Question: I’ve enjoyed reading your answers and the history of nude swimming. And the topic of masturbation. I am happy that you shared your positive opinions concerning this issue. My question here is: Do you believe that the prohibitions in the Old Testament no longer apply to Christians today? Concerning same-sex marriage: are Christian men free to practice anal intercourse, and is it no longer considered a sin?
In view of the fact that I’ve gone out on a limb in the other Frank Answers you mention, including managing the comments made on those posts, I’ll tackle this question. But I’m going to zero in only on two issues raised in this question: do prohibitions in the Old Testament apply to Christians today and was anal intercourse considered a sin and is it now permitted? These are issues that concern all Christians, not just gay men. I will not go into wide-ranging discussions of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. (I have discussed these matters in other Frank Answers.) What I have to say in answer to this question may be controversial enough.
First of all, we must recognize that the Old Testament is part of the Christian Bible. Without the Old Testament we would not understand the claim of the Gospels that Christ fulfills prophecy. The church fathers came to the conclusion that by virtue of his atoning sacrifice on the cross Christ fulfilled the Old Testament sacrifices with all their ritual requirements. Therefore the ritual laws associated with the sacrificial cult (and that covered a lot of ground in Leviticus!) no longer apply to Christians. (The observance of kosher food laws, circumcision, Sabbath and festivals, etc., took longer for Christians to figure out.) But the moral law based on the Ten Commandments still applies to Christians. How the moral law relates to the gospel of Christ (forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God) is itself a complex theological issue. But it is not a matter of law vs. grace. The law is also a gift of grace by which we know God’s intention for us and are schooled in a righteous life. Christian catechisms continue to teach the Ten Commandments.
That said, in answering your question about anal intercourse I note that the term “anal sex” does not occur in the Bible. This kind of sex has usually been referred to as sodomy. That term derives from the city of Sodom, in which all the men of the city demanded that Lot (himself an alien resident there) turn over to them the two strangers for whom he was providing hospitality so they could “know them,” that is, have sex with them. (See Genesis 19) The men of Sodom supposed Lot’s visitors were “men” although they were actually angels. They were two of the three angels who had visited Abraham and Sarah in the previous chapter and received hospitality from them, who then went on to Sodom to check out the city’s reputation for wickedness ahead of God’s decision to destroy it. Because of the sanctity of the practice of hospitality Lot was even willing to offer his virgin daughters to these men to protect the visitors. Because the men of Sodom thought the angels were men, the assumption has been made that the sex the men expected to have with them would be anal. This is where the term “sodomy” comes from and it usually refers to anal intercourse and sometimes also to oral sex – to any sex that is not vaginal.
[As an aside, some conservative Christians object to “revisionists” referring to the sin of Sodom as inhospitality rather than homosexual behavior. However, in Matthew 10:15/Luke 10:12 Jesus says that if a town refuses to welcome his disciples on their mission “it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” And the Letter to the Hebrews 13:2 says “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”]
The New Testament Letter of Jude, verse 7, refers to the sexual immorality and “unnatural desire” (lust) perpetrated in Sodom and Gomorrah and how those cities were consumed by fire. This could be a source of people concluding that homosexuals are going to hell. But we should note that the sin of Sodom would have been a gang rape. That would have been a worse sin than inhospitality. It was enough to convince God’s investigating angels that Sodom was indeed a wicked city deserving of God’s wrath. However, the threat of this wicked assault on Lot’s visitors was made by men who were undoubtedly heterosexual, as we understand that term today, as opposed to homosexual, by which we mean a same-sex “attraction” and “orientation.” The Bible doesn’t use these modern clinical terms; it always refers to specific behavioral activities, such as “a man laying with a man as with a woman.”
[As another aside, we should also note that anal sex is not just a gay thing. First of all, some gay men don’t like it. In fact, a recent survey conducted jointly by Indiana University and George Mason University using a sample of 25,000 gay men indicates that only about a third of gay men regularly practice anal sex. There are issues with the act such as discomfort and pain (for the receiver) and staying erect (for the giver). I’ve heard that among gay men there are also top-bottom issues, which was also a factor in Roman male-in-male sex (see below). Secondly, anal sex can be and is also practiced between a man and a woman. So it can’t be said that anal sex is homosexual sex. It is a sex act performed by some gay men and by some male-female couples.]
