The Canons of Elvira and The Nashville Statement

Since the church has been making statements, church leaders have been telling people in the pews what to do and not to do in their beds. In theNashville logo context of talking about the Nashville Statement, a Grove City colleague recently pointed me to the Canons of Elvira as an early (303 AD or so) instance of this. Just for fun, here are some of the rules, called canons, that the church in Spain expected the people to live by. Before I provide a few of them, here is a description of the Synod of Elvira from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Held early in the fourth century at Elliberis, or Illiberis, in Spain, a city now in ruins not far from Granada. It was, so far as we know, the first council held in Spain, and was attended by nineteen bishops from all parts of the Peninsula. The exact year in which it was held is a matter of controversy upon which much has been written. Some copies of its Acts contain a date which corresponds with the year 324 of our reckoning; by some writers the council has accordingly been assigned to that year. Hardouin suggests 313, Mansi 309, and Hefele 305 or 306. Recent opinion (Duchesne, see below) would put the dateconsiderably earlier, from 300 to 303, consequently previous to the persecution of Diocletian. The principal bishop attending the council was the famous Hosius of Cordova. Twenty-six priests are also recorded as sitting with the bishops. Its eighty-one canons were, however, subscribed only by the bishops. These canons, all disciplinary, throw much light on the religious and ecclesiastical life of SpanishChristians on the eve of the triumph of Christianity. They deal with marriage, baptismidolatryfastingexcommunication, the cemeteries, usury, vigils, frequentation of Mass, the relations of Christians with pagansJewsheretics, etc.

Not all of these have to do with sex but they give some insight into how views of sin and morality have changed within the church. They don’t seem to be in an order and were not all decided at one time. Generally, it appears that the Christian leaders then didn’t think highly of sex, even in marriage. Becoming a leader meant giving it up.

33. Bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from the procreation of children. If anyone disobeys, he shall be removed from the clerical office.

For non-leaders, punishments for violations were severe:

7. If a Christian completes penance for a sexual offense and then again commits fornication, he or she may not receive communion even when death approaches.

8. Women who without acceptable cause leave their husbands and join another man may not receive communion even when death approaches.

9. A baptized woman who leaves an adulterous husband who has been baptized, for another man, may not marry him. If she does, she may not receive communion until her former husband dies, unless she is seriously ill.

10. If an unbaptized woman marries another man after being deserted by her husband who was a catechumen, she may still be baptized. This is also true for female catechumens. If a Christian woman marries a man in the knowledge that he deserted his former wife without cause, she may receive communion only at the time of her death.

11. If a female catechumen marries a man in the knowledge that he deserted his former wife without cause, she may not be baptized for five years unless she becomes seriously ill.

12. Parents and other Christians who give up their children to sexual abuse are selling others’ bodies, and if they do so or sell their own bodies, they shall not receive communion even at death.

13. Virgins who have been consecrated to God shall not commune even as death approaches if they have broken the vow of virginity and do not repent. If, however, they repent and do not engage in intercourse again, they may commune when death approaches.

14 If a virgin does not preserve her virginity but then marries the man, she may commune after one year, without doing penance, for she only broke the laws of marriage. If she has been sexually active with other men, she must complete a penance of five years before being readmitted to communion.

15. Christian girls are not to marry pagans, no matter how few eligible men there are, for such marriages lead to adultery of the soul.

16. Heretics shall not be joined in marriage with Catholic girls unless they accept the Catholic faith. Catholic girls may not marry Jews or heretics, because they cannot find a unity when the faithful and the unfaithful are joined. Parents who allow this to happen shall not commune for five years.

17. If parents allow their daughter to marry a pagan priest, they shall not receive communion even at the time of death.

30. Those who sinned sexually as youth may not be ordained as subdeacons. This will guard against their being promoted to higher offices later on. If they have already been ordained, they shall be removed from their office.

Some canons are frightful:

5. If a woman beats her servant and causes death within three days, she shall undergo seven years’ penance if the injury was inflicted on purpose and five years’ if it was accidental. She shall not receive communion during this penance unless she becomes ill. If so, she may receive communion.

41. Christians are to prohibit their slaves from keeping idols in their houses. If this is impossible to enforce, they must at least avoid the idols and remain pure. If this does not happen, they are alienated from the church.

50. If any cleric or layperson eats with Jews, he or she shall be kept from communion as a way of correction.

80. Slaves who have been freed but whose former masters are yet alive may not be ordained as clergy.

68. A catechumen who conceives in adultery and then suffocates the child may be baptized only when death approaches.

Some are just odd:

35. Women are not to remain in a cemetery during the night. Some engage in wickedness rather than prayer.

62. Chariot racers or pantomimes must first renounce their profession and promise not to resume it before they may become Christians. If they fail to keep this promise, they shall be expelled from the church.

67. A woman who is baptized or is a catechumen must not associate with hairdressers or men with long hair. If she does this, she is to be denied communion.

81. A woman may not write to other lay Christians without her husband’s consent. A woman may not receive letters of friendship addressed to her only and not to her husband as well.

With my tongue in my cheek, I tend to agree with the part about mimes renouncing their miming. Those Elvirans were on to something there.

I have a feeling it won’t take 1700 years for future Christians to look back at the Nashville Statement and question dogmatism of these authors. We now let mimes (should we?), chariot drivers, hairdressers, and men with long hair in the church. Pastors aren’t removed from office for sex with their wives. Maybe someday, it will not be fashionable for evangelical Christians as a group to question the salvation of LGBT Christians.

Some things change and some things don’t. My point isn’t to suggest everything changes or that everything should change. I am saying that we should be open to the possibility that tradition plays a role in our moral reasoning and that what we know and don’t know about LGBT issues makes them candidates for issues which should be reexamined in light of current science and experience.

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