To understand any book, you must understand the culture in which it was written. I love reading Dickens in part because I am fascinated with the history of the early Industrial Age. By history, I don’t mean memorizing dates and heads of state; I mean the social history of how people actually lived. Dickens comes alive when you have a better sense of how families functioned, how people made a living, and how debtor prison worked in nineteenth century Britain.

The Bible surpasses all books in number of copies printed and the reach of its influence. Many of us read the Bible daily and love the insights, yet few of us put forth much effort to understand the culture in which the Bible was written. This chapter will help you develop a sense of the Greco-Roman culture—of living in ancient times—with a particular focus on sex and marriage.

The only sex mentioned on the Ten Commandment stone tablets was adultery. What does adultery mean? You know it’s something about married people having sex with anyone other than their least that’s the definition today.

In Old Testament (OT) times, though, the Hebrew word for adultery (moicheiawas defined as a married woman having sex with any man who was not her husband. That’s an asymmetric definition. The requirements are different for a woman than for a man.

A woman can’t have sex with anyone except her husband. A man, on the other hand, may have sex with his slaves, prostitutes, concubines, or anyone else who is not a free and betrothed or married woman.

That’s the OT definition of adultery, as well as the common understanding of it through Greco-Roman times. The stipulated penalty in the OT was death.

Why were wives bound to this strict sexual fidelity when husbands were not? Inheritance. Fathers wanted to pass their assets to their true heirs. If the wife had sex with anyone else, the lineage of the heir would be questionable. Like my Dad said, “You always know who the mother is...but not so sure about the father.”

To understand the sexual options open to a man in Greco-Roman times, let’s hear from the fourth century BCE Greek orator Demosthenes about the three kinds of women an Athenian man can have sex with.

1.     Wife: for the birth of legitimate children

2.     Concubine: for regular sex (may be a slave)

3.     Sexual Companion: a prostitute trained in the sexual arts and social graces and able to accompany the man to social events, such as banquets, where wives were banned

Prostitution was legal and accepted in Greco-Roman society. The Bible has a mixed message about prostitution. Rahab the prostitute was never condemned for her job and was called one of the heroes of the faith. Paul criticized prostitution—not as immoral but as polluting the male client.

We make a big mistake when we assume all cultures in all times resemble our current one. The Romans, for example, believed a woman was a vastly inferior version of a man. Women, children, slaves, effeminate men, eunuchs, etc., were all considered “non-men.” All non-men lived under the authority of an elite man.

One Sex Roman Model


When Jesus spoke about adultery, it was in this cultural context. When the Pharisees brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus to be judged, it was unsurprising that the man was not likewise accused.

After Jesus, the early church leaders struggled with the issue of adultery and forgiveness. Hemas wrote that it should be forgiven only one time, while both Tertullian and Origen thought it unforgivable. In keeping with the times, some thought that husbands could be forgiven but wives could not.

Basil of Caesarea, a famous preacher and theologian alive around 350 CE, wrote that slave women sexually violated by their masters were not subject to Church discipline. He also mentions no punishment for Christian masters who sexually abuse their slaves.

Men’s and Women’s Roles

Now let’s get back to sex...or lack thereof. The Bible consistently states that a woman needs to be a virgin prior to and sexually faithful to her husband within marriage. A man wasn’t expected to stick to either obligation. In fact, there is nothing in the Bible about whether male virginity at marriage was a rule or even desirable.

Greco-Roman culture mirrored this requirement for female virginity at marriage while including no similar obligation for males. This feels unfair from our modern perspective, but we need to understand how strong traditional gender roles were in ancient times.


Men were thought to be:           Women were thought to be:


Since women were thought to be flighty and lacking self-control, female celibacy was assumed to be a problem. Paul addresses this issue by writing that widows may remain unmarried (like Paul himself) if they have the self-control. Titus writes about the same issue, concluding that young women don’t have the self-control, so they should marry.

The ideal man in the Greco-Roman world controlled his own passion, body, and household. Women were lesser beings and were expected to be devoted to their husband and children. Women rarely learned to read and write. It was considered “unnatural” for anyone to deviate from these gender roles.

For most people in modern times, sex is a bit like a dance: there is give and take; one partner doesn’t always need to lead; and there is a mutuality about it.

In Greco-Roman times, though, you were either the active penetrator or the passive receptor. To be penetrated was to be weak, to be “playing the woman,” and to hold the inferior position in society. The world was divided into “the penetrators” and “the penetrated.”

Even more surprising to our modern thinking: that division wasn’t based on gender. It had more to do with social class. A male citizen could satisfy himself sexually with his wife, concubine, slave girls, slave boys, female prostitutes, or male prostitutes. If he was the penetrator (orally, anally, or vaginally), he was within the social norms.

Roman Sex Roles


Sex had more to do with social position than gender in Biblical times. The elite male was “active, desiring, pursuing, initiative-taking, penetrating and getting sexual pleasure.” He was the “screwer.” All non-elite men and women were passive, desired, pursued, penetrated, and giving sexual pleasure.” They were the “screwees.” 

In another deviation from our modern ideas about sex, there was no requirement for consent on the part of the wife or the slaves. It was simply their duty to comply—to be the receptor. Sex by force was the right of the elite Greco-Roman male. He had absolute authority over the minds and bodies of everyone in his household.


Divorce rules, polygyny, and the sexual standards of the ancient world all gave men substantial advantages over women. The term for this male-dominated hierarchical society is “Patriarchy.” The word means “the rule of the father.” The paterfamilias owned all the property and had legal power over his wives, children, slaves, and other household members.

