Chrysostom on the Purposes of Marriage

St. John Chrysostom ca. 347-407

Marriage, then, was given for childbearing also, but even more so in order to quench nature’s burning. Paul himself bears witness to this, saying, ‘Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife,’ – not for childbearing. And again, he commands that couples should come together, not that they might become the parents of many children, but what? ‘Lest Satan tempt you,’ he says. Indeed, after this, he did not say, ‘but if they desire to have children,’ but what? ‘If they cannot abstain, let them marry’ (1 Cor. 7:9). For at the beginning, as I have said, this matter [marriage] had two intentions, but subsequently, when the earth, and sea, and the whole world have been filled [with the human race], one reason alone remains for this bond: the banishment of licentiousness and intemperance. [Emphasis added]. (On Virginity, PG 48:547)

These are the two purposes for which marriage was instituted: to make us chaste and to make us parents. Of these two, the reason of chastity takes precedence. When desire began, then marriage also began. It sets a limit to desire by teaching us to keep to one wife. Marriage does not always lead to procreation, although there is the word of God which says, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth’ (Gen. 1:28). We have as witnesses all those who are married but are childless. So the purpose of chastity takes precedence, especially now, when the whole world is filled with our kind. At the beginning, the procreation of children was desirable, so that each person might leave a memorial of his life. Since there was not yet any hope of resurrection, but death held sway, and those who died thought that they would perish after this life, God gave the comfort of children, so as to leave living images of the departed and to preserve our species. For those who were about to die and for their relatives, the greatest consolation was their offspring. To understand that this was the chief reason for desiring children, listen to the complaint of Job’s wife: ‘See,’ she says, ‘your memory has perished from the earth, your sons and your daughters’ (cf. Job 18:17). Likewise Saul says to David, ‘Swear to me that you will not destroy my seed, and my name along with me’ (I Kings 24:22). But now that the resurrection is at our gates, and we do not speak of death, but advance toward another life better than the present, the desire for posterity is superfluous. If you desire children, you can get much better children now, a nobler childbirth and better help in your old age, if you give birth by spiritual labor. So there remains only one reason for marriage, to avoid fornication, and the remedy is offered for this very purpose. (On the Sacred Institution of Marriage, Homily One)


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