The New Testament provides, as its name suggests, new teaching that will eventually move the world beyond patriarchy. The NT takes us beyond rule-based living. We are encouraged to rely on the leading of the Holy Spirit, and that changes everything. Let’s look at some of those teachings that relate to sex and marriage.
Paul recommends lots of sex in marriage. He says the Christian husband and wife will be best protected from sexual sins with others if they regularly service each other. Paul further veers from the patriarchy of the day to state that women have sexual needs that must also be met. He even mentions that women may take the lead in the marriage to meet those needs.
Of course, Paul couches these directives with his belief that people would be better off if they focused fully on Jesus, didn’t marry, and ignored sex. Yet, he acknowledges that such an idea simply isn’t realistic for most people. If it isn’t for you, then you should marry and have enough sex to keep yourself and your partner satisfied.
In a fascinating twist, the early church in 400 to 500 CE moved away from Paul’s sex-positive teaching. Many church leaders wrote that sex should be for procreation only. In fact, celibacy within marriage became the ideal. Sex was to be performed without desire (don’t try this at home) and only for the purpose of procreation.
Why the shift? For the first few hundred years, the early Church grew and struggled to define itself. After Constantine took power in the early 300s, he not only made Christianity legal but made it the official religion. He helped develop the Nicene Creed, which preceded the Apostle’s Creed. With a Christian Roman emperor, the early believers went from being considered criminals to taking hold of some power.
Of course, it’s no fun having power if you can’t make rules for other people. To contrast itself against the libertine Greek and Roman cultures, sex and marriage rules became more stringent.
The early church pondered celibate marriages, marriage to non-Christians, and second marriages. By the 400s, Christians truly broke from the Greco-Roman world by banning forced prostitution and same sex intercourse. Remember, in this time, it was common for a man to have sex with a prostitute. It was legal and not considered a moral transgression.
Paul told believers not to engage with prostitutes right after telling them not to sue. He wasn’t setting up new rules (that just wasn’t Paul); he was encouraging believers to live up to a higher standard. Paul condemned sex with prostitutes because it polluted the body of Christ, not the marriage bed.
I don’t want to minimize Paul’s teaching, though. He clearly told us to flee from sexual immorality and to honor God with our bodies.
The early Christians, and every group thereafter, has been trying to figure out what really constitutes “sexual immorality.” Do we go with the teaching that God created the body above the navel, while Satan created the bottom half ? Then we must choose celibacy. Perhaps we conclude that celibacy is good for some, but not for us?
It’s important for us to understand that Jesus didn’t directly challenge the patriarchy of his time. He didn’t call for an immediate social upheaval; he didn’t call for the end of slavery or prostitution or for infants to stop being exposed. Rather, he planted the seeds for the future destruction of the patriarchal system.
For example, when the Pharisees asked Jesus a tempting question about divorce, he responds by outlining God’s perfect plan for marriage. Later in that chapter, Jesus outlines God’s perfect plan for giving—telling the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. In neither case was Jesus making new laws for us to live by.
Many rules emerged in the first few hundred years of the early church. Some of the rules the early church instituted make perfect sense in our modern context. Stopping the practice of exposing infants right after birth is certainly a more humane way of doing things. Rules made divorce more difficult to obtain and forced the husband to answer to the church as to why he demanded a divorce, which put the wife in a more protected position.
Of course, all institutions with power seem to overplay their hands, and the early church certainly did...as does the modern church. Tertullian wrote that marriage was not forbidden, but that didn’t make it good. He pushed for celibacy within marriage. He also called marriage after divorce a “sexual crime.” This anti-sex attitude of the early church—which is nowhere to be found in Christ’s or Paul’s teachings—has stayed in the church for centuries.
Christians have constantly changed their moral standards and rules throughout history. The base of Christian teaching that has never changed is grace, forgiveness, and love. We’ve gone wrong in many ways with our moral standards and rules, but we’ve never gone wrong with grace, forgiveness and love. We live best when we focus on the two commandments from Jesus: Honor God and love others.