[The substantive content of this and the entire “The Change” series of podcast-episodes for Communion Sanctorum is indebted to the excellent book by Alvin J. Schmidt titled How Christianity Changed the World. ]
This episode is part 3 in a series examining the impact Christianity has had on history & culture. Today we go even further in our examination of the sanctity of life that’s been the focus of the previous 2 episodes, but today, we look at it specifically in Christianity’s regard for the Sanctity of Sex.
As we begin, I want to pause to say that what we’re going to look at today may offend the sensibilities of some of our more secular &/or liberally-minded listeners. The redefinition of gender that’s become a hot topic of late has split the church, as well as the wider culture. It’s not my intent here to develop a theology of gender, merely to give an accurate, albeit summary, review of sexual ethics in Church history. So summary are the following comments they border on being simplistic, and for that I apologize.
This would be a good time to remind CS subscribers & anyone listening to this that I am what can be called a conservative, Evangelical pastor of a non-denominational church whose primary focus of ministry is the verse by verse expository teaching and preaching of the Bible. I believe in the verbal-plenary inspiration of Scripture & seek to cultivate a thoroughly Biblical Worldview. Part of that worldview is to not only cleave to Truth as revealed in the Bible, but to exemplify the character of Christ in my words & actions. We was, as John says in the first chapter of his Gospel, FULL of Truth & Grace. The legacy of the Gospel is that we also are to be filled by that fullness. So while I must, for sake of conscience, speak the truth, I must do so in love. Therefore I apologize for the times past in CS episodes when my joviality has been unkind; when for the sake of a couple yucks, I’ve demeaned others. That is definitely NOT consistent with the character of Jesus, who died to remove shame.
With that said, what follows could be found offensive to some because it upholds a Biblical morality in regard to sexual ethics & gender distinctions. I DO NOT apologize for that because it’s not I who’s offending – It’s God’s Word, as historically understood and applied by the Church.
And now, let’s get to it . . .
Wherever the Bible was read & studied, human beings were understood as being created in the image of God & as the creation account in Genesis makes clear, that meant they were made male & female. The first man & woman were placed in an idyllic setting, were naked & because they were innocent, they were without shame. God Himself officiated at their Garden wedding, then announced that the goal of their union was to become one flesh. You don’t have to be a genius to realize it was God’s original plan for human beings to enjoy a rich & rewarding sex life all within the marriage relationship, & that marriage alone is the proper place for the act of sex.
Just as the Christian who arrived in Rome found a low regard for human life, they also encountered a shocking moral depravity in regard to sex. Immorality was everywhere, an integral part of pagan culture. The Apostle Paul wrote of the Greco-Roman debauchery in Romans 1 when he said –
24 God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served what was created rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! 26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.
We know what social conditions were like at the time the Gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire because of contemporary writers who described it. Juvenal, Ovid and others recorded that sexual activity between men & women was promiscuous & depraved. The famous historian Edward Gibbon, whose epic tome The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire is considered THE standard work on the subject, said that the breakdown in sexuality morality began after the Punic Wars in 146 BC. By the 2nd C, normal sexual intercourse & marital fidelity had all but disappeared. It wasn’t just that adultery & fornication were common, people engaged in all kinds of bizarre sexual practices. What’s more, they were brazen about it; graffiti & iconic images of their bizzarity appeared on columns, walls, & household items like oil lamps, bowls, cups & vases.
It’s interesting that in the early years of the Republic, the Romans considered the Greeks who’d been the dominant civilization just before them to be morally corrupt. The Greeks exercised in the nude & practiced all forms of sexual license. The Romans shunned public nudity & considered much of what the Greeks had done morally shameful. But as power & wealth flowed into Rome from their many conquests, they increasingly aped the older Greek practices. By the 2nd C AD, they were doing more & worse than the Greeks had even thought.
Things were so bad at the turn of the Millennium from the 1st C BC to AD, that Augustus enacted a set of laws aimed at curbing people’s addiction to illicit sex. The law had little effect, as to be expected when the only person to be punished for committing adultery was the woman. It was a terrible combination when people were on one hand, obsessed with sex & on the other, despised marriage. Marriage was at a low point because most were arranged; social arrangements that aimed at one thing, securing one’s place in a society where standing was EVERYTHING. So men and women married with not an ounce of love or affection for each other. Couple that with no expectation of sexual fidelity on the part of either the husband or wife & it was a formula for massive infidelity. In certain segments of Roman society, women were as debauched as the men. Some women pursued sexual liaisons with every notable public figure they could; gladiators, politicians, actors, & comedians. The Roman satirist Juvenal wrote about these liaisons. The Church Father Tertullian wrote a treatise on proper conduct by Christians living in the debauched Empire. In a treatise called “Concerning Shows” he warned believers away from the theater because the plays enacted there were ribald & blatant live pornography. Ovid wrote that normal heterosexual sex had turned into a brutal sadomasochism; THAT was the new normal.
As the debauchery evolved from decade to decade, it grew progressively worse, as sexual sin always does. Since slaves were mere property, both men & women began to use their young slaves as sex objects. Then homosexuality became increasingly accepted, with older men making the object of their desire, younger & younger men & boys. Incest, a strict taboo for generations, was never openly accepted as normal, but it was quietly accepted for those who opted for it. Several Emperors led the way.
It was into this sexual maelstrom Christians came with a radically different sexual ethic. Only sex between a husband & wife was acceptable before God. Hebrews 13:4 made it clear – “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.”
