Patristic Attitudes

Towards Homosexuality

Patristic Thought and History

September 20/2000

Perhaps the most volatile social issue the church has faced in recent memory, homosexuality and the issues it raises have confronted both the church and Western society. It has polarized the church and even political institutions, with fundamentalists and the Canadian Alliance political party taking a more conservative approach to homosexuality, and liberal denominations and liberal political parties, embracing it. Homosexuality is not just an ethical issue, it goes to the very heart of our Western social constructions and socio-political institutions. Questions regarding gender identity, family and sexuality are sure to come about from such a discussion. The issue of homosexuality is perhaps the greatest problem the church has had to face in the social arena. However, she has faced such issues before, or has she?

Many conservative historians point to numerous church Father’s opposition to homosexuality as proof against Biblical revisionist pro-homosexual claims. The Fathers, while differing in many other areas, did seem to offer a united front in sexual ethics. David D. Bundy has commented, “Though the church fathers often disagreed about other issues, they generally present a unified voice concerning sex and social ethics, of which homosexuality was just one facet.”[1] The Father’s united views of homosexuality were influenced by many factors, including: their Greco-Roman heritage, Old Testament law, the New Testament (as they had it), and cultural gender norms. The question remains on whether it is appropriate for present day Christians to appropriate the views of the fathers in regards to this difficult and contentious issue.

Among the more important influences of the church fathers, were the Old and New Testament[2] (albeit in its formative stages) canons. The OT canon contained two possible references to homosexual behavior. The first is the infamous Sodom account found in Genesis 19. This account has come under extreme scrutiny in recent scholarship, as having nothing to do with homosexuality or homosexual rape, but rather inhospitality. There are conflicting traditions in Christendom and Judaism as to what the sin of Sodom actually was. John Boswell comments in his revolutionary work, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, that Ambrose and Origen both seemed to associate the sin of Sodom with inhospitality, not homosexual relations.[3] It seems that the story of Sodom provides a conflicting tradition to the church fathers, in the least.

The second passage often associated with homosexuality in the OT, was the Levitical code. These two passages state the following:

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.[4]

If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely bet put to death; their blood shall be upon them.[5]

John Boswell seems to associate these passages with a ritual impure act, as opposed to a morally impure act.[6] However, Donald Wold, in his book Out of Order, disputes Boswell’s thesis, suggesting that the early levitical writers had no conception of ritually unclean or morally unclean, rather all imperatives were moral imperatives, because of their divine nature.[7] While Wold would seem to have one up on Boswell, Boswell writes convincingly regarding the effect of these passages on Christian beliefs of homosexuality. He writes concerning the church fathers use of the Levitical text as such:

Their extreme selectivity in approaching the huge corpus of Levitical law is clear evidence that is was not their respect for the law which created their hostility to homosexuality but their hostility to homosexuality which led them to retain a few passages from a law code largely discarded.[8]

Boswell shows clearly that the early church fathers took little account of the Jewish law, rather attempting to reconcile their Greco-Roman cultural beliefs with early apostolic writings and practices. The Jewish ethical code was one that was largely discarded by a predominantly Gentile church.

While the Jewish law was predominantly thrown out in the early church, the patristic writers did do some bizarre allegorical interpretation that led them to condemnations of homosexuality. The prohibition against eating hares and hyenas, were thought to contain prohibitions on homosexuality and effeminacy. These allegorical interpretations were based on poor science of the day, which believed that rabbits were hermaphroditic and that hyenas were homosexuals.[9] These fanciful