Man suffering from impotence is about to sacrifice a pig to Priapus. Ca. 40 BC. Roman fresco from the eastern wall of room 4 in the Villa dei Misteri in Pompeii.

Why is St. Paul so hung up on regulating the sex lives of his converts? Because in Imperial Rome, sex is violence. In Paul’s churches, this must change. Two millennia later, even in the shadow of the ‘sexual revolution’, there’s plenty of work to be done. Much of our sex is still, frankly, violence.
And we can’t pin it all on pornography. Western culture has a staggering sex problem, but so far as I can tell, porn is a symptom, not the root. It only lays bare what many assume: that ‘consent’ is malleable, that women are little more than pathways to gratification – devices to be operated. That old ‘the sexual revolution ruined everything’ narrative is, at best, obscurantism. Genesis 3:16 (“and thy desire shall be for man, and he shall dominate thee,”) was composed long before the sixties.
Don’t get too excited. I am talking about why Paul’s ‘restrictive’ sex ethic is good and we should keep it. However else you feel about it, it’s hard to ignore that his chief impetus was to form the early Christian communities into an alternative to Rome’s exploitation culture. And so the men whom Paul discipled were exhorted to monogamy, specifically, with their wives, and barred from copulating with anyone before they’d married them. Women, too, were subject to the same restrictions. Both were encouraged not to deprive their spouses of their ‘conjugal rights’, unless they had mutually agreed to set them aside for a time and devote themselves to prayer or to finally finishing that book they’d begun in January before work got crazy. Men, specifically, were told not to neglect their their wife’s sexual appetites.
Which was interesting, because there was no ‘recreational’ sex for women in Rome – at least in the mainstream. Nor for men, at least, in the way we think of it. Sex was not a game in the Empire Aeneas built – it was a tool, specifically, to dominate others. Affairs were not unheard of, but they were rarely for fun: Rome was entrenched in a rigid class system in which upward social mobility was nearly impossible. Sexual favors were often doled out in exchange for gifts, both monetary and otherwise.
Prostitution, however, did not exist apart from the Imperial slave system. Nearly all female prostitutes were orphans who had been left out to die upon birth – because the noblemen were encouraged to populate their homes, if possible, with sons who could grow into strong men who furthered the interests and prestige of the family; Daughters were not particularly valuable, because they were essentially sentient fleshlights. If an unwanted daughter was born, she would be abandoned in a kind of unofficial ‘drop-off’ zone, where she would either die of exposure or be picked up by a human trafficker. They would begin their career in sex work, often, before puberty, and their ‘customers’ were encouraged to brutalize them to their satisfaction. Customers ran the social gamut: Household slaves came to spend their aggression and their weekly allowance on powerless young women and noblemen came to satisfy appetites their wives didn’t meet.
There was, of course, no expectation that husbands would remain ‘faithful’ to their wives, because there was no concept of ‘faithfulness’ within which Roman men might be constrained. The Roman man of Noble birth was the crux of personhood; all else was auxillary, including their wives. For a woman to object to her husband’s philandering would have been absurd within the Etruscan moral vision. ‘Infidelity’ was a non-concept.
So to be even more on-the-nose: ‘Sex’, as we understand it, did not exist. It was, almost exclusively, a means whereby ‘noblemen’ upheld the ‘cosmic hierarchy of the Empire’. It’s not quite an exaggeration to say that the ‘phallus’ was the gatekeeper of Imperial orthodoxy. Let me explain: Rome was for the strong – it had to be. The ‘weak’ posed an existential threat to the well-being of an Empire built on ‘manly virility’. It was your duty to humiliate the ‘weak’, if you so desired, with your genitals. Although Plato, Aristotle and others had waxed philosophical about the cardinal virtues we learned about in middle school, their net effect on the public was approximately nil. ‘Self-control’, ‘justice’, and so on were nominally aspired to by a populace of men who – literally – sought to drink the nobility of other men away by sexually assaulting them. I’m not talking about ‘locker room talk’. Roman politicians were known to sexually assault their political enemies, because to be the passive recipient of anal sex carried such a stigma that a known male rape victim could lose his citizenship as a result. Rome was precisely the sort of world one might expect to emerge if the ‘will-to-power’ were the basis for moral philosophizing.
Nietzsche was aware of this. He was annoyed that Paul and co. destabilized and ultimately toppled the Cosmic Frat Party that was pre-Christian Rome. However ‘restrictive’ you feel the Christian sex ethic to be, its actual aim was to deweaponize male sexuality. I’m not innovating here. Read Gregory of Nyssa ‘On Virginity’, or Calvin’s commentaries. One cannot exaggerate the extent to which Paul made women safer.


