The Christian tradition doesn’t address sexual orientation.
For the first 1,600 years of the church, nearly all Christians believed that the earth stood still at the center of the universe. But the invention of the telescope led Christians to reconsider their interpretation of the Bible.
- Psalm 93:1 says, "The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved." Joshua 10:13 says the sun "stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day." Ecclesiastes 1:5 says, "The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises."
- Galileo argued that the biblical authors used figurative language when describing the heavens, so the text "would be accommodated to the understanding of every man."
- Despite the weight of tradition, the telescope presented Christians with new information that required them to reconsider some of their beliefs—and their interpretation of Scripture.
"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." -Galileo Galilei, 1564-1642
Christians today are in a similar position because of new information that we have about sexual orientation.
In the ancient world, same-sex attraction and behavior were widely considered to be vices of excess that might tempt anyone—like gluttony or drunkenness. Same-sex attraction was not understood as the sexual orientation of a small minority of people.
Here are some examples of how ancient writers thought about same-sex behavior:
Musonius Rufus (first-century Roman philosopher):
“Not the least significant part of the life of luxury and self-indulgence lies also in sexual excess. For example, those who lead such a life crave a variety of loves, not only lawful but unlawful ones as well, not women alone but also men; sometimes they pursue one love and sometimes another, and not being satisfied with those which are available, pursue those which are rare and inaccessible.”
Dio Chrysostom (first-century Greco-Roman orator):
“The man whose appetite is insatiate in such things [sex with women], when he finds there is no scarcity, no resistance, in this field, will have contempt for the easy conquest and scorn for a woman’s love, as a thing too readily given—in fact, too utterly feminine—and will turn his assault against the male quarters, eager to befoul the youth who will very soon be magistrates and judges and generals, believing that in them he will find a kind of pleasure difficult and hard to procure.”
These descriptions differ not only from same-sex orientation, but also from bisexual orientation, as they depict same-sex behavior as stemming from over-the-top lust, not normal or moderated desire.
Does this mean the biblical writers were ignorant or wrong about same-sex relationships?
- No. The dominant forms of same-sex behavior in the ancient world fit a pattern of lustful self-indulgence: sex between masters and enslaved men, prostitution, and pederasty (sexual relationships between adult men and adolescent boys).
- Understandings of same-sex behavior as stemming from excessive pleasure-seeking accurately reflected the most common practices of the day.
But surely there were some LGBTQ people in committed relationships as well?
- To the extent that same-sex behavior was accepted in ancient societies, it had to conform to strict class and gender hierarchies. So an adult male citizen could have sex with an enslaved man, prostitute, or youth, as long as others viewed the adult male citizen as being dominant in the encounter.
- Sexual identity was defined not by sexual orientation, but by conformity to patriarchal gender roles. Men who were dominant in sex were generally viewed positively, whether they had sex with males, females, or both. Men who were seen as passive in sex were viewed negatively. People didn’t come out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, because the sex of one’s partners mattered far less than the gender role one took with those partners.
- Greco-Roman societies were sexually tolerant only when the patriarchal order went unchallenged. The notion of two men or two women of equal social status entering into a lifelong, monogamous relationship would not have been accepted even by the most “progressive” Greeks and Romans, as such an arrangement would have undermined the patriarchal foundation of their societies.
Tip! Recommended Book
Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective
Nissinen's award-winning book surveys attitudes in the ancient world toward homoeroticism. Focusing on the Bible and its cultural environment — Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Israel — Nissinen concisely and readably introduces the relevant sources and their historical contexts in a readable way.
What about ancient texts that describe loving same-sex relationships?
- N.T. Wright argues that there are examples of loving same-sex relationships in ancient literature. He cites Plato’s Symposium, Achilles and Patroclus, and Nero’s marriage to a man he enslaved. But none of these examples—or any others cited—is similar to modern-day same-sex marriages. They all involve status hierarchies, and most are not monogamous.
- There are no ancient examples of lifelong, monogamous same-sex relationships between social equals, and certainly none that have societal support.
But aren’t there some ancient texts that talk about same-sex orientation?
- There are some texts that describe certain forms of same-sex attraction as natural or even innate. But these texts (for example, some writings of Aristotle) typically refer to some men’s desire to take the passive role in same-sex relations, not to same-sex attraction itself—and that desire was not seen as precluding opposite-sex attraction as well.
- In Plato’s Symposium (fourth-century BC), a character named Aristophanes relates a myth in which double-headed, four-legged humans are split into two, and then seek out their other half afterward. He describes a male-male couple, a male-female couple, and a female-female couple, leading some to argue that the categories of gay and straight people were used in antiquity.
- But as classicists like David Halperin and Kirk Ormand have argued, that is a misreading of the text. As Ormand writes in his book Controlling Desires: Sexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome,
“Each [pairing] is a type of excess, and the story turns out to be not about how to produce gay or straight men and women, but how certain kinds of odd and excessive preferences came to be.”
- The excessive/deviant practices represented by Plato's pairings are adulterers and adulteresses (not “heterosexuals”), men who exclusively pursue boys and continue to live with them after they mature (not “gay men”), and women who actively seek other women (which violated submissive gender norms).
- There is a simple test to show that our understanding of same-sex orientation is uniquely modern: Until the 20th century, no Christian writings acknowledge that lifelong celibacy is the requirement for anyone based on the church’s rejection of same-sex relationships.