Recently, the United Methodist General Conference for 2019 passed a controversial piece of legislation called The Traditional Plan which essentially affirms “the church’s current bans on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and officiating at or hosting same-sex marriage” (www.umnews.org). Supporters characterized the plan as adhering to “biblical” values. Members who supported a more liberal plan, called The One Church Plan, were disappointed and discouraged. Students, faculty, and staff on my campus have been asked to sign a petition by The Freedom Center for Social Justice that condemns the UM decision citing “Christ’s frustrations with religious conservatives” as a model for action.
Discussions such as the one being conducted in the United Methodist Church, and in many Christian churches, present an excellent opportunity to examine the history of the church’s teaching on same-gender sex. How and why did the earliest Christ-believers address these issues?
During the first decades of the movement founded in the name of Jesus, a small, Jewish sect took their message of Jesus’s messiahship and the imminent end of the age to other Jews and, eventually, to non-Jews throughout the Roman Empire. The original message was simple at first: Repent of your sins, be baptized, receive the Holy Spirit, and wait for the risen Jesus to return and bring about the Kingdom of God (Acts 2:36, 38).
When this message was eventually transmitted from Jewish mouths to non-Jewish ears it was adapted to a somewhat different culture with different requirements. Non-Jews belonged to a culture that was different in many ways from Judaism. For example, religion for non-Jews (pagans, polytheists) did not concern itself with personal beliefs but with ritual practice (known as “cult”): Worship the gods on time and in the right way and one’s religious obligations were satisfied. Jews, on the other hand, were concerned not only with proper cultic practice but with proper behavior as well. Behavioral standards were specified in the Torah (“instruction”; the first five books of the Bible). Christ-believing, Jewish missionaries who brought word of Messiah Jesus to non-Jews had to deal with the fact that non-Jews had no similar moral instruction, the result, they reasoned, of worshiping a variety of gods (“idolatry”). Greek and Roman philosophers did indeed debate moral issues and cultural behavior and often set standards that applied to their philosophical schools but these discussions were limited to the educated elite who had the wherewithal for such reflection. A cultural clash between Jew and pagan was impossible to avoid. In fact, it was already being reenacted everyday somewhere in the Roman Empire.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews had been scattered throughout the empire since before the second-century BCE. They met weekly in their synagogues where they read and discussed Torah and its ethical and moral requirements. It is a historical fact that significant numbers of non-Jews were attracted to the synagogues for this kind of teaching, having few other sources of moral and ethical instruction. Romans valued virtue (generally defined as controlling one’s passions) and it seemed to the non-Jews attending Jewish synagogues that instructions for living a virtuous life could be found in the Jewish Torah. It was largely through these non-Jews, called “God-fearers,” that Christ-believing missionaries reached out into the greater non-Jewish world with their message.
There were, and would continue to be, cultural hurdles to overcome. For example, the Torah speaks against sex between males (Leviticus 20:13; whether or not this is the appropriate interpretation of this Torah instruction for today, it was the interpretation given to it by first-century Jews, Christ-believing or not). Sex between males was, however, culturally acceptable in the Greco-Roman world, at least among the elites who wrote about it, as long as proper concern for social ranking was observed.
Jews attributed this and other activity, which they considered sinful, to result from idol worship. Instead of honoring the God of Israel above all other gods, non-Jews chose to worship lesser gods, or “demons,” in God’s place. According to Jewish thought, this constituted a reversal of what should have been the correct, or “natural,” order of things. As a means of punishment, the God of Israel condemned non-Jews to a life of completely upturned, or “unnatural,” behavior, including men having sex with men instead of the “natural” way God intended: sex between a man and a woman (based on their interpretation of Genesis 1:27-28; 2:24, etc.). It is easy to see here that what was considered “natural” was that which was customary to a particular social or cultural group.
From as early as Paul in the mid-50s CE, Christ-believing missionaries taught non-Jews to forsake idol worship and the behaviors that Jews believed resulted from it. Thus, Paul probably taught against male (and possibly female) same-gender sex for this reason (there is debate among scholars as to whether Paul simply acknowledged the practice or actually prohibited it). Often cited in this regard are Paul’s comments in Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. It is noteworthy, too, that Paul largely eschewed the marriage state altogether, preferring instead a celibate lifestyle (1 Corinthians 7:7-8). He did leave room, however, for accommodating sexual desire between men and women by approving marriage where sexual passion proved insurmountable (1 Corinthians 7:2-6, 9).
If, as some argue, Paul (and other first-century, Christ-believing missionaries) did not explicitly teach abstinence from same-gender sex, they were at least understood to have done so by Christians of succeeding generations. In the second century, we find a commonly-held opinion on the matter expressed by a variety of Christian writers such as Aristides…
“Now the Greeks, O King, as they follow base practices in intercourse with males, and a mother and a sister and a daughter, impute their monstrous impurity in turn to the Christians.” – Apology 17
“The things said of us are an example of the proverb, ‘The harlot reproves the chaste’. For those who have set up a market for fornication and established infamous resorts for the young for every kind of vile pleasure — who do not abstain even from males, males with males committing shocking abominations…” – Apology 34
…and the author of the vision of hell described in the Greek Apocalypse of Peter…
“And other men and women were being hurled down from a great cliff and reached the bottom, and again were driven by those who were set over them to climb up upon the cliff, and then were hurled down again, and had no rest from this punishment: and these were they who defiled their bodies acting as women; and the women who were with them were those who lay with one another as a man with a woman.” – ch. 34
Teachings like these continued on into the third and later centuries and became normative for the Christian church.
One question some ask: If this issue were so important, why didn’t Jesus say anything about it? The answer seems clear from a historical and cultural perspective. If the common understanding in first-century Judaism was that sex between men was a violation of Torah (nothing is said in Torah about lesbian sex), then such activity would be substantially less likely to be a matter of prominent discussion in a land populated almost exclusively by Jews. In other words, in a culture where certain behaviors are acceptable, those behaviors will occur more frequently than in a culture in which they are considered unacceptable. Thus, it is likely that same-gender sex was not a significant enough issue in the Palestine of the first-century CE for Jesus (or any other Palestinian Jewish teacher that we know of) to comment on it (though we don’t know everything that Jesus said). It may be impossible to answer the question, “What would Jesus say if he had said anything about same-gender sex?” Whatever Jesus was, he was a Torah-observant Jew and a product of his culture. Nevertheless, according to the gospels, he seems to have had a broad sense of tolerance. He urged treating one another as one would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12) and of loving even an enemy (Matthew 5:44). He seems to have reached out a helping hand on a couple of occasions to the same idol-worshiping Gentiles we discussed above (Mark 8:28-34; Luke 7:2-9).
Historical precedent or ancient cultural practice should not be used blithely to direct how we think and behave today. But understanding how Christians got to this point can be instructive. Christian beliefs and teachings that have existed for two-thousand years (and, in Torah, even longer) will not be completely overturned overnight (if ever). However, the moral code of the past need not necessarily be the moral code of the future. It would be unrealistic, though. to insist that any religiously-adopted moral code that has been “baked in” for such a long period of time can be easily dislodged or significantly revised in what, historically speaking, is no time at all. Patience, understanding, and diligence will be required if fracturing is to be avoided. On the other hand, according to the old adage, you must break some eggs to make an omelet. Early Christianity featured a variety of competing and conflicting beliefs expressed by the scattered churches of the Roman Empire. In some sense, at least, it has always been so.