Same Sex Unions in Christian History

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Sergius and Bacchus were soldiers who had a same sex relationship and were later martyred. This is the Church of Saint Sergius and Bacchus,often known as Little Hagia Sophia. Image by Mikhail Markovsky.

The modern debate about whether the church should accept alternative lifestyles [and the related issue of the pressure being put by the adherents of these lifestyles on the church] reflects a fundamental issue of how an institution that sees itself as having a mission from a deity above the world relates to the pressures from society within it.

Context of  Same-Sex Unions

It would be wrong to read modern concerns into ancient minds, but the issue of whether homosexuality should be acceptable in a Christian lifestyle was to some extent an issue in the early Christian church.

Pressures on the church can come from two sources: popular and dominant culture.

In the ancient world the dominant culture saw the political establishment putting pressure on Christians to conform to the imperial cult; whereas it placed no pressures on Christians over chastity or homosexuality. Instead, pressures would come from the popular culture, in which pressures to share a lifestyle will arise.

Religious responses to social pressure can come in various forms: yielding to it, which the church did not do, to the serious pressure to adopt the imperial cultus, resistance, modification of strategy, and rethinking beliefs. Modification of strategy occurred with slavery. While Christianity rejected slavery, it accepted that the safest way was to encourage manumission. But the church has never changed its ethical code in response to social pressure, and cannot do so, as this ethical code, it believes, stems from a divine source. However, some Christians did rethink their inherited view on homosexuality, though others took a more traditional line.


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Robin Lane Fox observes that there was no agreement in the ancient world on homosexuality, though it was widely accepted in Graeco-Roman society. In the ancient Mediterranean world, homosexual relationships were not unusual and marriage could be contracted by two males. Christians, however, were very strict about chastity and inherited the ancient Semitic rejection of homosexuality expressed in the Old Testament.

Greek Influences on Christians

Many of the Christians were of Greek origin and therefore came from a society which accepted homosexuality; this resulted in some rejection of the strict line. In the late Roman period, the empire banned homosexual marriage, but there seems to have been some continued acceptance of same sex relationships (for men at least).

Saints Sergius and Bacchus

One icon that reveals acceptance of homosexuality, albeit before the ban, is the icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, depicted in a traditional wedding style portrait, in which the Christ in the centre occupies the position of pronubus, or best man. Bacchus is elsewhere described as the sweet companion and lover of Sergius. Both were soldiers who later died as martyrs.

The language suggests that they enjoyed a romantic relationship, and that this was no barrier to their participation in the Christian community and to their elevation to the status of saints. Boswell observes that the Byzantine emperor Basil [867-886] underwent a union with his partner John. Giraldus Cambriensis observes that those in Ireland blessed same sex unions in the eleventh century, but this indicates that by then this was a matter on which the Irish church differed from the European mainstream.

Boswell, researching early Christian documents, discovered an ecclesiastical office [ritual] for the blessing of same sex unions, which the Eastern church apparently used. The ritual has the following elements, all of which are found in marriage: a community gathered in church, blessing before the altar, joining of right hands, the participation of a priest, taking of Eucharist, and the wedding banquet afterwards.

The taking of Eucharist is especially significant, as only Christians may take it, and the fact that the participants took it in such unions indicates that both partners were Christian. However, it does not seem to be a marriage, but some kind of union akin to a civil partnership with a religious dimension. That there was an official rubric for the blessing of same sex unions indicates that there was some level of official acceptance of these unions, for men at least.

Spiritual Unions

Christian Wedding - Antiquity

This style of marriage became the only type of marriage allowed. Image by Erica Guillane Nachez.

What we cannot know is whether there was a sexual element to these unions. There was a tradition in early Christianity of spiritual marriages, which were known among the desert fathers and their female companions, so same sex unions might have been non-sexual. Human nature being as it is, purely spiritual unions often became physical, and this may have been the case with same sex spiritual unions.

Homosexuality and Christianity

In the early years of the Christian church, there appears to be differing attitudes to same sex unions, but slowly they fell from acceptance. However, the documents cited show that the present division among Christians is not new, and that there was the same difference of opinion among early Christians.

The present day pressure on the church to change its ethical code is without historical precedent. But what is well-precedented is that the Roman Catholic church never submits to external pressures to change its beliefs.

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© Copyright 2014 Frank Beswick, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past


  1. says

    “The Church never succombed to pressure …” I would contend that there is evidence that the Church did, when it suited, succombe to pressure from the crowned heads of Europe. How else was Henry II able to marry the previously divorced ex-wife of King Louis of France? It is well known that Henry VIII split from the Church because of its refusal to accede to his request to annul his first marriage in order for him to take a wife who he hoped would provide him with a male heir. Others before him had found the Church to be more flexible in the application of its rules regarding marriage.

    I wonder where the pressure came from to change the Church’s attitude with regard to celebacy in the priesthood? Within the Church or without?

    • Frank BeswickFrank Beswick says

      I said that the church did not succumb to pressure to change doctrine. I am not fully familiar with the details of Henry the Second’s divorce, but it is not widely known that the church allows divorce under petrine privilege, which allows the pope to divorce a non sacramental marriage “for the sake of faith”. There is also pauline privilege, which allows divorce of a partner who is anti-faith. Eleanor of Aquitaine was thought to be a witch, so she would have been considered an anti-Christian pagan, but I suspect that Henry was leaning on the pope to some degree. There is also the fact that unless fidelity is intended, there is no marriage, so realistically how many aristocratic/royal marriages pass this rquirement? Probably few, if any, so a divorced ex-wife is not as unweddable as we might think. But no doctrine was changed in this case. For what it is worth I do not think that the church uses these privileges anywhere near enough, but that’s another matter.

      In the case of Henry the Eighth the pope had already granted permission for the marriage to Catherine, so he had cut off any of his options in relation to the divorce, other than to refuse it. As he should have done. Henry had no case.

      The pressure for celibacy came from within the church, the monks to be precise, who pushed it at the first council of the Lateran, though canons of earlier local councils had promoted it

  2. Frank BeswickFrank Beswick says

    I have just checked. The divorce was based on an annulment on grounds of consanguinity. The story of her being a witch went around England on account of her being very unpopular, but is not substantiated and was not behind her divorce.

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