Pride 1.0

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Today is the day of the annual Pride parade. This year, for the first time, Lawrence Park Community Church will be marching in the parade along with many other churches. We will be walking alongside lesbians, homosexual men, transgender persons, groups representing every variation of queer sexuality. Pride parades are relatively new – in Toronto they began in the 1970s[1], and by 1993, the Metropolitan Community Church was providing church services for the Pride Sunday attendees. [2]  

The reason churches are so late to this party is that for many centuries, Christianity taught that queer sexuality is immoral and wrong. It was presented as a form of perversion, something a minority of people did, something which should be condemned and eradicated whenever possible. There are still many denominations that continue to condemn homosexuality on moral grounds.    

Just two weeks ago, the Christian Reformed denomination voted to condemn homosexuality as well as premarital sex and same sex unions.[3]  

The United Methodist[4] denomination in the United States is currently splitting over the issue of homosexuality. So, we may be ready to march in a pride parade, but many Christians are not.  

The denominations who condemn homosexuality usually point to the Bible to justify their position. There they have found six passages which forbid homosexuality – three in the Hebrew Scriptures[5] and three in the New Testament.[6] They cite these passages to justify their rejection of homosexuality. However, what they ignore is that Christianity was born in a time when homosexuality was out, common, and normal. The Roman and Greek society at that time was if anything gayer and queerer than modern society is now.[7] And that makes a difference in how we interpret the attitudes of early Christians regarding homosexuality. Sometimes what is in the Bible can only be understood by knowing what was happening outside of the book.  

When Paul and the Gospel writers wrote the New Testament, gay sexuality was everywhere. There were no laws against it.  

In Roman society, same sex marriage was legal.[8] These statues are of Emperor Hadrian, and his public lover Antonius. Their relationship was public and celebrated. When Antonius, the one on the right, died, Hadrian was so upset he named a city after him and had him promoted to a god so people could pray for him.[9]  

A few years earlier, when Paul was writing, the Emperor Nero also had a husband, who was treated like an empress.[10] Male-male love affairs were common themes in romantic poetry. Philosophers debated which was more civilized: heterosexual love or homosexual love. [11]   Then as now, most people were straight.  

In A 2021 study of 27 countries including Canada, 11% of people reported being either gay or bisexual.[12]  The numbers ranged from 17% in India, to 4% in Russia, with Canada counting 13% of the population as gay or bisexual.      

This suggests that queer sexuality is a natural part of human sexual expression. We are born this way, as Lady Gaga would say. For the Christians who wrote the New Testament, queer sexuality was simply a fact of life.[13] A significant minority of men had sex with their wives, but preferred sex with their male slaves or male prostitutes.[14] Prostitution was taxed by the state as a money maker, like taxing gasoline is now.[15] It was not condemned. Same sex marriage was legal.[16] Had a Christian writer told Romans that gay desire was unnatural and deviant, he would have been met with laughter and accusations of madness. Gay and bisexuality were everywhere, and to deny it was ridiculous.  

There was one key difference. Back then, people were defined according to their position in society – could they vote? Were they owned by someone else, like slaves were? Romans didn’t divide society into gay and straight people.[17] That would not have made sense to them. It would be like dividing us into people who jog and those who do Pilates. What we do with our bodies for exercise is our business, it is not a defining feature of who we are. The Romans saw sex the same way. It didn’t define your identity in society. Roman men were free to have sex with men or women based on what felt right to them personally. It had no implications for whether they could get a job or serve in government.  

This begs the question, how did Christians become so convinced that gay sexuality was deviant and immoral when the Romans considered it normal and healthy? Modern Christians tend to look to the Bible for proof of our positions. In the Hebrew Scriptures there are just two passages which condemn gay sex.[18] The same section also condemns cursing one’s parents – and the punishment is death in both cases[19]. Paul, the Apostle who wrote today’s letter, had told Christians that they were no longer bound by the laws of the Jews (Galatians 5:1-6). So, what the Hebrew Scriptures said about homosexuality was no longer binding for Christians.   If Christians have been told that homosexuality is a problem, we must look in the New Testament.  

