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.
Here are 4 facts to prove it.
1. 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.
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. The Church developed some rules about sex that would seem strange.
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.
4. 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.