Christian attitudes towards sex have varied greatly, but a constant question that has guided these approaches has been the relationship between sex and childbearing. St Augustine (354-430) taught that sex was only to be used for procreation, and that recreational, or lustful, sex was to be avoided; a view which was echoed nearly a thousand years later by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). These views were dominant for much of Christian history.
The avoidance of the sin of lust led to the promotion of celibacy as an ideal, especially for the clergy, with marriage as a concession to contain desire and to provide a context for the bearing and rearing of children. Some Christian traditions such as Roman Catholicism continue to teach that procreation is the primary purpose for sex and marriage, and so oppose the use of contraception. Protestant Christian traditions have tended to affirm God’s blessing in the enjoyment of sex within marriage for its own sake, and not to condemn contraception or the choice to remain child-free, whilst also allowing their clergy to marry.
The Song of Songs is an erotic love poem found in the Hebrew Bible
The creation story in Genesis describes humanity as originating with Adam and Eve, the original ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Whether taken historically or symbolically, this text has affected the Christian view of sex in two ways. Firstly it is taken by some to suggest that sexual relationships other than between men and women are sinful, and secondly it has been used to justify the doctrine of ‘original sin’ which teaches that sin is passed from generation to generation through sexual reproduction. Other Christians disagree with both of these conclusions, arguing that the link between sex and sin is not the intent of the text, and that it instead points to an ideal where people are unashamed before each other and God. The Song of Songs is an erotic love poem found in the Hebrew Bible, and celebrates the joy of sex between two people who are not, as far as the poem reveals, married. Some Christian interpreters have sought to understand this text as an allegory of Christ and the church, but others point to it as an example of liberated sexual enjoyment of the human body.
Marriage is often cited by Christians as the only appropriate context for sex, but it needs to be understood that what defines ‘marriage’ has changed significantly over the course of Christian history. Marriage pre-dates Christianity, and has often taken the form of a pact or arrangement to join families through the bearing of children. The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) includes examples of both polygamous marriage and the use of concubines as blessed by God, alongside many other examples of monogamous marriage. The New Testament is ambivalent as to the necessity for marriage, with Jesus himself never marrying, and St Paul affirming that singleness is a desirable state whilst encouraging faithfulness in marriage to avoid immorality (1 Cor. 7.1-2).
Many Christians see a biblical mandate for marriage as a lifelong partnership between one man and one woman, and believe that any sexual relations outside of this are sinful. Other Christians affirm the importance of marriage, but see the definition of marriage as a function of society rather than the church and so are, for example, willing to bless and conduct same sex marriages. Generally Christians remain positive about marriage, even if they disagree on its definition. However, the extent to which sex outside of marriage is condemned differs between Christian traditions and between different societies, with the ‘abstinence movement’ attracting endorsement and criticism in equal measure.
Christians of varying traditions will tend to affirm faithfulness, mutual respect, consent, covenant commitment, and non-exploitation as values which should encircle human sexual activity.
Prostitution has historically been regarded as an extension of immorality, although there is increasing recognition that many who sell sex do so as a result of their own victimisation, leading to a recent growth in Christian missions to positively engage with sex workers. There are Christian charities offering sexual therapy and counselling, and churches hosting ‘anonymous’ groups for those who live with sexual addiction. Artistic depictions of sex pre-date the Christian era, with many explicit Greek and Roman artworks surviving. The Old Testament contains an erotic love poem in the Song of Songs, and whilst many might associate historic Christianity with a repressive approach to sex, erotic depictions have always had a place within the Christian artistic tradition. The legalisation and widespread availability of pornography in printed media and online in recent decades has raised specific challenges for Christian sexual ethics, and concerns tend to revolve around the abuse suffered by those who make pornography, and the damaging effects it has on those who view it, particularly in terms of the objectification of the human body, the separation of sex from the context of a loving committed relationship, and the addictive effect it can have on people. Many Christians point to Jesus’ statement in the sermon on the mount that ‘everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matthew 5.28) as warning against the temptation to indulge in pornographic fantasy. Christians are generally in agreement that abusive or non-consensual sex is sinful, uniting in condemning rape outside of marriage; and although there have been historic differences of opinion as to whether a married person has a right to withhold sex, rape within marriage is now widely recognised and condemned.
So whilst it is difficult to define a single Christian approach to sex, there are common themes that emerge. Christians of varying traditions will tend to affirm faithfulness, mutual respect, consent, covenant commitment, and non-exploitation as values which should encircle human sexual activity. There is also a strong affirmation that whilst it can be distorted and misused, sex is in essence a good gift from God to be enjoyed by humans.