 Here’s a representation of some of the key issues that come up in the gospels. Sin is mentioned 121 times, adultery 15 times, hate 22 times, love 66 times, and homosexuality: 0 times. Jesus never mentions it.[20]    

The gospels, those biographies of Jesus, do not mention homosexuality. But Paul’s letters do.  

To really understand what homosexuality means for Paul, we need to understand what sex meant for him. In today’s passage he makes a famous contrast between the flesh and spirit. The desires of the flesh are condemned, while the aims of the spirit are celebrated. For Paul, and many early Christians, the entire goal of Christian life was to transcend a life ruled by pleasure and natural urges. For Paul, the goal of Christian life was to live by the spirit.  For this reason, he became celibate, and he encouraged all Christians to try it, too. (1 Cor 7) This was the best way to join with God’s way. But he famously counselled, if you find yourself inflamed by desire all the time, then it is better to get married so you can have sex with a partner. And within marriage, he encouraged partners to have sex with each only when they really needed to. He was not endorsing hedonism, but he knew that sexually frustrated Roman men would turn to their slaves, male and female, or prostitutes to satisfy their urges. Unlike most Romans, Paul saw that as adultery, so it was better to have sex with one’s spouse only.  

For Paul, the problem was not sex in itself, but the state of mind it generated. When he says that we should be wary of the desires of the flesh, we might assume he would list physical cravings like hunger, thirst, sexual desire, sleep. But those aren’t on his list. Instead, he talks about desires which are entirely self-seeking, and which often harm others.   

Sexual immorality, sorcery, idolatry, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, drunkenness, rivalries, and orgies. Strife and sorcery are not physical desires. They are, however, practices of a person who is self serving and egotistical. Sorcery was used to cast spells on enemies.  

Strife and anger are emotions which find fault in others and even bring harm to them to promote your own agenda. Drunken people can be a danger to their families. Orgies are inherently self-serving, and in Paul’s time, would have usually involved slaves, who had no choice. For Paul, the term “desires of the flesh” is about egotistical, self-serving frames of mind. They get expressed through acts of the flesh, acts that often bring harm to others. This is part of our fallen nature that in seeking pleasure for ourselves we can hurt others. Paul advises against them, and they apply to straight and gay people alike.  

Paul then lists the desires of the spirit, and they, too, sounds like states of mind.  He says that when we live by the spirit the result is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”. Being grounded in the spirit means that the selfish ego has been superseded by a sense of self which is calm, and generous to others.  

Paul’s contrast of flesh versus spirit is really between selfishness and loving kindness, which wishes to help others.   For Paul, a key practice to get to this life of the spirit, is to become celibate so you can devote your entire life to serving Christ. Paul believes that heterosexual desire can be an impediment to living a spiritual life. So, he recommends that people remain virgins, and that widows not remarry. (1 Cor 7) He even suggests that married couples renounce sex with each other so they can devote themselves more fully to Christ.  

So, when we hear people say that Paul had problems with homosexuality, we should remember that he had even bigger problems with heterosexuality. He wanted Christians to attain a spiritual state that would rise above sexual desire. For those who could not achieve this, he recommended marriage, as a poor second choice. For Paul, one’s state of mind was all important, so sex within marriage was to prevent one from being ruled by sexual desire. But the best option of all, was to be celibate.  

This ambivalence about straight sexuality has to be kept in mind when we ask about Christian attitudes towards homosexuality. Paul was only the first of many Christian leaders to advocate for virginity and celibacy within a culture that was highly active sexually, both gay and straight. There has always been a tension between what the priests recommend and what Christians really do. Priests in the next few centuries preached that even within married couples, sex should only be for procreation, and that couples should avoid enjoying sex.[21] But that doesn’t mean many people did this. Then as now, there’s what the minister says you should do, and what people really do. Good Christians kept having sex in marriage, and many, perhaps most, enjoyed it. Family sizes were big, and not every act of love making results in children, so it is likely straight Christian couples were enjoying sex more often than their priests said they should. That didn’t make them bad Christians.  

