LGBTQ and the Ancient Celtic Church

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Today we would like to share a guest post with you written by David Cole. We hope this article inspires you to dive a little deeper into what it means to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors while looking forward to what kind of world we will leave for our grandchildren.

David is a Celtic Christian retreat leader and author based in the UK where he founded Waymark Ministries. He is the UK ‘Deputy Guardian’ for The Community of Aidan and Hilda – a globally dispersed Celtic New Monastic Community. His piece here is a scholarly investigation of the ancient Celtic Christian view of same sex relationships, but it also goes into detail about the biblical basis (or lack thereof) for discrimination of LGBTQ people today.

I hope you enjoy his article!


As someone who studies, teaches, and has had books published on the topic of Celtic Christianity, and even wrote my Masters’ thesis on it, I am often asked “what did the historic Celtic Christians think of this or that topic?”.

The reality is that most of the time there is no real specific answer. Often we just don’t know at all, and the best we can do is to make educated suppositions from what we do know from other aspects of what they taught and believed. The other difficulty is that the recorded ‘Celtic’ period lasted from around the early/mid-4th century to the late 9th century in different parts of Britain and Ireland. So it’s a bit like someone in the future asking “what did the British Christians between the 17th and 21st century believe on such and such a topic?”.

The reality is that over such a period, even though there is an enormous amount recorded these days, theology changes and is immensely diverse between different people. Even in our current period of the first couple of decades of the 21st century theology has changed, and there is a large diversity of views. This was also true for historic Celtic Christianity.

Theology, understanding, and interpretation of scripture was diverse and organic.

As far as I know there is no direct teaching on the subject of homosexuality and Christians by any Celtic writer or saint, none of the sermons we have by Columbanus for example, nor the apostolic letters of people such as Patrick, nor the De Excidio Britanniae historical lament of the state of the British church by Gildas, nor any theological paper from people such as John Scotus Eriugena directly teach on this subject.

However, having said that, there are a few primary sources which we can collate together from northern Europe, Britain, and Ireland so we can have a fairly good idea of what the general perspective might have been. The primary sources we can draw on for this topic are: the translation of the bible used by the Celtic Christians, so we have some idea of what they might have thought scripture says about it; commentaries on biblical books written at the time; and the monastic penitential texts, which make comment on the sexual conduct of monks. So let’s unfold some of that now on the topic of Celtic Christians and homosexuality…

We’ll begin with a thought on bible translation. Let me pause here to say that this is not a piece which will go into too much depth on bible translation, neither would I class myself as a Greek scholar. I know some, but what I know most is that many Greek words have more than one way to interpret them.

This is one of the reasons that over the centuries there have been a range of bible translations, and the question of how best to translate and interpret Greek words used in the New Testament is always at the heart of it, and the word “arsenokoites” is no exception.

Arsenokoites is the word translated into modern English bibles as ‘homosexual’. In other verses, which some people may intimate homosexuality from, where the New Testament speaks of ‘sexual immorality’, for example, the Greek word used in those verses, or a derivative of it, is usually ‘porneia’ and ‘pornos’ is the Greek word for the person who practices this, which is obviously the root of the modern term ‘porn’ and ‘pornography’, which suggests a much wider, or even completely different, context in the original Greek to our understanding of homosexuality.

It may surprise you to know that it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that any bible translated arsenokoites into the English word ‘homosexual’.

The first instance of “homosexual” being used in a Bible as the translation for this word was in the RSV New Testament first published in 1946. Before then other terms were used. For example, if we compare the end of 1 Corinthians 6v9 in a modern New International Version of the bible with an original King James version (1611), the NIV uses the terms “male prostitutes and homosexual offenders” whereas the KJV says “the effeminate and abusers of themselves with mankind”, both of the terms from the KJV, I feel, are more open to interpretation than the NIV, especially if we look at it in light of other earlier translations of the bible.

If we go back to Martin Luther’s 16th century Reformation (arguably the first Protestant) translation for example it translates arsenokoites as “Knabenschänder”, from “Knaben”, meaning boys or young children, which suggests that for Luther during the church Reform “arsenokoites” was interpreted as something more closely associated with paedophilia than what we understand as ‘homosexuality’ in today’s LGBT+ conversation.

I also believe that there is still a modern German translation which translates “arsenokoites” as “Kinder sexuell missbrauchen” – “to abuse children sexually”.

But obviously the historic Celtic Christians would not have been using either a 20th century English version, nor a 16th century Lutheran version, and not even the original King James Version (a disappointment and a shock to numerous folk I know to discover that the KJV is not the original bible!).

The ancient Christians in the Western church, including the Celtic Christians, all used the Latin version of the bible. So how does the Latin version, the Vulgate, translate “arsenokoites”?

Jerome’s Latin translation, the Vulgate, dates from the late 4th/early 5th century. In this version of the bible “arsenokoites” is translated into the Latin term “masculorum concubitoribus,” implying a male on male concubinage or pimping, which also implied a dominant male and a subservient male, which reflected the culture both in Jerome’s day, and also the Greco-Roman culture of Jesus’ and Paul’s day.

This is not anything akin to homosexuality as we speak of it today, and as the LGBT+ community speak of it. In fact everyone I know personally who would class themselves as within the LGBT+ community, Christian or not, would say that “masculorum concubitoribus” was absolutely abominable!

According to a friend of mine who is a Bible College lecturer and whose PhD is in Pauline linguistics:

“in 1 Corinthians 6 this power based sexual relationships of Greco-Roman men, which only works in one way from elder to younger, is what Paul is referring to, and he is specific about the acts which are being performed. None of the texts… Corinthians, Timothy or Jude… are talking about romantic relationships.”