Did God ordain this patriarchy? The polygyny of the OT and some of Paul’s statements in the NT (e.g., that women should not teach/speak in church and that they should not be elders) have led to the allegation that the Bible is a misogynistic text. But this charge ignores the cultural context.

The OT shows women as judges and leaders and contains the books of Ruth and Esther and the Song of Songs. The NT shows Jesus having support from a group made up of women and the following revolutionary listings from the book of Acts.

1.     The outpouring of the Holy Spirit went to both men and women.

2.     Priscila (whose name is always listed before her husband Aquila, which isn’t normal for those times and probably shows leadership) instructed Apollos about the teachings of Jesus that went beyond John the Baptizer.

3.     The four prophesying daughters of Phillip the Evangelist are listed.

4.     Tabitha (who Peter raised from the dead) was called a disciple and was known for “always doing good and helping the poor.”

5.     Mary, the mother of John Mark, hosted some of the earliest church gatherings.

6.     Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, responds to Paul’s message, and she and her entire household are baptized. When Paul and Silas broke out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house to meet with other believers.

7.     Finally, in Thessalonica, the new believers are listed to include “not a few prominent women.”

Of course, the early church was still part of a strongly patriarchal society, but when Paul writes to the Galatians that there is “no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,” he articulates the amazing changes to come.

We may wonder, “Why doesn’t the NT simply condemn patriarchy?” Think about the people listening to Jesus and Paul preach. To ask those folks what they thought of patriarchy would be similar to asking fish what they think of water. There simply wasn’t a conceivable alternative.

Yet, we all get to interpret the Bible in our own way; that is part of the incredible freedom God gives us. My study of the Bible and related ancient texts convinces me that the Bible was written in patriarchal times but points us toward a time when patriarchy is no more.

Sadly, that journey has taken a couple thousand years and is still only partially completed. I’m saddened when men use the writings of Paul, who I find remarkably egalitarian, as a hammer to force women into positions of subservience and tell them that they are less than equal partners. That behavior seems to go against our goal to become more and more Christ-like.

Beyond Patriarchy

The New Testament provides, as its name suggests, new teaching that will eventually move the world beyond patriarchy. The NT takes us beyond rule-based living. We are encouraged to rely on the leading of the Holy Spirit, and that changes everything. Let’s look at some of those teachings that relate to sex and marriage.

Paul recommends lots of sex in marriage. He says the Christian husband and wife will be best protected from sexual sins with others if they regularly service each other. Paul further veers from the patriarchy of the day to state that women have sexual needs that must also be met. He even mentions that women may take the lead in the marriage to meet those needs.

Of course, Paul couches these directives with his belief that people would be better off if they focused fully on Jesus, didn’t marry, and ignored sex. Yet, he acknowledges that such an idea simply isn’t realistic for most people. If it isn’t for you, then you should marry and have enough sex to keep yourself and your partner satisfied.

In a fascinating twist, the early church in 400 to 500 CE moved away from Paul’s sex-positive teaching. Many church leaders wrote that sex should be for procreation only. In fact, celibacy within marriage became the ideal. Sex was to be performed without desire (don’t try this at home) and only for the purpose of procreation.

Why the shift? For the first few hundred years, the early Church grew and struggled to define itself. After Constantine took power in the early 300s, he not only made Christianity legal but made it the official religion. He helped develop the Nicene Creed, which preceded the Apostle’s Creed. With a Christian Roman emperor, the early believers went from being considered criminals to taking hold of some power.

Of course, it’s no fun having power if you can’t make rules for other people. To contrast itself against the libertine Greek and Roman cultures, sex and marriage rules became more stringent.

The early church pondered celibate marriages, marriage to non-Christians, and second marriages. By the 400s, Christians truly broke from the Greco-Roman world by banning forced prostitution and same sex intercourse. Remember, in this time, it was common for a man to have sex with a prostitute. It was legal and not considered a moral transgression.

Paul told believers not to engage with prostitutes right after telling them not to sue. He wasn’t setting up new rules (that just wasn’t Paul); he was encouraging believers to live up to a higher standard. Paul condemned sex with prostitutes because it polluted the body of Christ, not the marriage bed.

I don’t want to minimize Paul’s teaching, though. He clearly told us to flee from sexual immorality and to honor God with our bodies.

The early Christians, and every group thereafter, has been trying to figure out what really constitutes “sexual immorality.” Do we go with the teaching that God created the body above the navel, while Satan created the bottom half ? Then we must choose celibacy. Perhaps we conclude that celibacy is good for some, but not for us?

It’s important for us to understand that Jesus didn’t directly challenge the patriarchy of his time. He didn’t call for an immediate social upheaval; he didn’t call for the end of slavery or prostitution or for infants to stop being exposed. Rather, he planted the seeds for the future destruction of the patriarchal system.

For example, when the Pharisees asked Jesus a tempting question about divorce, he responds by outlining God’s perfect plan for marriage. Later in that chapter, Jesus outlines God’s perfect plan for giving—telling the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. In neither case was Jesus making new laws for us to live by.

Many rules emerged in the first few hundred years of the early church. Some of the rules the early church instituted make perfect sense in our modern context. Stopping the practice of exposing infants right after birth is certainly a more humane way of doing things. Rules made divorce more difficult to obtain and forced the husband to answer to the church as to why he demanded a divorce, which put the wife in a more protected position.

