It’s About Sex…Not Homosexuality

Dale B. Martin

The Acts of Paul and Thecla, a second-century Christian document, relates the story of how St.Thecla became a Christian and even an apostle. As a young woman from the elite class, she is engaged to be married to a wealthy upper-class gentleman. But then Paul comes to town and preaches his gospel of sexual renunciation.

According to Paul in this early Christian document, people can be saved only by the complete renunciation of sexual activity. The resurrection is promised only to those who avoid sex entirely.

Thecla is captivated by Paul’s message of salvation by asceticism—along with many other women, both old and young, and even many young men. In fact, she seems totally enamored at least with his preaching if not with himself. She announces to her mother, who is distraught with the news, that she will not get married but will instead give her life to Paul’s gospel, which demands complete virginity. Thecla baptizes herself, cuts her hair short, dresses like a man, and goes off to become an androgynous, ascetic apostle of the gospel of renunciation and salvation.

I always face a challenge teaching this text to my students. They cannot understand why all the young people in the story are so captivated with the idea of avoiding sex. Why, given the choice, would anyone repudiate sex completely and freely choose instead a life of no sexual contact? How could that “gospel” convert so many? They are puzzled when they come to realize that not only was the call to asceticism compelling for the characters in the story, but that sexual renunciation was a powerful attraction of Christianity for many people—even, or maybe especially, young people—in the ancient world. What kind of “good news” is that? 

Though many people nowadays—even Christians—don’t know this, most early Christianity was strongly ascetic: the majority of Christians for the first many centuries of Christianity, apparently, assumed that God required the severe control, preferably the complete renunciation, of sexual relations. Along with advocating other forms of asceticism, such as fasting and prayer, early Christian leaders taught that sexual relations should be avoided if possible and indulged in only for the purposes of procreation if indulged at all. The existence of asceticism may not come as a total surprise to students. After all, they usually have heard about ancient and medieval monasticism. What they find puzzling is the fact that sexual asceticism seems to have been quite popular, at least the idea of it, among ancient Christians.

In order to explain the ancient allure of asceticism, I often start by talking about two modern phenomena: the “pill” and the women’s liberation movement. Of course, complex historical changes can never be boiled down to simple causes, but one could make an argument that two things that have contributed significantly to changes in how we think about sex in the past forty years or so have been the development and increased availability of reliable birth control and the feminist movement, both of which began impacting broader society with great force in the 1970s. My undergraduates were all born in the mid- to late 1980s. They take such things for granted. 

What is so important about the pill and the feminist movement? With reliable birth control, heterosexual sex has become radically decoupled, at least in the minds of most people of our culture, from procreation. And the feminist movement of the 1970s forced people to begin thinking of women as equal to men. The prior assumptions that linked sex to birth and made the sex act proper only when it embodied the hierarchy of male over female came apart beginning in the 1970s.

It comes as something of a shock to my students that things weren’t always this way. I explain that in the ancient world sexual intercourse, ideologically, was always a central factor in the cycle of death. Why did human beings have sex? In order to make new human beings. And why were new human beings needed? Because the existing ones kept dying. The ancients, and still many people in other cultures, think of sex as just one cog in a wheel: sex, birth, death, decay, followed by more sex, birth, death, and decay.

This firm linkage of sex with death was even more evident in the ancient world than in the modern world, even before the pill. Because of the high mortality rate in the Greco-Roman world, especially of infants and women in childbirth, on average every woman who lived to childbearing age (normally considered around thirteen or fourteen in the ancient world) had to give birth five times simply in order for the population of the Roman empire to remain the same. Since of course many women did not have that many childbirths, many others had to have had more. Ascetic Christianity—and just about all Christianity in the ancient to medieval worlds was “ascetic”—offered people an escape from the dreaded cycle of birth and death. The key to immortality was to break the cycle of death, and the best way to do that was to stop having sex. The Acts of Paul and Thecla and many other early Christian texts thus called Christians to deprive death of its victory by depriving themselves of sex.

