In 1 Corinthians 6 the modern reader of Scripture encounters instruction by Paul that seems very puzzling. He writes, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!” (1 Corinthians 6:13-15 ESV).
The fact that Paul actually had to tell the Corinthians not to have sex with prostitutes is difficult for us to comprehend. Apart from a very few locations, prostitution is illegal in our country. Even in a culture where sex is used as the individual sees fit, the idea of using a prostitute and paying for sex is looked down upon.
That Paul had to write about this to the Corinthians illustrates the incredible transformation that Christianity brought to the sexual ethics of the western world. At the beginning of the twenty-first century we see the results of that transformation being eroded at a breathtaking pace. All the same, the context that the Church of the first six centuries faced was more challenging when it came to issues of sex between men and woman.
Kyle Harper has written the best treatment of slavery in the later Roman empire that exists to date (Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425; Cambridge University Press, 2011). Building on his immense knowledge of ancient Roman slavery, he then addressed a topic that was deeply interwoven with slavery. In his book, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2013) Harper has provided the best examination of sexual practice in the Roman world and the manner in which the rise of Christianity challenged and then transformed it.
Harper describes how when it came to sex between men and women, the “peculiar complexion of classical sexual culture derived from the institutionalization of a stark, binary, opposition between women who possessed and women who lacked sexual honor” (pg. 38). The status of the woman determined how she could be treated. A free born woman who was the legal wife of a Roman man could not be violated. On the other hand, a slave woman could be used however a man wished. In this system:
Adultery was, from its origins, a crime against man, not God, and it never lost this sense in Roman society … Adultery was an act of theft, violation of another man’s legitimate control of female sexuality. It was horrific, but principally as an affront to society. Adultery was public crime because the state was charged to maintain good order, not because it was the steward of sexual morality per se (pg. 43).
In the Roman world, “Virginity at marriage was paramount for girls, an ideal rendered practical by early marriage” (pg. 40). Harper describes how the sexual life course of women was determined by the realities of life:
In a society that was never freed from the relentless grip of a high-morality regime, the burden of reproduction weighted heavily on the female population. The demographic explosion of the Roman Empire, which pushed human settlement into every hill and vale, testifies to a society that was constitutionally geared for reproduction and technologically incapable of putting breaks on its own fertility. The age structure of Greco-Roman marriage was an expression of the need to exploit female reproduction potential to the full, from menarche to menopause. For girls, marriage came early and inexorably. The legal age for marriage was twelve. Most girls married in their mid-teens. The higher classes may have married off their daughters latest of all, sometime in their late teens. Marriage was universal for women; there were no spinsters in antiquity. In a world where death rates were grievously high and unpredictable, early widowhood was common. Although the univira, the woman with only one husband, was idealized, in reality society could not afford to be too fastidious about remarriage, and serial marriage was widespread and unproblematic (pg. 40).
The domestic reforms of the Emperor Augustus (lex Iulia) defined adulterium as the violation of a respectable woman. It limited private revenge in the case of adultery, and instead established a court to hear and adjudicate charges of adultery. Harper observes:
With the Augustan legislation, the state got into the business of protecting feminine chastity. At the same time the state was required to define, or at least establish guidelines allowing judges to define, which women were beyond its purview: implicitly slaves and explicitly women who made a profit with their bodies. By insinuating the state into the traditional networks of violence controlling access to female bodies, the Augustan laws ratified the distinction between women with, and without, sexual honor (pg. 39).
In a system where female slaves did not count as people with whom adultery could be committed, male owners (whether married or unmarried) used slaves for sex as they wished. Harper notes:
Women accounted for at least half of the slave population, and they bore the brunt of sexual abuse. Without legal or social protection, they were devastatingly vulnerable. Sexual abuse was simply presumptive, and many slave girls probably experienced sexual initiation traumatically early (pg. 45).
