Why does the Church fret so much about sex?
The job of the Church is to guide people towards salvation. Sometimes it takes a circuitous route.
Sex, the sauce of life
Many things are vital for life. Breathing, for example. We all do it, and if we don't then we die. Similarly our bodies need food, water, a suitable temperature and adequate shelter from inclement weather, And our minds need a certain amount of companionship and stimulation, otherwise we cease to be useful humans.
But the most critical thing that enables the human race itself to survive, is sexual intercourse.
Interestingly, whilst we quite openly talk about and share experiences with those other vital things in life, the most vital sex thing is hushed up.
This page attempts to explain why.
Certainties of life
It is said that three things in life are certain. One is the certainty of dying, another is the certainty of having to pay taxes, and the third is the certainty of boring business meetings, to plan other boring business meetings, ad infinitum.
None of those are particularly desirable, yet they are facts of life and we deal with them. We deal with them unashamedly, in the open.
But sex, which is very desirable, is considered shameful. We hide it. We put it on the top shelf of bookstores to prevent young people even knowing about it. We make all sorts of laws, some of which push sex underground and we create special sections in police forces to deal with them.
Of the three undesirables mentioned above, death is the least pleasant and corpses are both abhorrent and a health hazard. So we dispose of bodies in a solemn burial or cremation, but they are not done secretly out of shame. Indeed, for Christians in particular, death is a celebration that the loved one is commended to God.
Just to digress slightly; we all need to use the toilet. That's another thing that's not so pleasant. It has a disgusting smell, as does rotten food, to warn us that it's dangerously unhygienic. So we get rid of it. And because human waste is so disgusting, it's natural that we don't want people to witness when we produce it. Hence the toilet.
But generally speaking, having sex is rather nice, is good for the participants and is good for the human race.
So why closet sex, even more than we closet the toilet?
The pleasures of sex
Everybody's different, but for many people, sex produces happy hormones and relieves stress. Sex is a chance for the most intimate of intimacies with somebody you love. Romantic cuddles naturally precede and follow, enhancing relationships, strengthening bonds, intensifying trust.
Claims have been made about the beneficial release of estrogen, prolactin and oxytocin, higher levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA), the DHEA hormone, and so on. Mixing a few scientific terms with a few pseudo-scientific "facts" can be useful for those who need an excuse to enjoy sex.
Others just get on with it.
But whether intercourse takes place after careful academic research, or because there's family pressure to produce offspring, or religious pressure, or just because the mood is right, this fabulous activity is nearly always done in private.
In most countries, exhibiting sexual activity in a public place is illegal, because it can be offensive to people who may see it. Why? We don't mind if people watch us eat or breathe. But watch us having sex? No way!
In the beginning
Undoubtedly sex has been fun and games for thousands of years, yet also considered a serious activity; recognised as the method for procreation, even though nobody understood how it worked. In ancient Israel, for example, sex was not only enjoyed but was actively celebrated as the means of bringing more souls into the world.
Jews gleefully followed God's command to "be fruitful and multiply" (Gen. 1:28). (Was the phrase "breed like rabbits" originally "breed like rabbis"?) Procreation was more important than a faithful monogamous relationship and as one of the most male-dominant cultures in the world, polygamy (or rather, polygyny) was common.
Reserving sex for procreation was so important that celibacy and homosexuality were outlawed, since they were a waste of sperm.
Cold shower time
Enter the Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, who blew the socks off the world with their great revelations of the better ways to live and love. Sex was to satisfy the needs of the spirit more than the body; desires of the flesh were to be denied.
Being new and radical stuff, probably few people understood what the sages were saying, but they admired the smart way it was said.
Sexuality was still celebrated, but became tempered with liberal dashes of spirituality. It became less about satisfying an animal instinct and more of something that required rules to be obeyed for the activity to be classified as 'moral'. It's easy to imagine that intense enjoyment of sex became regarded as lust; a sin that Job warned folk about 2,500 years ago.
