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How Christendom Became Homophobic

In this article, we look at how Christendom’s stance on homosexuality changed from one condemning promiscuity, prostitution and pederasty to one coining the term “sodomy” to vilify anything considered non-procreative sex, spawning Christendom’s homophobia.

This is obviously an exhaustive subject and I’ve worked hard to keep it down to the core influencing events.

Third Century

By the time Imperial Rome co-opted Christianity in the fourth century, the view on same-sex sexual activity had shifted. Where once it was celebrated for Roman men to have sex with anyone—male, female, intersex person—provided they assumed the active role, as it was about status and power not gender and sexuality, by the end of the third century same-sex activity had become something merely tolerated in Roman society.

While prostitution continued and the status-orientation implications remained, men were becoming more sexually restrained. Still, taking the passive role in sex made a man no longer male, and eunuchs and effeminate men were sometimes the subject of ridicule.

Click to read an example:

In secular Judaism, the strongest condemnations were from Philo and Josephus—both contemporaries of Paul and the Gospel writers.

In the early church, the condemnation was linked to promiscuity, prostitution and pederasty.

To sum up, secular Jewish sources and Christian sources clearly condemned promiscuity, prostitution and pederasty. However, like Roman society at large, they were—at the very least—tolerant of the eunuch class.

This prevailing tolerance continued until the end of the fourth century, when homosexuality first became criminalized, but the power battles during the fourth century are critical to understand the context.

Fourth Century

While Christianity itself was decriminalized at the end of Emperor Galerius’ rule in AD 311, it was officially legalized under Constantine in AD 313.

Constantine converted to Christianity and made this public in the Edict of Milan in AD 313, an edict which granted tolerance and protection to Christians.

[Whether his conversion was genuine or not, the end result—through him and subsequent emperors—was the unholy marriage of church and state, sealing the fate of the organic, apostolic faith. By AD 380, the Edict of Thessalonica made Christianity the state religion; more specifically, it made the Catholicism of Nicene Christians the state church of the Roman Empire. While this ended several heresies, it also outlawed any organic expressions of church outside of institutional Christendom.]

Under Constantine (AD 306-337) and his son Constantius II (AD 337-361), the public status of Christianity was ostensibly strengthened on the surface. However, a bitter war raged beneath the surface on the matter of Christology and the struggle for political power.

And this is where things get very messy.

Growing Eunuch Influence

Since eunuchs were not considered a threat to one’s legacy, they held the ears and heart of influential and powerful men.

This reached its peak under Emperors Diocletian (AD 284-305) and the aforementioned Constantine and Constantius II. The emperors were surrounded by eunuchs for all sorts of personal activities—such as bathing and dressing—and governmental functions. In fact, the eunuch class served as a shield between the emperor and his administrators, enjoying unrivalled influence over them.

For example, the eunuch Eusebius, serving under Constantine and Constantius II, essentially wielded imperial power himself, as he controlled access to the emperors, especially during the latter’s reign. Eusebius will pop up again in our account below.

Arian Christians Vs Nicene Christians

While the full subject of Rome’s capture of the faith is another story for another day, the result of this corrupt alliance of church and state also triggered a power struggle between the newly established clergy and those who previously held the ears and hearts of the emperors: the eunuch class.

Unfortunately, this battle for power played out over Christology, the nature of Jesus. The newly formed clergy largely advocated for what became the Nicene Creed (Homoousian Christology). The eunuch class became largely associated with support for Arianism, which denied the eternal existence of Jesus—holding that, while Jesus was the Son of God, He was begotten (made) by the Father and therefore was not coeternal with the Father.

[Quick sidebar: importantly, both Homoousians and Arians viewed themselves as Christians. Arius (AD 256-336), the Christian presbyter from Alexandria after whom Arianism is named, was concerned about preserving the uniqueness of the Father and staving off Greek paganism. While the nature of Jesus (in relation to the Father) had been debated for decades, Arius brought the debate to a head. Although his opponents severely assailed Arius’ character, he appears to have been a godly, ascetic man.]

The Edict of Thessalonica in AD 380 made Catholicism of Nicene Christians the state church of the Roman Empire, essentially condemning the Arian view as heretical. The Catholic Christian was born.

While we rejoice that the Nicene view prevailed, the battle was won in part by discrediting Arius of Alexandria and by undermining the eunuch class.

Theology Aswirl in Politics

The aforementioned eunuch Eusebius was a supporter of Arianism and played an active part in its promotion—including carrying huge influence over other eunuchs and even helping Arian bishops to plot against Athanasius of Alexandria, the chief defender of Homoousianism. Emperor Constantius II, who shared Eusebius’ Arian views, even sent him to appeal to Pope Liberius on behalf of Arianism. When Liberius rejected his appeals, Constantius II imprisoned the Pope for over two years, trying unsuccessfully to put an Arian-minded puppet pope in his place!