Men who owned slaves had access to sex whenever they wanted, and this was considered entirely normal and acceptable by the culture. For those who didn’t have such means, the institution of prostitution existed to satisfy their desires:
Prostitution was legal. It was taxed by the state and broadly supervised by the public officials in charge of keeping urban peace. Far from an institution that festered implacably in shadowy corners, prostitution in the Roman Empire was purposefully conspicuous. It played a well-established role in the sexual order. The idea that prostitution prevented adultery, that the prostitute’s body acted as a safety valve for male lust, was already, by the high empire, very ancient, and it remained a vital notion across Roman history (pg. 46-47).
Harper describes that:
Prostitution was a boom industry under Roman rule. In the densely urbanized and highly monetized economy of the Roman Empire, sex was a most basic and readily available commodity. Girls stalked the streets. Taverns, inns, and baths were notorious dens of venal sex (pg. 47).
Poor women often found themselves driven to prostitution. However Harper concludes that “the defining feature of prostitution in the Roman era, which gives Roman prostitution is particular tincture, is the pervasive influence of slavery” (pg. 48). A seemingly endless supply of female slaves generated by the Roman Empire provided bodies to meet the demand:
The low price of sex is stunning. Sex seems to have cost two asses in an ordinary town, “about the price of a loaf of bread.” Fellatio cost less. The vile rate of the transaction is also a harrowing indication of the crushing amount of work women had to perform to survive and to profit their owners. The commodification of sex was carried out with all the ruthless efficiently of an industrial operation, the unfree body bearing the pressures of insatiable market demand (pg. 49).
The accessibility of prostitution to those of a low class (even male slaves) differentiated Roman prostitution:
The lower-class atmosphere of the brothel lies behind one of the more subtle but important changes in the moral economy of prostitution under the Roman Empire. To the respectable class, prostitution was not immoral – it was squalid. The wealthy had slaves to serve their needs, and it was unnecessary to share sexual receptacles. Prostitution was the poor man’s piece of the slave system (pg. 49).
Other than the prohibition against the Roman definition of adultery, there were no real limitations on the sexual behavior of men, apart from the broad expectation that respectability required a mature man to show some self-control. This did not apply to young men. Indeed, “For the Greeks and Romans, any hard restriction on male sexual exertion in the years after puberty were considered implausible; through subtle but decisive evasions, this stretch of life was left unregulated” (pg. 54) Rather than repression:
“Sexual exploration was “practically required training,” after which it was expected the young man would cool off and ease into a more respectable self-control and eventually marriage. The “natural violence of youth” was better indulged than repressed, for repression would inevitably fail. The sexual escapades of boys in their late teens and early twenties were almost completely inconsequential (pg. 55).
Sex pervaded the Roman world. Harper describes that:
Erotic art flourished in the Roman Empire, in both commercial and domestic contexts. Indeed, the stark ubiquity of sex as a preferred aesthetic theme has even made the identification of ancient “brothels” a vexing challenge; what modern cultures might regard as obscene or pornographic was an ordinary part of the bourgeois and elite domesticity. No one was shielded from the facts of life in Roman antiquity. Men, women and children were surrounded by lush paintage of venereal acts in various stages of consummation (pg. 66).
A typical example of what he describes is seen here in the fresco from the House of the Centurion, Pompeii, first century B.C.
This pornography was not limited to the upper classes. Instead, Harper points to the fact that the culture:
…has left, in rather startling abundance, lamps decorated with the most uninhibited exertions. Lamps assure us that erortic art was not the preserve of the elite alone. The sheer numbers and archaeological findspots of erortic-themed lamps, furthermore, militate against the suggestion that these artifacts were anything other than a basic and broadly diffused domestic instrument. (pg 67).
When this Roman context is understood, it becomes far easier to understand why Paul had to address the topic of prostitution in 1 Corinthians 6. The Christian understanding of God’s will directly contradicted and opposed the Roman culture’s beliefs about sex:
Porneia, fornication, went from being a cipher for sexual sin in general to a sign for all sex beyond the marriage bed, and it came to mark the great divide between Christians and the world. Same-sex love, regardless of age, status, or role, was forbidden without qualification and without remorse. Unexpectedly, sexual behavior came to occupy the foreground in the landscape of human morality, in a way that it simply never had in classical culture (pg. 85).
