“All things are common among us but our wives.” Early Christian sexuality and charity

15 Sep

This past Lord’s Day, my pastor referred to a point made by Tim Keller about how NYC inverts the ethical order of Christianity.  In Christianity, much is made of sex, it is sacred, special, to protected, and not shared with anyone other than the spouse.  Money, on the other hand, is trivial, unimportant, not to be treated as a matter of extreme importance, and should be shared with many.  The culture inverts that, trivializing sex, making it public, shared, common, laughed at, unimportant.  But money is the cultural idol, the most important thing about you, and is to be hoarded, protected, amassed, and used for personal gain.  But this counter-cultural trend has been going on between the church and world for, well, a long long time.

From Dr. Michael Kruger:

While it was not unusual for Roman citizens to have multiple sexual partners, homosexual encounters, and engagement with temple prostitutes, Christians stood out precisely because of their refusal to engage in these practices.

For instance, Tertullian goes to great lengths to defend the legitimacy of Christianity by pointing out how Christians are generous and share their resources with all those in need.  But, then he says, “One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives” (Apol. 39). Why does he say this?  Because, in the Greco-Roman world, it was not unusual for people to share their spouses with each other.

In the second-century Epistle to Diognetus, the author goes out of his way to declare how normal Christians are in regard to what they wear, what they eat, and how they participate in society.  However, he then says, “[Christians] share their meals, but not their sexual partners” (Diogn. 5.7).  Again, this is the trait that makes Christians different.

We see this play out again in the second-century Apology of Aristides.  Aristides defends the legitimacy of the Christian faith to the emperor Hadrian by pointing out how Christians “do not commit adultery nor fornication” and “their men keep themselves from every unlawful union” (15).

A final example comes from the second-century apology of Minucius Felix.  In his defense to Octavius, he contrasts the sexual ethic of the pagan world with that of Christians:

Among the Persians, a promiscuous association between sons and mothers is allowed. Marriages with sisters are legitimate among the Egyptians and in Athens. Your records and your tragedies, which you both read and hear with pleasure, glory in incests: thus also you worship incestuous gods, who have intercourse with mothers, with daughters, with sisters. With reason, therefore, is incest frequently detected among you, and is continually permitted. Miserable men, you may even, without knowing it, rush into what is unlawful: since you scatter your lusts promiscuously, since you everywhere beget children, since you frequently expose even those who are born at home to the mercy of others, it is inevitable that you must come back to your own children, and stray to your own offspring. Thus you continue the story of incest, even although you have no consciousness of your crime. But we maintain our modesty not in appearance, but in our heart we gladly abide by the bond of a single marriage; in the desire of procreating, we know either one wife, or none at all (31).

This sampling of texts from the second century demonstrates that one of the main ways that Christians stood out from their surrounding culture was their distinctive sexual behavior.  Of course, this doesn’t mean Christians were perfect in this regard.  No doubt, many Christians committed sexual sins.  But, Christianity as a whole was still committed to striving towards the sexual ethic laid out in Scripture–and the world took notice.

Needless to say, this has tremendous implications for Christians in the modern day.  We are reminded again that what we are experiencing in the present is not new–Christians battled an over-sexed culture as early as the first and second century!

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