our strengths and weaknesses – particularly through the mysteries of the opposite gender – honors the whole schema of God’s creation.

To acknowledge that we were created man and woman, that the unique beauty of each gender calls out to the other for mutual comfort and strength, fulfills our natural desire to work together as brothers and sisters for the advancement of His Kingdom.  Just like the early practitioners of the faith, we continually yearn for refined teachings on how best to live out these inter-gender relationships, both in platonic forms and in the grace giving challenges of marriage.  May God bless his Church with wisdom and discernment on these vital issues of gender and sexuality; transforming our societies one relationship at a time.


[1] Peter Robert Lamont, Brown. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. Lectures on the history of religions, new ser., no. 13. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 266.

[2] Clark, Elizabeth A. Women in Late Antiquity: Pagan and Christian Life-Styles. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 265.

[3] Cloke, Gillian. This Female Man of God: Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age, AD 350-450. (London: Routledge, 1995), 77.

[4] Chrysostom in Clark, Elizabeth A. Jerome, Chrysostom, and Friends: Essays and Translations.  Studies in women and religion, v. 2. (New York: E. Mellen Press, 1979),  165

[5] Brown, 267

[6] Clark JCF 158

[7] Castelli, 80.

[8] Cloke, 78.

[9] Clark, JCF, 158

[10] Chrysostom in Clark, JCF, 166.

[11] Chysostom in Clark, JCF, 220-21.

[12] ibid. 196

[13] ibid. 197

[14] ibid..

[15] ibid. 242

[16] ibid. 219, 242.

[17] Cloke, 80.

[18] Schottroff, Luise. Lydia’s Impatient Sisters: A Feminist Social History of Early Christianity. (Louisville, Ky: Westminter John Knox Press, 1995), 215.

[19] Cloke, 80.

[20] Most of the feminists write after Clark, and often cite her as a primary source.  Therefore, she “agrees” with them in the sense that on certain points her arguments line up with their concerns.  Cloke draws many of her conclusions directly from Clark.

[21] Clark, 158.

[22] ibid. 159.

[23] Clark, AP, 280

[24] Cloke, 33.

[25] Brown, 260.

[26] ibid. 266.

[27] Witherington, Ben. Women in the Earliest Churches. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 185.