Google “anti-family” and you’ll get hits from a series of right-wing organizations that claim that gay-rights groups are tearing down the nuclear, man-woman family model in America. Most of these groups at the same time profess that they are Christian, and some even use the term “Christian” as a sort of catch-all term to summarize their family ideology, as though it is synonymous with this (rather new) family ideal.
Thus an Iowan baker, confronted with two women who informed her they were not sisters but partners, refused to take their order for a wedding cake, summarily informing them, “I'm a Christian, and I do have convictions.”
But Christians should have the most appreciation for different viewpoints with respect to adhering to or rejecting the dominant family model: they’ve been arguing about it since quite literally the birth of the religion. From Jesus’ remark that whoever wishes to follow him must hate his own family members to Paul’s wish that all remain celibate like him, to extracanonical writings that venerate virginity and reactionary epistles that reinforce domestic, imperial ideals, Christian history in the first few centuries is replete with disagreements over marriage, the family, sexuality, and gender.
Recently I had occasion to read The Acts of Thecla in Greek, a work I’ve written about here before but had never read in the original language. I’m researching Thecla and other early Christian works as part of my dissertation on the ancient novel, the Greek version of which typically centers on a young couple that falls in love, is separated by fate, undergoes a series of trials, and eventually winds back up together. If this model sounds familiar, that’s because it is still the dominant model for various forms of modern comedy.
But the writer of Thecla (if the combative and largely misogynist Tertullian is to be believed, he was a presbyter in Asia Minor) chose to take this stock model, then gaining in popularity, and invert it to his own ends. In this story, Paul shows up preaching about Christianity and makes virginity a key component of it. Blessed are those, he says, who have wives as though not having them (ἔχοντες γυναῖκας ὥς μὴ ἔχοντες) and those who keep the flesh chaste (ἀγνὴν τὴν σάρκα τηρήσαντες).
As mentioned here before, virginity was prized in early Christianity, and so this preaching doesn’t really stand out. But the narrative of how the writer sees it received by those in town is quite instructive. They are (perhaps naturally) perturbed about this traveling “sorcerer” (μάγος) coming to town and telling their wives to leave their husbands. In fact, the author has these men speak in terms often used of adultery. They complain that Paul “deprives young men of wives and maidens of husbands” (στερεῖ δὲ νέους γυναικῶν καὶ παρθένους ἀνδρῶν) and say he has “corrupted all our wives” (διέφθειρεν γὰρ ἡμῶν πάσας τὰς γυναῖκας). This word for “corrupt” is the same one used several times in the famous Lysias 1, where a cuckolded husband defends himself against charges of murdering his wife’s lover.
Of course, Tertullian dismisses Thecla as a fiction concocted by a wayward presbyter, and points to Paul’s admonition against women teaching to declare the account false. But this is hardly an isolated incident, as many who have studied early Christianity have demonstrated. In her now-classic The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels also points out that another of “Tertullian’s prime targets, the heretic Marcion, had, in fact, scandalized his orthodox contemporaries by appointing women on an equal basis with men as priests and bishops.”
As noted by Pagels, this gender deconstruction is perhaps most prevalent in Thomas 22:4-7: "When you make the two into one ... when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female ... then you will enter the Kingdom."
But the eradication of the difference between men and women shows up even in the canonical material. Using a stock symbol of religious zealotry in antiquity, from Attis to Origen, Matthew 19:12 suggests some make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. Likewise, Paul in Galatians 3:28 notes there is no male and female. These and other passages have led some to suggest the androgyne was a key symbol of early Christianity. This perhaps explains the puzzling end of Thomas, where Jesus promises to make Mary a male and suggests that all women who make themselves male will enter the Kingdom.
Thecla appears to have taken note: by the end of her Acts, she has cut off her hair and altered her cloak to appear male, and she is sent out by Paul to preach the gospel.
Thus even a cursory look at early Christianity does not paint a black-and-white picture of gender, sexuality, and family roles. And while it’s true that the ultimate winners of Christianity, the orthodox who comparatively marginalized women, provided the inheritance for modern Christians who now think conservative family ideology is synonymous with their faith, those early orthodox leaders most certainly maintained that celibacy was a state superior to marriage, a view that wouldn’t change until much, much later.
So to say, “You see, I’m a Christian,” and then expect that to automatically register one’s adherence to a nuclear family social order in 21st century America is really the height of historical irony. In the very least, it should be a conversation-starter, not the last word.