In the Flesh – Part two: Sex and the Church
In the second of a three-part series to promote discussion on questions about sex and God, Carla Grosch-Miller explores how Christian teaching has developed over the centuries
Christian tradition has always been intellectually lively and dynamic, forged in argument and wrestling with contemporary issues. The historian Peter Brown says that in the second and third centuries, “controversy was the saving of Christianity”, as it forced diverse and distant religious figures to keep talking with one another.
The development of Christian sexual ethics shows this dynamism over the centuries. Christianity did not begin with a sexual code. The New Testament provided a central focus for Christian moral life in the great commandment to love God and neighbour. Beyond that the New Testament valued marriage, procreation and celibacy, and condemned sexual immorality without fully defining it.
As the tradition began to take shape, it was influenced by Greco-Roman culture’s widespread revulsion toward the body and distrust of sexual desire. An anti-material dualism that saw the body as inferior to the soul was paired with the inferior status of women with the result that the female body was thought particularly evil. In the second century, Tertullian preached: “Women are the devil’s gateway.” Suspicion of the sexed body is reflected in Origen’s reported self-castration “for the kingdom of God” in the third century, and in Jerome’s saying, “Blessed is the man that dashes his genitals against a rock,” in the fourth.
The chief architect of western Christian sexual ethics for many centuries was Augustine, also writing in the fourth century. Augustine set forth the goodness of marriage and procreation, though he had a negative view of sexual desire as in itself tending towards evil. He concluded that sexual desire is rightly ordered only when exercised for the purpose of procreation…
Carla Grosch-Miller is an ordained minister and theological educator
This is an extract from the December 2014/January 2015 edition of Reform.