Christianity’s history with sex is much more complicated than you might think.
Growing up in a conservative Christian church, I was taught that the gospel was one, complete, and indestructible whole — particularly as it applied to human sexuality. But it’s not that simple.
The idea that is still taught in some churches today is that the Christian sexual ethic came to earth fully formed, straight from heaven, about 2,000 years ago. Throughout all that time, there was exactly one way for Christians to express their sexuality — by staying abstinent until they got married to a person of the opposite gender. And then, you could have at it all you wanted.
But what I wasn’t taught in Sunday School is that the Bible’s teachings on sex have been interpreted in many different ways. I didn’t know that the early Christians actually started practicing celibacy because they were convinced the end of the world was near. No one told me that marriage wasn’t always defined and controlled by the church. And that even within marriage, sex wasn’t always something that Christians were taught to enjoy and cherish.
And the truth is that the standards on what it means to be a sexual person and live a Christian life have changed. A lot. Here are 6 facts to prove it.
1. Jesus had very little to say about sex.
Other than a some heavy admonishments against lust and against divorce, the Jesus of the Bible didn’t have a lot to say about issues of sexuality. (My guess is that he was too busy hanging out with the poor and healing the sick to care. Just a guess). He also had nothing at all to say about homosexuality or sexual identity as we understand it today.
Most of the instruction about sex comes from Christian leaders who started spreading the religion after Jesus’ death.
2. To be a truly devoted Christian during the earliest days of the church, you needed to stop having sex altogether.
Early Christians’ belief that Jesus’ second coming was imminent created an environment that exalted celibacy over marriage. It was a radical departure from Jewish teachings that the disciples would have been familiar with. But it makes sense — what was the point of getting tied up with worldly responsibilities, like taking care of a spouse, children and a household, when the end of the world was near?
St. Paul, a celibate Christian leader who wrote most of the New Testament, thought of practicing celibacy as taking the higher road towards God, since it allows Christians to concentrate wholly on things of the spirit.
The second coming didn’t happen, but the emphasis on celibacy stayed. Couples in the second century were expected to stop having sex altogether after producing several children.
3. For the first 1,000 years of Christianity (that’s at least HALF of its existence, people), many Christians wouldn’t have considered getting married in a church.
Marriages in the West were originally just economic alliances made between two families, with both the church and the state staying out of the proceedings. This meant that weddings didn’t require the presence of a priest.
The church got involved in regulating marriage much later on, as its influence began to increase in Western Europe. It wasn’t until 1215 that the Church formally put a claim on marriage and hashed out rules about what made children legitimate.
4. For much of the church’s history, sex within a marriage was only tolerated because it produced children.
Christian leaders didn’t just disapprove of premarital sex. Sexual desire itself was seen as the problem.
After St. Paul, one of the most prominent Christian early church leaders who had an impact on the way Christians view sex was St. Augustine. Influenced by Plato’s philosophy, he promoted the idea that untamed sexual desire was a sign of rebellion against God. It only became honorable when it was placed in the context of marriage and the possibility of children.
Augustine was one of a long line of theologians to promote the idea of sexual desire as a sin. Other Christian leaders have argued that being too passionately in love with a partner, or having sex just for pleasure, was also a sin. This idea would continue to gain momentum over the next few centuries. And it wasn’t long before things got really, really weird.
5. The Church developed some rules about sex that would seem strange to even the most conservative American Christians today.
In medieval times, the church became deeply involved with controlling people’s sex lives. Virginity and monogamy were still prized, while homosexuality could be punished by death. The church also had very specific requirements for what type of sex married couples could have. Since all sex was supposed to be for the purposes of procreation, certain positions were banned (no sex standing up, the woman shouldn’t be on top, no doggy style, oral, anal, or masturbation). And then there were restrictions on what days of the week people could have sex (not on fast days, or feast days for a saint, or on Sundays, for example).
Sex was also discouraged when a woman was menstruating, pregnant, or breastfeeding, (which considering there was no birth control, could have been a good deal of the time). All of these prohibitions meant that on average, sex between married couples was only legal about once per week, if that.
6. Despite these varying standards for sex, love, and marriage, Christians have usually ended up doing their own thing.
In the Middle Ages and now, many Christians have admired and strived towards these standards and ended up looking the other way. It took centuries for the church to enforce a ban against priests getting married. The Middle Ages was also a “golden era” for gay poetry, especially between members of the clergy.
In modern times, almost all Americans have sex before marrying. And while we tend to think that people were more chaste before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, that’s just not the case.
Not only are many Christians having sex before marriage (including 80 percent of people who self-identified as “born-again Christian, evangelical, or fundamentalist”), they’re also getting smart about it.
Data from the Public Religion Research Institute shows that religious millennials feel that it’s morally acceptable to use contraception and they don’t think that abstinence-only education is working. Most tellingly, only about 11 percent of today’s millennial Americans depend on religious leaders for information about sex.
It’s time to get real: There is no such thing as a traditional Christian sexual ethic.
I wish I’d known this earlier. The problem with teaching kids that the Bible is infallible and that Christian teaching has never changed is that the second they crack open a history book, or have sex, or fall in love with someone of the same gender, the carefully constructed house of faith that they’ve inherited from their parents starts crumbling apart. And that’s when doubt can come rushing in.
But that’s a good thing. It’s what I feel is missing in the way some Christians talk about sex today. If your faith calls you to abstinence before marriage, that is fine and good. But the problem for me is when people start preaching that their interpretation is the only way or the holiest way or the right way. From what I’ve witnessed, the fruit that this kind of teaching produces is often overwhelming guilt, anger, and pain.
On the other hand, acknowledging Christianity’s complexity can be life-changing. It can turn a faith assembled like a delicate house of cards into a faith that you worked hard to build from the ground up.
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