Jesus echoed this by advising for monogamy and against divorce, but the Bible doesn't relate much more from Jesus about sex. The Bible is not a sex manual; rather it's a book about God's power and God's love. The Bible omits to mention details or even hints about how we should be fruitful and multiply, which is pretty clear evidence that God wants us to work those out for ourselves.
God knows that as the human race evolves, man is ready to accept new teaching, and sends us doctors of science and philosophy to help shape our sexual ethics. It was the Church that took on the responsibility of deciding what those sexual ethics should be.
When formulating the rules, theologians and others of the Church leadership consulted the Bible, and tailored it with the philosophical ideals of that time, some of which were inspired by austere Greek philosophy.
The same happened, of course, with formulating the sharia in Muslim cultures, halakha in Judaism, Hindu law, etc. European colonialism ensured that Christian Church canon laws on sex spilled over into many countries' civil laws, religious and secular education, and by extension into general cultural beliefs and practices.
In the 4th century, Augustine of Hippo was most influential in shaping Church views on sex. With judicious focus on "make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof" (Rom. 13:14), Augustine decided that self-control was a prerequisite of holiness.
Supporting his thoughts on good and evil, he postulated that when Eve offered Adam forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam's acceptance was due to his overt sexual passion for Eve. In other words, sexual desire caused Adam to mis-use freewill and therefore sex has a profound association with original sin. Just as sexual activity has (obviously!) continued since Augustine's days, so has the legacy that sex is shameful.
The corollary that sex was connected with the Original Sin is that babies inherited the sin of their parents.
After the collapse of Roman rule, the Church took over and strict laws about sex were laid down. Non-procreative sex play, such as oral sex and masturbation, was forbidden.
Here comes the bride
In the reign of Pope Gregory VII in the 11th century, marriage became a Christian institute and couples could only have a wedding ceremony conducted by a priest.
The priests themselves could not marry, one reason being that celibacy was considered a way to elevate themselves above those who took part in pleasures of the flesh, as animals did.
Dim the lights, light the candle
Around 500 years later, the rebellious Martin Luther challenged the link between sexual desire and sin, He pointed out that God rewards us for doing His will and the joy of sex was the way for a husband and wife to fulfill God's instruction to be fruitful and multiply. Even though God directed this before Adam messed things up, God never retracted the instruction. Luther himself married, and set an example by having six children in eight years.
From the start of the Protestant Reformation, ministers were encouraged to marry and have children just as the Rabbis had always done. Similarly with the Jewish aversion to celibacy, Luther denounced the Catholic tradition of celibate priests, since sexual desire was a natural gift and rejecting that gift, unsatisfying the desire, could cause problems. (This does not mean that the contemporary exposure of pædophilia would have been avoided; there are plenty of happily married men today in all walks of life who abuse the young.)
One particular Protestant offshoot and fan of the Old Testament, the Anabaptists, felt so encouraged to be fruitful and multiply that once again, polygamy was practiced for religious reasons. The Anabaptist leader Bernhard Rothmann of Münster had nine wives. But with the exception of the Mormon experiment for a few years in the 19th century, polygamy in the Church has been rare.
Catholicism is slowly mellowing and Protestantism is still finding its feet on sexual issues. There remain deep divisions between the Catholic and Protestant Churches, even between the various denominations.
God has done His part, by giving us the joy of sex. Our part is to discuss with God about how best to use that gift.
Unlike thousands of years ago, it's now of no use to the church to accept 10% of somebody's agricultural produce, as directed in Malachi 3:8-11. Not many church members grow crops nowadays, and churches tend not to have barns anyway.
10% of gross income in cash is much more useful.
Katharina von Bora, a former nun
- Hans (June 1526)
- Elizabeth (10 December 1527)
- Magdalene (1529)
- Martin (1531)
- Paul (January 1533)
- Margaret (1534)
Almost exclusively polygyny (one man having more than one wife), rather than polyandry (one woman having more than one husband)