These are all good questions. But here are some equally good questions: Why does the Bible call Tamar righteous after deceiving Judah by posing as a prostitute? Why does the Bible list Rahab the harlot as a woman of faith, even though there is no indication in the Bible that she repented of her profession? Why does the Bible refer to Jesus as a friend of prostitutes? Why does the Bible say that many prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, while many so-called righteous men will be cast out? Why didn't Solomon, the wisest man to ever live (with the exception of Jesus, of course), establish laws making prostitution illegal (1 Kings 3:16)? And why were giants of the faith, like Augustine and Aquinas, opposed to laws that would make prostitution illegal?
These questions are both interesting and complex. The Bible seems to give us a mixed-message in regards to the world's oldest profession. How should a Christian interpret this?
Let's begin with Jesus' words, as recorded in Matthew 21:31. Keep in mind that Jesus was addressing the chief religious leaders of His day, namely, the scribes, the Pharisees, the chief priests, and the elders:
I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the
kingdom of God ahead of you (NIV).
Most chief religious leaders of our day would probably respond with something like, "Of course prostitutes can enter the kingdom of God... IF they repent." There's not doubt that many modern-day prostitutes do need to repent. But so do many modern-day religious leaders. And perhaps their need of repentance is even greater than that of a prostitute due to their delusions of self-righteousness. That, after all, was Jesus' point.
Many, if they even got to this point, would say something like, "Okay, enough already. I get it. Religious leaders need to repent of being self-righteous; prostitutes need to repent of prostitution." But was that really what Jesus was trying to communicate here? Of course, many religious leaders do need to repent of being self-righteous. That point, Jesus made crystal clear. But the question that still lingers, which is an important question that Jesus did not make clear or even address, is whether or not it is possible for a prostitute to repent of her sins, while simultaneously practicing the world's oldest profession.
Most Christians would say that the question itself is ridiculous. In their minds, there is absolutely no way that a prostitute could be a Christian. An ex-prostitute, yes. But a prostitute still practicing her profession? To even suggest such a thing seems absolutely ridiculous.
But notice Jesus' own words closely. Jesus said that the tax collectors and the prostitutes "are" entering the kingdom of God. Jesus did not say that the prostitutes "will be" entering the kingdom of God "if" they stop practicing their trade. After all, we have an example of a tax collector named Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-9, who became a follower of Christ without giving up his profession. In verse 8, Zacchaeus told Jesus that he if I have cheated anybody out of anything, he would pay back four times the amount. So Zacchaeus promised to be an honest tax collector. But there is no indication from the text that Zacchaeus planned on giving up his profession. Neither is their any indication the Jesus wanted him to stop collecting taxes. Also, two of Jesus' disciples, Matthew and Levi, were tax collectors. There is no indication that being a tax collector was necessarily a bad thing, although it is true that many tax collectors were despised. It's also true that the profession was subject to abuse. Many tax collectors did take more money from their subjects than they should have.
So most people would probably agree that it is possible for a Christian to simultaneously be an honest tax collector. But the idea of a prostitute practicing her profession in a way that does not conflict with Christian values and ethics seems preposterous to most people.
Now don't misunderstand. There are many things associated with prostitution that are undoubtedly sinful. Many prostitutes practice their profession in a way that is dishonest. Many prostitutes rob their customers. Many prostitutes are drug addicts. Many prostitutes are spreading STDs. Furthermore, many prostitutes are just not very nice people. Many prostitutes will do or say anything to get as much money as possible out of their tricks. So their is no doubt that prostitution can be practiced in a way that is contrary to Christian values and ethics. But the question I'm addressing is, Can a prostitute practice her profession ethically and responsibly while still being a genuine Christian?
Some might conclude that all Christians still sin to a certain extent and will continue to sin to a certain extent right up until the day that they die. True. Nevertheless, that still doesn't answer the question of whether or not prostitution can be practiced in a manner that is not sinful.
The Bible describes Jesus as a friend of sinners. The NKJV describes Jesus as "a friend of tax collectors and sinners," not the least of which were the prostitutes of his day. The NLT refers to Jesus as "a friend of the worst sort of sinners!" So we can safely assume that Jesus had ladies who were prostitutes as His friends. The question is, what did Jesus say to these prostitutes? The first thing that would come out of the mouth of most Christians, if they were to associate with such women at all, would probably be something like, "If you don't stop turning tricks this very second, and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior of your life, you might walk across the street, get hit by a bus, and spend eternity in Hell roasting like a marshmallow!" Was that Jesus' approach? Because if it had been, Jesus probably would not have been a friend of prostitutes for very long. This, of course, does not mean that prostitutes, along with all sinners, do not need to be warned about the reality of Hell. This also does not mean that prostitutes, along with all sinners, do not need to repent of their sins and accept Jesus as the personal Lord and Savior of their life. They do. The question I am now posing is, What approach would Jesus have taken?
