Homosexuality and Christian Tradition
Why didn’t the church affirm LGBTQ people from the start?
One challenge that’s often posed to LGBT-affirming Christians is that “they’re trying to change something the church has always believed.”
This was, for me, the biggest stumbling block in my journey to fully accepting my queer friends’ identities. Would affirmation mean turning my back on thousands of years of Christians? Who was I to challenge my faith’s traditions and therefore (I worried) the wisdom of God?
These questions are real, and deserve real consideration. But we do our gay friends and neighbors a disservice if we pretend this is the first time they’ve arisen, or that we’ve always landed on the side of tradition: Protestantism, the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and countless other theological developments that once stood against powerful people claiming the force of Christian history. In all of these cases, we looked at the reasoning of the “traditional side” and concluded they were wrong.
(All of these, of course, had some roots in Christian tradition that had conveniently been forgotten by their opponents. Similarly, historians like John Boswell have uncovered a history of Christianity and homosexuality that, while generally unfriendly, is significantly more complex and varied than you might guess from the current conservative telling.)
The truth is that faith is a messy process, in which the church wrestles between the will of God and its own biases, often confusing the two. To understand how tradition informs our view of homosexuality, it isn’t enough to ask whether there were early Christians who opposed gay people — we need to ask why they were opposed, and whether those reasons still hold up today. I will argue in this post that early Christian opposition to sexual minorities was based on assumptions and beliefs we’ve (rightly) abandoned, and therefore should not inform our own thinking.
In my reading of early Christian views of sexuality, it seems like their anti-LGBT views tended to rest on four basic pillars. One isn’t consistent with modern science, one is misogynistic, one would also condemn the vast majority of heterosexual marriages, and one is not a condemnation of homosexuality at all.
Many early Christians, based on the scientific understanding of their communities, believed homosexuality to be an “unnatural” abandonment of the sort of sexual interactions you might find in nature. Further research has shown they were incorrect — same-sex intercourse is found in most species, and LGBTQ identities have significant (but not decisive) biological underpinnings
Many early Christians believed that gay sex was sinful because it brought shame to the man being penetrated: he was “like a woman,” which was shameful because women were seen as inherently worse than men.
Early Christianity had a strong Stoic streak, which ruled out all sorts of natural “base” pleasures. This wing of the church believed all sex (except that to create children) was sinful, which excludes not only gay sex but also the use of birth control in married couples and sex between old or sterile partners.
Many early Christian critiques that get cited in this debate are actually critiques of pederasty, a practice in which an adult man sexually abused a young boy. This is despicable because it’s abuse, not because it’s “gay”.
Let’s look in more detail:
“Homosexuality is unnatural”
This is probably the most famous Christian argument against LGBT identities. Saint Paul seems to have it in mind as he writes Romans 1:
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
He makes a similar argument about gender roles in 1 Corinthians, this time with respect to hair length:
Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
Just like parts of the bible that affirm a flat earth or a solid dome filling the sky, Paul’s writing reflects the scientific understanding of his community, in which gender roles from “who gets to teach” and “who can get married” to “acceptable hair length” are simply “a part of nature.” Augustine will make a similar argument in his Confessions:
[T]hose shameful acts against nature, such as were committed in Sodom, ought everywhere and always to be detested and punished. If all nations were to do such things, they would be held guilty of the same crime by the law of God, which has not made men so that they should use one another in this way
Anyone who’s had a significant cross-cultural friendship will recognize what’s happening here: there are traditions and thought practices and habits that we’re so used to that we start to assume they’re just “a part of the natural order of things” until we meet someone with different customs and find ourselves frustrated and confused.
In the most widely attested early Christian view, homosexuality is wrong because it is somehow unnatural — queer people have either “turned against” their nature or (it was more commonly believed) their excessive lust had led them into more and more depraved sexual acts until they were having sex with people of their own gender.
But science has advanced since Paul’s time, and we now know that this isn’t really true. We know that biology plays an important (but not decisive) role in determining a person’s sexuality. Some people’s sexual identity develops over time, but others are born gay and remain that way despite intense effort over many years to change. We now know that homosexuality is relatively common in the animal kingdom, and we know that the gender binary, while a useful approximation, is not a fully accurate depiction of fundamental biology.
In short, the early Christian writers who thought homosexuality was “clearly unnatural” (and therefore sinful) were simply incorrect. It’s not at all clear that they would have retained their views if they had access to the biological and psychological knowledge we now have.
“Homosexuality is Shameful”
It was obvious to these early Jewish and Christian writers that homosexuality was shameful — not because God had commanded otherwise, but because some man would have to “play the woman” and women are inherently dishonorable. (The “equal dignity, separate roles” framing of complementarianism did not yet exist.)
As E.P. Sanders has documented,1 early Christian critiques of homosexuality (including those found in the bible) generally drew from contemporary Jewish condemnations of Gentile culture. In addition to the Mosaic Law and the belief that homosexuality went “against nature”, these writers held a strong belief that it was “shameful” because it “made men into women.”
