How would you make a case for Christian sexual morality in a secular setting? Specifically, what would you say if you were asked to speak on the Christian view of homosexuality and same-sex marriage in a university classroom? This is exactly the opportunity that motivated pastor Matthew Rueger to start researching and studying Christian sexuality in depth, and ultimately to write the book Sexual Morality in a Christless World.
Rueger begins the book by recognizing that the world has radically changed and that Christians increasingly find themselves being considered outcasts and radicals by the secular elite. In light of this reality, he asks a probing question: “Will we mirror the ancient Christians who were not afraid to stand out in the crowd and say, ‘Not for me?’ Are we willing to be ostracized, excluded, secretly derided, and maybe even openly mocked simply because we are Christians? We need to be; our children need to be.”
And yet Rueger rightly notes that for Christians — and in particular Christian students — to stand boldly for biblical morality, they need to first understand why it makes sense. It is critical to understand why God created sex to be experienced between one man and one woman for life, and why this model is still best for society today. This is the exact same approach John Stonestreet and I take in our book Same-Sex Marriage. In order for Christians to speak out confidently for a Christian ethic on marriage and sexuality, we must first understand why God designed sex to be between one man and one woman in a lifelong married relationship.
Sex in Ancient Rome
Ancient Roman sexuality was primarily tied to the idea of masculinity and the male’s need for domination. Thus it was permissible for men to have sex with his slaves, whether male or female. Rueger explains: “It was understood that he would be visiting prostitutes of either sex. A strong Roman male would have male lovers even while married to a woman. In the Roman mind, man was the conqueror who dominated on the battlefield as well as in the bedroom.”
And this domination often carried into sexual relationships between adult males and adolescent boys (pederasty). In the Roman mind, sex with boys was often viewed as intellectually superior and a purer form of love than sex with women.
While there are exceptions, women were often viewed as physically and mentally inferior to men. Their value was often tied to their ability to have children. In fact, in the primary creation story accepted in the classical world, which came from Greek mythology, woman was created as a punishment for man (the story of Pandora). This is radically different than the biblical view in which Eve is created as an equal companion to Adam (Genesis 2).
Sexual Exploits of the Caesars
In perhaps the most interesting section of the book, Rueger chronicles the sexual exploits of the Roman Caesars, who both reflected wider culture and helped advance its debauchery. There are stories of Augustus Caesar inviting senators to dinner, and then excusing himself to sleep with their wives. Tiberius practiced pedophilia and is said to have funded a special public office that concentrated on his sexual pleasures. Caligula lived in an incestuous relationship with his sisters. And Nero engaged in public cross-dressing, incest, rape, and other kinds of sexual assault.
It is important not to overstate the debauchery of ancient Rome. There were certainly many good people who resisted wider sexual norms. But citing such differences does reveal how radically countercultural Christian sexual morality was in the first century. And it also shows the courage of the first Christians who knowingly put themselves in harm’s way to advance the greater good in general, and the gospel in particular.
Secular Morality Today
Rueger speaks some chilling and prophetic words for Christians today: “Secular society is moving ever closer to Rome in its assessment of Christianity. The message of Christ is despised, and Christians are seen as bigoted and unloving. Christians today can learn from the Christians who lived in the Roman Empire of St. Paul’s day. The bubble of social acceptance for Christian morality has burst, and now we must be prepared to suffer. Those who speak God’s truth in love will be hated. They may even be prosecuted in some instances” (p. 41).
What I have discussed so far only takes us through the first two chapters in his book! Rueger also contrasts early Christian sexual morality with Jewish morality. He explores some of the key New Testament passages that lay the biblical foundation for sex and marriage, such as Ephesians 5:22-33, 1 Corinthians 7:2-5, 1 Peter 3:1, 7, and Matthew 19:4-6. And he also considers common objections against the biblical sexual ethic. In each case, he shows how Christian sexual morality both elevated women and cared for children, even though it was considered extreme at the time.
Overall, I found Sexual Morality in a Christless World to be insightful, timely, and challenging. Despite what we increasingly hear in our wider culture, the Christian ethic is both reasonable and good. And this is a truth we cannot hide, but must teach to our children and proclaim from the rooftops.