Clear and consistent?
A little while ago I bought a second-hand copy of a book called ‘Christian Attitudes to Homosexuality’ by Peter Coleman [ ]. In his introduction he wrote: “From the time of Paul until the middle of the present century, the Christian attitude to homosexual behaviour remained unchanged and seldom questioned.” Something about the italic handwriting of a previous owner on the inside cover of the book made me look the name up in Wikipedia. Sure enough, the previous owner of the book was yet another very successful priest whose career had been cut short because of his 'homosexuality'
'Traditionalists' write books with titles that suggest permanence and consistency in the area of Christian sexual ethics, for example 'Unchanging Witness The consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition'. Often, though not in this particular book, there is barely a mention of the relevant history of the 2000 years of consistency.
In a more formal survey of the subject (and to prove that perhaps we have moved on a little since since the 1960's) - 'Some issues in human sexuality A Guide to the debate' 2003 includes this in paragraph 1.2.25: 'because of the five core beliefs about human sexuality previously mentioned, and because it has been believed that it has been specifically condemned by a number of biblical texts (the usual six suspects listed!) homosexual activity has been consistently condemned within the Christian tradition.' This passage went on to criticise the historian John Boswell, ending up by criticising Boswell's unconvincing attempt to find a same-sex blessing in an ancient rite, in such a way as to cast doubt on the more substantial and challenging parts of Boswell's more important book and contribution.
Despite the withering rebuke of Boswell by Professor Southern, and however one regards the 'specific condemnation' of the 6 texts claimed by 'Some issues …' , I really can't see consistency in the condemnation of homosexuality in the nearly '2000 years' of Church history. Consistency is an odd claim, and one wonders why it appears in so many books. Indeed it comes across as 'Everything else in this subject is chaos: but one thing is clear: this has been the Church's consistent teaching for 2000' years'.
But the teaching on homosexuality has been far from clear. For example about halfway through the '2000 years' Peter Damian, a theologian, coined the term 'Sodomy'. Confusingly, it came to mean every sort of sexual activity apart from procreation, apparently ending up as a sub-section of 'luxuria' in the penitential scheme. This suggests to me a willingness to deal with sin on an industrial scale not seen in the previous 1000 years of the Church's history. And actually the '5 core beliefs' mentioned above didn't really come together until the time of Thomas Aquinas. This would seem to cut down 'the consistency over 2000 years' claim somewhat.
One might almost be led to believe by 'Some issues …' that the 6 texts were quoted by Christian moralists from the time of the early Church. Boswell argued, convincingly I think, that when they did quote Scripture it was the Epistle of Barnabas (whose allegorical reference to hares was actually condemning pederasty), and occasionally Leviticus. He also pointed out that to begin with the Church hardly did any condemning of homosexuality at all.
This appears to be true of the earliest early Fathers: their sin lists included pederasty and trafficking, but not 'homosexual behaviour'. 1 Clement had a paragraph on the fate of the city of Sodom, and the prime example of sin he picked out was the double-mindedness of Lot's wife. The Didache, in its comprehensive lists of sins, mentioned pederasty and 'sexual deviation' but there was no explicit mention of homosexuality. Ignatius doesn't appear to have mentioned sexual sin, being more concerned with sin against Church order. Polycarp doid mention homosexuality among the sins for young people to avoid. He quoted Paul and put homosexuality in the context of lust. Aristides, in his Apology, is supposed to have refered to homosexuality, but since his examples were about Roman gods having sex with mortals (eg Jupiter/Zeus and Ganymede) it sounds again more like pederasty or rape. Papias did not refer to homosexuality at all. 2 Clement didn't mention it. The Shepherd of Hermas mentioned adultery, but not homosexuality.
In Justin Martyr's 1st Apology there is a disturbing reference to homosexuality, probably in this instance actually meaning trafficking, mutilation, prostitution and pederasty, which he condemned partly because of the possibility of having sex with one's own child. (We seem here to be a very long way from 'clear and consistent'.)