Now this logic may not make a lot of sense to us modern people. But that is because sex doesn’t “mean” the same thing to us as it did to ancient people. The meaning of sex has changed dramatically at different times in history. Most Christians now believe that sex is basically good, that people are “normally” happiest when they marry, have regular sexual relations with their spouse, produce children, and grow old surrounded by their family. Christians may think it is acceptable for some people to remain single, but it is certainly not preferable. Celibacy or singleness is seen, at least by most Protestants but also in the dominant culture more generally, as second best if not downright tragic. But this is a view that has been held in Christianity only since the seventeenth century.

In the fourth century, Pope Siricius along with saints Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine condemned a Christian named Jovinian for heresy merely for teaching that married Christians were just as virtuous as celibate Christians. The Fathers of the Church declared that it was heresy to deny that celibacy was far superior to marriage. This had been the opinion certainly of the apostle Paul and maybe also of Jesus (see 1 Corinthians 7:1–7; Matthew 19:12; Mark 12:18–27; Luke 14:26). Throughout Christian history, official Christian doctrine (not just opinion) taught that sex within marriage was of inferior virtue to celibacy. This is the opposite of what most modern American Christians assume, even though those same Christians usually assume, and sometimes falsely claim, that their views of sex and marriage represent “the traditional” Christian view. No, it was only with the rise of the Puritans and others influenced by prior Catholic humanism and the Protestant Reformation that Christian teachers started saying that marriage was of equal and sometimes superior value compared to celibacy. That change in the meaning of sex and marriage was a radical reversal of sixteen centuries of Christian doctrine.

Thus a huge change in the meaning of sex and marriage came about in the seventeenth century, a change of which we are obvious heirs. But the changes of the twentieth century were huge also. Before, although Christians had reversed previous assumptions that virginity was preferable to sexual activity and that marriage was only the “lesser option” for Christians, they still assumed that the meaning of sex was defined, largely, by its role in procreation. And they assumed that the sex act enacted the proper hierarchy of God-ordained nature. The man, as the penetrator, was superior, and the woman, as the penetrated, was inferior. Homosexual sex was “unnatural” in this view because, people assumed, either a man would have to be penetrated—which was “unnatural” whether he was penetrated by a man or a woman—or a woman would have to be the one penetrating—again, with either a man or another woman.

With the rise of the feminist movement, even Christians began thinking of men and women as equals, the idea that femaleness itself was inferior was rejected, and the hierarchy of the sex act was replaced with the notion of egalitarian complementarity: male and female are equal and complement one another. Thus, these days both liberal and conservative Christians tend to think of sexual intercourse as something that should take place between one man and one woman, treated equally, and that it is entirely appropriate to have sex just for the enjoyment of it. In fact, “self-help” books written by and for conservative Christians advise people on how to have a happy, joyful, “fulfilling” sex life, even when procreation is not the goal.

The problem is that Christian theology and ethical teaching have not caught up with the radical change in the “meaning of sex” that we have experienced in the past forty years. If sex isn’t just for procreation anymore, then why can’t two men or two women have sex? If the meaning of sex is basically to express love or have fun, why can’t two men or two women express their love by means of sex? If sex is best when it is between two people who treat one another equally and fairly and want to give themselves to one another, why limit that to only a male-female couple?

The debate that currently rages over homosexuality is not really about homosexuality. It is about sex itself. Homosexuality is just the tip of the iceberg. It is just the most obvious site where the older “meaning” of sex no longer holds and yet many people still assume some of the older “rules” about sex. Contemporary churches are not only at a loss about what to do with their gay and lesbian members. They are also at a loss about what to say to teenagers about sex. Masturbation used to be considered sinful. Many Christians today, even conservative or evangelical Christians, no longer consider masturbation a sin. What’s a teenager supposed to think?

