Homosexuality and the early church

by Luke Wayne
9/19/16

The early churches were greatly concerned about sexual morality and maintaining purity in their midst. They saw it as the natural outflow of repentance and faith in Christ that a people devoted to the gospel would also be a people who turned away from sinful indulgence of the flesh and who were self-controlled and faithful to God's design for human sexuality. These early documents help demonstrate that, from the very beginning, Christians have viewed monogamous, heterosexual marriage as the only proper expression of human sexuality and have viewed homosexual behavior to be sinful because it is outside of this specific, divine design.1

Sex and Marriage

The early Christians clearly understood sex to be proper only in the context of marriage, and marriage to be between a husband and a wife, a man and a woman.

"If a man has a wife or a woman a husband, let the man be instructed to content himself with his wife and the woman to content herself with her husband. But if a man is unmarried, let him be instructed to abstain from impurity, either by lawfully marrying a wife or else by remaining as he is," (The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, Section II. Chapter 16)

These themes of being sexually content with one's marriage partner alone and of committed marriage between a man and a woman can be seen in even the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament itself, such as those of Ignatius of Antioch who wrote most of his letters on the way to his execution around 108 AD. For example, he wrote:

"Flee evil arts; but all the more discourse in public regarding them. Speak to my sisters, that they love the Lord, and be satisfied with their husbands both in the flesh and spirit. In like manner also, exhort my brethren, in the name of Jesus Christ, that they love their wives, even as the Lord the Church.," (Ignatius of Antioch's Epistle to Polycarp, Chapter 5)

That Ignatius understood marriage to be between a man and a woman is also seen in the connection he makes between marriage and childbearing:

"Husbands, love your wives, as fellow-servants of God, as your own body, as the partners of your life, and your co-adjutors in the procreation of children," (Ignatius Epistle to the Philadelphians, Chapter 4)

The Didache, an early church document sometimes dated within the first century but certainly written by the very early second century, plainly says:

"you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, (and) you shall not commit fornication," (Didache, Chapter 2)

and likewise:

"My child, be not a lustful one. for lust leads to fornication. Be neither a filthy talker, nor of lofty eye, for out of all these adulteries are engendered," (Didache, Chapter 3)

Thus all sexual activity outside of proper marriage is excluded, and in fact anything that would cultivate desire for such is warned against. A similar list is seen in the early second century Epistle of Barnabas:

"Thou shalt not commit fornication, thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not pollute thyself with mankind," (Epistle of Barnabas 19:4).

Tertullian, writing in the late second and early third centuries, wrote straightforwardly that:

"The Christian husband has nothing to do with any but his own wife," (Tertullian's Apology, Chapter 46).

Sources could be multiplied here, but it should be clear that sexual activity outside of marriage was considered impure, immoral, sinful, and out of bounds for the Christian.

Homosexuality

While early Christians' primary concern with regard to sex was the restriction of sexual activity to the proper confines of marriage rather than the listing of every possible aberration from this, the subject of homosexuality was dealt with directly. Tertullian wrote:

"The Christian [man] confines himself to the female sex," (Tertullian's Apology, Chapter 46).

Tertullian also noted the "coupling of two males to be a very shameful thing," (Against the Valentinians, Chapter 11).

A Christian apologist named Aristides, writing in the early second century, stated:

"Now the Greeks, O King, as they follow base practices in intercourse with males, and a mother and a sister and a daughter, impute their monstrous impurity in turn to the Christians," (Aristides' Apology, Verse 17 in the Syriac Edition).

Likewise a later second century Christian apologist named Athenagoras wrote:

"The things said of us are an example of the proverb, “The harlot reproves the chaste.” For those who have set up a market for fornication and established infamous resorts for the young for every kind of vile pleasure,—who do not abstain even from males, males with males committing shocking abominations," (A Plea for the Christians, Chapter 34).

While the emphasis was most often on male homosexuality, it was condemned in women as well. For example, one mid second century writer spoke of:

"those who defiled their bodies, behaving like women. And the women with them, these were those who lay with one another as a man with a woman," (Apocalypse of Peter, Verse 31).

While more references could be added, it should be apparent from these that the early Churches understood homosexuality to be sinful and incompatible with Christian morality. Thus, the Christians living closest to the time that the New Testament was written understood its morality in no uncertain terms to reject homosexual practice and to allow sexual activity only within marriage, and marriage defined strictly in heterosexual terms.

  • 1. For a more exhaustive account of the Christian teachings on homosexuality throughout history, see S. Donald Fortson III and Rolling G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (B&H Academic, 2016)