Another consideration is that since angels are without gender perhaps they appeared feminine or androgynous to the men of Sodom. There had to be some reason they were interested in Lot’s visitors. And Lot apparently thought these men could be placated by giving them his virgin daughters!
The angels blinded the people of Sodom so Lot’s family could escape before the Lord rained down fire from heaven. Are the angels as depicted in this painting masculine or feminine or non-binary?
In Leviticus 18:22 there is a prohibition on male-on-male sex. “You shall not lie with [have sex with] a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.” The following verse prohibits sex with animals and calls it “a perversion.” “Abomination” is a stronger term than “perversion,” and it is usually used with regard to idolatry in the Old Testament. So one wonders if cult prostitution is the issue here. The entire “holiness code” in Leviticus 18-20 is prefaced with the words the Lord speaks to Israel through Moses, “You shall not do as they did in the land of Egypt, where you lived; and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you” (Lev. 18:2-6). Cult prostitution existed in the various shrines and temples of the countries surrounding Israel. Deuteronomy 23:17-18 prohibits the daughters and sons of Israel from being cult prostitutes and using the fees and wages they collected for their services to pay for any vow (pledge) made to the Lord, “for both are abhorrent to the Lord your God.”
Idolatry was always a temptation and the later prophets of Israel railed against the “high places” where fertility rites were practiced. 1 Kings 14:21-24 reports that during the reign of King Reheboam son of Solomon, Judah “provoked the Lord to jealousy” by building “high places, pillars, and sacred poles on every high hill and under every green tree; “there were also male temple prostitutes in the land. They committed all the abominations of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel” (NRSV). Perhaps because of the abomination of idolatry as practiced in Canaanite fertility rites, man-on-man sex among the Israelites as a holy people who belong to the Lord is prohibited and punishable by death. “If a man lies with with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination” (Leviticus 20:13). Again, the word “abomination” suggests idolatrous practice.
Idolatry is also the presenting issue in Romans 1:18-27. It was because the Romans were worshiping idols that “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves…” Because “they worshiped and served creatures rather than the Creator…God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged the natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, ere consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (NRSV).
Èdouard-Henri Avril’s painting of a Roman orgy in the Julio-Claudio era. Avril, who went by the name of Paul, was a noted French illustrator in the late 19th century, who illustrated many historic erotic scenes. It’s hard to imagine what these Roman orgies must have been like and not see Paul’s words in Romans 1 as a reaction to what he had heard about them.
The Greek term physikos is translated above as “natural.” Is physikos referring here to biology or to social custom? Is the issue Paul raises about women exchanging their natural intercourse for an unnatural one about woman-on-woman sex or are the women taking a dominant rather than a submissive role in the sex act, which was culturally unacceptable? And is the male-on-male issue St. Paul raises just about anal sex or is it the fact that man-on-man means one of the men is in the submissive role, which was abhorrent to Roman views of masculinity?
Detail of Èdouard-Henri Avril’s 1906 painting of Roman Emperor Hadrian having anal sex with his young lover Antinous.
In 1 Corinthians 6:9 St. Paul has a list of wrongdoers who “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Included in the list are “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers” (NRSV). The NRSV’s “male prostitutes” and “sodomites” is the translation (actually the interpretation) of Paul’s specific words malakoi, which suggests someone taking the submissive role in sex, and arsenokoitai, a neologism (a unique word used by Paul), which suggests taking the dominant role in sex.
Some commentators have thought that Paul is referring to male prostitution (whether cultic or commercial). Hence the NRSV translation of malakoi as “male prostitutes.” The city of Corinth had a huge temple to Aphrodite in which sacred sex was practiced. A port city like Corinth also had many brothels. Boys and young men would be desirable sex objects for men (arsenokoitai).
A man bartering for sex from a youth on an ancient Greek urn.
However, in the context of the ancient Greek society these words could also suggest the pederastic relationship between an adolescent boy and his adult mentor who guides him into manhood, including sexuality. While same-sex attraction cannot be eliminated from this man-boy relationship, it was expected that the boy thus initiated by his mentor would take his adult place in society, marry a woman, and father a family.
The evidence of Greek pederasty is displayed in the etchings on many ancient Greek urns.
The practice of men mentoring boys in ancient Greece operated according to a complex set of social expectations on the part of the boy and the adult mentor. Socrates famously loved the young Alcibiades, but in Plato’s Phaedrus he taught that the man’s love for the boy had to include other qualities than sex and that the sexual practice should remain under control.