Of course, all institutions with power seem to overplay their hands, and the early church certainly does the modern church. Tertullian wrote that marriage was not forbidden, but that didn’t make it good. He pushed for celibacy within marriage. He also called marriage after divorce a “sexual crime.” This anti-sex attitude of the early church—which is nowhere to be found in Christ’s or Paul’s teachings—has stayed in the church for centuries.

Christians have constantly changed their moral standards and rules throughout history. The base of Christian teaching that has never changed is grace, forgiveness, and love. We’ve gone wrong in many ways with our moral standards and rules, but we’ve never gone wrong with grace, forgiveness and love. We live best when we focus on the two commandments from Jesus: Honor God and love others.

Historical Timeline of the Ancient World

The timeline of the Ancient world is complex. Use this graphic to wrap your head around the timeline of the Bible and all the cultural and historical stuff that has an effect on the way various ancient cultures viewed sex and relationships. Knowing the history will help you understand what the Bible is saying about sex and why, culturally, it does so. 

Christian Sex Book Graphic - Chapter 1 (1).jpg

Brutality of the Ancient World

The modern Western world took much from the cultural and government ideas of the Greek and Roman civilizations, yet we tend to forget how brutal many Greek and Roman values and ethics were.

Consider infanticide. It was common to kill newborns if they weren’t male or if they were born with a disability or disfigurement. [1]  Adding to the horrors, the method of killing was often just tossing them outside to die from exposure or to be eaten by animals. This lack of compassion for one’s own children astounds the modern sensibility. Lloyd DeMause says it well:

Infanticide during antiquity has usually been played down despite literally hundreds of clear references by ancient writers that it was an accepted, everyday occurrence. Children were thrown into rivers, flung into dung-heaps and cess trenches, “potted” in jars to starve to death, and exposed in every hill and roadside, “a prey for birds, food for wild beasts to rend” (Euripides, Ion, 504).[2]

In Politics, Aristotle wrote that children must be killed for the benefit of society:

There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed. For a limit must be fixed to the population of the state.[3]

Four hundred years after Aristotle, Romans continued with infanticide as normal. When Jesus was a child, Roman citizen Hilarion wrote a letter to his pregnant wife, Alis. It includes the following:

Know that I am still in Alexandria. And do not worry if they all come back and I remain in Alexandria. I ask and beg of you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment I will send it up to you. If you deliver a child [before I get home], if it is a boy, keep it, if a girl, discard it. You have sent me word, “Do not forget me.” How could I forget you? I beg you not to worry.[4]

Hilarion loved his wife but not his newborn daughter. Infanticide was legal, considered moral, and widely practiced.

The Bible emerged during these brutal ancient times. Children in antiquity were an investment, not the treasured beings Christianity holds them to be today.  Ancient families tended to raise few children.

Family economics were tough. The Bible even provides guidelines for selling your daughter into slavery...and she can’t leave the bondage after seven years as was normal for other Israelite slaves. The new master isn’t allowed to sell her to a foreigner, but can keep her (presumably as a wife or concubine) or give her to his son.[5]

Let’s move from that depressing topic to a quirky aside: birth defects were thought to originate from sex.[6]

●      born lame = doggie style intercourse

●      born mute = cunnilingus

●      born deaf = conversing during sex

●      born blind = man looked at vulva

The rabbi who made these observations didn’t indicate any harm coming from fellatio. Big surprise, right?

Anyway, back to the brutal. No fundamental human right to life existed, and there was certainly not a right to a life with dignity. Consider the Roman Coliseum. Thousands of gladiators fought and died for the entertainment of the masses. Dwarfs, blind people, and people with a variety of other disabilities fought to the death in contests meant to amuse a crowd. The ancient world was harsh.

If you believe, like I do, that the Bible is completely true, then knowing the concurrent history helps increase your understanding of it. I developed a graphic at that puts the Greek, Roman, and biblical times in perspective. If you want to place these times in history, have a look.   

[1] Katherine A. Shaner, “Family Structures: New Testament,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 219.

[2] Lloyd DeMause, Foundations of Pyschohistory (New York: The Institute of Physcohistory, 1982), p. 27.

[3] Aristotle, Politics VII. 16.

[4] Cited in Naphtali Lewis, Life in Egypt under Roman Rule (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985), 54.

[5] Exodus 21:7-11

[6] Tirzah Meacham, “Male-Female Sexuality: Early Judaism,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 471.

Self Mastery Required of Men & Pederasty

In yet another departure from modern sensibility, the man who had too much sex, who was overly passionate and didn’t practice self-control, was criticized for being “womanly.” Self-mastery was essential for the Greco-Roman elite male. As Cicero said a couple decades before Jesus was born,

Thus everything comes down to this...that you rule yourself...not to do anything in a base, timid, ignoble, slavelike or womanish way.[1]

The assumption was that women and slaves could not control their appetites or emotions. Thus, the main character flaw of non-elite men was a lack of self-mastery over one’s own body and passions, especially in terms of gluttony and lust.[2] Any intemperate behavior was considered effeminate.

Therefore, hyper-sexuality (considered macho in modern times) was considered womanish/unmanly in ancient times. Similar to gluttony, unchecked sexual activity was thought to have a debilitating effect on constitution and character.[3] For example, in Roman times it was legal and expected for a married male citizen to go to prostitutes (male or female), but it was bad form to visit too often—to be extravagant about it.[4]

To give some context, when the Pharisees accused Jesus by calling him a glutton and drunkard, they questioned his self-mastery.[5] Thus, it was an attack on his fitness to lead.


Another sexual standard wildly different in ancient times is pederasty. Elite males sexually penetrating teen boys was normal in ancient Greece. This pederasty was a rite of passage for adolescent boys.