Churches don’t have a consistent, coherent, and persuasive message to give to their young adults, who are understandably putting off marriage and family until they are out of college, or medical school, or graduate school, or until they have been able to establish themselves as successful adults. Young adults can hardly be expected to remain virgins until they are thirty, yet even their parents in many cases are urging them to delay marriage. What’s a young adult Christian supposed to think?

Churches don’t have a decent message for older Christians, say the seventy-year-old widowed aunt who has a “gentleman friend” and yet does not want to marry again because of all the financial and familial complications it would bring. Thousands of churches simply ignore the situations of such people. The traditional teaching that sex is good only when coupled to procreation and that it is allowable only in marriage may still be the official or assumed line, but it is nowadays honored more by being ignored.

The theology and ethics of sex have not kept up with the changes in sexual behavior and assumptions of contemporary Christians—not to mention other people. In general, Christians behave sexually just about the same as other Americans of their same class and cultural location. For example, Christians, both liberal and conservative, tend to divorce and remarry at the same rate as non-Christians—in spite of the fact that Christianity has traditionally taught that divorce is forbidden and remarriage not allowed—except sometimes in very limited cases. Churches just ignore the traditional Christian prohibitions or severe restraints on divorce and remarriage. Most churches have not come up with new theologies of marriage, divorce, and remarriage that fit the changed practices of most Christians. Churches no longer know what to teach about many aspects of human sexuality because they no longer have an adequate idea of “what sex means.”

Homosexual Christians are simply the current lightning rod, the most noticeable instance of the failure of “fit” between contemporary sexual assumptions and practices, on the one hand, and traditional Christian doctrine, on the other. The traditional arguments against homosexuality no longer convince many Christians. Traditionally, Christians assumed that homosexuality wasn’t “natural” because it couldn’t lead to procreation. Or they thought that it was “unnatural” because homosexual sex acts seemed to disrupt the proper hierarchy of male over female. But with the decoupling of sex from birth and the reinterpretation of sex as between consenting equals the old arguments against homosexuality don’t make sense. Therefore, many contemporary Christians still believe homosexuality is wrong, but they have difficulty articulating convincing reasons why. Other Christians have recognized the changed cultural situation and have come to accept gay and lesbian Christians. But neither side has successfully articulated a new theology of sex that actually makes sense of the lives and experiences of most Christians today. Homosexuality is simply the most visible focal point of the larger problem.

Rather than just restating traditional “rules” against homosexuality, or trying to fit homosexual Christians into the traditional notions of sex and family, contemporary churches should use gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christian experience to help come up with new Christian ways of thinking about the “meaning of sex.” After all, Christians have radically changed how we think of sex and marriage at different times in the past. The resilience of Christianity has lain to a great extent in its ability to adapt its theology to the changes of history, from the radical asceticism of the ancient church to the family-oriented positive attitude toward sexuality of the modern church. From the inferiority of women assumed throughout history to the equality of women accepted only in the past forty years or so. We can and must do the same to take account of the changes in the meaning of sex since the rise of reliable birth control and the feminist movement. We ourselves, as sexual human beings, have changed. Our sexual ethics must change also.

Homosexuality, rather than being a lightning rod for condemnation and confusion, could be a source of inspiration. Homosexuality is currently something “good to think with” as churches struggle, whether they realize it or not, to decide what they now think sex “means,” given that it cannot mean for us what it has for previous centuries of Christians.

