Gay marriage: Why Christians shouldn’t do as the Romans did

By Adam Blick (Queen's College, 2008)

The world has witnessed history with the introduction of gay marriage in the UK in 2013 and in recent months, most notably in Ireland and the USA. In the western world, which claims to espouse freedom of speech and equal rights, one may wonder what took so long.

Moreover, until 2004 in England, gay couples did not have the same rights as heterosexual couples. They were not recognised in law and so did not benefit from the legal rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples; same-sex couples had very limited financial claims on separation, even at the end of a relationship that lasted for, say, thirty years and on intestacy. The Civil Partnership Act in 2004, whilst causing a significant stir, entitled same-sex couples to enjoy similar rights as heterosexual ones. However, although in essence a mirror image, civil partnerships were not defined as marriage but were governed by their own legislation.

Following this, the right of same-sex couples to marry was then introduced, which has caused yet another stir for numerous reasons — broadly speaking religious, cultural and, therefore, political. Given how far we’ve come as a society, some would say that there is irony found in such opposition, particularly with regard to Christianity.

As a classicist and solicitor, I have had the benefit of reading all sorts of texts and of drawing parallels between the ancient (western) world and the one we live in today. In essence, what I see as ‘history repeating itself’. I see a rather ironic parallel between the introduction of Christianity in ancient Rome and the introduction of gay marriage today. Both have had to contend with religious, social and political connotations. Yet, although both have struggled for recognition on similar grounds, Christianity has greatly resisted gay marriage.

Ancient Rome was driven by three main policies: consolidating frontiers, respecting differences between provinces and formulating alliances. An overall policy, therefore, of tolerance was applied. That is not to say, however, that they were consistently practised!

In ancient Rome, Christianity ‘stood out as the only persecuted religion in an otherwise tolerant Roman Empire’ (J Wacher, The Roman World, vol. 2 (London, 1990) 800). It faced severe and brutal hostility as an exitiabilis superstitio, ‘a fatal superstition’. This was largely for failing to conform to Roman law and customs. Consequently, Christianity became a scapegoat during an economic downturn which enabled Romans to ‘reassert a sense of their own cohesion by fighting off enemies who are often quite imaginary’ (Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons (Chicago, 1975) 216). Yet, such resistance led to sympathy. Pliny the Younger, in his letters to Emperor Trajan, is among the first to express his sympathy, marking the beginning of the climb to acceptance and eventual integration of the Christians in Rome.

Society in Britain, like Rome, has evolved using policies of tolerance, particularly with regard to religion, immigration and sexuality. Nonetheless, there are those that, in spite of these ‘tolerant’ values, have strongly opposed gay marriage and indeed even civil partnerships. They likewise rely, as the Romans did, on tradition and religion to justify their opposition. Thus, it is ironic that Christianity has often been invoked to oppose gay rights.

Christians have vehemently opposed gay marriage and some states in America are appealing against the recent ruling on religious grounds. As the Romans did against Christians, Christians now oppose gay unions for a lack of conformity with their own laws and customs. However, as the Romans did with the Christians, resistance has eventually led to a better understanding and more sympathetic ear, resulting in the integration of gay marriage with the law and the rest of society. Resistance and campaigning has led to awareness. This awareness has led to a better understanding of the core issues — a familiarity which has revealed the phenomenon of gay marriage as less threatening and intimidating than it had previously been perceived.

In an ever-developing world, it is important to facilitate the changing needs and priorities of society. Indeed, Christians have themselves evolved to do so — the introduction of female priests being a prime example. In a similar way, therefore, it has been hard to sympathise with opposing beliefs on the topic of gay marriage, and instead the sympathy has fallen on the side of the gay community. The natural progression on the topic of gay marriage has led to its inevitable acceptance, implementation and a more evolved society.

Adam Blick is an alumnus of Queen's College and read Ancient Greek and Latin at MSt level in the year 2008-2009.

Image © Mincemeat via Shutterstock.


By Richard

A superficial comparison which makes no attempt to understand why many both non-religious and religious continue to oppose the redefinition of marriage to encompass any set of consenting individuals. By omitting any discussion of the purpose of marriage (begetting and raising of children) or of why having a mother and a father united by marriage is naturally advantageous in children's development, you reveal your own adult-centred misunderstanding of marriage.

