As Christians try to figure out what it looks like to respond in continuity with our ancient tradition to same-sex attraction, relationships, and questions of what is appropriate physical intimacy, one looming question is this: Did Paul know of homosexual relationships such as those that some Christians are committing themselves to in our day and age?
Over the past couple of weeks I have been taking soundings in what sorts of same-sex activity Paul might have known of and possibly had in mind as he issued his warnings about it. (See previous discussions on pederasty and temple prostitution.)
Today we need to talk about what might well have been the most common form of same-sex erotic encounter: use of slaves for sex.
Slave-Sex in Rome: Generally Accepted
Slaves were property. And it was assumed that all slaves, male and female, were available to their masters for sexual fulfillment.
We see this in the claims of good upstanding moralists that so-and-so did not buy good-looking slaves, but skilled and useful ones. We find it in the advice of somewhat more cynical moralists that women not be uptight about their husbands’ use of slaves, because drunk husbands wanting sex is not something that a dignified Roman woman should be used for in the first place.
If there was a problem with slave-sex for a Roman moralist it was that such liaisons might indicate an excessive luxury or lack of self control.
The notion that people generally made sexual use of their slaves might unravel a New Testament riddle. Tim Gombis has suggested that the way that Onesimus can be a slave with a slave name and also brother to Philemon “in the flesh” is that they have a common father, but Onesimus is the son of a slave woman rather than of Philemon’s free mother.
It is important to note here that the strictures against slave sex had to do with self-indulgence. No distinction made between male and female slaves in Roman moralists, and it was assumed that slave owners would make use of each, just as it was equally possible that someone visiting a brothel might be serviced by a man or by a woman, as they preferred that day.
In Rome, the gender of the slave (or of a prostitute) was not an issue that brought one up for particular censure, but only what the sexual use of this person said about the self-indulgence, luxury, and self-control of the person using the slave.
So, then, why is slave-sex as such generally thought to be o.k., unless it’s seen as too indulgent? Why is it seen as generally o.k. even though, say, pederasty is not, and even though two senators taking each other as lovers would not be acceptable?
Hierarchy, Honor, and Shame
A key component of morality in ancient Rome (and the honor and/or shame attendant to it) had to do with a hierarchical set of binaries: male/female, mind/body, reason/passions, superior/inferior, free/slave.
Two things are important to grasp:
- each pair is thought to contain one member that is inherently superior and one that is inherently inferior
- the “superiors” are thought to go together, and the “inferiors” are thought to go together
Thus, a male who is truly manly allows his mind and reason to control his bodily passions, demarcating him as superior to a woman who will be marked by enslavement to the same.
A free Roman is always thought to be superior to a slave, and so must always act in such a way as to express his superiority to the conquered.
Slave can be sexually used, what we would call violated, because of their place in the social hierarchy. Because they are lower than Romans, they are already in the “womanly” position; therefore, their being penetrated does not demean them or otherwise upset the social order. Their status is already demeaned.
However, if use of a slave in this way shows someone to be indulgent in luxury, then it calls the manliness of the man into question, and thus comes under scrutiny.
What makes a homosexual encounter morally problematic in Rome is when it entails a man acting like a woman: being penetrated, or being enslaved to sexual appetites. Why this is not o.k. is that women are inherently inferior, such that acting like one is shameful for a man.
Where Does All This Leave Paul?
Paul never mentions slave sex explicitly. Since it was so pervasive, he may have had it in mind when he condemns same-sex activity.
But Paul seems to agree that one of the big problems with sex is when it becomes a means for men to play the part of women. And what I mean by “problem” is not that some people are forced into that role (such as slaves) but that some people, shamefully, don’t act like men. This is reflected in his use of the Greek word malakos in 1 Corinthians 6.
I think there’s another hint in Rom 1 as well, pointing in the direction of the whole encounter being shameful and/or sinful for both people, in Paul’s mind.
Where I think that might leave us is this: yes, Paul would be against slave-sex. But, he’s not against homosexuality because of a desire to protect slaves from exploitation. To think so is probably anachronistic. He seems to disapprove of men who act womanly, not just the idea that men would be forced to play a woman’s part.
Where Does All This Leave Us?
It is often argued that Paul opposed a different kind of homosexual relationship than what we know today. To cite examples of pederasty, temple prostitution, and slave-sex is to suggest that what was known in the ancient world was all, to some degree or other, exploitative. Paul opposed these, and we should to.
I do agree that all of these are exploitative, and would have been included to some degree within Paul’s opposition.
But I think that there’s a more basic difference between the ancient world’s assessment of (homo)sexuality and ours, and the kinds of relationships they knew or didn’t know.
The entire Greco-Roman system was built on a series of binaries that presume the inherent superiority of men over women, and the necessity of expressing this in the sexual acts of penetration and receptivity, respectively.
To my mind, this provides us with the data we need to frame one of our questions about Paul: When Paul opposes same-sex relationships, is he doing so, like his contemporaries, on the basis of assumptions about gender inequality that (a) his gospel should have undermined but did not yet have a chance to do so, and (b) that nobody today adheres to anymore?
That’s one question we need to ask.
The further question of whether Paul is opposing homosexual relationships that are unlike the committed, caring relationships of today might have some merit, due to the challenges created by the question I’ve articulated above. But I’m not sure that the issue of exploitation is going to have as much bite in terms of getting hold of Paul as some would suggest.
It might be that we have to ask what to make of the fact that in a world where men and women are considered equal there are people following Jesus while living in committed same-sex relationships.
As I said in Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?, this is what I see as the live question for the twenty-first century church. One that no one person can answer alone.
In the mean time… How same or different do you think the situation was that Paul was dealing with, and what difference does this make for how we appropriate his texts dealing with same-sex erotic activity?