God is Love
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. I John 4:7-8 (ESV)
Christians who live 2,000 years after the death and resurrection of Christ have a hard time realizing how radical the Apostle John's words were to those living in the first century world.
"God is love." When John wrote these words, this would have been a completely foreign concept to most people outside the church. All that the Greeks and Romans—and the surrounding nations—knew of the gods was that they were not loving and not good. They were powerful and immortal; that's what made them gods. Professor Jeremiah Johnston, in his book Unimaginable, explains that the pagan gods based on superstition were not benevolent, loving or righteous:
The Greco-Roman gods were jealous, petty, vengeful, easily offended, and lustful. The essence of these gods was power and immortality. Most were mean-spirited—against one another and against humans in general. …
Normally, the Greco-Roman gods had no love for humans. When they did express love, it was usually erotic lust... The gods cheated on one another, tricked one another, and sometimes injured one another.
The gods demanded respect, attention, offerings and honor. There was no religious imperative from the gods for people to act morally. Pagan deities just weren't that interested in people or how they acted toward one another.Jeremiah J. Johnston, Unimaginable: What Our World Would Be Like Without Christianity, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2017), p. 41.
Since the gods acted immorally and did not ask people to live ethically, it's no surprise that the gods' crude sexual behavior was reflected in Greco-Roman society. As Professor Alvin Schmidt writes,
By the first and second centuries after Christ, undefiled sexual intercourse, along with marital faithfulness, had essentially disappeared. Not only were adultery and fornication common, but people engaged in all sorts of sexual methods, many of them obscene. These sexual practices were shamelessly illustrated on household items such as oil lamps, bowls, cups and vases.
In this sexually broken and sinful world, Christ built his church. Christianity's transformation of the immoral culture began with a transformative view of God: God is love.
Instead of fallen mankind trying to appease immoral, capricious, disinterested gods, Christianity teaches that God Himself reaches out in love, through Christ, providing atonement for the sins of the world. As John continues on in the passage quoted above,
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. I John 4:9-11 (ESV)
Love One Another
Christianity taught that God loved people, and therefore, people were to love each other. This love was to be lived out with a radically different ethical system from the surrounding culture. The Christian social ethic is rooted in the Old Testament, and especially the Ten Commandments: Honor your parents; don't murder; don't lie; don't steal; don't covet; don't commit adultery. It's those last two that primarily speak to the subject of this article: the marital and sexual ethic.
Many of those watching the early church saw the difference between Greco-Roman sexuality and Christianity, and they were drawn to this growing new faith. Here are just five ways the early church taught and lived out God's design for sexuality.
- Christians elevated the meaning and importance of marriage. Marriage was not just a human-created institution; it was a divine covenant between a husband and wife, uniting them and making them one flesh. The church taught that marriage was created by God and pointed to a deeper truth: The relationship between a husband and wife was a picture of Christ's relationship with the church. As a result, men were to sacrificially love their wives and wives were to respect their husbands.
- Christianity elevated the role of women. One key to elevating the meaning of marriage was the Judeo-Christian teaching that women are created in the image of God and reflect His likeness. Christianity taught that marriage was the union of a man and a woman who were equally deserving of dignity, value and honor. This was in contrast with the Greek world, were wives were virtually like slaves. Wives did not leave the house, unless accompanied by a male escort. They did not interact with the husband's male guests. Roman women had more freedom, but still had none of the rights that men did. And the larger culture had little respect for women.Ibid., pp. 98, ff.
Just as Christ's death on the cross elevated us to become one with Him and unite with Him as His bride, so too did Christianity elevate woman to a higher status. This is such an important concept that we'll give a few examples to show the unprecedented value Christianity placed on women:
- Mary, the mother of Jesus, was honored by the church and known as the "Theotokos," the one who bore God incarnate.
- Women supported the ministry of Christ, sat at His feet and learned from Him.
- Women were the first to view Christ after His resurrection.
- Women were recognized as leaders in the early church.
- The early church showed great concern and care for widows.
The church has not always treated women with the honor and respect they deserve, but Christianity gave women a higher status than almost any other culture or faith in the world. As Schmidt asks, "In short, where else do women have more freedom, opportunity and human worth than in countries that have been highly influenced by the Christian ethic?"Ibid., p. 122; see also Rodney Stark, “Appeals to Women,” The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, (New York: HarperOne, 2011), ch. 7.
- Christianity condemned adultery for both men and women. Christian teaching limited sexual expression to the husband-wife relationship. Schmidt explains that under Roman law, a wife was the property of her husband:
Among the Greco-Romans, adultery was exclusively defined in terms of a woman's marital status, not the man's. A man, married or single, could only commit adultery with another mans' wife, because she was his property, and adultery was a property offense. The man, however, was never a woman's property. Thus, if he sexually consorted with an unmarried woman or a prostitute, he could not commit adultery."Schmidt, op. cit., p. 82.
Christianity eliminated this double standard: Both men and women were to avoid adultery.
- The church rejected homosexuality. A great deal of homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world involved pederasty—sexual activity between an adult male and a post-pubescent boy. An older man would mentor a young boy, usually around 12-16 years of age, and their relationship often involved sexual activity. At the same time, sexual relationships between adult males, between a man and a male slave, or between a man and a male temple prostitute were also common. The church taught that God created Eve as a suitable partner for Adam, that marriage was the union of a man and a woman and that sexual expression was restricted to marriage. As a result, like the Jews from whom they inherited the Old Testament and a great deal of teaching and theology, the church also rejected homosexuality.See: Dennis Prager, "Judaism's Sexual Revolution: Why Judaism (and then Christianity) Rejected Homosexuality," Crisis, 11, no. 8 (September 1993), http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles2/PragerHomosexuality.php.
- The church rejected prostitution. Throughout the ancient world, prostitution was common. Often the worship of pagan gods involved fertility rituals and cultic prostitution. As Dennis Prager notes, Judaism rejected this worship. He explains that most other cultures viewed creation as the result of sexual activity between a god and goddess. Judaism proclaimed that God was separate from His creation and that He created the heavens and the earth by His word and His will. God was not a sexual being, as humans are, or as false gods are portrayed.Ibid Christianity taught this same truth, rejected temple prostitution that was part of pagan worship and rejected any form of prostitution, calling on people to flee sexual immorality. At the same time, the church proclaimed love and forgiveness to those who repented and turned from prostitution.
Prevailing Over Sexual Sin
The church was birthed into a world of moral and sexual chaos. Pagan gods and goddesses, and their worshipers, engaged in all manner of sexual immorality. Into this world, the church proclaimed a different message: God is love, we are to love others, and this love includes abstaining from sexual immorality. Over time, the church prevailed. Even though we face similar darkness in our own era, we can be a light, pointing to a better way.
Here are some resources to help in our encounters with a broken world:
- For those struggling with their own sexual sin, Focus on the Family has many resources. Contact us at 1-800-A-FAMILY (232-6459) or Help@FocusontheFamily.com.
- Be encouraged by reading about the many ways the church has transformed our world, and pass on this teaching to your family and friends. Here are two informative resources:
- Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World
- Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion
- Teach your children about God's good design for marriage and sexuality: