In recent days Christians have rightly decried the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in favor of gay marriage, calling them unjust, unwise, and ungodly. The decisions will have adverse effects on society, and followers of Jesus should work tirelessly to see them overturned. At the same time, however, the Bible reminds us not to be discouraged or imagine that a culture awash in sexual immorality will rob the Church of its power. The first-century Roman Empire practiced and even embraced an array of sexual perversions, but God used that sin as a backdrop to highlight the power of the gospel and the holiness of His Church. Consider several of the cities where early believers lived.
Paul’s description of Gentile-dominated Rome included reference to homosexuality. Women there “exchanged natural relations for those that [were] contrary to nature” while men “likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another” (Romans 1:26-27). Indeed, Rome was a bustling metropolis that offered an array of sexual perversions to those seeking illicit pleasures. Yet in that city, the gospel proved to be “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believe[d]” (Romans 1:16), and the virtue of the Church was “known to all” (Romans 16:19).
Ancient Corinth was infamous for its wanton sexuality. Paul included among the common sinful lifestyles in Corinth “the sexually immoral,” “adulterers,” and “men who practice homosexuality” (1 Corinthians 6:9). Some Corinthian believers were even among those groups before their conversions. But when Paul preached the gospel there, “many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8).
Among the “works of the flesh” present in Galatia were “sexual immorality,” “impurity,” “sensuality,” and “orgies” (Galatians 5:19-21). But the Galatian believers were “redeemed from the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13) and called to live by faith (Galatians 3:11).
Ancient Ephesus was the site of a great temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis, and its centerpiece was a large and perverse statue of the deity. It was a city of pagan immorality, including “sensuality” and “every kind of impurity” (Ephesians 4:19). In such a city though, Paul preached for two years and saw many come to faith in Christ (Acts 19:10). Believers there were to be set apart from all sexual immorality (Ephesians 5:3) and known for their godly families (5:22-6:4).
Thessalonica, as a city of more than 100,000 in Paul’s day, had its share of pagan vice too, including “sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). In contrast, the Thessalonian Christians’ faith and personal holiness “became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:8).
The recipients of 1 Peter also lived among pagans and were bombarded by calls to indulge the “passions of the flesh” (1 Peter 2:11-12). Yet they stood out from the sinfulness around them as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession” (1 Peter 2:9). And one of the most powerful preachers in history, John the Baptist, exercised his prophetic ministry against the backdrop of an evil king who persisted in an illicit relationship with his brother’s wife (Matthew 14:1-12). Eventually John was beheaded because of his stand for righteousness. But his call to repentance has helped bring countless thousands to Christ through the centuries while Herod’s sexual sin was short-lived.
So fight to protect traditional marriage and lament the court decisions that were handed down. But take heart. Though sexual perversion may increase, God has a history of making His gospel shine brightest where culture is darkest.