Whatever else you know about the Bible, I’m sure you know this: It lays out a sexual ethic that displays God’s intent in creating sexuality and that challenges humanity to live in ways consistent with it. Yet today we are experiencing a sexual revolution that has seen society deliberately throwing off the Christian sexual ethic. Things that were once forbidden are now celebrated. Things that were once considered unthinkable are now deemed natural and good. Christians are increasingly seen as backward, living out an ancient, repressive, irrelevant morality.
But this is hardly the first time Christians have lived out a sexual ethic that clashed with the world around them. In fact, the church was birthed and the New Testament delivered into a world utterly opposed to Christian morality. Almost all of the New Testament texts dealing with sexuality were written to Christians living in predominantly Roman cities. This Christian ethic did not come to a society that needed only a slight realignment or a society eager to hear its message. No, the Christian ethic clashed harshly with Roman sexual morality. Matthew Rueger writes about this in his fascinating work Sexual Morality in a Christless World and, based on his work, I want to point out 3 ugly features of Roman sexuality, how the Bible addressed them, and how this challenges us today.
Roman Sexuality Was About Dominance
Roman sexuality was tied to ideas of masculinity, male domination, and the adoption of the Greek pursuit of beauty. Romans did not think in terms of sexual orientation. “In the Roman mind, the strong took what they wanted to take. It was socially acceptable for a strong Roman male to have intercourse with men or women alike, provided he was the aggressor. It was looked down upon to play the female ‘receptive’ role in homosexual liaisons.”
A real man dominated in the bedroom as he did on the battlefield. He would have sex with his slaves whether they were male or female; he would visit prostitutes; he would have homosexual encounters even while married; he would engage in pederasty (see below); even rape was generally acceptable as long as he only raped people of a lower status. “He was strong, muscular, and hard in both body and spirit. Society looked down on him only when he appeared weak or soft.” So Romans did not think of people as being oriented toward homosexuality or heterosexuality. Rather, they understood that a respectable man would express his dominance by having sex—consensual or forced—with men, women, and even children.
Roman Sexuality Accepted Pedophilia
The pursuit of beauty and the obsession with the masculine ideal led to the widespread practice of pederasty—a sexual relationship between an adult man and an adolescent boy. This had been a common feature of the Greek world and was adapted by the Romans who saw it as a natural expression of male privilege and domination. A Roman man would direct his sexual attention toward a slave boy or, at times, even a freeborn child, and would continue to do so until the boy reached puberty. These relationships were seen as an acceptable and even idealized form of love, the kind of love that expressed itself in poem, story, and song.
In the Roman world “a man’s wife was often seen as beneath him and less than him, but a sexual relationship with another male, boy or man, represented a higher form of intellectual love and engagement. It was a man joining with that which was his equal and who could therefore share experiences and ideas with him in a way he could not with a woman.” Pederasty—pedophilia—was understood to be good and acceptable.
Roman Sexuality Had a Low View of Womanhood
Women were not generally held in high regard in Roman culture. “Women were often seen as weak physically and mentally. They were inferior to men and existed to serve the men as little more than slaves at times.” A woman’s value was largely in her ability to bear children and if she could not do so, she was quickly cast off. Because lifespans were short and infant mortality high, women were often married off in their young teens to maximize the number of children they could bear.
When it came to sexual mores, women were held to a very different standard than men. Where men were free to carry on homosexual affairs and to commit adultery with slaves, prostitutes, and concubines, a woman caught in adultery could be charged with a crime. “The legal penalty for adultery allowed the husband to rape the male offender and then, if he desired, to kill his wife.” Under Augustus it even became illegal for a man to forgive his wife—he was forced to divorce her. “It is not enough to suggest that women were under-appreciated in Roman culture. There are many instances where they were treated as second-class human beings, slightly more honored than slaves.”
Sexual Promiscuity and Societal Stability
It becomes clear that Rome was a culture of extreme promiscuity and inequality. Those who had power—male citizens—were able to express their sexuality by taking who and what they wanted. Their culture’s brand of sexual morality was exemplified in the Caesars who, one after the other, “were living icons of immorality and cruelty,” using sex as a means of domination and self-gratification.
Yet this system, evil as it looks to our eyes, was accepted and even celebrated by Rome. It was foundational to Roman culture. To be a good Roman citizen a man needed to participate in it, or at least not protest against it. To be loyal to Rome, one had to be loyal to the morality of Rome. To the Romans, the biblical view “would have been seen as disruptive to the social fabric and demeaning of the Roman ideal of masculinity.” What we consider odious and exploitive, they considered necessary and good.
Christianity condemned the Roman system in its every part. According to the Roman ethic, a man displayed his masculinity in battlefield and bedroom dominance. In the Christian ethic, a man displayed his masculinity in chastity, in self-sacrifice, in deference to others, in joyfully refraining from all sexual activity except with his wife. The Roman understanding of virtue and love depended upon pederasty—the systematic rape of young boys. But the Christian sexual ethic limited intercourse to a married man and his wife. It protected children and gave them dignity. A Roman woman was accustomed to being treated as second-class human being but “in Christendom, a woman found a culture of genuine love that saw her as equally important as any man in the eyes of God. She was sexually equal with the man in the marriage union and had equal recourse under the law of God to demand marital fidelity.”
Christianity did not simply represent an alternate system of morality but one that condemned the existing system—the system that was foundational to Roman identity and stability. Christians were outsiders. Christians were traitors. Christians were dangerous. Their brand of morality threatened to destabilize all of society. No wonder, then, that they were scorned and even persecuted.
The Road From Rome
We can’t help but see connections between first century Rome and our twenty-first century world. “Our early Christian ancestors did not confess biblical chastity in a safe culture that naturally agreed with them. The sexual morality they taught and practiced stood out as unnatural to the Roman world… Christian sexual ethics that limited intercourse to the marriage of a man and a woman were not merely different from Roman ethics; they were utterly against Roman ideals of virtue and love.” This is exactly why Christians faced so much hostility. Their morality threatened society’s stability by loving and protecting the marginalized and disenfranchised while condemning (or even converting) those who took advantage of them.
Isn’t this the very thing happening again today? Our society is throwing off the last vestiges of the Christian sexual ethic and as it does so, we are once again outsiders and traitors who threaten to destabilize the whole system. As we insist that sex is to be limited to the marriage of one man to one woman we threaten the stability of a society hell-bent on permitting and celebrating nearly everything except sex within marriage. As we insist that people flourish only within God-given sexual boundaries, we threaten the ideals of virtue and love that demand no greater commitment than consent. As we (seek to) live our moral lives according to a higher ethic, we silently condemn those who reject the whisper within.
Rueger says, “The first Christians were men and women of great courage. Confessing Christian morality always requires that spirit of bravery.” Indeed, confessing and practicing Christian morality today requires bravery, the willingness to obey God rather than men, even in the face of persecution. May God continue to instill that spirit within us.