In this painting Èdouard-Henri Avril shows Socrates proving his self-mastery by being able to keep from laying his hands on the provocative beauty of young Alicibiades, who was trying to seduce the philosopher.
Michel Foucault, in Vol. 2 of The History of Sexuality: The Use of Pleasure, noted that the ancient Greek philosophers gave little thought to the meaning of sex with its desires and pleasures apart from their discussions of the man-boy relationship because of its complicated social arrangements. The Romans took it more in stride, meaning it was less a “problem” to be solved, but it was more limited to class (free/slave). But the Romans were pretty insistent that it was “contrary to nature” for the man to be in a submissive position.
The silver Warren Cup in the British Museum, believed to date from the Julio-Claudio dynasty, shows Greek pederastic sex on one side (top in the image) and Roman pederastic sex on the other side (bottom in the image).
Christian theologians aren’t much help with our modern questions either. Augustine argued that the pleasures of sex are dangerous because they can master us, and in spite of his own early dalliances he allowed sex only for procreation (City of God, bk 14; On Marriage and Concupiscence). Thomas Aquinas confined its permissibility to conjugal, procreative acts (Summa contra gentiles III.2; Summa theologia IIa-IIae). Obviously sex for procreation would only be vaginal sex. Sex for pleasure was beyond the pale. Anal sex would therefore be unacceptable because it is practiced only for pleasure and not for procreation. The spiritual ideal of the Middle Ages was abstinence from sexual relations and even virginity.
[As an aside, Martin Luther discovered that sex was pleasurable and regarded this as an added gift of God and therefore not to be denied. But sex with its pleasures was confined within the spousal relationship.]
In answer to the question asked: the Bible (both the Old Testament and the New Testament) does not explicitly discuss anal intercourse and therefore does not specifically condemn it as a sin. A careful reading suggests that in texts where anal sex might have been practiced, other issues were at stake, including gang rape, temple prostitution, culturally unacceptable sexual roles, and pederasty. So we have no straight answer from the Bible about the practice of anal sex in marriage, gay or straight.
As for whether you are free to practice anal intercourse in (gay) marriage, well…you don’t run the risk of being arrested today in the U.S. if you’re caught doing it. So in that legal sense you are free to do it (if both partners are of legal age to be consenting adults according to law). I know you were asking a religious question about sin, but in matters of social control of sexuality church and state are usually intertwined. It wasn’t that long ago that one could be arrested in some states for violating anti-sodomy laws even between consenting adults, but the law was usually applied only to homosexual men, not to heterosexual couples. In fact, in Western nations there were laws against any “deviant” sexual behavior. Courts could condemn infidelity, getting married without parental consent, and bestiality, as well as homosexual acts. Homosexual activity is still criminalized in more than 70 countries around the world today. Where Sharia Law is in place punishment for sodomy (or any sex outside of traditional marriage) can include death by stoning, public flogging, and imprisonment.
On whether anal intercourse is considered a sin for Christians, you need to consult your own denomination. Some churches regard any gay sexual activity as a sin and that will certainly include anal intercourse. But some of these conservative churches are a little more lenient when it comes to anal intercourse within heterosexual marriage. Focus on the Family (a conservative evangelical parachurch group) allows for anal and oral sex within marriage if it is consensual but raises cautions about its health risks. (There are health risks in anal sex—AIDS, STDs, bacterial infections, tearing tissue; there are also ways of minimizing the risks—cleanliness, use of condoms, lubrication — lots of lubrication!). The Catholic magisterium (pope and bishops) have no teaching on anal sex. Catholic moral theologians have divided opinions on the subject. Some say it can’t be practiced on the basis of Scripture and natural law; others say it’s ok as foreplay. If churches and theologians are at all open to anal sex for heterosexual marriage, then they can’t categorically say that the practice itself is a sin.
I think there are a lot of assumptions about what the Bible says about various sexual practices (e.g. masturbation, anal intercourse) that would be challenged by a more critical reading of the texts in their contexts. In other words, people are reading assumptions into the Bible based on their own cultural mores and social biases.
In my view, certain sexual acts are sins, including forcible entry (lack of consent), rape, and pederasty. Certain sexual acts may be desired, but they should be pleasurable to both partners. I think this would be an issue in anal intercourse. In marriage sexual acts should also be expressions of love.
As usual, comments are welcome.
Pastor Frank Senn