The main lens through which Greco-Roman culture viewed sexual activity divided participants into “active” partners (those who penetrate) and “passive” partners (those who are penetrated.) In Ancient Greece and Rome, these divisions were intimately linked to status: a man could penetrate a woman, or a free man could penetrate a male slave or a boy, but free men who played the passive role were considered shameful and sexually degenerate.
While Second Temple Jews certainly had class distinctions, they were not as sexually pronounced. Their beliefs about human dignity prohibited (at least in theory) the sort of dehumanizing shame Roman culture placed on slaves and children. It was not right, they reasoned, to dishonor any man by placing him in the passive position sexually (and it was even more wrong for a man to dishonor himself in this way!)
Hence we find people like Philo of Alexandria saying claiming that “active” gay men had “accustomed those who were by nature men to submit to play the part of women” and we have Augustine complaining that “has not made men so that they should use one another in this way.”
So while the argument that homosexuality is sinful generally came from the (mistaken) belief that it was “unnatural”, the argument that homosexuality is shameful comes from the idea that femininity is inherently worse than masculinity, and that it is therefore shameful for a man to take “the woman’s role.”
“Sex is only for procreation”
When the fight over gay marriage was underway, one of the challenges for anti-gay groups was to articulate a secular rational for restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples that didn’t amount to “we think gay people are gross”.
Most of the groups I was aware of at the time eventually coalesced on vague references to procreation and child-rearing. Even before I was LGBT-affirming, these arguments were never particularly convincing: you’d simultaneously need to explain 1) why letting gay people marry would affect straight people’s experience of the institution of marriage (and their willingness to have children afterwards), and 2) why, if you believe “marriage is for procreation,” we should let old or infertile couples get married.
None of the proponents of these positions ever produced particularly satisfying answers to these questions, so they largely remained “arguments you can point to to say ‘see, there are arguments on both sides!’” rather than “arguments that might convince somebody who disagreed with you.”
This argument starts to make more sense if you look at its history — recognizing it as a mere shadow of a much more traditional Christian belief: that sex is only for procreation. Because of this, since (cis) gay sex can’t produce children, early Christians concluded that it must be sinful.
Unlike the anti-marriage argument, this is a coherent and self-consistent position. But it’s one that comes with baggage: for one, it seems to be much more rooted in Stoic philosophy than anything Jesus ever said or did. More importantly, it’s one with fairly radical implications — you’ll quickly find yourself arguing (alongside people like Saint Augustine) that even married people can’t have sex unless they’re intending to conceive a baby. That means no birth control of any sort, no sex once you’re old, no sex if you’re infertile. Even the Catholic Church doesn’t strictly hold this position, since they allow married couples to use processes like Natural Family Planning to have (hopefully) child-free sex.
So if you’re citing Augustine in your critique of gay relationships, you might need to take the log out of your own marriage first.
Critiques of Abuse are not Critiques of Homosexuality
One of the most famous stories in the entire Bible is the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah.
We saw above that Augustine believed these two ancient cities had been destroyed by heavenly fire as punishment for their homosexual behavior (from which we get the word “sodomy”)
The problem is that this isn’t even remotely true. The Bible is pretty explicit about why Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, and it has nothing to do with homosexuality. The story in Genesis lays the blame on the men of the city attempting to rape other men (the sin here being sexual assault, not homosexuality.) The biblical book of Ezekiel lays the blame on Sodom being a rich society that didn’t take care of its poor:
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.
But this general pattern — in which Christians reinterpret statements against abuse to be about homosexuality — occurs again and again. You can see it in how parts of the Catholic Church blame their own sex abuse crisis on a mysterious “lavender mafia”. You can see it when people online slander your LGBT neighbors as “groomers”. You can see it when the Conservative Baptist Network tries to “take a stand” for “biblical morality” by issuing yet another condemnation of gay people while they actively campaign against taking steps to protect sexual abuse victims in their churches.
And you can see it when anti-gay groups (mostly Catholic) cite church teaching on pederasty (the sexual abuse of young boys) as a reason to oppose loving, consensual same-sex relationships. I spent an hour on Google reading non-affirming groups’ citations of “Christian tradition” to oppose LGBTQ identities, and it seems like around a third of these quotes aren’t clear enough to even be sure they reference same-sex activity, another third explicitly reference pederasty, and the remaining third fall into the categories expressed above.
I’m bothered that the distinction between consensual sex and abuse even needs to be pointed out, and I think it’s at least partly related to the fact that the church has made a big bucket called “sexual sin” that lumps everything from sexual assault to sleeping with a partner before you’re married into the same sort of sin. This makes it hard for churches to respond to the sort of sex abuse crises that have rocked the Catholic and Baptist churches, since they focus so hard on a perpetrator’s lust that they completely miss the more serious “abuse of power” and “actual violence” components.
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See Chapter 12 of Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought