The Early Church and Gays

Compared to twentieth-first-century believers, early Christians wrote surprisingly little about homosexuality. While some Christian writers of the first three centuries appear to condemn all forms of homosexual behavior, most commented on only specific aspects of it, such as intercourse with minors. No author of this period singled out homoerotism as an especially repulsive sin but mentioned it only incidentally when discussing other matters.

Disapproval of homosexual activity appeared early in the Church Fathers. Aristides of Athens in the A.D. 140s and Clement of Alexandria (Egypt) in the 190s denounced it as sin. The next adverse reference came with Origen in Palestine in the 230s, followed by Methodius and Lactantius in the early fourth century. The last three were voluminous authors who touched on homoeroticism only a few times amid a huge mass of material on other activities.

The most commonly mentioned aspect of same-sex gratification was intercourse with boys. Pederasty was considered sinful by some Church Fathers who wrote nothing against relations between adult males. Among them were a bishop of Antioch (Syria) in the mid-second century, Tertullian of Carthage in the A.D. 190s, a friend and financial backer of Origen, a book of church regulations dating from about A.D. 300, and the Council of Elvira (Spain) a decade later. Five collections of Christian ethics were produced in the first three centuries. Three of them prohibit pederasty but none forbids homosexuality per se. Apparently the compilers regarded sex with a minor as a serious matter of ethics but not homoerotism in general. One forbids oral sex, but only by a woman on a man.

Depending how broadly or narrowly their wording is interpreted, some other Fathers may have censured only particular types of homosexual acts while allowing others. Polycarp in early second-century Turkey, the Revelation of Peter in mid-century, Irenaeus in France in the 180s and Origen prohibited “men abusing themselves with men” and “men defiling each other”. The question arises whether homosexual acts in themselves are abusive and defiling or whether God forbids only those homoerotic positions that abuse or defile due to other factors. After all, heterosexual relations may or may not be abusive or defiling, even between spouses. By being specific, did these Church Fathers suggest that some kinds of same-sex relations could be loving and enriching, and therefore permitted to Christians?

Some of the abovementioned authors quoted Leviticus 18.22 to the effect that males are forbidden “to lie with a man as with a woman”. Although some homoerotic acts are imitations of heterosexual ones, others are anatomically possible only between males. A conservative interpretation of Leviticus and these Fathers would forbid only the simulations of regular sex but allow uniquely male-male positions. Those magazines at the drugstore indicate that gays use a wide variety of techniques.

In addition to how restrictive an interpretation is to be given to “men lying with men as with a woman”, there is the issue of whether this prohibition is binding in our day. It would not apply if its sinful nature was rooted in social/cultural factors rather than eternal anatomical differences. In the world of the Bible and the early Church, women occupied a position subordinate to males, with a status little different from slaves or animals. Thus, treating a man sexually as if he were a woman may have been forbidden only because it meant subjecting him to an inferior status, thus abusing and defiling him psychologically and socially in that culture. If so, the ban was not aimed at same-gender sensual gratification as an evil in itself and thus might not apply in an age of equality between the sexes.

Anal penetration with a penis (sodomy properly so-called) was condemned by Justin Martyr in Italy in the middle of the second century and the Acts of John in the third. They did not mention other homoerotic positions, and forbade such penetration in heterosexual relations also. It is strange that so few early Christian writers condemned it, for it is harmful in itself because too frequent indulgence weakens the rectal muscles and creates problems in defecation. The rarity with which it was discountenanced may indicate that some New Testament and other early Christian authors meant only sodomy when condemning homosexual activity.

The foregoing study raises a number of questions. Are all homosexual relationships abusive and defiling in themselves or are they permissible when these elements are absent? Are all varieties of homoerotic acts a sin or only those positions in which a participant is demeaned or degraded by the standards of his own culture, or are imitations of heterosexual positions? At what age does a boy become a man, thus rendering intercourse no longer pederasty?

The foregoing presentation partly distorts the focus and preoccupations of early Christians in two respects. First, homoeroticism was touched upon by less than seven percent of over five hundred extant ante-Nicene Christian writings. Ninety-three percent did not mention homosexuality. Still less did any single it out for special condemnation but regarded it as one sin among many, no better, no worse. As in Origen’s opposition to “the lovers of money, the lovers of ambition, and the lovers of boys”, the ancient Christian writers always mentioned it in company with other offences, never alone. No author in the first three centuries devoted a chapter, let alone a book, to the phenomenon. Most references consist of only a few words. Unlike some in the twentieth-first century, early Christians did not treat it as the greatest sin.

Secondly, early Christian writers condemned gluttony, greed and untruthfulness at significantly greater length and with much more frequency than homosexuality. Individual authors and the consensus of the Fathers regarded these offences as more deserving of condemnation than what a minority does in their bedrooms. This may help account for the absence of adult homoerotism in ancient Christian moral codes. Selfishness, gossip and lying appear to have been much more common and to warrant more frequent condemnation in Christian antiquity than homosexuality.