Another thing to consider is the radical difference between the culture of Jesus' day and the culture of our day. Today, there are plenty of job opportunities available to women. If a prostitute wishes to change her profession, there are plenty of other vocations readily available. But in Jesus' day, this was not so. There were basically two professions: Wife and prostitute. Once a woman became a prostitute in Jesus' day, it would have been virtually impossible to get married. Few men would want her. Therefore, it would have been extremely difficult for an ex-prostitute to support herself. It seems highly unlikely then that Jesus would have suggested that a prostitute give up her line of work. Rather, it seems that the advice Jesus would have given to a prostitute would have been to keep doing what she was doing, but do it in a way that is honoring to God. But most would probably object that such a thing is not even possible.
A further consideration is that the Bible speaks of two kinds of prostitution: (1) secular prostitution, as we know it today, and (2) cult prostitution, which involved the idolatrous use of sex which was involved in the pagan worship of goddesses like Asherah and Aphrodite. The pagan belief was that cult prostitutes were conduits for various deities. Therefore, by having sex with a cult prostitute, the belief was that a worshipper was somehow, in some mysterious way, also having sex with the deity. This obviously violates God's commandments against idolatry and the worship of idols. Therefore, we can safely conclude that cult prostitution is strictly forbidden by the Bible. Period. End of discussion. Nevertheless, there is a huge difference between cult prostitution and secular prostitution. And since cult prostitution is seldom seen in our modern society, we often fail to distinguish between these two practices when reading our Bibles. So again, we return to the question of whether or not secular prostitution can be practiced in such a way that does not conflict with biblical ethics and values.
It probably will surprise many that great theologians like Augustine and Aquinas were opposed to making prostitution illegal. It sure did me. First, let's see what Augustine had to say on this matter:
If you expel prostitution from society, you will unsettle everything on account of lusts (Richards, Jeffrey. Sex, Dissidence and Damnation: Minority Groups in the Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 1994, page 118).According to Aquinas on the Practice of Prostitution by Vincent M. Dever, although Aquinas strongly disapproved of prostitution, Aquinas did not wish to make it illegal. Instead Aquinas believed that the state should allow prostitution to exist for the sake of the common good. Aquinas relied on a well-known passage from Augustine's De ordine, where Aquinas advocates the tolerance of prostitution:
Aquinas maintained that if these social practices were to be suppressed, the public reaction might be such as to threaten the peace of society. According to Dever, though a case can be made for including prostitution under adultery, "Aquinas places prostitution, which he also refers to as whoredom and intercourse with harlots (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, in Sancti Thomae Aquinatis Opera Omnia, 25 vols. (Rome, 1852-73; repr. New York, 1948-50) [hereafter ST], 2-22.214.171.124: "Voluptates venereas maxime luxuria consideratur.", 1-2.100.11.), in the category of simple fornication, [i.e. sex between unmarried people] (ST 2-126.96.36.199.)." So it wasn't that Augustine or Aquinas believed that prostitution was okay. They simply believed that allowing prostitution was necessary for the good of society.
Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority rightly
tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain evils be incurred: thus Augustine says [De ordine 2.4]: "If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust."
There is no indication that repentant prostitutes mentioned in the Bible abandoned their profession. Rahab the harlot was listed in the Bible's Who's Who in Hebrews 11:31. Tamar, who seduced Judah by disguising herself as a prostitute (Genesis 38:13-15). Tamar gave birth to two sons (verse 29) as a result of seducing Judah. Not only was this a fulfillment of prophecy, but Tamar and her two sons are listed in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:3 ). Genesis 38:26 describes Tamar's actions as righteous.
So what does Jesus think about prostitution? God certainly forbids the use of a cult prostitute for the worship of false gods. Regarding secular prostitution, there are many things associated with it that are evil, such as drugs, theivery, the spreading of diseases, and deception. But to suggest that secular prostitutes cannot practice their profession in a manner that pleases God seems to go beyond what Scripture warrants. And those who claim that prostitutes, not just ex-prostitutes, cannot enter the Kingdom of God need to remember the warning Jesus gave to the self-righteous religious leaders of His day.