07/20/2017 15:26 EDT | Updated 12/22/2017 08:55 EST

Could This Ancient Porn Change The Way We Think About Christianity And Homosexuality?

This is the world in which the New Testament was written.

The preserved ruins of the city of Pompeii are a treasure trove for those interested in learning more about the ancient Roman empire. And one British Christian leader is convinced that Pompeii provides important lessons for Christians ― particularly those who want to use the Bible to persecute queer people.

The Rev. Canon Steve Chalke is a prominent evangelical Christian from the United Kingdom. In a video created for the Oasis Open Church Network, an organization Chalke heads that advocates for LGBTQ inclusion, Chalke preaches about the importance of understanding the context in which the Bible was written. 

“500 years ago, Martin Luther and Calvin didn’t have the tools that we now have to assist us in our contextual understanding of the writings of scriptures. We’ve come miles because of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, miles because of archaeological discoveries around Pompeii, and we’ve had all sorts of other cultural and linguistic leaps forward,” Chalke told HuffPost. “It’s our job to use them and I think in using them, we find these old understandings really don’t work anymore.”

Open Church network / Vimeo
Rev. Steve Chalke is a Christian leader from the United Kingdom. 

There are six passages in the Bible that refer to same-sex behavior in some way. These verses are often referred by progressive Christians as “clobber passages” because they are repeatedly used to reject, demean, and attack queer Christians.  

Three of these passages are located in the New Testament, in the books of Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy. Another passage that conservative Christians sometimes refer to is Matthew 19, where Jesus speaks about divorce. It’s these verses that Chalke turns to in his defense of queer Christianity. 

MARIO LAPORTA via Getty Images
Picture taken 26 October 2006 of an erotic fresco in Pompeii. Art officials have restored an ancient brothel in the archaeological complex of Pompeii, believed to be the most popular one in the ancient Roman city. 

Chalke explains that the Apostle Paul was writing during a time when it was perfectly acceptable for people on the lower rungs of society ― slaves, prostitutes, gladiators, refugees ― to be sexually exploited and abused by rich and powerful Roman citizens.

The minister claims it was normal and even expected for Roman men to have sexual playthings apart from their wives. This meant having sex with concubines and young boys. Some Roman women also used people of lower status for their own sexual pleasure, Chalke said. But one thing Romans couldn’t do was abuse another Roman citizen.

“Roman boys were protected in a way that slave boys weren’t. For a Roman man, sex was a legitimate part of life, but you had to have sex with an inferior and you had to penetrate them, you weren’t allowed to be penetrated,” Chalke said in his talk. 

Reuters Photographer / Reuters
A restored erotica fresco is seen in the newly restored public bath in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii November 14, 2001. 

In order to illustrate the time period in which these words were written, Chalke turns to August 24, 79 A.D., the day historians believe the eruption of Mount Vesuvius began, burying and preserving nearby towns in around 20 feet of volcanic ash and debris. It was roughly around the same time period that evangelicals believe the Apostle Paul wrote the letters that would one day form a significant part of the New Testament. 

Much of the artwork recovered from Pompeii and other nearby towns affected by the eruption is sexually explicit. There are scenes of threesomes and people in a variety of sexual positions. After excavation of the site began in the 19th century, King Francis I of the Two Sicilies was so appalled by the sexual nature of the artwork that he ordered all explicit imagery from Pompeii at the National Archeological Museum of Naples to be locked away and out of sight from general display.

Ho New / Reuters
A restored erotica fresco is seen in the newly restored public bath in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii November 14, 2001. 

Chalke said it’s important to keep this context in mind when looking at the clobber passages in the New Testament. For him, the erotic artwork of Pompeii is a sign that Roman society was “drenched” in sex. The upper classes of that time used sex in a way that ignored the basic humanity of the people who served them.

It was this kind of exploitation of fellow human beings that Chalke believes Paul and other New Testament writers were speaking out against when they wrote these ancient scriptures. When 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians make references to men who have sex with other men,  it’s part of a much longer list of people who are exploitative ― murderers, slave traders, liars, perjurers, thieves, the greedy, slanderers, swindlers. Chalke believes Paul is warning the early Christian church against engaging in human relationships that are based on exploitation, abuse, and corruption.

On the other hand, he claims, the New Testament has nothing to say about genuine, compassionate love between people of the same gender, as it is understood in today’s world. 

“The people Paul is talking about, he said they’ve abandoned God, they’re full of deceit, lying,” Chalke told HuffPost. “Whoever Paul is talking about, it cannot be the wonderful same-sex couples that are in our church, or the gay man or the transgender woman I know. It just can’t be them.” 

What the New Testament does say, time and time again, is clear to Chalke in the video: “Don’t exploit. Don’t abuse. Live together in harmony. Include. Work at relationships.”

Chalke declared his support for committed, monogamous same-sex relationships in 2013. Since then, he has preached often about the “spiritual, mental and physical harm” that queer people face because of some Christians’ discriminatory attitudes. And he’s advocated for the wider welcome of queer Christians in the church ― despite being rejected from conservative evangelical circles for doing so.

He is currently the senior minister of Oasis Church Waterloo, which he says is a spiritual home for a number of LGBTQ Christians. The idea for the video was actually taken from a sermon that he gave this year at his church. 

Chalke told HuffPost while tradition is important, the “traditional understanding of something isn’t always the right understanding of something.” Just as the church had to adjust its teachings to the realities of scientific discoveries of Galileo and Copernicus, he said it is crucial for Christians to use modern-day resources to re-examine these clobber passages.

“Our poor understanding of the New Testament has brought misery, persecution, oppression and rejection to countless hundreds of thousands and millions of LGBT people,” Chalke said. “It’s time to apologize for the mistakes we’ve made and move on.”

Listen to Rev. Canon Steve Chalke’s full presentation above. 

UPDATE: This article has been updated with comments from Rev. Canon Steve Chalke.

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