Yet there was more here than just the specifics of what was permitted with whom. Instead, Christianity transferred the issues of sexuality from human social structures that operated on the basis of shame to one that saw all of life in the eschatological perspective because “we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10 ESV). Harper comments on this change:
Regardless, in no sense should early Christian sexual morality be construed as an offshoot of Roman conservatism. The ideas about sex emanating from the new religion marked a discrete and categorical rupture. For the community of the faithful, the pleasures of the flesh became caught in a cosmic battle between good and evil (pg. 85).
In the time before Constantine, Christians stood in complete opposition to the culture everywhere they looked. This was certainly true of sexual conduct:
We know the future of the early church. But the men and women of the first centuries did not imagine a future where the sexual protocols they formed would be placed in the hands of a powerful institutional church. Indeed, the strident tone of so much early Christian writing on sexuality was nurtured in an atmosphere where the advocates of the religion were a small, persecuted minority. Christian sexual morality of the second century has a shrill tone precisely because it is the urgent message of an embattled, if confident, group of dissenters (pg. 84).
The trajectory of the Church after Constantine was not one that anyone had foreseen. It produced a dramatic transformation:
The most astonishing development of late antiquity is the transformation of a radical sexual ideology, for centuries the possession of a small, strident band of vociferous dissenters, into a culture, a broadly shared public framework of values and meanings. The Christian vision of sexual humanity, incubated in the radical air of persecution, was forced, unexpectedly, into the mold of a regulatory system (pg. 135).
This did not happen without a struggle and the concerted efforts of Christian leaders. Harper points to a prime example of this in John Chrysostom’s sermons during his work in Antioch and Constantinople:
Harper observes that, “The homiletic corpus fo the later fourth and early fifth centuries provides abundant and vivid testimony to the intense war on fornication that trailed the mainstreaming of Christianity” (pg. 164).In Chrysostom’s campaign to reform the morals of his congregation, we can watch one Christian leader’s efforts to hector his audience, by threat, suasion, and enticement, in a modicum of sexual decency. His delicate efforts to instill Pauline values in his flock form an object lesson on the collision between Christian norms and deeply entrenched patterns of sexual conduct (pg. 162).
Prostitution remained a formidable challenge to the Church’s efforts. Harper comments that:
As they worked against prostitution the bishops began to understand the full extent of the challenge:It is not surprising, then, that prostitution became a particular preoccupation of leaders like John Chrysostom, and that through his eyes we can see the anger and despair of a Christian preacher working amid a society where prostitution remained a vibrant part of the sexual economy (pg. 165).
In the moment of Christian triumph, the leadership of the church began to recognize that prostitution was part of an entrenched social system that encouraged the sexual use of dishonored women. The bishops of the later fourth and fifth century articulated with unprecedented clarity the structural mechanics of the Greco-Roman sexual economy (pg. 165).It is important to recognize the manner in which Roman law justified the sexual sins of men, and church leaders saw this clearly:
John Chrysostom was hardly the only bishop to appreciate the role of Roman law in solidifying an alternative set of sexual norms. Augustine explicitly rejected the “law of the forum” in favor of the “law of heaven.” Salvian of Marseilles summarized Greco-Roman sexual policy in the pithiest, and most accurate, formulation on record: forbidding adulteries, building brothels. Prostitution was not simply tolerated – it was viewed as a way of protecting the honor of decent women. Ambrose despaired that his Christians would visit the brothel “as though it were a law of nature.” Christian leaders became desperately aware of the double standard, and the braver among them were perfectly willing to identify its origins. “The law were made by men, and they are disposed against women.” The acerbic Jerome offered a penetrating reflection on the fundamentally distinct logics of classical and Christian sexual boundaries. “Among them [the Romans], the bridles of sexual restraint are unloosed for men. The Romans condemn only stuprum and adulterium, letting lust run wild through whorehouses and slave girls, as though social status makes an offense, and not sexual desire (pg. 165).Eventually the efforts of these church fathers bore fruit. In 428 AD Emperor Theodosius II issued a law that slave owners and fathers could not force woman to be prostitutes. Harper comments:
The law of 428 was a path-breaking act of social policy. It addressed sin as a social problem. The state took an active concern in the spiritual welfare of women forced into prostitution. The constitution of Theodosius II made a statement that the government was willing to interfere with the private powers of masters and fathers. It also offered aid to poor woman who had been forced into prostitution by circumstance rather than private legal power (pg 184).In 439 the Roman Empire ceased to collect taxes from prostitution because it was no longer considered a legitimate form of commerce. Finally, in 535 Justinian issued a law that “forbade pimping, brothel-keeping, prostituting, or any other means of acting as a vendor of sex” (pg. 187).
