The apologists of the early church represent a group of early Christian writers primarily concerned with defending Christianity in a culture hostile to the faith. Champions of the faith such as the unknown author of the epistle to Diognetus, Justin Martyr, and Athenagoras of Athens demonstrate a deep concern for defending deep gospel truths. They also reveal a uniquely Christian perspective on sexual morality in a sexually deviant Greco-Roman culture. Second-century apologists offer a consistent biblical defense relating to sexual holiness as an apologetic for the veracity of the Christian faith. Additionally, this apologetic relates to other biblical motifs calling Christians to exhibit a faithful presence in society. This idea of a sexually faithful presence in culture is ever-so helpful for Christians of the twenty-first century. We may be centuries away from second century Rome, but the moral atmosphere is all too familiar and remains relatively unchanged.
The Epistle to Diognetus
The author of mid-to-late second century, The Epistle to Diognetus, text is ultimately unknown. Though seemingly written as a letter, “the consistent impression,” Charles Hill maintains, “[is] of an oral address in which a Christian teacher explains Christianity in the presence of one who has requested it, a man of some social stature named Diognetus.”
Using the motif of citizenship, the author contrasts two ways of life, that is, Christian and gentile, or Roman. The author of the epistle claims that Christians do not “practice an eccentric way of life” (Diogn 5.2). For this author, the Christian life is heavenly in the sense that its not a “human doctrine” which might be “discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious people” (Diogn 5.3). Their character and behavior is reflective of the citizenship which some may consider “remarkable” and “unusual” (Diogn 5.4). The writer of the epistle declares, “They share their food but not their wives” (Diogn 5.7). Benjamin Dunning notes how the text of chapter five “develops this framework in which Christian practice is contrasted to that of a stereotyped Roman social order” wherein “Christians fulfill expected norms of hospitality…but never at the expense of sexual purity.”
Diognetus presents an alternate realm of existence, advocating for an ethos transcending reality. This moral domain includes not just obeying the laws of the land, but transcending laws in their private lives (Diogn 5.10). The author of Diognetus calls his reader to a life of imitation of God. Imitation of God comes when one imitates his primal act which is to love. Therefore imitation of what is ultimately Good leads to good acts. Greediness and impious ambition are contrary to God’s nature (Diogn 10.5).
Diognetus shows a consistent strand of biblical reasoning in regards to sexual holiness. Though not a diatribe against the sexual conventions of Roman society, the author provides a contrast, similar to the apostolic writings, between citizens of earth and citizens of heaven. Michael Bird notes, “The author attempts to rise up and meet the challenge of the cultural despisers of the Christian religion in the Greco-Roman world and he employs Pauline motifs to that end.” The author posits a community wherein imitating God leads to imitating his goodness, and this is indicated in their sexual practices.
Athenagoras’s Embassy for the Christians
Athenagoras of Athens (c. 180) sets about contrasting the gods and lifestyle of the Romans to those of the Christian community. Athenagoras states, “But we are so far from practising promiscuous intercourse, that it is not lawful among us to indulge even a lustful look” (Embassy 23). Athenagoras posits that Greco-Roman morality simply mirrors that of its gods. In the same way, Christians mirror the morality of their progenitor, Jesus Christ.
In Chapter 34 of the Embassy, Athenagoras engages the vices of Roman sexuality head on. Prostitution includes the young, even boys, “men with men working that which is base.” (Embassy 34). For Athenagoras, such a debasement is a “dishonoring [of] God’s created beauty” (Embassy 34). Athenagoras avers, “These men reproach is with those deeds which they have upon their own consciences and which they say their gods do, and brag of them as noble and godlike. Adulterers and pederasts, they revile us who live in self-denial or single marriage.” (Embassy 34). It is not the Christians who should be ridiculed for their supposed deviant behavior, but the adulterers and pederasts who should be reviled. Athenagoras betrays a knowledge of homosexuality and pederasty within society, a presence he assumes that his readers understand as well.
Justin Martyr’s First Apology
Justin Martyr (c. 100–c. 165) provides a “veritable mine of information about mid-second-century Christian and even Jewish and Roman theology, attitudes, and practices.” Justin’s defense of Christianity demonstrates more a proof for its validity and veracity as an ancient religion and one worthy of tolerance, yet his use of Scripture and appeals to reason demonstrate a desire to convey the reasonableness of Christian moral practice. He states, “Of old we rejoiced in promiscuity, but not we embrace only temperance” (1 Apol14.2).
Chapter fifteen of the First Apology provides a string of texts relating the standards of sexual holiness in Christian marriage and Christian celibacy in contrast to Roman practice. Some have lived their entire lives as “disciples of Christ and [have remained] pure” (1 Apol15.6). Justin’s goal in this regard is to “point them out in every race of people” that is, as a testimony of Christian morality and faithfulness to the teachings of Christ (1 Apol 15.6).
Justin’s goal, as it is with other apologists, is to show that Christians should not be judged on the basis of their name alone, but rather on the merits of their life and practice. He asserts, “For neither commendation nor punishment could reasonably be based on a name unless actions can show something to be virtuous or wicked” (1 Apol 4.3). Justin demonstrates the unique, and desirable, way of life demonstrated by the Christian community. For him as with other apologists, this included a faithful presence in regards to sexual morality.
The apologists of the second century offer modern readers much insight in understanding the contrasting morality of Christians and the surrounding culture. Especially in regards to sexuality, Christians imitate the virtues of their savior. Likewise, Romans imitate the vices of their gods. In understanding sexual ethics from an early Christian perspective, the apologists help believers today by revealing the consistently of the transformational power of the gospel, whether in the AD 100 or AD 2015.