By Jason Chess

No mention of ius naturale? Not that it is anything like the elephant in the corner, mind you.

By Andrew Gordon

The objection to gay marriage is not religious, nor is it intolerant. It is biological and anthropological.

By Nic Stuchfield

Your argument would appear to misunderstand completely the nature of the opposition that many Christians feel towards same sex marriage. The impression given is that Christians feel uncomfortable with it because it is novel and conflicts with tradition, and that therefore all that is needed if for such Christians to be re-educated, to gain "familiarity" with it and thus to see it "as less threatening and intimidating than it had previously been perceived". Such a view could indeed justify the term homophobia, as it would be largely driven by fear.
In fact, the opposition felt by many (though by no means all) Christians, is based on entirely different logic: the teaching of the Bible (both in the Old and the New Testaments), which Christians believe to be the revealed word of God, is that the sexual act is divinely blessed only within the context of a lifelong relationship between one man and one woman. Until recent decades, "marriage" was the name for that relationship. Sexual activity that falls outside those tightly-defined circumstances is not subject to divine blessing, according to the Bible. Contemporary society generally supports some of the associated Biblical interdictions (such as incest or bestiality, and in the case of the NT, polygamy and polyandry). However, other of the interdictions contemporary society regards as acceptable (such as homosexuality and sex outside marriage). Society's views have changed over time, whereas the Biblical view has been consistent, at least since the time of Christ.
One other point to note is that the Bible teaches the positive power of loving relationships, regardless of who the relationship partners are (including of course the parent-child relationship). It does, however, make a distinction between the loving relationship and the sexual act, in a way which the recent redefinition of marriage has obscured.
You might quite reasonably wish that "re-education" would be all that was needed to enable Christians to support the wider definition of marriage now on statute but many Christians will take the view that no amount of societal urging can trump the revealed word of God, which, immutable as it is, will continue to endorse all sorts of non-sexual loving relationships (including homosexual ones) but which reserves divine approval of sexual activity to the participants in a life-long relationship composed of a man and a woman.

By Peter Chew

This article fails to recognize that many of the same Christians who oppose same-sex marriage also continue to oppose the introduction of female priests - not on the basis of "tradition", as the author asserts, but on the basis of Biblical texts (1 Timothy 2:12) and Jesus's own teaching, as one MP pointed out during the UK parliamentary debate on same-sex marriage. Though society may "evolve", these texts do not, and that is why those of us who hold to them as God's Word will continue to see them as the basis for true freedom at a personal and national level.


The persecution of homosexuals was indeed abominable. But calling homosexual unions "civil partnerships" was hardly persecution, Bringing lawsuits against people who (however misguidedly) are reluctant to offer cakes or double-bed accommodation to such couples is a lot closer to persecution!

By John Hudson

Two errors here: Christians were barely persecuted by the Romans; see de Ste Croix (2006) ‘Christian persecution, martyrdom, and orthodoxy’ OUP 0 19 927812 1.
Only episcopal Christians opposed gay marriage; many free churches and the Quakers did not - this is as gross as equating Islam with the Shia.

By Prof John Bradshaw

The dead hand of religion has for ever been a blight upon humanity, whatever the espoused religion. We see this even more nowadays, Sunni vs, Shiah, Muslim against Christian, Protestant vs. Catholic, even, latterly, Buddhist vs. Muslim. Until we come, unwillingly it seems, to realise that there is no universal, omnipotent "Tooth Fairy", and that we should endeavour to make the best of our own short existences, and to assist others so to do, wherever possible, senseless slaughter at worst, and pointless discrimination at best, will for ever be our bane. Why should the aggressive and self-contradictory ravings of bronze-age herders from the Middle East be treated as sacrosanct (sic, and literally) codes to life in the 21st Century?

By David Parris

As Claude Lever's "Les Bûchers de Sodome" documents, the Church has a long and dishonourable tradition ofholophobic violence, burning "Sodomites" at the stake up until the late 19thC (and then hiding the evidence). Still, as far as I can see, the crime "non inter Christianos nominandum" figures nowhere in the Ten Commandments, Creed(s), Secen Deadly Sins, or 39 Articles (unless by implication). The raising of "homosexuality" to a mega-sin is a modern development, perhaps by way of retrenchment, as the Church loses ground on divorce, sex before (or instead of) marriage, abortion, contraception, in which previously sacred doctrines seem to have fallen by the wayside.