So, what about gay sexuality? Paul condemned that, too, in his letters, but nowhere near as often as he denounced adultery and recommended celibacy. He knew that many in his audience were gay or knew gay people. The Christians who came after him knew this, too.   When the monastic movement began in the 300s, one of its proponents was Basil the Great, who lived in what is now Turkey.[22] Monks were expected to be celibate. Men lived next to each other in the desert. But that didn’t mean that sexual desire went away. Many monks complained of being tortured by dreams of sexy women.[23] But Basil also noticed that handsome young male monks could also awaken desire among other male monks.    

 “It is frequently the case with young men that even when rigorous self-restraint is exercised, the glowing complexion of youth still blossoms forth and becomes a source of desire to those around them. If therefore, anyone is youthful and physically beautiful, let him keep his attractiveness hidden until his appearance reaches a suitable state.”[24]    

Basil does not condemn these desires or claim that they are deviant. He recognizes them as a real part of human nature, but which should not be acted on by monks.  

We have been told for so long that Christianity rejects homosexuality as deviant and unnatural that it is shocking to hear that early Christians recognized homosexual desire as normal. Our faith was born at a time when homosexuality was more out of the closet than it is now. They lived in Pride 1.0. Christianity did not endorse homosexuality, but it did not really encourage heterosexuality, either. For every person who opens the bible to a section on homosexuality, they also open the sections where Paul tells straight married couples to stop having sex with each other (1 Cor 7).  When we use the Bible to censure gay people, we are willfully ignoring its critiques of straight sexuality.  

The few passages that Paul wrote arguing against homosexuality were penned at a time when he was trying to pull people away from any kind of sexual activity. He assumed that the end of the world would begin soon, so there was no point in having children, and even marriage seemed like a waste of energy. (1 Thessalonians) That may have made sense in his time, but not in ours. We see sexual pleasure as a gift from God. Like all gifts, it should be used with wisdom and in moderation. But few Christians today want to turn their backs on sexual pleasure for the sake of religion. Instead, we believe that one can embrace the fruits of the spirit and still be sexually active. We have come to believe that what Paul called the benefits of the spiritual life – love, compassion, generosity – are qualities which all people, queer and straight, can embrace inside and outside of the bedroom. In this way, Christians are getting a second chance to define how our commitment to God can be expressed through endorsing generous, compassionate, caring love in all of its forms. We are still on the path Paul imagined, but without casting off the sexuality God gave us. We are part of the next stage in Christianity’s evolution, a path that is still somewhat unclear, but which we are proud to be marching toward.  



[1] [2] [3] Yonat Shimron, “Christian Reformed Church codifies homosexual sex as sin in its declaration of faith,”, June 15, 2022 [4] Emily McFarlan Miller, "After years of loud debate, conservatives quietly split from United Methodist Church,", May 2, 2022 [5] The Sodom and Gomorrah story, Genesis 19; Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. [6] 1 Cor 6:9; Romans; 1 Timothy 1:9-10; Romans 1:26-27 [7] John Boswell, Christianity, social tolerance, and homosexuality: gay people in Western Europe from the beginning of the Christian era to the fourteenth century, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago:1981) [8] John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, p.84. [9] John Boswell, p.85. [10] John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. 82. [11] John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. 127. [12] Ipsos, LGBT+ Pride 2021 Global Survey, p.7 [13] John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, p.68. [14] John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. 74. [15] John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, p.70. [16] John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, p.82. [17] John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, p.59 [18] Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 [19] Leviticus 20:9. [20] All calculations based on word occurrence in New Revised Standard Version, Anglicized.  Forgive includes forgiveness. Graphic created in [21] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical lecture 4, 25; Clement of Alexandra, Exhortation to the Heathen Book 2, chapter 10; Augustine, Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Book 1, ch 14. Jerome, Letter 48:6. [22] [23] For example, Jerome, letter 22. [24] Quoted in John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, p. 159.