Marriage Rates

What was sexual behavior like in the Roman empire, before Christianity took over?

Rose and I just recorded the next episode of our podcast, to be released this Saturday night (late), so you can have it for Sunday morning. We’re talking about what it is like to behave morally in Christianity, and also in atheism. Anyway, there was some material we found that we couldn’t cover in detail, so I am putting it in a blog post. Also, I got way too excited at the end of the show.

Christians believe that each person, no matter how humble the circumstances of their birth, are equal because they are made in the image of God. Every person is equal, because they are all completely qualified to be in a relationship with God. So, it’s never a waste of time for a Christian to self-sacrificially love a non-Christian, because they are all able to accept Jesus as leader and savior. Even people who won’t or can’t become Christians are still valuable, because we can imitate Jesus in the way we treat them. We don’t look down on people who are poor or ugly or whatever, because they are still perfectly good for what God designed them to do.

Anyway, it’s interesting to read how early Christians put this into practice.

One historian who has studied the early church is Rodney Stark. He’s written a number of books about the early church, and I found a blog post about one called “The Rise of Christianity”.


In his elaboration of this thesis, Stark proposes the following reasons for Christianity’s rapid growth in the first few centuries of the Common Era.

Christianity radically and attractively redefined the God-to-man and man-to-man relationships.

Christianity teaches that God is a God of universal and self-giving love, and that obligates us to love not just those who belong to our family, country, or religion, but all people, even if that means disadvantaging ourselves.

[…]What was new was the notion that more than self-interested exchange relations were possible between humans and the supernatural. The Christian teaching that God loves those who love him was alien to pagan beliefs. [Ramsay] MacMullen has noted [in his 1981 book Paganism in the Roman Empire] that from the pagan perspective “what mattered was . . . the service that the deity could provide, since a god (as Aristotle had long taught) could feel no love in response to that offered.” Equally alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another. Moreover, such responsibilities were to be extended beyond the bonds of family and tribe, indeed to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). These were revolutionary ideas. (86, emphasis added)

Such teachings provided a moral order based not on reason or self-interest, but on mutual obligation and sacrifice. The beauty of these virtues is in part what attracted new converts to the faith.

Notice that “love” is defined as self-sacrificial love. Love that is costly for the lover. For example, telling someone the truth about their sin, even though they won’t like you. Or giving someone your own money and time build up their relationship with God. It certainly is NOT celebrating and affirming their sin, so that they will like you.

Another book that got a lot of attention was Tom Holland’s book “Dominion”. I bought it for my friend Dina, who recently passed away from cancer.

Here is a review of it. And here is the part I found interesting:

The dynamic in the Roman world was not between, as it is now, men and women. It was between those who have power, namely Roman free male citizens, and those who were subordinate to them. And essentially the Roman sexual universe was by our lights very brutal. It was a very Harvey Weinstein sexual arena.

A Roman man had the right to sexually use anyone who was subordinate to him: Slaves, social inferiors.

Anyone means male and female.


Now, Christianity radically, radically changes that. It’s there in the very earliest Christian texts: Paul’s letters. And Paul is a Jew. So, he has an idea that the binary is male and female; god creates man and women separate. So, he brings that assumption to the table. But he also brings another novel assumption, which is that Christ came and suffered death out of love for humanity.

And so, what Paul does is to say that love, all you need is love. Love is the greatest animating force. And if we want to have a sexual relationship with another human being, then it must be true to the love that Christ has shown for humanity. So, what Paul does is to say that there can be only one way, one proper way, of having a sexual relationship, and that is you have to have a marriage that is monogamous.

As Christianity declines in our culture, and atheism takes over, relationships based on mutual respect are dying. Many of the people who are so anxious to kill Christian sexual ethics imagine that they will find spouses who will nevertheless provide them with a relationship built on Christian marital norms: permanence and exclusivity. But, of course, they won’t. Atheists think that you can jettison God from the system, but keep the parts of morality that you like. It doesn’t work like that.

It’s very funny to me to radical feminists are doing everything they can to destroy the system that provides them with stable, lifelong married love into their declining years. I don’t think they have studied history enough to realize what things were like before Christianity came along.

Final thoughts

Right now (Wednesday night) I’m chatting with the husband of a lady I mentored a while back. They are both Christians. She picked out the most amazing husband you can possibly imagine. His name is Kevin. He chose her because her library was filled with theology and apologetics books. He is a man who puts Christianity into practice. I’m talking to him to find out what happened to him today. Today, he took a vacation day off to sit outside a hospital, where a lady they know was having an abortion. She did not come out to talk to him, and she had the abortion. When I think of a man who has adventures with self-sacrificial love, because he wants to be like his Boss who values self-sacrificial love, this is what I am talking about. And this is why Christians do good things – we are investing in a relationship that God initiates, and that goes on into eternity.

4 thoughts on “What was sexual behavior like in the Roman empire, before Christianity took over?”

    1. I wish i could have included it in the episode. We mentioned the issue but ran out of time to really get into the details of what the secular left is making us lose, and what the secular left is making us gain.


  1. WK – you don’t have to post this personal message. I’m sorry to read that Dina passed away. I’ve followed your blog for years and I could tell that you were fond of her. I enjoy listening to your weekly podcast and subscribe through Apple podcasts.


  2. What an incredible post!

    As regards loving others, I do have a harder time these days having much regard for the most heinous criminal types running wild these days. While I would like to believe they can be turned, I don’t know that I’m willing to let them victimize more people until they do. I really don’t grieve much for thugs, like a George Floyd, who in their combative response to lawful police behavior, find themselves dead. Some are just so given over, and as sad as that is to me, I just don’t get upset when they meet an untimely end they brought upon themselves. I’m just so tired of seeing good people harmed.

    With regard to marriage and sexuality, you’re spot on once again. Great post!


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