With regard to the '5 core beliefs' mentioned in 'Some issues ...', Gregory of Nyssa, Justin Martyr, Epiphanius of Salamis, and Irenaeus of Lyons all believed that sexual congress occurred only after the Fall so that it was not one of the 'good' things God created.
John Chrysostom apparently believed the same - and at last I am able to mention a Christian thinker who clearly and unequivocally condemned homosexual behaviour! So also, by the end of the 2nd Century, did Tertullian.
'2000 years of clear and consistent teaching', then, is pushing it somewhat. When I tried to engage with an Evangelical history lecturer on the subject, the earliest example of Church teaching on homosexuality he came up with were the Irish penitentials. There would appear to be a gap here. There is not much actual evidence that the very early Church condemned homosexual behaviour.
Absence of evidence is not decisive of course, especially when dealing with a period where surviving written sources are rare. I don't actually think there are many Conservative Evangelicals who have read much early Church history, and I think those in the Catholic tradition tend to see Church history, as it were, from the Church's point of view: the result is that early Church history is seen as a continuation of the Book of Acts. It tends to be non-religious historians who are good at noting the influence of individuals, social trends, politics and economics, and take seriously the 'what ifs' that historians sometimes consider when engaging with other types of history. Most of the people in the pew, and probably quite a few in the pulpit, have a hazy view of the history of the Church, and this may be another reason why the 'clear and consistent' idea has not been challenged.
I believe until the history of the early Church has been revised, we will continue to miss a crucial point in the debate about the Church's attitude to homosexuality. I believe when historians have dug a bit deeper, they will find that the Church actually got the issue wrong from the beginning. If so, it would follow that the first thing the Church will need to do is to apologise for the (1700?) years of persecution it has supported and to some extent led.
The replacement of 2000 years by a possible 1700 may give the clue as to where I am going. In 323 CE the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire, replacing the traditional Roman state gods, and putting what might be described as a peculiar stamp on the type of Christianity that emerged in the Mediterranean Church. Throughout the 4th Century the state passed a number of harsh laws against homosexual behaviour, the Emperors seeing this as a way of strengthening the moral fibre of the nation. This began an uneasy double standard of the Church encouraging repentance and the state threatening execution.
At this point I want to mention two important books that have shone some light into this neglected area of Christian history. The first one is actually about medieval history: 'The Formation of a Persecuting Society Power and Deviance in Western Europe 950 -1250' by R.I.Moore [pub. Blackwell 1987/2003] He presented in broad brushstrokes a vision of the 'Medieval Renaissance' somewhat less rosy than the traditional one set forth in what might be called the traditional view. His initial monograph arose from a question he had asked his students: 'Why did persecution of heretics take place in the 13th Century?' to which the main answer he got was 'there were more heretics.'
The need for persecution, he decided, was in the minds of the persecuters. The mechanisms of interrogating potential heretics meant that vigorous denial meant they were part of an evil conspiracy. Elaborate conspiracy theories saw society under threat from moslems, jews, lepers and homosexuals, all regarded as the great 'Other' that threatened society. The persecution gradually spread its influence over the whole population of Europe.
This was a time when feudal society was being created and a money economy emerging. Also secular and Church governments were trying to consolidate power – and to turn on a common 'enemy' helped. 'The destitute, filthy, scheming, sorcery and satan inspired jew' was portrayed as a stereotype that looked remarkably similar to lepers, heretics etc. This was the context in which the Church began to expand its powers.
Boswell had already pointed out that in general there had not been a great deal of action against homosexuals in the early Middle Ages. Moore provided an explanation of how and why this changed. It is also interesting to note that this was the period when the Church at last decided it should become more involved in the administration of marriage. Moore's book was a monograph, and no doubt historians will argue the issue for half a century before coming to any hasty conclusions, but as an historian firmly embedded in a secular approach Moore has moved the issue away from the kind of Church history which just sees monasteries and dioceses.