When the elite boy passed puberty at around 18 years old, he became the penetrator for the rest of his life. These relationships were common and accepted.[6]

The biggest difference in sexual standards between ancient Greece and Rome was that it was illegal to have sex with free born males in Roman times, though it was still normal for elite men to penetrate male and female slaves and prostitutes.[7]

The OT doesn’t mention pederasty, but it doesn’t seem to have been a part of Israelite culture. When Jesus spoke about the severe punishment for causing the “little ones to stumble,” he seemed to be including pederasty.[8] One’s hand or foot, which Jesus instructed his followers in Matthew 18:8 to cut off if it caused them to sin, was often a euphemism for the penis.[9] Jesus commanded us not to cause harm to children and seemed to view pederasty as violence—though his exact meaning isn’t clearly stated.

[1] Tusculan Disputations, 2.53, 55; Epictetus 3.24.20.

[2] Eric Thurman, “Gender Transgressions: Roman World,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 299.

[3] Ibid. p 301-2.

[4] Benjamin H. Dunning, “Sexual Transgressions: New Testament,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 2, p. 325.

[5] Matthew 11:19

[6] K. J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989) p. 65.

[7] Anthony Corbeill, “Same-Sex Relations: Roman World,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 2, p. 271.

[8] Mark 9:42

[9] Marianne Blickenstaff, “Sexual Violence: New Testament,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 2, p. 369.

The Household as the Basic Family Unit

Let’s move on to another area that was also substantially different in ancient times: the family. Realize first that our modern concept of the nuclear family (Dad, Mom, and kids) wasn’t the norm in the ancient world. In fact, there was no Roman word or phrase for that kind of family.[1]

The household was the basic family unit in Greco-Roman times. In Roman times it included the elite male (Paterfamilias), wife, legitimate children, slaves, extended family, adoptees, and boarders.[2] The Romans made it illegal to have more than one wife.

Roman Household


In early Greek and OT times, the head of the household could have multiple wives. Concubines were also common, as were Levirate marriages—taking the wife of one’s dead brother and getting her pregnant so his name and inheritance could continue.[3]

The children from wives, Levirate wives, and concubines were legitimate and could participate in the inheritance. The children from slaves remained slaves and the children from prostitutes were the responsibility of the prostitute—though I imagine most of them were exposed.

Old Testament Israelite Household[4]


It’s important to understand that marriage/sex in OT times wasn’t just between a husband and wife but between the husband and all the people sexually available to him in his household.[5] To get a sense of the times, here are the words from Demosthenes, a Greek philosopher from the 4th century BCE, on the matter:

Mistresses we keep for pleasure, concubines for the daily attendance on our person, but wives for the procreation of legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our household.[6]

This quote illustrates how family life morphed between ancient Greek and Israelite times. The children from the concubines of Israel became legitimate heirs, while Demosthenes indicates that those children would have been slaves. The various positions of the underlings (women and children) changed through ancient times, but the elite male remained at the top of the heap.

Why did elite men have that exalted position? In ancient times, battles and raids were near-daily occurrences. Young men were often killed. Famine and disease also decimated the population.

All these factors produced many young widows (with or without children). A woman had almost no opportunity to provide for herself (prostitution being a notable exception) and faced a difficult life without a husband. Polygamy in ancient times could be considered an act of compassion.

Step aside with me here to define some terms: Do you know what polygyny and polyandry mean? They are both a subset of polygamy.


Polygyny was where one husband had multiple wives. It was common in ancient times until the Romans put an end to it. Polyandry was where one wife had multiple husbands...which doesn’t seem to have existed in ancient times.[7]

To truly understand sex and marriage in the OT, we need to know that neither the OT itself nor Greek culture had any law or moral restriction against polygyny. Many Bible teachers use Genesis 2:24 (“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh”) to claim that God ordained one man and one woman be married only to each other for life.

But the text says nothing about the man becoming one flesh with his second wife or the ones who followed her. Also, the Hebrew word translated as “flesh” here seems to mean kinship and doesn’t have a sexual denotation. The same word is used in Genesis 29:14 when Laban said to Jacob, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh.”

Since so many examples of polygyny exist in the OT, it doesn’t feel honest to ignore them. In fact, the OT law states that a man can take another wife as long as he provides the first wife with food, clothing, and sexual intimacy.[8]

Polygyny was common in ancient Greece and in the OT. Then, Roman law made it a serious crime to be married to more than one woman. It’s significant that this rule came from the Romans and was not dictated in the Bible.[9] When Paul wrote that a deacon must be a husband of but one wife, he was following Roman law, not Hebrew law.[10]

What about ending marriages? Again, this is vastly different from modern times. The state didn’t register marriages; they were a private arrangement. Divorce was easy, common, and wasn’t viewed as a moral lapse, but women tended to be devastated by divorce.[11]

Here are some general standards for divorce in Biblical times.[12]

1.     During the betrothal period, the groom or bride’s father could initiate divorce and there were no consequences in the separation.

2.     After marriage, if the husband simply wanted out and no fault was found with the wife, her father (or brother) got her dowry back and kept the bride wealth.[13]

3.     If wife was found at fault in some way, there was no financial settlement.

4.     If the wife produced children, some minimal safeguards for the wife were provided.

When Jesus spoke against divorce, these were the standards of contemporary culture. Jesus seems to be reinforcing the sanctity of marriage and the responsibility to treat one’s wife with love and kindness.[14]

We need to understand Jesus’ teaching about divorce in light of his other hard teachings (do not get angry, give all possessions away, repay evil with love, etc.). He’s not making rules here; he’s showing us the best path and giving us the Holy Spirit.

