April 1, 2013

Sex and the History of Christianity

The Christian Understanding of Sex, Sexuality and Marriage

The church's historical attitudes toward sex, sexuality and marriage from the first century through to the present day have often been in error. Rather than something to be repressed or brazenly flaunted, sex is a gift of God to mankind, to be enjoyed and celebrated within the God-ordained context of marriage between one man and one woman.

The Current Sexual Climate

For most young people today, navigating what healthy, fulfilling, human sexuality really means is highly problematic and highly dangerous. The agents of a revived paganism have their incendiary devices laid within the public school curriculum, the media, in the entertainment industry and throughout the corridors of political power and all cultural life. This open conspiracy is making for social chaos, confusion and, in many cases, total ruin, as biblically illiterate generations discover the consequences of the pagan worldview and its implications for sexuality.

Sex and the History of Christianity

The theological basis for God-glorifying, relationally satisfying human sexual relations is the foundation of the Christian understanding of marriage and human sexuality. However it is certainly fair to say that this has not always been adequately reflected in the history of the church’s teaching and example.

Scriptural Precedents

Misunderstandings of the Christian view have led to completely erroneous characterizations being accepted by people unfamiliar with the biblical material. Contrary to populist opinion, the scriptures everywhere encourage sexual intimacy in marriage as a God-given good. The biblical texts make plain that within the marriage covenant, sex is positively endorsed. The writer of Hebrews declares, “Marriage is to be held in honour among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Heb. 13:4).

In 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 St Paul instructs married couples to show romantic affection to each other by regularly engaging in sexual relations and not depriving each other, since each has authority over the body of the other in the marriage covenant. Likewise, there is no doubting the romantic and sexually erotic nature of the Song of Solomon (cf. Prov. 5:15-19). Right from Genesis 2, God’s original plan for humankind was marital and sexual fulfilment in the “one flesh” of the marriage relationship that would result in the propagation of the human race. It is somewhat surprising that church history shows that Christians have not always fairly represented the scriptural view.

The Early Church

In the Patristic era, for example, the impact of dualistic philosophies, in the form of Gnosticism, Manichaeism and Neo-Platonism, exerted varying degrees of influence on the Church Fathers (who were in most cases not natural fathers), leading some of them to espouse a kind of sexual asceticism that denuded marriage, sex, or both, of their biblical glory. The general tone one detects toward marriage and sex was largely one of ‘concession’ to human weakness for those unable to embrace celibacy or a ‘continent’ (celibate) marriage. Origen (185-254) went well beyond Scripture and thought the serpent had seduced Eve sexually, and so concluded that sexual activity must be inherently wrong, since it was then the basis of actual sins. Augustine himself thought that, though marriage is good and ordained of God for the propagation of the human family, if couples could refrain from sex whilst married, that was a better state. This notion of ‘spiritual marriages’ gradually died out during the fourth century, but it laid the intellectual framework for the later development of the Roman Catholic teaching requiring celibacy as compulsory for clergy.

Medieval Attitudes

It is hard to see much improvement in medieval thought. Attempting to restrain ‘lust,’ the Roman Catholic Church steadily developed numerous prescriptions that led to restrictions on marital sex on no less than five days in seven – Thursday through Monday. Abstinence was required in memory of departed saints, the Virgin Mary or the events of Holy Week. No doubt the devout really looked forward to Tuesdays! Regardless of these foolish prescriptions, the time was notably promiscuous. Pope Boniface (d. 625) bemoaned the English attitude toward sex: “[they] utterly refuse to have legitimate wives and continue to live in lechery and adultery.”

The Sexual Reformation

The Reformation’s refocus upon Scripture brought great change in the attitude toward marriage and sex. The reformers emphasized marriage as the highest Christian ideal which, combined with their forceful rejection of clerical celibacy, raised the status of sexual intimacy and marriage significantly. John Calvin in particular taught that the primary purpose of marriage and sex is not merely propagation of the human family but intimacy. He affirmed that marriage and intercourse is “undefiled, honourable and holy since it is a pure institution of God,” and that “God declares himself the guardian and avenger of conjugal fidelity.” He considered lifelong celibacy ‘rashness’ that tempts God unless it is a gift of grace, and considered mandatory celibacy tyrannous and diabolical.[i]

Puritans and the return to Biblical Sexuality

It was the primary heirs of Calvin, the Puritans, who were really responsible for the elevation of the significance of sex and romance within marriage in Western culture. We should not be surprised by this since they regarded Scripture as the final authority for faith and practice. Certainly they were also noted for taking seriously the penal sanctions for sexual sin in Scripture, but not because they had a negative attitude toward sex. On the contrary, it was because they so highly valued the gift of marriage and the ordination of God regarding the sacred nature of sexual relationships, that they protected it by law. Sex was not simply necessary; it was a God-given blessing. Indeed, far from a prudish pietism, the Puritans, as illustrated in the work of Thomas Hooker (1586-1647)[ii], truly expressed ardent passion in regard to conjugal love and they regarded attempts at sexual abstinence for married couples as blind zeal and folly. They were frank, strongly sexed and not without romance.

Victorian Repression

The Victorian era is responsible for the false caricature of Puritanism, portraying them as cold, passionless and unromantic. This neo-puritanism of the nineteenth century, marked by prudery and frigidity was actually a product of the Enlightenment. The rise of humanistic rationalism exalted reasoning and denigrated other aspects of the human person; feelings and emotions were repressed beneath a façade of stylized manners and rationality. Prostitution and pornography were rampant in Victorian England. Women were largely thought to be lacking in sexual desire, and wives were required to endure, not enjoy, sex. Pregnant women were expected to stay in their homes to avoid displaying the results of intercourse and women were denied access to reading that might be sexually enlightening, even Shakespeare!

The results of this false piety were not good for marriage and did nothing to strengthen the marital bond – quite the opposite. By trying to eliminate the joy of sex from marriage, the Victorian code degraded the sexual impulse and weakened the marital union. In direct contravention of Scripture, the Enlightenment man, viewing himself as ‘incarnate reason,’ and women as emotional flakes, patronized, degraded and subjugated women as irrational and inferior. Marriage was essentially denied passion and passion was regularly denied legitimacy.

Enlightenment Extremism

The Enlightenment’s subtle contempt for women also led to the women’s rights movement, which in rightly correcting a number of wrongs, morphed into radical feminism, placing women not alongside men in their rightful place, but in competition with them. Feminism has since sought to reverse the God-ordained pattern by the masculinisation of women and the feminization of men to the ultimate unhappiness of both, fomenting the contemporary confusion of gender identity.

Contemporary Confusion

When people see Christianity as responsible for the undervaluing of women, they do not see clearly. The biblical doctrine paints the wife as not only mother, teacher and counsellor, but also the competent manager who takes over business affairs if needed, so that her husband can assume public office as a civil magistrate; in the words of Proverbs 31:23, he can “sit in the gates,” that is, preside as a ruler or judge. Clearly, the woman of Proverbs 31 is very different from the pretty doll of the Age of Reason, as well as the competitive, desert boot-wearing masculinised feminist of the twenty-first century.


For a more complete treatment of this subject, see the article “The Biblical View of Marriage,” in the Spring 2013 issue of Jubilee.


[i] Graham Miller, Calvin’s Wisdom: An Anthology Arranged Alphabetically (Bath: Banner of Truth, 1992), pp. 205-206

[ii] See, Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as they really were, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1986) pp. 39ff

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