In the first century, while Christianity was still in its infancy, the Greco-Roman world paid little attention. For the most part, the early Christian movement was seen as something still underneath the Jewish umbrella.
But in the second century, as Christianity emerged with a distinctive religious identity, the surrounding pagan culture began to take notice. And it didn’t like what it saw. Christians were seen as strange and superstitious—a peculiar religious movement that undermined the norms of decent society. Christians were, well, different.
So what was so different about Christians compared to the surrounding Greco-Roman culture? One distinctive trait was that Christians would not pay homage to the other “gods” (see my earlier article on this subject). This was a constant irritant to those governing officials who preferred to see the pagan temples filled with loyal worshipers (temples earned a good deal of money from the tributes they collected).
But there was a second trait that separated Christians from the pagan culture: their sexual ethic. While it was not unusual for Roman citizens to have multiple sexual partners, homosexual encounters, and engagement with temple prostitutes, Christians stood out precisely because they refused to engage in these practices.
For instance, Tertullian went to great lengths to defend the legitimacy of Christianity by pointing out that Christians are generous and share their resources with all those in need. But then he said, “One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives” (Apol. 39). Why did he say this? Because, in the Greco-Roman world, people sometimes shared their spouses with each other.
In the second-century Epistle to Diognetus, the author went out of his way to declare that Christians are normal in regard to what they wear, what they eat, and how they participate in society. However, he then said, “[Christians] share their meals, but not their sexual partners” (Diogn. 5.7). Again, this trait made Christians different.
We see this dictinction play out again in the second-century Apology of Aristides. Aristides defended the legitimacy of the Christian faith to the emperor Hadrian by pointing out how Christians “do not commit adultery nor fornication” and “their men keep themselves from every unlawful union.”
A final example comes from the second-century apology of Minucius Felix. In his defense to Octavius, he contrasted the sexual ethic of the pagan world with that of Christians:
Among the Persians, a promiscuous association between sons and mothers is allowed. Marriages with sisters are legitimate among the Egyptians and in Athens. Your records and your tragedies, which you both read and hear with pleasure, glory in incests: thus also you worship incestuous gods, who have intercourse with mothers, with daughters, with sisters. With reason, therefore, is incest frequently detected among you, and is continually permitted. Miserable men, you may even, without knowing it, rush into what is unlawful: since you scatter your lusts promiscuously, since you everywhere beget children, since you frequently expose even those who are born at home to the mercy of others, it is inevitable that you must come back to your own children, and stray to your own offspring. Thus you continue the story of incest, even although you have no consciousness of your crime. But we maintain our modesty not in appearance, but in our heart we gladly abide by the bond of a single marriage; in the desire of procreating, we know either one wife, or none at all.
This sampling of texts from the second century demonstrates that one of the main ways that Christians stood out from their surrounding culture was their distinctive sexual behavior. Of course, this doesn’t mean Christians were perfect in this regard. No doubt, many Christians committed sexual sins. But Christianity as a whole was still committed to striving towards the sexual ethic laid out in Scripture–and the world took notice.
Needless to say, this history has tremendous implications for Christians in the modern day. We are reminded again that what we are experiencing in the present is not new—Christians battled an over-sexed culture as early as the first and second century. But it is also a reminder why Christians must not go along with the ever-changing sexual norms of our world. To do so would not only violate the clear teachings of Scripture, but it would also rob us of one of our greatest witnessing opportunities. In as much as marriage reflects Christ’s love for the church, Christians’ commitment to marriage is a means of proclaiming that love.
In the end, Christianity triumphed in its early Greco-Roman context not because it was the same as the surrounding pagan culture, but because it was different.