[1] Helen Rhee, “Family Structures: Early Church,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 228.

[2] Remember the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”

[3] Genesis 38:9 tells us of Onan unwilling to impregnate his dead brother’s wife per Levirate law. He and other reluctant brothers got their sandals pulled off and spit on by the widows.

[4] Jon L. Berquist, “Family Structures: Hebrew Bible,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 201.

[5] Annalisa Azzoni, “Marriage and Divorce: Hebrew Bible,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 484.

[6] Demosthenes, “Apollodorus Against Neaera,” Demosthenes, trans. by Norman W. DeWitt, Ph.D. and Norman J. DeWitt, Ph.D. (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1949), Section 122.

[7] Sarah Shectman, “Marriage and Divorce: Ancient Near East,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 481.

[8] Exodus 21:10

[9] Shulamit Valler, “Family Structures: Early Judaism,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 224.

[10] I Timothy 3:12

[11] B. Diane Lipsett, “Marriage and Divorce: Early Church,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 507.

[12] Sarah Shectman, “Marriage and Divorce: Ancient Near East,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 482.

[13] The dowry was the assets the bride’s family gives to the groom at marriage, while the bride wealth was the assets given by the groom’s family to the bride.

[14] Matthew 19:8-12

I Just Want to Be Biblical

I love the Bible. I’ve read through it many times. I make notes in the margins, ponder passages, and enjoy the truth as it wells up in me. Both my heart and my brain tell me the Bible is completely true. There’s a big difference, though, between knowing the Bible to be true and assuming all that truth is clear to me.

In this chapter, we’re going to consider various biblical texts and how the mainstream understanding of them has changed over time. When God gave me the idea to analyze what the Bible says about sex, he used many seemingly unrelated texts to guide me.

This Bible study may seem challenging, and it might appear to have nothing to do with sex, but be open to God showing you the threads that connect these passages—the threads I believe he showed me.

Hard to Understand Texts

When I read about the many times God commanded genocide, I struggle to reconcile how the God I know could do that.[1] When the Bible shows a clear support of slavery, I wonder on which side I would have been fighting in the American Civil War. I come across so many verses that make me wonder. For example:

If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.[2]

What conclusion am I supposed to draw from that passage? Don’t mess with the package?

Many Bible verses baffle me. But that seems consistent with the world God created. After all, he made 350,000 species of beetles, which is more than all the plant and mammal species combined. Why did God go wild on beetle creation? We won’t find an answer in the Bible, and I’m fine with that…in fact I like it. I’d hate to live in a world that someone as silly as me could understand.

I know I don’t want God asking me the questions he mockingly asked Job.

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?[3]

To understand the Bible’s message about sex, let’s study a seemingly unrelated topic: slavery. Please hang with me as we delve into slavery to glean the parallels to sex.

[1] Joshua 6:20-21, Deuteronomy 2:32-35, Numbers 31:7-18

[2] Deuteronomy 25:11-12

[3] Job 38:4-7


The Bible applies perfectly to all its readers in ancient times, in modern times, and all times in between. In order for that to be true, though, some passages need to be read within their unique cultural context. For example, Paul writes:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.

Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.

Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people.[1]

In this passage, he references the current laws and standards. Slavery wasn’t a controversial issue of social justice in ancient times. It was the normal way of life. If you weren’t a slave, you were probably part of a household that owned slaves. A slave wasn’t just property; wives and children were also property. A slave was a slave for life, alienated, treated with violence, and generally dishonored.[2]

In this culture where slavery was normal, Paul instructs slaves how to act. Few of us believe Paul was writing a rule for all future cultures. That distinction will be important later as we analyze biblical texts on sex.

Jesus also makes reference to servants (i.e., slaves) in his parables. Neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor any Biblical writer ever mentions opposition to the institution of slavery.[3] As we saw in the above, New Testament writers told slaves how to be better slaves, not how to escape or change the slavery system.

The Old Testament supports slavery even more. Moses, the lawgiver, describes how slaves can be purchased and handed down as property.[4]

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.

You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.

You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.[5]

Most folks today who read the hundreds of pro-slavery verses in the Bible conclude that these writings were meant to be taken in cultural context.[6] Certainly God does not command slavery or even endorse it. He allowed comments to be made about a current practice.

But, if you lived in the American South in the mid-1800s, owned slaves, and loved Jesus, you likely would have interpreted these Bible verses differently. How could these Northern agitators—the so-called abolitionists—conclude that God was on their side?

In fact, even Christian slaves struggled with how to interpret biblical teachings on slavery. Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave and escaped north in his mid-20s, wrote, “I had at times asked myself the question, ‘May not my condition after all be God’s work, ordered for a wise purpose, and if so, is not submission my duty?’” [7]

Douglass struggled with the concept of being a “slave for life.” In his younger years, he accepted the brutality he encountered, but the thought that he would never be anything but someone else’s property—never have a permanent wife, never be certain when his children would be sold away from him—made that life unbearable.

Douglass decided to escape. He expected to be tortured and to die. He consciously chose death over a continued life of slavery. He knew slavery was a great evil, both to the slaves and to the slave holders, but he’d heard the pro-slave verses preached as truth his entire life.

Now let’s try to imagine what our life might be like in America in the 1850s as a slave. The master could rape you (though it’s not rape because you’re his property). The master could make you work anywhere and take all your wages. The master could sell your children. The master was not allowed by law to teach you to read. The master could kill you.

