Living in the First Century World #10

As to every other aspect of life, Christianity spoke into the sexual culture of the first century—and what was spoken, again like almost every other encounter, was a word from the Lord that challenged accepted norms and practices— and that was because the sexual culture within the Roman Empire was wide open:

In many ways, ancient Roman culture represents the kind of sexual utopia many long for today. There were few sexual boundaries in comparison with today’s moral standards. Monogamy was rarely practiced…The difference between Rome in the days of the apostles and Western civilization today has more to do with social acceptance than the kinds of sins committed. Promiscuity in ancient Rome was much more in the open and enjoyed general public acceptance. Homosexual acts among men were socially accepted. Married men were expected to have trysts. Rape of slaves was a given. In short, the Roman ideal of the conquering male allowed him to exorcise a level of sexual exploitation that today would be considered socially unacceptable.*

As noted, the key to understanding sexual practices in Rome was the elevation and ideal of the powerful, conquering male within society. This idealized image of man (well, of the elite classes anyway) basically gave him permission to behave as he pleased when it came to sexual practices—usually with little consequences—as long as it was those from the lower classes he was exploiting. “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.”* This is clearly seen in the practice of “pederasty,” which was the sexual relationship between an adult male and an adolescent boy. Not only was this practice accepted, but it was common and even expected from men in the most elite classes. Young boys were (what would be now considered) groomed for this relationship, which had his family’s permission. For a thousand years in both ancient Greek and Roman culture pederasty was the norm.

Not only were young boys sexually exploited but young girls were as well; slaves, who had no rights, were used in various ways within the empire to appease the sexual appetite of the culture. Rape was common and accepted, again, as long as it involved a male from a higher class exploiting someone from a lower. Prostitution was legal and even integrated into religious ceremony. Even same-sex marriages occurred with Emperor Nero marrying not just one but two men in AD 68. (Actually, some of what we would consider the most immoral behavior was practiced by Roman emperors and celebrated by the public. He was the single most powerful male and also above the law. Very notorious was Tiberius who even created a governmental funded agency to attend to his sexual pleasures, which included exploiting very young children of both genders at a retreat away from Rome he built for just that purpose. Other emperors such as Caliguia practiced incest with his sisters and would regularly have intercourse with senator’s wives while the senator waited in another room.) 

Women living in this culture were not excluded from the promiscuity, but wives of the elite classes could actually be put to death for committing adultery (which happened frequently anyway). There was a great double standard due to how women were viewed within the empire. One Roman philosopher had this to say about women, “Let women be ciphers and be retained merely for child-bearing” (from Lucian’s Affairs of the Heart—2nd century). Another early Roman (Pseudo-Demosthenes in the 1st century) wrote, “We have mistresses for our enjoyment, concubines to serve our needs, and wives to bear legitimate children.”

Flee Sexual Immorality

Just imagine how foreign then this new message of this new community of Christ-followers sounded and how courageous they were to speak it:

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 just as Christian teaching are labeled as unnatural in our day. The temptation many face today is to hide their confession for fear of how it will be received. They may believe it is pointless to debate sexually morality in the public arena because the odds are stacked so hopelessly against them. But the social context of early Christians show that it is not hopeless. The sexual climate in their day was worse in certain respects than it is today. Yet they confessed Christ and stood firm in the sexual morality bound to His name.*

Think about the words of Christ and the teaching of the apostles within this context. Christ’s teaching about marriage and sexuality put both in a fundamentally different framework in which fidelity to each other was to be the norm and adultery was to be avoided, as was lust itself (Mathew 19:1-8). The apostle Paul would picture marriage not as some economic partnership for child bearing purposes, but as a relationship based upon that of Christ and the church, in which wives were to be loved (found rarely in the Roman context) and honored and in which mutual submission was to practiced (Ephesians 5:21-33—definitely not Roman norm).

Sexual immorality including that commonly practiced and accepted in Rome was counterproductive, exploitive and even harmful according to Christian teaching. Adultery, homosexuality, prostitution, all sexual contact outside of the sacred marriage bond was to be avoided (Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:18-20; Galatians 5:19).

A Different Purpose for the Body

One of the underlying differences of Christians approach to sexuality and that of the Roman world (and of ours) is how the body is viewed. In Rome the body was considered a thing of physical beauty to be used for personal enjoyment and exploited for sexual pleasure. Young boys in particular were thought to be the most beautiful and desired representation of the body. In contrast, Christians taught that physical bodies were not primarily a venue for pleasure but a temple of God—first and foremost used to honor him above all—including sexual appetites. This then changed relationships at their core—no longer would relationships be exploitive or oppressive; no longer would the strong male just do what he wanted; no longer would the body be viewed as a sexual object. Now it was the instrument of God, used to glorify him, which all relationships would reflect. In this way, Christians elevated women, children, and even slaves to the point of changing an empire and changing the way that empire (to a large degree) felt about sexual morality. As Christian author Tim Keller would put it, “the ancients were stingy with their money but generous with their bodies; the Christians were stingy with their bodies, but generous with their money.”

Though Christian morality promoted genuine self-emptying love and was positive for society, it nonetheless set Christ’s people against prevailing culture. Romans did not like being told that some of their favorite activities were displeasing to the Christian God and they pushed back.*

The pushback continues in our culture, but we can take heart from those in the first century who fought that good fight—and to a large degree prevailed.

*Quotes from Matthew Rueger in Sexual Morality in a Christless World. Also used as a resource was Who Is This Man? By John Ortberg