It seemed to me that this phenomenon, the Church drawing strength from social and economic events which were not under its control, might also have happened in the early history of the Church.
Again, this particular history has not, as far as I could see, been written up, not by an historian at any rate. The construction of homosexuality' was written by David F Greenberg, an anthropologist. [Pub. University of Chicago Press 1988]. Many accounts of early Christianity focus on ecclesiastical matters. Greenberg put these within the context of politics, sociology and economics. He depicted an Empire under increasing strain after it stopped expanding.
One of the new features of Roman society was to be found among the rich as well as everybody else, a yearning for asceticism. As early as the 240's CE the Emperor Philip the Arab made a law against pederasty. Greenberg points out this trend took place before Christianity began to emerge as a main contender among the many religions.
By this time, the third century CE, the Empire was in chaos. There were serious incursions by Germanic 'barbarians', invasions by a revived and powerful Persia, and deeply divisive civil wars as an increasingly frequent way of replacing Emperors became in effect trial by battle. There was even a 'Brexit', the provinces of Britannia having to be re-conquered by Rome.
At the end of the 3rd Century, people's reaction to insecurity was to look for new gods to give them certainty. The population of the Empire fell as the economy collapsed. When law and order was finally reestablished by Diocletian, it was at a high cost, an army double the size, requiring ever greater taxation. According to Greenberg there were a whole series of reactions which fit in with any society that was under pressure in this way. Here he drew on the work of  He even offered the opinion that any society like that would be expected to have laws against homosexuality.
It was in the context of an Empire and a Church reacting and influencing one another that Church doctrine on homosexuality emerged. Boswell claimed that the Roman Empire had a gay community. As more and more research has been done on sexual behaviour in the Roman Empire, that seems unlikely. The contempt with which Roman society regarded the 'passive' partner in such a relationship has been shown in numerous examples by Craig Williams in 'Roman homosexuality'. Williams also explicity  supports Greenberg's thesis regarding the completely different social background.
We simply don't now how in the early Church the bishops reacted to the issue of same sex couples. Constantine's successors banned any such marriages in 342 CE. We do know that one of the most influential Patriarchates, that of Alexandria, was the source of strong views on the matter at an early stage. Clement of Alexandria wrote against it, for example. But the most important influence was perhaps the Jewish Elexandrian scholar Philo, in the first century CE. He insisted that the Old Testament Scriptures declared homosexual behaviour a sin. Indeed he linked the sin of Sodom with homosexual behaviour long before Christian scholars thought of the idea.
If any Christians did defend the idea of same sex marriage, they would have been few and far between. They would have been silenced, I think, by the rising spirit of ascetism, which saw celibacy as the Christian ideal, while even the institution of marriage for a time just hung on by its fingernails. The monasteries, with a growing interest in the practice of Church, would have had dealing with homosexual behaviour in mind as they began to figure out ways for a community of men to get closer to God. The thought that perhaps this was one of the features of Jewish Law that Christians did not necessarily need to follow may not have even been aired, particularly in the age of persecution and martyrs.
I have not mentioned the words St Paul wrote in his letters at the start of the '2000 years'. There is some doubt about what they mean, and considerable doubt about their relevance given our modern understanding of sexual orientation. Where some traditionalists and and some revisionists see certainty of meaning, from an historical point of view I am inclined to see a need for the more humble 'probably', and therefore greater willingness to keep an open mind.
It seems to me that the early Church failed to see that this was another issue where the Old Testament laws did not apply to Christians. Given the extreme view of sexual purity that they took, they may not have seen it as something worth discussing. But they should have done. And in the light of modern understanding of sexual orientation, the Church needs to think again, acknowledge its role in 1700 years of oppression, and be willing to think again. Just as in Roman times (on this issue) it seems the Church will need to follow the lead of society and the state, but for our own clear and consistent reasons.
Norman Pratt©September 2019