On the other hand, say you lived in the North. You probably didn’t think about slavery often. It was an issue far away that affected other people. You’re busy enough with your own life and don’t need to solve other people’s problems. No one made you the General Manager of the Universe.

But if you lived in the South and weren’t a slave, you grew up with slavery being a normal part of the culture. Your minister preached regularly on pro-slavery verses. You believed the kindest thing you could do for the colored folks was to keep them in slavery since they weren’t capable of taking care of themselves.

How would you have interpreted the Bible if you were in one of these situations above in the 1850s? How would you have lived? Would you have said about slavery, “The Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it”? Or would you have been an abolitionist?

Most abolitionists were ardent Christians who felt the Holy Spirit leading them to declare slavery evil and fight against it. Douglass writes about the Quakers who helped him gain freedom at great risk to themselves.[8] He marvels at those who “took me in when I was a stranger” and “fed me when I was hungry.” Douglass (and all slaves eventually) felt the love of Jesus through those works.

Jesus gave us a simple test. Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.[9] William Wilberforce showed the bad fruits of slavery to the British Empire in the early 1800s. The American Abolitionists highlighted those bad fruits in the mid-1800s, culminating in the Civil War. As the laws changed, churches evaluated the scriptural teaching vs the bad fruits concept.

Slavery was a case in which biblical interpretation and church doctrine changed dramatically. What are some others?

[1]  I Pet 2:17-20 (NIV 2011)

[2] Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge MA: Harvard College, 1982), 13.

[3] You could argue that Paul told the owner of Onesimus to give him his freedom to help Paul, but that wasn’t an argument against the institution of slavery itself.

[4] Abraham, the great man of faith in the Bible, was also a slave owner (Gen 12:5). Solomon writes that slaves will need to be beaten for correction (Prov 29:19).

[5] Leviticus 25:44-46

[6] Supposedly 326 pro-slavery Bible verses, though I haven’t counted.

[7] Douglass, Frederick, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc, 2003), 141.

[8] Ibid. 143-4.

[9] Matthew 7:15-20

Church Changes Over Time

Here are a few examples in which the Church argued, fought, and changed:

1.     All believers must be circumcised and follow the dietary laws.[1] Paul, Peter, and James pushed to eliminate the requirement for new male believers to be circumcised and eat Kosher. No one debates this in Christianity today.

2.     The sun and stars revolve around the Earth.[2] Galileo paid the price for this change by spending his life following his 1633 conviction for heresy under house arrest. No non-nitwits dispute the scientific proof against this one.

3.     The Earth is about 6,000 years old. Since the early Church, religious scholars counted the years in the genealogies and stipulated a year of creation and of Christ’s second coming. Even Isaac Newton, in the early 1700s, worked on an Earth chronology with the 6,000-year assumption. Then James Hutton, the father of modern geology, realized the Earth is much older.[3] Most scientists today agree the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, though some Christians still hold to the 6,000-year age.

4.     Everything has been the subject of debate. Musical instruments, types of music, styles of dress, Sunday School, alcohol, tobacco and many other things have been debated in the Church over the years since Christ’s resurrection.

What are we fighting about now? Acceptance of homosexuality is a big one. When people are asked about their impressions of Christians, they generally don’t talk about our amazing charity. They see us as judgmental, hypocritical, anti-homosexual, and boring.[4] Much of that sentiment comes back to homosexuality.

Most Christians believe the Bible states clearly that homosexuality is a sin. That’s what I thought. Then a friend asked me if I remembered the first time I saw a Playboy magazine. I did. I remembered that strong attraction and something funny going on in my pants. I was like, “Stand back, I don’t know how big this thing is gonna get.” Turns out I had nothing to worry about.

But then my friend asked me to consider if I would have had that sexual attraction when I saw men in a magazine. I realized I didn’t make a choice to be attracted to women, I just was. I started to feel empathy for the folks who felt same sex attraction and were told it’s a sin. I decided to read the entire Bible, paying close attention to sex and marriage.

[1] Acts 15:1-29

[2] Psalms 93:1, Psalms 96:10, Psalms 104:5, I Chronicles 16:30, Joshua 10:13, and Ecclesiastes 1:5

[3] Jack Repcheck, The Man Who Found Time, (New York, NY: Basic Books of Perseus Books Group, 2009), 152. Jack is my grandson’s other grandfather.

[4] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, “unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity... And Why It Matters,”

Clobber Verses

I took two years to carefully read through the Bible and take prodigious notes.  Let’s have a look at what I found. We’ll start with a cheery topic: sodomy.

Ask most Christians about Sodom and Gomorrah and you’ll hear that God destroyed the city because the people were engaging in homosexual behavior. Read the story in Genesis 19, though, and you’ll see it is a commentary on mob mentality and rape. Lot offered his virgin daughters to the mob to be raped in order to spare his guests.

To our modern minds, Lot’s offer appalls us, but we learned in chapter 2 about the Greco-Roman world’s emphasis on community honor and shame. For Lot to have allowed his guests to be raped would have brought great shame on his household and community. The low value of women in the patriarchal society was also a factor.

The sin of the mob (and of Sodom and Gomorrah) was meanness—a lack of compassion, kindness, and empathy for others. The eight times the New Testament references “Sodom” lack any mention of homosexual behavior. The biblical story of Sodom simply isn’t about homosexuality.

On the other hand, the Old Testament law commands men who engage in same sex relations be put to death.[1] We’ve all heard homosexuality called an “abomination.”[2] But what else does the Bible call an “abomination”?