In his History of the Arians, Athanasius of Alexandria (AD 298-373) commented on the attempt to turn Liberius and wrote these scathing words, “It was the eunuchs who instigated these proceedings against all. And the most remarkable circumstance in the matter is this; that the Arian heresy which denies the Son of God, receives its support from eunuchs, who, as both their bodies are fruitless, and their souls barren of virtue, cannot bear even to hear the name of son.”

While the eunuch class was largely associated with support for the Arian view, Athanasius’ disparaging and judgmental tone was certainly a shrewd (and cruel) political move. Demonizing the enemy was ‘justified’ with the battlelines over theology and power well blurred.

Whether Eusebius truly believed in the Arian view or simply used it to try stave off the threat of his new political opponents is subject to conjecture. History judges Eusebius as a corrupt, power-hungry man who was tried and executed for his crimes after Constantius II’s death, when the new Emperor, Julian, established the Chalcedon tribunal to judge all the officers under Constantius suspected of corruption. Julian rejected Christianity and that he, a non-Christian, cleaned up the rule of a Christian emperor shows the sad state of affairs when state and church are married.

After Julian “The Apostate” (AD 361-363) usurped the rule of Constantius II, the anti-Christian emperors rule was cut short: allegedly assassinated by a Christian. While there is little to corroborate the claim made by Libanius, a friend of the emperor, the mere allegation indicates the scope of skullduggery at play.

Over the next 40 years, the battle for imperial power and papal power burned hot through nine emperors and six popes.

The Sin of Sodom

John Chrysostom (AD 347-407)

Amid the power battles and the theological debates, a growing outrage against homosexuality was brewing and at the forefront was John Chrysostom. The sentiment was captured in his homily on Romans 1:26, 27: “All these affections then were vile, but chiefly the mad lust after males; for the soul is more the sufferer in sins, and more dishonoured, than the body in diseases … [The men] have done an insult to nature itself. And a yet more disgraceful thing than these is it, when even the women seek after these intercourses, who ought to have more sense of shame than men.”

He claimed that the active male was more dishonoured than the passive male he victimized but also argued that the passive male partner had renounced their manhood and become a woman—deserving to be “driven out and stoned”. Clearly, the issue of status-orientation was still prevalent in his mind. As was Old Testament punishments.

He further claimed that the main cause of the sin in Romans 1:26, 27 was “luxury”; that is, “evil was [not] only in desire. For the greater part of it came of their luxuriousness, which also kindled into flame their lust.” Even a plain reading of Romans 1:18-27 does not support this overreach.

Chrysostom’s influence is thought to have played an influential role in helping alter the traditional interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah, from a place of inhospitality and abuse of power to the sin of homosexuality. Certainly, this idea started by Philo was gathering momentum, as will become evident shortly. Again, it’s worth pointing out that neither the prophets nor Jesus associated the crimes of Sodom and Gomorrah with homosexuality.

Holy Men Avoid Sex

Pope Siricius (AD 384-399)

The quest for an abstemious, ascetic life, often fuelled by a fearful obsession with sex itself, had surfaced early in Imperial Christendom. While we may honour their quest for purity, it was largely characterized by a misunderstanding of sex as something unholy and shameful in itself.

Textual evidence of forbidding marriage for clerics and requiring those already married to abstain from sexual contact with their wives arise as early as the Synod of Elvira (AD 305) and the Council of Carthage (AD 390). However, it was during the late fourth century that Pope Siricius made the first decree commanding celibacy for priests in his Directa decretals (c. AD 385). This decree essentially made celibacy enforceable by church law.

The message was: holy men abstain from sex, and men who have sex are less than holy.

Redefining Male

Emperor Theodosius I (AD 379-395)

In AD 390, an imperial decree by Theodosius I criminalized homosexual activity for the first time. The emperor was under a penance set by Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, for his culpability in the massacre of Thessalonica.

Ostensibly under the influence of the bishop, the decree was issued in the context of another crackdown on heresies, but it fundamentally changed how males were defined.

Previously, a male was the penetrator and procreator—a status orientation. A male who took the passive role in sex was less than a male; therefore, homosexual activity was tolerated.

However, this decree, which would be later enforced by law, changed the status orientation: it condemned anyone with a penis from homosexual activity, effectively reducing the ranks of the eunuch class to those of castrated males only.

The redefinition of male from status orientation to biological orientation was without question a good one. However, the reason for the change wasn’t rooted in biology but in the battle for political power.

Fifth Century

Emperor Theodosius II (AD 402-450) 

Emperor Theodosius II stymied the power wars and in AD 439, he attempted to solidify Christianity as the official religion of the Empire through commissioning The Codex of Theodosianus.

