C Rulon: Christianity and Sex

By | October 8, 2011

By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & health Sciences
Long Beach City College

The biblical Jesus and sex

Contrary to popular belief, the biblical Jesus said nothing specific on the subjects of abortion, contraception, homosexuality, or sex in general, except for a few, but far reaching, comments on divorce and adultery. For example, he taught that one committed the sin of adultery by marrying a divorced woman (Matt. 5:32) and that adultery was committed in a man’s heart if he looked at a woman with lust (Matt. 5:27-8).
Yet, the record of Jesus’ teachings is very fragmentary. Scholars only have copies of copies of the original New Testament manuscripts. And even the originals were written decades after Jesus died by people who never or barely knew him. In addition, there has been considerable editing over the centuries. So we really have no firm basis to know what Jesus actually said or did in the first place.
As a result, there has been scarcely a popularly held traditional belief about Jesus that has not been regarded with considerable skepticism by those experts for whom the scientific, historical and linguistic evidence counts. Thus, theologians, as well as believers and non-believers alike, have reached all possible conclusions regarding Jesus, including casting him in roles ranging from stern ascetic, to proponent of free love, to “Jesus Christ, Superstar.”

In 1985 the Jesus Seminar was organized to determine which, if any, of Jesus’ sayings, deeds and miracles could possibly have been authentic. Over 75 religion professors and other scholars contributed. By 1993 they had concluded that less than one-fifth of the sayings attributed to Jesus could possibly have been authentic. [1] Thus, the Jesus Seminar conclusively demonstrated that no particular Christian sect owns Jesus; no sect can rightly claim to know what Jesus really said or did as justification for their own policies, moral values and dogmas.

The Apostle Paul and sex

The Apostle Paul was even more instrumental in the founding of Christianity than was Jesus. He was also probably the first important Christian teacher to speak out specifically on sexual morality. Some believe that Paul’s unsympathetic attitude toward sexual pleasures was deeply influenced by the more stoical elements in early Greek philosophy. [2] Stoicism held virtue to be the highest good, best attained by repression of emotions and an indifference to pleasure or pain. Sexual emotions were particularly suspect. Paul definitely seemed to have considered marriage and sexuality inferior to chastity and celibacy.
Defenders of Paul point out that his writings were strongly influenced by his belief that Christ would return and the world would end in his lifetime. After all, if the kingdom of God was at hand why worry about sex, marriage and family. Instead, one should be preparing for the Second Coming. In any event, Paul clearly elevated the single, celibate state to a status of greater purity than that of the married state. Abstaining from sexual activity of any kind led to a higher moral state (I Cor. 6:18-20; Gal. 5:16-17).
But again, the same reservations biblical experts have about the teachings of Jesus can also be said for the Apostle Paul. What Paul actually wrote and his reasons for writing it are currently mired in controversy and passionately debated.

Saint Augustine and sex

Living some 400 years after Jesus, St. Augustine is believed to have had as much impact on present day sexual attitudes as any other Christian theologian. He was truly one of the monumental figures of the early Christian Church. As a bishop, Augustine proclaimed that sexual intercourse was inherently evil, a product of original sin and justifiable only when the intent was procreation. Married couples who used an “evil appliance” (a contraceptive device) to forestall conception were in mortal sin. [3] Augustine even argued that sex in marriage was tainted with the sin of lust. One could minimize this sin by only having quick, unfeeling sex and only when pregnancy was desired. Baptism not only washed away “original sin,” but also the sin of lust in the making of the baby.
Augustine’s writings also severely condemn all non-marital sexual outlets including masturbation, pre-marital sex, adultery and homosexuality. Even thinking about fornication or having a wet dream was a sin that required penance. Augustine did concede, however, that prostitutes must be allowed as a necessary evil so that everything would not become contaminated with the sin of lust.

God’s laws against non-reproductive sex spread to America

In time, the Catholic Church came to idealize celibacy and virginity. Some early Christians even castrated themselves to avoid temptation. Love of God became the only “pure” love and celibacy became a means of proving one’s love for God. As the influence of the Church spread, virgin nuns were wedded to Christ in a spiritual marriage that was believed to be superior to the physical unions of men and women. As sexual expression was suppressed by the Church, the idealization of women, as reflected in the Virgin Mary, was promoted.

Church law exerted a strong influence over the development of English law. In 1533 Henry VIII made “unnatural” sex acts such as anal intercourse and sex with animals crimes. American settlers brought with them many of the laws of the English courts. All 13 colonies outlawed oral and anal sex, plus other forms of non-reproductive sex, as did all states until 1962. Unless sexual activity could lead to reproduction, it was viewed as a “crime against nature”.

“There is no aspect of American sex law which surprises visitors from other countries as much as this legal attempt to penalize pre-marital activity to which both of the participating parties have consented and in which no force has been involved.”

—A. Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, 1948

[1] The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (Macmillan Press), 1993.
Price, R., 1998, “The Jesus Seminar: Historians or Believers?” Free Inquiry, Winter, pp. 9-10.
[2] Harvey, V.A., 1985. “New Testament Scholarship and Christian Belief,” Free Inquiry, Fall. www.secularhumanism.org
[3] Noonan, J.T., Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists. New American Library: New York

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