Last week, Jonathon began our discussion on Christianity, Homosexuality and Rome with Somebody Blew Up Alderaan! Now What? As western culture, both here and abroad, continues to abandon its Christian roots, it may be helpful to consider that we are really headed back to the very pagan roots into which Christianity was born. The church was birthed into a very dark and evil time in world history, which was thoroughly pagan in its outlook. Our culture seems to be on the fast track back to first century Rome. This is not really all that surprising, since paganism is the default position of every culture that eschews the Judeo/Christian worldview.
What was Roman Culture of that time like? Religiously, it was time of multiple deities – worshipping many gods was considered normal and right. Monotheism – the worship of one God – was viewed with distrust. Because of this, first century monotheistic Christians were called atheists for denying that any other true gods existed. Christians were not hated and ultimately persecuted for adding yet another god to the big happy “god family” – the Roman people and culture were perfectly ok with polytheism! What offended them was the Christian’s stubborn insistence that Jesus was the only true God and the only way of salvation. That position was seen as unforgivably arrogant in a time when all “Truth” was relative. As my friend, Bill Honsberger from Haven Ministry says:
The average person viewed all truth claims as equally true.
The philosophers viewed all truth claims as equally false.
Politicians viewed all truth claims as equally useful.
Does this not represent the majority view today in our own culture?
In sexual matters, the outlook was “anything goes.” The idea that a pleasurable sexual activity was “sinful” or “immoral” was very unpopular in Roman society. After all, “their gods” did not disapprove of anything they were doing – in fact the gods encouraged promiscuous sexual behavior in many of their temples. Sexuality in Rome notes :
Some sexual attitudes and behaviors in ancient Roman culture differ markedly from those in later Western societies. Roman religion promoted sexuality as an aspect of prosperity for the state, and individuals might turn to private religious practice or “magic” for improving their erotic lives or reproductive health. Prostitution was legal, public, and widespread. “Pornographic” paintings were featured among the art collections in respectable upperclass households. It was considered natural and unremarkable for men to be sexually attracted to teen-aged youths of both sexes, and pederasty was condoned as long as the younger male partner was not a freeborn Roman. “Homosexual” and “heterosexual” did not form the primary dichotomy of Roman thinking about sexuality, and no Latin words for these concepts exist. No moral censure was directed at the man who enjoyed sex acts with either women or males of inferior status, as long as his behaviors revealed no weaknesses or excesses, nor infringed on the rights and prerogatives of his masculine peers. While perceived effeminacy was denounced, especially in political rhetoric, sex in moderation with male prostitutes or slaves was not regarded as improper or vitiating to masculinity, if the male citizen took the active and not the receptive role.
As it turns out, men seemed to prefer sex with youths, male and female, between the ages of 12 and 20. This was certainly not seen as something to be ashamed of.
Marriages, however, were between a male and a female. In the marital relationship, sex was primarily for procreation. Sexuality in Rome continues :
Cicero held that the desire libido to procreate was “the seedbed of the republic,” as it was the cause for the first form of social institution, marriage. Marriage produced children and in turn a “house” (domus) for family unity that was the building block of urban life
Even in pagan Rome, male to female marriage was for producing children and creating a family, which in turn was a building block of the civilization. In fact, according to Marriage in Rome:
Marriage in ancient Rome was a strictly monogamous institution: a Roman citizen by law could have only one spouse at a time. The practice of monogamy distinguished the Greeks and Romans from other ancient civilizations, in which elite males typically had multiple wives. Greco-Roman monogamy may have arisen from the egalitarianism of the democratic and republican political systems of the city-states. It is one aspect of ancient Roman culture that was embraced by early Christianity, which in turn perpetuated it as an ideal in later Western culture.[
We would suggest that it wasn’t that Christians “embraced” monogamy, borrowing the concept from the Romans, but instead they affirmed monogamy as something that the Roman culture had gotten right, based on the scriptures. The reason they did this is, as Pablo pointed out, Marriage Matters Because the Gospel Matters .
Christians, of course, took monogamy much further and asserted that any sexual relations outside of a one man/one woman monogamous marriage was sinful. They came to this position from a decidedly monotheistic base. From Paganism to Prudery: How Christianity Changed Sex quotes Kyle Harper, senior vice provost from the University of Oklahoma and author of From Shame to Sin :
“The argument that I try to make is that Christianity made an enormous difference in the history of morality in general, and sexual morality in particular,” Harper says. “It changed the way that people thought about themselves and their moral responsibilities. It changed the way they thought about the gods and, for Christians, God — and the extent to which divine power cared about human behavior.”
In the process, it also radically altered Greco-Roman ideas of human sexuality. It changed not just the rules, says Harper, but the worldview.
“It changed not just the rules – but the worldview.” This is more profound that most might realize. Why did the Christian view so transform the worldview of those who embraced biblical teaching? I think Harper is correct:
“For the Greeks and Romans, sex is a part of nature and a part of society, and it’s a mysterious and important part of ourselves, but it’s not fully within our control,” Harper says. “Whereas for the Christians it is absolutely central to our moral identity as human beings and completely within our free will.”
For Greeks and Romans, sex was just who they are, how they are made, and they believed they had no real control over their sexual appetites and behavior. For Christians, their view of themselves was wrapped up in their view of God and their relation to Him. Their moral identity came from this biblical worldview. In responding to the Pharisees on the question of divorce in Matthew 19 Jesus said:
Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)
Many if not most of the more liberal “Christian” denominations, along with much of the “emergent movement,” are waving the rainbow colored flag of defeat, and embracing the First Century pagan view of human sexuality. They of course do not view their embrace of “gay marriage” as a defeat, but a great victory. Love wins! Haters – those who hold fast to a biblical worldview – lose. However, because we recognize that the “new morality” is really just a re-emergence of the old rotted corpse of paganism, we should be strengthened in our resolve to stand firm in our faith. Like the First Century Christians, pastors and elders need to provide solid training in the biblical worldview to their congregations as well as finding ways to present anew the Christian case to a deeply pagan culture. The gospel mission field has moved from somewhere over a large body of salt water to the house – or even church – next door.