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Sex and Christianity

Self-proclaimed defenders of "Christian values" today are among the strongest proponents of dualistic, fear-filled sexual repression.  There's no doubt that these people are following long-standing anti-sexual Christian traditions, but before accepting that that they derive from Jesus' teachings, it's useful to examine their origins a bit more closely. 

Understanding that such attitudes are much more characteristic of Roman and Manichaean ways of thought than of what we know of Jesus' own teaching may help sincere Christians feel safer in rethinking these issues.  There is reason to believe that Jesus himself would be among the first to reject some of the sin-based doctrines that continue to inflict widespread misery in the Christian world today. 

Jesus was probably not ascetic

It's important to understand that early Christianity was quite radical in a number of respects, not least of which was the respect that Jesus accorded to women and the openness with which he treated them.  As biblical scholar Elaine Pagels writes in The Gnostic Gospels, "Both orthodox and gnostic texts suggest that this question proved to be explosively controversial" (page 64). 

As far as we can tell from available evidence, Jesus himself was neither a dualist nor a particularly puritanical person.  From what evidence we have, Mary Magdalene was his favorite apostle, much to Peter's anger (for a full discussion of this, see The Gnostic Gospels pages 54 and following), and he does not seem to have been afraid to show her physical affection.  There's a wonderful passage in the Gospel of Philip found at Nag Hammadi that has Jesus kissing her on the lips:

"...the companion of the [savior] Mary Magdalene. [Jesus loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples]... said to him, "Why do you love her more than all of us?"
(James M. Robinson (ed.), The Nag Hammadi Library in English, page 148: Gospel of Philip 63.33-64.2)

Another passage in the same gospel explicitly rejects dualistic thinking:

"Light and darkness, life and death, right and left, are brothers of one another. They are inseparable.  Because of this neither are the good good, nor the evil evil, nor is life life, nor death death."  (Gospel of Philip 53.14-19)

The rejection of women and the cult of maryrdom

It's ironic to read accounts of Roman persecutions of the Christians and realize that subsequent persecutions of Christian "heretics" faithfully copied so many details of these horrible early tortures and burnings — we so predictably become our enemies. 

More than that, though, persecution attracted a different kind of person to Christianity than joined up before, people who revised the mystical sect into the kind of hierarchical, disciplined organization that Constantine recognixed as a perfect state religion. 

A good example of this new kind of recruit was Tertullian, born in Carthage around 150 AD, who was converted to Christianity by the spectacle of earnest Christians holding out against prolonged and horrible public tortures.  He retained a nasty enthusiasm for the propaganda value of the public martyrdoms — he made the famous comment that the "blood of martyrs is the seed of the church."  He also felt that persecutions had moral benefits because they "cleanse the Lord's threshing floor... separating the wheat of the martyrs from the chaff of the cowards."  He himself lived out his life without ever visiting that threshing floor, but he had plenty of self-righteous zeal to spare for others. 

While he encouraged Christians to martyr themselves, he was appalled at the prominent role that women were being allowed to play in various groups:

"These heretical women, how impudent they are!  —daring to teach, debate, perform exorcisms and cures, and even perhaps baptisms!
(De praescriptione haereticorum, 41)

Tertullian also passionately believed in a disciplined, centrally controlled hierarchy of the Roman sort, and together with Ireneaus articulated the concept of apostolic succession to back it up (based on selected apostles).  He was perfectly clear in his mind about the proper place for women in this Christian hierarchy:

"It is not permissable for a woman to speak in the church, nor to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer [the eucharist], nor to lay claim to any male function, especially not any sacerdotal office."
(De virginibus velandis 9)

Not only did Tertullian despise women, he was a typical Roman prude — the thought of sex filled him with dread and loathing.  He inveighed tediously against premarital sex (fornication), which he argued was just as much a crime as adultery and neither of these terrible crimes could be absolved through repentance, only through martyrdom and in no other way. 

I can't help suspecting that with his rigid, legalistic, judgmental attitudes, Tertullian would have gotten on rather poorly with Jesus.  And yet, in some ways he has defined subsequent Christian attitudes far more than Jesus' own teachings did. 

Another early church father who has had a huge influence on the traditions that have come down to us under the name of Christianity was Origen.  A contemporary of Tertullian's, he too encouraged other Christians to martyr themselves, and had so negative a view of sex that, according to Eusebius and others, he actually castrated himself as a young man.  His great work, On First Principles, was explicitly dualistic, arguing the material world to be transitory and provisional, an inferior and fleeting reflection of the spiritual world. 

These "great church fathers" of the third century profoundly changed the early church, transforming it into something far more typically Roman than it had been before, making it completely male-dominated, rigidly hierarchical and far more focused on death and afterlife. 

The classic position of the Catholic Church has been that since that's what happened, clearly that's what God intended to have happen.  Such an assertion is patently absurd when you think about it, especially if you know church history in any detail.  It reminds me of a friend of mine who, upon being "born again," assured me that he could no longer do anything wrong, since everything he did from that point on was entirely guided by Jesus. 

There is every reason, if you are committed to the positive aspects of the Christian traditions, to go back and question parts of that tradition that don't make sense to you, particularly after you realize when and where they were introduced, and in what ideological context. 

Fear of flesh and the devil

Most people believe that the devil, hellfire and damnation are core ideas of Christianity, especially since they've played so central a role in the propaganda of so many sects. 

On the contrary, however, the idea of the devil as ubiquitous powerful corruptor emerged gradually after Jesus' time, mostly outside of orthodox Christianity.  Elaine Pagels, in The Origins of Satan traces this devolution from the original Jewish meaning of the word (a "satan" initially meant a good angel who came with a warning or prohibition). 

Through the Manichaean heresy in the third century, fear of flesh and the devil infected orthodox Christianity in an even more extreme form than that of the puritanical Roman church fathers (see our dualism page for more information). 

Is anyone allowed to re-examine Christian tradition?

Most of the stricter Christian sects subscribe to the idea that their particular take on the truth is the One and Only Truth, which you have to accept lock-stock-and-barrel in order to be saved.  If you question or doubt, you're a heretic or an apostate, and you'll be damned. 

This is a scary idea, but there's no evidence whatsoever that it's valid.  Would any God you trust and love set things up that way?  How can there be so many conflicting absolute truths?  Why is any one of them likely to be the right one, when there's so much that's arbitrary in each?  See our truth page for a critique of the very concept of absolute truth. 

Biblical fundamentalism falls into the same general category.  Sure, it's nice to think you might possess a life manual written and proof-read by God, in which every word is True, but there's just so much evidence that the authors were only human, and there are so many contradictory and just plain nasty things in the Bible.  Sorry, all the evidence points to your still having to think for yourself, unless you're comfortable stoning your neighbors to death, owning slaves and a lot of other strange stuff advocated in the Old Testament. 

If you stop to look, though, we do have a life handbook available to us, manifestly written by God if ever there is one — and that's the whole universe around us.  Of course we'll never get through it, but once you get started trying to read it, you just never want to put it down. 

A few Christian traditions have opened themselves up to sincere spiritual questing.  If you need a group of like-minded people to do your re-examinations, you can almost certainly find them, especially given the Internet. 

On the other hand, no matter what tradition you belong to, there's nothing to stop you from stepping out on your own.  No one can tell you nearly as much as you can discover by making your own spiritual journey, because no one else knows your territory as well as you do.  Our strong message on this site is don't be afraid to trust God and own your spirituality (and your sexuality, too). 

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