The Codex Theodosianus included the first laws granting tax exemption to the church, specifically exempting all clergy, their family members and church-owned land from taxation. This served to strengthen the power of the Imperial Church and its leadership.

In the opposite direction, the Codex Theodosianus also instituted laws that officially punished homosexuality for the first time, building on the AD 390 decree of Theodosius I.

The message was further refined: holy men abstain from sex, men who have sex are less than holy, and men who have sex with men are criminals.

Interestingly, Theodosius II’s chief minister was a man-made eunuch named Chrysaphius—another man who history judges as corrupt. While he helped appease Atilla the Hun from invading the Empire, it cost the empire more in gold than any military campaign and he amassed a fortune in bribes himself. There are various accounts of his demise after the death of Theodosius II, including that while he was set to be tried for his crimes, he was mobbed by a crowd who stoned him to death.

With the political undermining of the eunuch class, eunuchs start disappearing from the scene.

Sixth Century

Emperor Justinian I (AD 527-565)

One hundred years later, Emperor Justinian I made amendments to his Corpus Juris Civilis (issued in AD 534 but amended in AD 538 and AD 559), changing Roman Law on homosexuality again. Officially tying the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah to same-sex activity, he decreed that homosexuality was no longer just a secular offence but a sin subject to divine punishment. And he was not done yet. He also linked the extreme weather conditions that blighted his rule—earthquakes, famines and pestilence—to the sin of homosexuality.

The message was now entrenched: holy men abstain from sex, men who have sex are less than holy, and men who have sex with men are evil.

With the term “sodomy” now derived from the Ecclesiastical Latin phrase meaning “sin of Sodom”, things just got worse from there. The meaning of sodomy broadened to include all sexual acts not related to procreation, which was, therefore, deemed “contrary to nature” or “unnatural”.

While gay people obviously received the brunt of the new laws, the Medieval Inquisition used the liberty granted to paint perceived enemies of the faith with accusations of fornication and sodomy, crimes punishable by torture and death. Even the early-modern witch hunts were largely connected with sodomy, as “contrary to nature” and “unnatural” became associated with witchcraft and the demonic.

What of the eunuchs?

By the nineth century, a eunuch was perceived only as a castrated male, one castrated as a child to protect their voice from breaking, to sing in the church choir as the castrati—one rendered asexual in nature for the (twisted) purpose of the Imperial Catholic religion.

What of the empire?

Emperor power was soon usurped by papal power in Rome. According to The Moody Handbook of Theology, the Roman Catholic Church officially began in AD 590 when Pope Gregory consolidated the lands controlled under his authority, land that would become the “Papal States”.

Conclusion

What are you suggesting?

  • Did the eunuch’s influence over political people need to stop? Yes.
  • Was the Nicene Creed important? Yes.
  • Was Rome co-opting the apostolic faith a tragedy? Yes.
  • Was the marriage of church and state an aberration? Yes.
  • Did the definition of male need to change? Yes.

All the above are true at the same time. Messy is one word for it. Complicated is another.

So, what are you saying?

Before Imperial Roman and the Church Merged

With the same Scriptures we have today, the pre-merge church correctly condemned promiscuity, prostitution and pederasty. However, they neither condemned the eunuch class in general nor singled out those with a lack of attraction to women for condemnation. At worst, tolerance prevailed among the early church. At best, they affirmed sexual minorities as Jesus did (Matthew 19:12).

After Imperial Roman and the Church Merged

Through the political power battles of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, Christendom became homophobic, concocting the “sin of Sodomy” and essentially elevating it to what amounted to the 11th Commandment, a crime against God. (Along with the idolization of Mary and the saints, the veneration of the Pope, indulgences, and the like, this “development” was among many other departures from the apostolic early church that arose through the union of church and state.)

So, now what?

We now have the benefit of hindsight. We can learn from their mistakes.

We can repent of any prejudice and homophobia in our own hearts.

And in our quest for a vibrant New Testament faith, we can allow Jesus’ love-defined morality to guide and govern how we relate to all people, including how we moralize in the public sphere.

As followers of Jesus, we have the privilege of modelling a better way, demonstrating His self-giving love and embodying His Message of inclusion.

Since the dark days of the union between Church and State, Christians have revised their views on…

  • marriage (it’s no longer about legacy building but primarily about lifelong, faithful covenant),
  • sex (rediscovering it as a gift from God between two people covenanted together),
  • contraception and fertility treatment, and
  • remarriage (even when death or sexual immorality are not the reasons for dissolving the previous marriage).

In the liberty and love of Jesus, we can now do what the early church was not able to do.

We can affirm and advocate for gay people and all sexual minorities.

And we can provide a “marriage bed” (Hebrews 13:4) for those who desire to covenant their lives together. (Please see the article Marriage Equality for more on this subject.)

We can demonstrate the Father’s perfect love.