Did the Early Church Approve of Homosexuality?

Revising history has been one of the common ploys in the gay Christian movement. In particular John Boswell and former Jesuit priest John McNeill have written books that revise the history of the church to be more friendly to gays. These books have been used by gay Christians as proof that Christianity from it’s earliest times was welcoming of homosexuals. Boswell even argues that same-sex unions were approved by Anselm. Their scholarship, if it can be called that, has been called into serious question time and time. Yet they are cited by gay Christians as proof that sodomy really has not been that big a deal in church history.

To combat this error Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams have written Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition.  These authors carefully cite numerous primary sources from the early church into the modern era that show without a doubt that sodomy in all its forms has been condemned by the church. Michael Kruger has a review of the book here. He states:

After reading Fortson’s and Rollin’s book, they may not agree with what Christians have always believed.  But, they would have to admit that Christians have always believed it.

I have only gotten through the chapters on the early church and the Middle ages, but both are valuable and clear. Several points stand out.

First, the church has always taught that the sin of Sodom was homosexuality. Hospitality is sometimes mentioned alongside of homosexuality, but homosexuality is always mentioned. I read nothing that indicated that the primary problem was homosexual rape either. 

Second, sodomy was often grouped with murder and bestiality as the gravest of sins.

Third, the celibate priesthood was a breeding ground for sodomy. Sodomites priest were common enough that specific punishments were put into law for priests who were sodomites. Despite these laws sodomy continued to be a problem in monasteries.

Fourth, marriage between a man and a woman was always considered the only proper outlet for sexual expression. Sodomy, masturbation, prostitution, bestiality, lesbianism, mistresses, concubines, etc. were all sins of varying degrees with sodomy being at the top of the list.

Finally, there were distinctions made between different types of homosexual behavior, including sex with boys, the dominant male, and the submissive male. But all of these were considered a gross violation of nature. One does not get the impression reading the primary sources that the main concern was sex with boys. The problem was sodomy not the sexual abuse of boys.

Here is the conclusion to their chapter on the church fathers:

This brief survey of the early Christian centuries underscores several assertions that can be made with confidence about Christian attitudes towards homosexual practice. Given the ethnic diversity of Christians and their geographic dispersion throughout the Mediterranean world in the earliest centuries after Christ, the evident consensus on this issue is remarkable…The church fathers were aware of homosexual practices in their culture and consistently condemned such behavior…The Fathers believed homosexual practice was perverse and would lead one down the path to destruction. Same-sex activity was considered a grievous sin against the Creator who designed men and women for each other. In addition to violating divine design, homosexual activity-according to early Christian writers-was an instance of humans abusing and polluting one another. 

Here are some conclusions from their chapter on the Middle Ages:

The cumulative evidence from centuries of medieval sources points to the church’s unequivocal condemnation of all forms of homosexual practice. As in the patristic era, despite the geographical separation and diverse cultures of early medieval Christians, they shared a commitment to biblically defined sexual ethics…no extant source includes an example of medieval Christians expressing toleration of homosexual behavior. There was no medieval deviation from patristic teaching concerning the accepted code of Christian sexual morality…all varieties of homosexual practice were condemned by the medieval church…in the late medieval era, when massive collections of earlier Christian writings  emerged, the compilers of canon law provided a comprehensive picture of the church’s views of homosexual practice. What one observes is a consistent pattern of both denunciation and pastoral care for persons guilty of homosexuality.  

Here is the final paragraph in the chapter on the Middle Ages:

The medieval material indicates a distinction among persons who engaged in same-sex acts. Younger boys experimenting with homosexual sex were treated far more leniently than adults, adults who habitually engaged in homosexual acts were treated more severely than occasional offenders. The texts reveal a medieval awareness that some people felt sexual desire for persons of the same gender, but this did not legitimate acts against nature. Rather extreme measures were taken to help persons with same-sex attraction avoid eternal damnation, from penance to strict requirements concerning their living arrangements. Homosexuality was not viewed as a psychological disorder: it was sin. While homosexuality may have been characteristic of some persons-an orientation-ethics was not reduced to a psychology of inclinations or orientations; it dealt with actions that proceeded from the wickedness of fallen humanity, a humanity that could be transformed through the work of Christ. 

The authors have done the church a great service by doing the research and writing this book. It will be a great resource for the body of Christ as she ministers to those coming out of the gay culture to Jesus and as she stems the tide of the gay Christian movement which attempts to turn the Bible’s teaching on its head and to throw out 2,000 of the church’s teaching on sexuality in general and sodomy specifically.