By Bryan Wilson

This survey fails to mention the fundamental reason why many Christians oppose gay 'marriage'. It springs from their understanding of the nature of the Bible, and in particular of the New Testament. If it is regarded simply as a product of its time (and it is true that some Christians do see it this way), then at a different time prevailing equality and other cultural attitudes can sanction gay marriage. If on the other hand the principles clearly enunciated within it are seen as permanent, God's recipe for a truly healthy society, then Christian opposition is easily understood (and those who proclaim their opposition may even be seen as worthy of respect for being prepared to making themselves unpopular rather than compromise their belief). Any analysis based only on social, cultural and political attitudes fails to address this basic issue.

By Leo Chamberlain

Christians do not oppose gay marriage firstly on religious grounds, but because the unique meaning of marriage is the lifelong union of a man and a woman, which does not evolve. Toleration and acceptance of others has evolved, but gay rights cannot abolish biology. Persecution of Christianity in ancient Rome is not so simply explained: Judaism also did not conform to Roman Law. It is more relevant to recall that in sexual matters in ancient Rome, all sorts of practices were current.

By cecilia hatt

Whatever one thinks about the rights and wrongs of gay marriage, I'm surprised that such a childishly ill-informed article should have found its way into Oxford Today. It is the right of the state to countenance civil partnerships and Christians mostly do not quarrel with this. However the state has neither the right nor the competence to decide what is a sacrament and what is not, and whether it may be bestowed in a Christian place of worship, any more than a Christian could demand arbitrarily to be married in a synagogue, a mosque or a Sikh temple. This is what is at the root of the Christian objection to same-sex marriage. Christianity has an intelligible intellectual content which deserves to be acknowledged, not least because it has for centuries been the raison d'etre of Oxford University's dedication to learning . If we are to speak of prejudice or hatred, we might ask why apparently educated people think that silly remarks about tooth fairies are an adequate way of characterising the beliefs of other educated people.

By David Anderson

Both the comparison and the analysis made in this piece are superficial in the extreme.

The comparison is superficial - the author says that just as the Romans relied on "tradition and religion" to guide them, so do Christians today - and therefore they ironically line up together. But, this point of similarity is so weak (it could apply to almost anything - who is not guided by their history and views of religion?), that it barely goes beyond the observation that Christians and Romans generally also tend to have two legs.

The analysis as a whole is superficial, as the author simply presents the sexual revolution and its most recent developments as "natural", generally describing it in the passive voice as something just happening, that actors need to respond to. In reality, a much stronger case could be made that a power elite have been aggressively and deliberately driving an agenda. The writer obviously approves of that agenda, but for some reason presents it as something inevitable/natural instead of discussing the nature of human sexuality itself, and/or presenting his case for why he believes it is right.. In reality, if we must make the historical comparison, he lines himself up with the Romans, the power elite of their day, to denigrate the beliefs of the (to him) backward Christians.

By Dick Pyle

Professor Bradshaw, thank you for your brilliant, succinct comment. I shall be sending it, with attribution, to the small number of my friends who still cling to religion.

By Marcus Johnson

I think "superficial" and "uninformed " do not do justice to what is clearly a thought provoking article reflecting on the ephemeral nature of the mores of human societies. Chistianity, seen as a threat in its early years, became the preservation mechanism for much of the intellectual and cultural wealth of Rome.

The legal recognition of sexual differences which were clearly there in the old testament and before may be difficult for some Christians to accept todaybut surely one of the great preservation mechanisms for Christianity has been its continued flexibility. God's will continues to be revealed as human society evolves.

In effect monotheism trumps most polytheistic approaches as it is logically the case that a single omnipotent deity can decide everything and therefore everything which persists and prospers must be another revelation of His will. And that is really quite similar to the thesis of Adam Blick. If same sex unions prove popular and succesful they will find widespread support from religeon.

By Ruth Butler

Quite simply, not all Christians oppose gay marriage. It may surprise the author to know that there are married gay Christians - even clergy. Please check your facts first. Christianity at its best extends the love of God to everyone regardless of sexual orientation, gender, or anything else people love to disagree on.

