Sexuality in Paul’s Letters
Paul talks about sex a lot, because most Romans talked about sex. People in the Roman world had sex, with and without consent, in a variety of ways and with a variety of partners, and those experiences influenced their writings. Paul was part of this society, and his positions were shaped by it.
How does Paul talk about sex?
Paul talks about sex in a number of different ways across his letters. Sometimes he discusses sexual practices in detail. Sometimes he just alludes to specific sexual practices or sexual immorality generally. Paul also includes Greek terms connected to sex in vice lists that describe the immoral behavior of those who do not display faith in God.
It is often difficult—if not impossible!—to determine exactly what sexual practices Paul refers to. When Paul talks about “flesh”or “desire,” for instance, his use of these ideas tend to suggest uncontrolled sexuality. When Paul says to avoid porneia (frequently translated “sexual immorality”), he could be referring specifically to sex work (see 1Cor 6:9). However, in the first century CE, Romans like Paul used porneia to refer to all sorts of sexual practices they deemed abnormal and un-Roman—much like some people do with terms like “slut” today. Other terms—like arsenkoitai and malakoi in 1Cor 6:9 or para phusin in Rom 1:26–27—seem to refer to specific sexual practices or preferences, but scholars disagree on exactly what those are. Translation frequently obscures what Paul says or doesn’t say about sex and creates anti-LGBTQ+ interpretations.
Whatever the terms mean, Paul’s discussions of sexuality respond to specific situations happening among his audiences. For instance, Paul harshly condemns the Corinthians for including in their assembly a man who takes his father’s wife and tells his audience they should “hand him over to Satan for his flesh’s ruin” (see 1Cor 5:1–5). In 1Cor 7:1–16 and 1Cor 7:25–40, Paul argues that people should remain celibate and single if possible. However, if anyone cannot control their sexual desires, then they should get married in order to have sex. Paul tells married folks that they should not remain celibate if either partner desires sex. This sexual advice is rooted in the apocalyptic orientation of his broader theology. Paul believes that God’s justice will arrive on earth during his lifetime. He considers his theology and sexual ethics as temporary measures during this delay.
Did Paul connect sexuality with ethnicity?
Roman authors talked about “good” and “bad” sex in relation to three overlapping ideas:
• penetration: “real” men should be on top; women and marginalized men should be on bottom.
• agency: men should be active; all others should be passive.
• desire: one needed to control and moderate the body, including sexual activity.
Romans thought good sexual behavior was characteristic of elite, freeborn, Roman men. Women, enslaved persons, the poor, or foreigners were incapable of good sexual behavior.
Paul largely follows this Roman sexual hierarchy. In doing so, he connects sex and sexuality to ethnicity. Paul’s ideas about marriage and celibacy align with the Roman idea of controlling desire. When Paul refers to sex practices that are “unnatural” in Rom 1:26–27, for instance, he uses the same phrase Roman writers used to associate these practices with foreign deviance. In 1Thess 4:1–8, Paul instructs his audience to control their bodies—unlike the ethnē (nations) who don’t know God. In 1Cor 5:1, Paul says that the “sexual immorality” in Corinth’s Christ-assembly is so bad that even the ethnē don’t do it. The term ethnē (the root of the English ethnicity) is same term the Romans used to describe the foreign nations it conquered. For Paul, as for Rome, immoral sexuality is whatever foreigners do.
These ideas about sexuality infuse Paul’s letters, even when a passage does not seem to be talking about sex. For instance, the main focus of Rom 13:1–7 is how Christ-followers should relate to the ruling authorities—that is, the Roman Empire. However, later in the same chapter (Rom 13:11–14), Paul urges his audience to avoid revelry, drunkenness, quarrelling, jealousy … and “illicit sex and licentiousness.” This list replicates Roman vices that were associated with the lack of (sexual) self-control associated with foreigners. Morally good subjects submit to Rome’s peace and control their sexual desires; morally corrupt subjects resist authority and lack self-control. The entire passage, then, participates in the Roman Empire’s practice of using sexual practices to portray non-Roman ethnicities as deviant.
So, what is Paul’s view on sexuality—and did everyone agree with him?
When readers come to Paul’s letters looking for his singular “view” on sexuality, we assume that his perspective was and is the authority—both for ourselves and in the ancient world. But Paul was not the only authoritative voice among first-century Christ-followers. Paul was one among many apostles—one of many different genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and social statuses—who were proclaiming what it meant to follow Christ in a world ruled by Rome.
We see Paul arguing with his audiences, which means they argued back. We even see Paul arguing with queer folks, those who challenged Roman notions of “good” gender and sexuality, when he offers his own opinions about hair length and women’s roles in the assembly (1Cor 11, 14). Listening to these voices provides an important entry point to explore the fullness of sexuality in Paul’s letters and the people around them.
Did You Know?
- Sexuality is everywhere in Paul’s letters, not only in the few places where it is explicitly discussed.
- Sexuality was and is always connected to ethnicity and race, including in Paul’s letters.
- Paul’s perspectives come in response to other followers of Christ, who bring up their own theological ideas about sexuality.
Image Credit: Albrecht Dürer, Saint Paul, 1514, Engraving, 4 5/8 × 2 7/8 in (cropped). Courtesy The Metropolitan.