In this debate, scripture should certainly play a role. But we must reject the notion, often expressed by more liberal or progressive as well as more conservative or evangelical Christians, that the Bible or Christian tradition can serve as a reliable “foundation” for our ethics. The simple fact, proven by any critical survey of different readings of scripture, is that different people come up with radically different interpretations of the texts. This is true not only of the interpretations of lay people; it applies equally to interpretations by scholars trained in and using the same “methods.” The Bible does not “speak” its message. It must be interpreted. And even the “historical” meaning of the texts cannot be established with the degree of consensus necessary for communal ethics or policy. Add to that the need to decide how we will “apply” the results of exegesis for ethical decision making, and it becomes obvious that just appealing to the Bible or tradition will never work, in and of itself, to create Christian consensus about the meaning of sex. It never has. Christian history and current disagreements should be taken as demonstrating that a simple appeal to “what the Bible says” or “what the Church has always taught” cannot in and of itself create consensus about Christian ethics.

We need new ways of thinking about what scripture is and new ways of imagining how we should interpret it. I suggest, for instance, that we think of scripture not as a “rule book,” a “constitution,” or an “owner’s manual,” but as something like a sanctuary, a cathedral, a space we enter. Think of how a cathedral “communicates.” Of course, a building doesn’t actually “speak” or directly communicate its “meaning” to us in any literal sense. But we do experience spaces as having meaning, as something we can “read” and “interpret.” The very architecture, its height, loft, spires, point to God. Stained-glass windows are medieval technology for telling the stories of the Bible and the saints. Statues, the carved stations of the cross around the walls, the plethora of images, paintings, crosses, all are there to help us think about the meaning of our faith. In many churches, designed as they sometimes are in direct imitation of ancient and medieval styles, we are in a sense transported back in time, traveling through Christian history before us, surrounded by the “communion of saints” who lived and also worshiped before us.

Our movements through the cathedral also embody the stories of our faith. In many churches, the congregants move forward, from the nave through a rood screen and into the choir or chancel in order to receive the eucharist, symbolizing the movement from the world into heaven and into the very presence of God, and then back into the nave again after receiving the body and blood of Christ, re-armed now for our everyday lives in the world. Being in a cathedral alone, meditating or praying, is like reading scripture at home or by a lake. Being in a cathedral with the congregation is like reading scripture in the church service. Both readings are valid, even if they differ somewhat from one another. The space, the art, the colors, the movements of a cathedral are there, ready to inspire us, challenge us as we “interpret” the very space itself. We read the story (-ies) of the gospel in the space itself.

We need not go to the architects’ “intentions” to learn from a cathedral. We need not think there is one “meaning” or one manner of interpreting. Of course, we can learn something from what the architects and builders “intended” to communicate or from the broader history of the cathedral, but we need not do so in order to experience the cathedral in quite valid ways. And we would be crazy to limit our understanding of the meaning of the cathedral to one single meaning or any meaning constrained by history or authorial intention.

When we read scripture, we should enter it with an imagination informed by history and tradition as well as art, music, and literature. We must read the text with imagination and in community with other Christians, including Christians who have lived before us and left behind their readings in the history of interpretation. We must read the scriptures in faith and pray for the leading of the Holy Spirit. We must read the scriptures in order to live within them. Direct “answers” to ethical questions about sex won’t be found by the simplistic appeal to the Bible as if to a rule book, just as churches have been unsuccessful in “finding” such answers to questions about divorce and remarriage, the family, or economics. But scripture can still play a central role in developing the Christian imagination as it has throughout the centuries. Reading in faith, we should enter the sanctuary space of scripture and allow the expansion of our Christian imaginations—about our selves and our sex. 

Dale B. Martin currently serves as Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University. He specializes in New Testament and Christian Origins, including attention to social and cultural history of the Greco-Roman world. He was an associate editor for the revision and expansion of the Encyclopedia of Religion, published in 2005. He has published several articles on topics related to the ancient family, gender and sexuality in the ancient world, and ideology of modern biblical scholarship. He is now working on issues related to gender, sexuality, and biblical interpretation, including an analysis of contemporary interpretation theory and its relationship to current uses of the Bible. His books include: Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity and The Corinthian Body. Much of the material in this essay occurs in his forthcoming book, Sex and the Single Savior: and Other Essays on Sexuality and Biblical Interpretation (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).