By Hector Davie

There is no clear-cut Christian view of gay marriage, because gay marriage, like atomic energy or internet pornography, was not a feature of the society Jesus lived in. Christians are thrown back on the general principle "You shall love your neighbour as yourself". Even the words recorded in the Gospels regarding divorce and adultery need to be set in the context of first century Judæa, and against the wider backdrop of human sinfulness and the imminent coming of God's kingdom. Some people seem to have forgotten that the New Testament and the Old Testament are two different sets of books.

By Scirard Lancely...

Professor Bradshaw's unworthy atheistic rant fails to acknowledge that to be a christian means to follow the teachings of Christ, and I wonder where he thinks that violence was advocated in those teachings? The importance of a religion is not to foster belief in the supernatural, but to have a code of conduct that is constant, and a set of teachings which, although they may be modified by changing conditions, are not thrown away when they don't suit the latest government.

I think the reason most married couples, whether of any religion or of none, objected, was more because they did not like the retrospective re-definition of the state they had subscribed to. It would have been better to select or invent a different word for same sex unions, and allow the word 'marriage' to retain the definition it has had for more than two thousand years. (sexual union of one man and one woman to create and nurture children)

By the way I hope Dick Pyle's friends are of a forgiving nature (a central tenet of the christian faith) as they will doubtless realise his missive is not kindly meant!

By Peter

Sorry naysayers, you lost this argument in 1753 when the the state's law replaced canon law as the authority for marriage. Marriage has not been a religious act since that time. If you object to same-sex marriage for supposed religious reasons, you de facto object to civil marriage. We live in a pluralistic society where the state is the font of rights, not the Church. In such a system the state cannot discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation. If you wish to live in a Theocracy, move to Iran or the Vatican; I'm sure your views on the desirability of religion underpinning the law will be more welcome there than in this tolerant society. If you are still in doubt, I suggest you read the recent judgment from the US Supreme Court. You are welcome to opposing views - opposing views are fundamental to our liberal society - but please do use religion as a veneer to excuse your denial of dignity to a minority group.

By John Haigh

Although this is primarily a discussion of Christian attitudes to same sex marriage, atheists such as I also find ourselves in opposition to it. My grounds are the way marriage is rooted in prehistory, predating all modern religions, forming the basis for the propagation of our culture, in its broadest sense, for thousands of years. Such a fundamental cultural artefact as marriage cannot be modified by a few people, at a small window in history, demanding a spurious identity.

By Diego Fleitas

If the author is right, his comparison has a down side, according Gibbon and others Christianity was one of the causes of the Roman decline,so the Roman did it wrong not for having persecuted christian, but for doing it ineffectively, if you want to apply that logic to current times...

By RH Findlay

Interesting how the comments on human sexuality far outweigh concerns, arising from the June article on the Magna Carta, about the systematic loss of our hard-won civil liberties through the deliberate development of the "surveillance" state. One sees the same in the news media. Clearly, sex "sells".

By Elaine Lever

Perhaps marriage was originally a contract rather than a religious rite, which needed witnessing and recording. As the clergy had the monopoly of learning, their sanction was necessary.(The old "repeat after me" format of the marriage service derives from a time when few people could read or write. )

By Miriam Griffin

The introduction of Christianity and the introduction of gay marriage are not parallel. What the Romans objected to was the Christian claim that there was only one god, their god, and that therefore Roman pagan religion was invalid and rested on falsehood: they would have accepted the Christian god as one among many. Champions of gay marriage do not deny the validity of other forms of marriage.

By Frank Robinson

Since Jesus Christ endorsed heterosexual marriage as a Creation gift, adding his own emphasis on "one flesh", his followers can hardly be faulted for agreeing with him, or for being dismayed at politicians and others who think they know better.

By Timothy Keates

The objections of professed Christians to same-sex marriage may be valid. However, it appears unjust to assume that all the citizens of a country are officially to be classed as Christian, and therefore to preclude such a form of marriage to them. Christianity (like Judaism or Islam) involves monotheism. Am I, as a British subject, denied the faculty of worshipping more than one god — or no god at all?