For Christians, sex btwn a husband & wife was an expression of mutual love & intimacy. It wasn’t purely selfish gratification. In truth, the Apostle Paul made a mind-blowing statement when in 1 Cor. 7 he said that a husband & wife OWED each other sexual satisfaction. To a culture that legally treated women as the property of their husbands – that was astounding. For most in the Greco-Roman world, a wife was merely a social convention by which one raised legitimate heirs for the estate & family name. But for pleasure & fun, you had an affair or many. And since a wife didn’t expect her husband to be faithful or really even to check up on her, she also had lovers. So what Paul wrote to the Corinthian church was nothing short of astounding! And if you know anything about Corinth, then you know that’s saying something. As bad as things were all over the Empire, Corinth was considered by most as being really bad! Imagine the casino owners, showgirls & sex workers of Las Vegas saying, “Yeah, Corinth is a really morally nasty place” and you get an idea of how bad it really was.
Yet there was a church there, and Paul told the Christians they were to take all that sexual energy & focus it into the husband-wife relationship where it belonged. He even warned them about thinking that abstaining from sex somehow pleased God or made them more spiritual. A husband owed his wife sexual satisfaction, & vice versa. The only time they could abstain was during a short time to devote themselves to fasting. But when the fast was over, they were to get to it again. è I’m not making that up, read 1 Cor. 7 yourself, it’s all right there.
While most skeptics scoffed at the Christian commitment to sexual purity, a few commended them. Galen, a Greek physician of the 2nd C thought the Christian commitment to fidelity in marriage set them apart as noble. The fruit of healthy, loved filled marriages that shaped happy families began to have a dramatic impact on their neighbors. People thought Christians odd for their commitment to fidelity, but they couldn’t argue with the obvious love & devotion Christian couples had for each other. They began to reason – “Sex is fun, but what my soul craves is love. I want pleasure, but what I NEED is significance, and it’s only a committed relationship that’s going to scratch that itch.”
Unrestrained sex began to be regarded as NOT inevitable. People COULD in fact reign in their passions & lust. Look! The Christians are doing it by the thousands! And surprise, surprise, they are waaaay happier than the pagans.
As the Christian ethic regarding sex gained traction, they told how Jesus had warned about lust in the Sermon on the Mount. He said if a man looks longingly & lustfully on a woman other than his wife, he’s committed adultery in his heart. It wasn’t just an overt act of sex that was prohibited. Christian sexual morality went further! It was about total marital fidelity to one’s spouse that included the thought life. Unbelievers began to realize Christianity wasn’t just moralism. It wasn’t prudish asceticism. It enjoyed physical pleasure, but in the boundaries God designed it for. It was an ethic that enhanced & enriched life, while the immorality they’d given themselves to before was degrading & life-quenching.
Biblical Sexual morality allows life to flourish while sin diminishes the quality of life.
One of the ways we can see the influence of Christianity in honoring marriage is in the beauty & solemnity of the wedding ceremony. In Greco-Roman culture it was a small affair without much to-do. And marriage had fallen to such a low state by the turn of the Millennium most weddings were more farce that ceremony. Christians changed that. Specifically, Christian women changed that. They took to heart Jesus’ elevation of women & embraced their calling as redeemed daughters of God. As wives & mothers they gladly took hold of their calling to raise godly children and saw the wedding ceremony as the commencement of that. They demanded the ceremony be reverent & solemn. Their commitment worked slowly to effect a sea-change in the way all society viewed marriage & weddings. Christian women took a courageous & heroic stand. The pagan Libanius couldn’t help but express his admiration when he said, “What women these Christians have!”
Along with the wanton & debauched heterosexual immorality of Greco-Roman society was its acceptance of homosexuality. And not the plain 2 adults of the same-sex variety. Pederasty or pedophilia was common, where an adult man had sex with a boy btwn the age of 12 & 16. In fact, pederasty was the usual form of homosexuality. Several Roman writers comment on this.
Pederasty declined & ultimately failed in its grip on Roman society for the same reason heterosexual immorality declined; because of the sanctifying influence of Christianity. Christians didn’t stage campaigns calling homosexuality wrong any more than they did for adultery & fornication. They simple showed a more excellent way that won the argument by the superiority of their lifestyle.
That being the case, in the modern return of the rise of sexual immorality, homosexuality, the turn toward acceptance of same-sex marriage, the popularity of the 50 Shades literary porn for soccer moms, and the plague of internet porn, w/the commensurate explosion of child-pornography & sex crimes against children, reason moves us to conclude it’s the failure of Christians to demonstrate to their culture the superiority of the Christian sexual & marriage ethic. We don’t need campaigns against same-sex marriage. We need Christian husbands & wives to love & serve each other, working for each other’s delight & raising happy, healthy families! Hard to do when the divorce rate among those calling themselves Christians is little better than the wider culture. Impossible when a church guy cheats on his wife or a church gal steps out on her husband.
Earlier I said the moral excellence of early Christians commended them to many of their non-Christian peers. While that’s true, it’s certainly not the whole story. The sexual purity of Christians moved others to hate them & accuse them of trying to subvert society. Why, those dangerous Jesus followers were fiddling with centuries of tradition. Keep that up & the gods will be ticked. Who knows what wrath might be brewing, ready to fall on everyone’s head for allowing the Christians to get away with their narrow sexual rules. And what’s this silliness about loving my wife! You Christians are hazardous social revolutionaries. Honestly, in some places of the Empire, it was arguments like this that led to persecutions, and Christians were put to death: è For loving their wives & staying sexually faithful to them.
Well, here we are, 1800 years later & the wheel’s turned once more. The Christian sexual ethic that won out because it was proven to be vastly superior to the pagan ethic, the Christian honoring of the sanctity of marriage & sex that transformed society for the better for nearly 200 years, is being rapidly swept away in a re-embrace of humanistic paganism. The failure isn’t the Gospel’s. Nor is it the overwhelming power of immorality & sin.
The age grows dark when the light goes dim.