As we live in the twenty-first century and look back, I think several observations are helpful. First, as bad as sexual conduct in our time is becoming, it still can’t match what the Church encountered in the first six centuries. The presence of slaves and prostitution created cultural expectations about sexual conduct (supported by the implications of Roman law) that still make our setting look tame. Imagine a situation today where a husband could have sex with the baby sitter or have sex with a prostitute and this would be considered normal, acceptable and not a form of adultery.
Second, explicit pornographic material was publically more pervasive during the time of the early Church. No one today expects to walk into someone’s house and find a mural on the dining room wall of a nude man and woman in the act of intercourse! At the same time, a case can be made that our situation is equal to that time, or even worse. Internet pornography may not be public, it is just as pervasive. It is available on every computer, tablet and smart phone. The verisimilitude of the depictions puts the ancient art to shame, because it is a graphic view of people actually having sex (and often being depicted in a violent fashion). In addition, a growing body of evidence indicates that the media used to view this pornography impacts the brain itself and “rewires” brain so that it functions differently in relation to sex.
Third, it should not escape our attention that it took more than two hundred years from the time Christianity became legal and began to be favored by the Roman government until prostitution was officially outlawed. The Church challenged a fornicating world for five hundred years before society officially adopted a Christian view of sexual conduct. During the first three hundred of those years it seemed impossible that the culture as a whole would ever take on Christian views about the use of sex.
All during this time the Church did not cease to confess the Christian view of sexual conduct, nor did it cease to insist that members of the Church live in this way. The Church’s beliefs and practice were not determined by convenience and acceptability, but instead by God’s will and word. If the Church is to be Christ’s Church, then this must be our attitude as well now that the world is returning to sexual conduct that is similar to the first six centuries. There is no way to avoid the fact that this was very hard for the Church. Her leaders expended great effort in teaching the truth and seeking to guide the way Christians lived. The same is required of pastors today.
Finally, we must recognize that the task of doing this will be more difficult for us than it was for the early Church. As I have written in another post (No it’s not the first centuries all over again for the Church), unfortunately large portions of the Church now deny that Scripture is God’s inspired, authoritative revelation. They have become an anti-Church that actually denies what orthodox Christianity has always confessed on the basis of God’s word. These organizations bear the name “Christian” but they have become the world when it comes to a whole range of issues, including sexual conduct. Instead of a united witness that opposes the world, there are many in Christianity who speak and act just like the world. This greatly undermines the efforts of those who seek to be faithful.
The challenges are great and only the Lord knows what course events will take. Perhaps we in the West are called to be a faithful remnant while the Church flourishes in Africa, China and elsewhere. Perhaps the Lord will return and bring the final victory and vindication. We cannot know these things. What we do know is that we are called to be faithful, and as we seek to do this God has given us examples that we can follow. Christians such as Ignatius of Antioch, Cyprian, Ambrose, John Chrysostom and Augustine were not afraid to challenge the sin of the world around them. They also were not afraid to confront the heresy that existed in those who claimed to be Church. It is now in their footsteps that we must walk.