“They Share their Food But Not Their Wives’: Sexual Morality and Defending the Faith in the Second Century

October 29, 2015


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.

Coleman Ford

Coleman Ford graduated with a Master of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary in 2012 then went on to get his Ph.D. in church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife and serves as assistant professor of Christian formation and … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24