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From Shame to Sin by Kyle Harper 

06 October 2017

Mark Vernon looks at sex ethics in antiquity

ONE of the assertions of Christians who claim to take an orthodox stance on homosexuality is that they are teaching what the Church has always taught, namely, that same-sex desire is disordered. Kyle Harper’s fascinating exploration of early church attitudes towards sexuality demonstrates conclusively that this conviction is deluded.

The first Christian authorities were thoroughly against same-sex acts, it’s true. Paul’s absolute con­­demnation in Romans 1.26-27 spawned a sub-genre of polemical sermons and moral stories that provide the raw material for Harper’s historical exploration. By the 390s, Theodosius I was burning male prostitutes on bonfires as a lesson to the public. A century or so later, the standard punishment was dismem­berment.

But the key issue is not what the Early Church condemned but why it was so keen to condemn it. When you understand that, you see that the reason same-sex relationships were damned has now vanished. Even conservatives no longer share the world-view that first provoked Paul’s wrath.

When he wrote his letter to the Romans, Paul pinned nearly all that was wrong with Roman polytheism on the empire’s sexual morality. Harper shows that he had good reason to do so. The world into which Christianity was born was a slave economy. In particular, you could call yourself free if you could do what you wanted sexually with your body and with others’ bodies.

Paul, though, discovered a dif­­ferent kind of freedom. It was based not on bodies but on wills. Freedom in Christ was about the transforma­tion of your mind. He wasn’t inte­­rested in reforming the slave eco­­nomy, which is why he didn’t be­­come an abolitionist. Rather, early Christianity dramatically trans­­cended it with the notion of free will.

The condemnation of homo­sexuality and, in fact, all sexual acts save those that were necessary to procreate followed because to in­­dulge in them was gratuitously to exercise your freedom as if you were rejecting the new freedom of mind and will to be found in Christ. This is what Paul focused on. To have such people in your congregation was to pollute the body of Christ, as he explains in 1 Corinthians 6, be­­cause it corrupts the new person whom Christianity invited you to become.

Nowadays, the slave economy has gone, at least as an official policy. In a liberal society, no one has the right to anyone else’s body. Similarly, the Church no longer teaches that the best sex is no sex, as it did for its first 1500 years. Those who adhere literally to Paul’s injunctions have, therefore, lost sight of the spirit of the gospel. Christian freedom, based upon will, is now commonly ex­­pressed in the notion of consent, and so we recognise something that Paul would have thought hopelessly compromised, although para­­doxic­ally it is his vision that inspires it. Love is the basis for sexual re­­lation­ships, not ownership. Cele­brating sexual love is now to witness to the freedom to be found in Christ.

Harper’s book should be compul­sory reading for all who are engaged in the latest attempt to settle the Church of England’s teaching on sexuality. They will be reading their Bibles blind without it.


Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and author of The Idler Guide to Ancient Philosophy (Idler Books, 2015).


From Shame to Sin: The Christian transformation of sexual morality in late antiquity

Kyle Harper

Harvard University Press £14.95


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