Another passage, Romans 1, also needs to be looked at here. This passage in Romans is one which I have heard people say is the ‘argument from creation’ and is the only verse to mention women specifically. However, for me this is the most spurious passage used in relation to this topic, but is necessary to look at in this discussion.

Paul refers to women and men turning from ‘nature’ to what is ‘unnatural’. However, in consulting my friend with the Doctorate in Pauline linguistics I discovered that the only other place that Paul describes something as ‘unnatural’ in the same sort of way is in 1 Corinthians 11v14 where ‘nature’ tells us a man’s hair should be short.

“So ‘nature’ in that context” she says “can’t mean ‘natural’ in the modern scientific sense as that would make Paul an imbecile, which he is not! So what does he mean? Well most other uses of the term [within and outside of the bible at that time] are for ‘common sense’ – what is known, what is culturally appropriate. Which makes sense of 1 Corinthians 11, it fits with the whole setting of chapters 11 and 14 of behaving in ways that are culturally appropriate for the setting, and obeying God and being a respectable community.”

If we take that understanding back to the verses in Romans 1, we could say that we have a condemnation not against homosexuality in general, but against what is considered culturally inappropriate sexual behaviour, and not necessarily homosexuality as we understand it.

What is useful for us here, in this piece where we are looking at what the historic Celtic Christians might have thought about this topic, is a commentary on the book of Romans by a British monk called Morgan, better known by his Latin (and published) name – Pelagius.

He wrote this commentary in the late 4th/early 5th century – the same period in which Jerome was creating the Latin bible, so Pelagius quite possibly based his commentary on the original Greek text rather than the Latin translation. We know that he was certainly academically able to have done so.

In Pelagius’ commentary on the book of Romans he doesn’t seem to relate the original text of this passage with homosexual behaviour at all, but he suggests that if people turn away from God in extreme degrees, as those being described in Romans 1 seem to have done, then one even loses a sense of who one is in one’s self. One loses a sense of one’s own nature, and who one was/is, and so will start to behave in ways contrary to one’s own nature. The commentary goes like this, scripture in italics, words of Pelagius in non-italics:

26… for their women changed their natural relations into relations which are against nature. Those who turned against God turned everything on its head: for those who forsook the author of nature also could not keep to the order of nature… 27 in the same way, men too, having forsaken natural relations with women, were inflamed with lust for one another, men committing shameful acts with men. Lust, once unbridled, knows no limit. And receiving in themselves the due penalty for their errors. So ran the order of nature, that those who had forgotten God did not understand themselves as well.

All in all, if we understand the Bible passages as expressed above, it seems that the New Testament is actually really very quiet on homosexuality as we understand it today, and utterly silent on what most gay Christians wish to practice – loving, committed, God centred relationships.

It does seem to stand against a type of dominant sexual act that it associates with Greco-Roman life and Gentile living, which is completely incompatible with the laws and love of God. It seems that from the above unfolding, the reason there is no direct biblical teaching on this topic in sermons, theology, or apostolic letters within historic Celtic Christianity is because it just wasn’t seen as something which contradicted scripture, as it isn’t really directly mentioned in scripture, not according to the Latin translation anyway.

The final primary source which we will look at here to discover what the Celtic Christians might have thought about homosexuality is the monastic penitential texts, that is, the texts which tell us how the monasteries were run, and what consequences there were for monks and priests for not adhering to the structure and rules of the monasteries.

This can be set out quite simply: looking at various monastic penitential texts there seems to be three categories of sexual behaviour, each looked at individually with its own set of consequences. These three categories are: bestiality; homosexual acts; and heterosexual acts.

As we might imagine, bestiality has some quite harsh consequences attached to it, and really that could be set as something which is quite different to the other two, but as it is generally all three of these set together in the penitential texts, I have included it here.

So then there are the comments and consequences for both heterosexual and homosexual acts. What we find here in the penitential texts is that there doesn’t seem to be any distinctive separation between them. By which I mean that the consequences of both homosexual and heterosexual acts are basically the same, one is not more severe than the other, it is as if in the minds of those writing the penitential texts these were just ‘sexual acts with another human being’.

So as far as I read in these texts, homosexuality was not taken as a ‘big’ sin whilst heterosexual acts were taken as a lesser sin, as they might be seen today – where Christians who might have a heterosexual extra marital affair are not treated in the same way that homosexual Christians are treated by some ‘Christians’.

In conclusion, with all these things drawn together in our open minds, it seems that the answer to the initial question ‘what was the ancient Celtic Christian view of homosexuality?’ is – not a lot! Not that they didn’t think of it, because they obviously did for it to be in the penitential texts, so it was something that happened, but just that it seems to have not really been an issue for them at all, and certainly not something which went against the scriptures they read.

Let us learn from the wisdom of our heritage. Let the lives and teachings (or the glaringly absent teachings) of our spiritual ancestors, who we desire to be inspired by, guide our hearts and minds in Christ.


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One thought on “LGBTQ and the Ancient Celtic Church

  1. (How is the following supporting a belief that early Christians did not have reservations or prohibitions against same sex sexual or romantic relationships?)

    26… for their women changed their natural relations into relations which are against nature. Those who turned against God turned everything on its head: for those who forsook the author of nature also could not keep to the order of nature… 27 in the same way, men too, having forsaken natural relations with women, were inflamed with lust for one another, men committing shameful acts with men. Lust, once unbridled, knows no limit. And receiving in themselves the due penalty for their errors. So ran the order of nature, that those who had forgotten God did not understand themselves as well.

    (How did the above lead you to your following statement?)

    All in all, if we understand the Bible passages as expressed above, it seems that the New Testament is actually really very quiet on homosexuality as we understand it today, and utterly silent on what most gay Christians wish to practice – loving, committed, God centred relationships.

    Like

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