In Rome, sex was connected to ‘Eudaimonia’ – that is, the ‘flourishing of Mankind’. Paul had another angle: “In God’s world, maybe Womankind should flourish, too.”
This has a further relevance – especially today: Paul’s influence spanned Palestine to Africa to Spain, and so on. At the time of his death, Britain remained unreached. When Paul authoritatively enjoined his churches to embrace, not suppress, women’s sexuality, he had in mind black and brown bodies. Womanist scholars have argued that the West only half-interprets women of color as women. They are systemically desexualized. Western culture, they continue, sets up young, white women as the paragon of sexuality: The optimal sexual conquest. Well, Paul didn’t know any white women. So not only is sex not a conquest in Paul’s vision, but it is for women – more specifically, it is for women of color as much as it is for anyone.
And Paul is still relevant here, because what he began isn’t done – not by a long shot. Restrictive sex ethic and all, we’ve got work to do. It is important to positively influence the broader culture (“seek the good of Babylon” Jer. 29:7), but we’ve got a more immediate directive to root out misogyny in the Church.
In its infancy, the Church existed as a ‘counterculture’, whose ethos the broader culture gradually appropriated and eventually capitulated to. So much so, that when Julian the Apostate finally wrenched control of the State back, even his campaign to dismantle Christendom was unprecedentedly peaceable. The churches had already begun turning the world upside down – even their enemies. Contrary to popular belief, the ‘Christianization’ of the Empire was mostly organic. Essentially, the widespread public embrace they had garnered made it inevitable. Tales of the the established Church as a belligerent monolith, ‘conquering the world for Jesus’, aren’t quite false. They’re more like ‘drunk history’: laughably reductive, damnably inastute. More accurately, Byzantine became substantially Christian long before it was ‘officially’ anything. The public had capitulated to our ethos, and the consequence was that Paul’s campaign to deweaponize sexuality in the Church indirectly began to deweaponize sexuality in the Empire itself.
I have written a strange appreciation to Christianity’s bizarre sex ethic. But, as you noticed, this post was not about Christianity’s bizarre sex ethic, insomuch as it was about the transformative character of the earliest churches. With little warning, the Christian cult quietly remade the world. They conquered the Empire, somehow, without picking up the sword they had bought at the Lord’s behest (Lk. 22:36). Myths abound about how the Christian revolution overcame its fashionable enemies, about what followed, and what we must do to pick it up again. But if our past has taught us anything, it’s this: Put no faith in those who want to ‘conquer the world for Jesus’. Focus on your churches. If we embody our true identity, together, then Paul’s strange egalitarianism will do its work in the world, again, tomorrow.


Recommended Reading:

Paul Among the People by Sarah Ruden, 2010 , Crown Publishing
The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies By David Bentley Hart, 2009, Yale University Press
The Geneology of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche, 1887, Dover
Moral Formation According to Paul by James W. Thompson, 2011, Baker Academic
Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church, and the Council of Chalcedon by Eboni Marshall Turman, 2013, Palgrove/Macmillan
In Memory of Her by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, 1983, Crossroad Publishing Company
The Story of Christianity by David Bentley Hart, 2007, Quercus