1.     Eating ham, bacon, sausage, lobster, clams, shrimp, etc.[3]

2.     Charging interest on a loan.[4]

3.     Burning incense.[5]

The list of prohibitions is even wilder, including combinations of clothing, planting different plants next to one another, and engaging in sex during menstruation.

Matthew Vines in God and the Gay Christian goes beyond the simple debate of whether to ignore Old Testament laws and masterfully covers the complex issue of what modern Christians can learn from Old Testament law.[6] If you want to go deeper into this topic, read his book. In this book, however, I’m content to know I’m not bound by all those Old Testament laws. And that’s good, because I really love bacon.

Now let’s evaluate the most challenging of the clobber verses from Romans 1:

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.[7]

When you read that, you likely conclude that Paul makes it clear that Homosexuality is sinful. But take the time to read the rest of that section of Romans: 1:18-32.

In the rest of the chapter, Paul makes the key point that people tend to not put God first. They tend to worship idols—anything that one loves more than God. Then Paul gives the example—not a command—about sex becoming an idol.

The true sexual sin of the times was excess—failing to have the moderation that was required of an elite man. Excess passion was considered weak and womanly. Here’s a first century quote from Dio Chrysostom that provides cultural context:

The man whose appetite is insatiate in such things (referring to 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.[8]

Dio then describes wine drinkers who become addicted and go to extremes. For both sex and alcohol, moderate use was appropriate and extreme use a problem.

Paul writes from this same cultural context. He uses homo-erotic sex as an example of failing to be satisfied with moderation and making sex an idol above God. In Paul’s patriarchal culture, homosexuality as we recognize it today didn’t exist.[9] While plenty of homo-erotic activity went on, we don’t find any record of the kind of committed, same-sex relationships we see today. Paul wasn’t making a law against something that didn’t exist.

As you read Romans 1:26, perhaps the word “unnatural” is what bothers you most. You probably visualize how a penis fits into a vagina and think that’s natural, so anything else must be unnatural. But when you consider the amazing complexity of God’s creation, do you really want to base this important decision about what is right or wrong concerning sexuality on your need to keep things simple? Think about it: Paul wrote that homo-erotic sex was unnatural, but he wrote the same thing about men having long hair. Sorry, hipsters.

The most compelling reason for me to reject the idea that Romans 1 is a clear biblical rule against homosexuality comes in the verses that follow it.

They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.[10]

I commit many of those sins. I am occasionally wicked and often greedy. I gossip and have been known to disobey my parents. Sometimes I realize I’ve been heartless and ruthless. The amazing grace of God gives me hope that I am loved even in my sinful existence.

Paul isn’t trying to make us hate homosexuals in Romans 1; he wants us to recognize the kinds of behavior that lead us away from God. He wants us to put God first in our lives. Any of the sins of excess and idolatry make it difficult for us to put God first. That is Paul’s point.

Let’s move now to the last clobber verse: the catalog of sins. Since the translation matters so much, we’ll start with the King James Version, the earliest of the modern translations:

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.[11]

Paul wrote this letter to help the young, struggling church in Corinth develop holiness—to live moral and God-focused lives. Immediately prior to the verses shown above, Paul tells the church that the fact that they are suing each other means they are already defeated. He challenges them to submit to the injustice—even to allow themselves to be cheated—rather than sue. Then Paul describes ten types of wicked people and concludes that their conduct will keep them from inheriting God’s kingdom. Let’s go through that list and see how we fair:

1.     Fornicators: This is the Greek word Pornea, explained previously, which is a non-specific word for sexual sins. Jesus stipulated that looking with lust at another woman is a sexual sin...I’m already in trouble.

2.     Idolaters: The best definition for this seems to be putting anything in our lives ahead of God—yet another test most of us fail.

3.     Adulterers: This is the Greek word Moichos, which means sex outside marriage for a woman or a man having sex with a married woman who is not his wife. Hopefully few of us fail this one.

4.     Effeminate: This is the Greek word Malokoi, which seems to mean “softness.” It was used to describe “men who acted effeminately” against the patriarchal culture that required strong and self-controlled men.[12] One commentator described the term as an ancient equivalent of telling a boy he “throws like a girl.”[13] If you’re less than a manly man, you may fail this one…I don’t.  

5.     Abusers of themselves with mankind: The Greek word for this, Arsenokoites, is not used anywhere else in the Bible and almost nowhere else in ancient literature. It seems Paul combined two words to create Arsenokoites: Arseno means male; Koites means bed. No one can definitively say what the word means, but the NIV translates it as “homosexual offenders.” “Male prostitute” may be a better translation, though, since the few times it’s used elsewhere it seems to be grouped with economic sins.[14] It couldn’t have meant “homosexuals” since that concept wasn’t developed until the late 1800s.

6.     Thieves: A thief is someone who steals. This is another category in which we all miss the mark.

7.     Covetous: It is defined as wanting what others have or being greedy. Every person I’ve ever met has been covetous.

8.     Drunkards: A few teetotalers can say they never fall into this category, but most folks fail here on occasion.

9.     Revilers: The NIV translates this as “slanderers,” so if we sometimes say things we wish we hadn’t, we probably fail in this category.

10.   Extortioners: The NIV translates this as “swindlers,” which seems to involve the use of one’s own power to take advantage of others. You probably only fail on this one if you have any power.

Read through that list again. Is it as clear to you as it is to me that no one deserves to inherit the kingdom of Heaven? Any thoughtful Christian already knows this. We live with our sinful nature every day. We treasure grace because it allows us to transcend who we are and become who we are capable of being.

I’m amazed that these verses are still used to keep people who identify as LGBTQ out of the church. The idea that two members of the same sex could be in a committed relationship only became known as a part of culture in the late 1800s. In G-R times, same sex behavior was just another way for an elite man to have his sexual needs met. The Bible, read in cultural context, couldn’t have been prohibiting something that wasn’t known to the culture itself. So, looking at those clobber verses, how might we respond to people who attempt to use them to exclude LGBTQ people? Here’s a cheat sheet:

Clobber Verse copy.jpg


[1] Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13

[2] The “abomination” language is found in the King James Version in Leviticus 20:13.

[3] Leviticus 11:9-12

[4] Ezekiel 18:13

[5] Isaiah 1:13

[6] Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships (New York, NY, Convergent Books, 2014), 77.

[7] Rom 1:26-27

[8] Dio Chrysostom, “The seventh or Euboean Discourse,” last page.

[9] Joseph A. Marchal, “Homosexual/Queer,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 340.

[10] Rom 1:29-31

[11] I Cor 6:9-10 KJV

[12] Lynn R. Huber, “Same-Sex Relations: New Testament,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 2, p. 277.

[13] Eric Thurman, “Gender Transgression: Roman World,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 298.

[14] Lynn R. Huber, “Same-Sex Relations: New Testament,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 2, p. 276.

How Jesus Changed Marriage

Prior to Jesus, the main purpose of marriage was to produce legitimate, male heirs.[1] The male head of the household wanted to be able to pass his assets down to his own children. Marriages were contracts between families. The government was not involved in marriage in any way. Marriage was not an “institution.” Marriages tended to be utilitarian and many ended in death or divorce.[2]

Divorce was simply the nullification of a contract. It was common and simple. If the wife brought a dowry (her inheritance from her father given to her husband at marriage) into the marriage, she was generally allowed to take it with her when she left. Though if the males in the family agreed on her infidelity, she would forfeit her dowry.[3]

Jesus preached a less utilitarian and more spiritual view of marriage. He made it the “ideal” for a couple to stay married for life. He said several times that a man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.[4] While some believers take this to be a rule against remarriage, those same believers likely do not require adherence to Jesus’ command to the rich young man to sell everything and give it to the poor.[5]

Jesus changed marriage, and the world, not by making rules but by teaching us a new way to live. Rather than keeping divorce easy and common, Jesus encouraged his followers to hang in and work through the problems that come up in marriage. Jesus showed us how to love others in a sacrificial way, rather than sticking to the idea that marriage was for the sole purpose of producing heirs. Jesus’ teachings made marriages last longer and stay stronger.

Some of his early followers in the first few hundred years of church history made other marriage rules:

1.     Sex is only for procreation.

2.     Even procreation sex shouldn’t be enjoyed, only tolerated.

3.     All must remain celibate.

4.     Masturbation is forbidden.

5.     Homo-erotic sex is forbidden.

Most of these rules have been deemed wrong over time. Some early Christian writers, though, seemed to understand Jesus’ true intention. Tertullian wrote this lovely passage outlining a new view of marriage in “To His Wife”:

Side by side in the Church of God and at the banquet of God, side by side in difficulties, in times of persecution and in times of consolation. Neither hides anything from the other, neither shuns the other, neither is a burden to the other. They freely visit the sick and sustain the needy. They give alms without anxiety, attend the sacrifice without scruple, perform their daily duties unobstructed. [6]

That shared, holy purpose and friendship between spouses came out of Jesus’ teachings about marriage. The Romans moved things in that direction, making marital monogamy the law, but the Christian agape love changed marriage and changed the world.

Unfortunately, many Christians in the early church, and up to present day, continued to hold on to patriarchy and legalism, despite Jesus spending so much time speaking against legalism and hypocrisy. I think Jesus grieves when his followers make rules for others instead of showing agape love. Let’s look at another act most of us were taught was un-Christian.

[1] B. Diane Lipsett, “Marriage and Divorce: Early Church,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 506.

[2] Julie Langford, “Marriage and Divorce: Roman World,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies ed. Julia M. O’Brien (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), Volume 1, p. 495.

[3] Ibid. 496.

[4] Mark 10:2-12, Matthew 19:1-9, I Corinthians 7

[5] Mark 10:17-21

[6] Tertullian, “To His Wife,” in Miscellanies 2.23.

The Sin of Lust

While Jesus gave us a new view of marriage, he also clearly named lust a sexual sin. What did he mean by the sin of lust? When I look obsessively at a woman, seeing her as a tasty little morsel and not as a sacred human being, I commit the sin of lust, and it cheapens the amazing life God has given me.

The females being objectified know that I am a creep; they can feel it. It reminds me of the way the Devil looked at victims in The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis: as treats to feed one’s depravity. If you haven’t read The Screwtape Letters, put this book down and go read it. Here’s a quote from the senior Demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood, a Junior Tempter:

It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.[1]

Don’t pretend the sin of lust isn’t a big deal. Just like greed and envy, the gentle slope of sin can create a great gulf between you and God. Try to be like Job. He made a covenant with his eyes to not look lustfully at a young woman.[2] Job pleased God by striving to avoid lust. I want to be like Job...except for all that struggling and pain stuff.

Read in context, the Bible has a lot to teach about sex and culture. But remember: Jesus taught us to love God and love one another above all other commands. When you’re striving to remain biblical in your sex life, remember to read the verses we discussed in their cultural context. Cascade other people with love...don’t clobber them with judgement.

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Middlesex, England: The Penguin Group, 1988), 65.

[2] Job 31:1-4