Quotables: Early Church on Sex and Marriage


Modern readers may imagine that until recently pastors never dared to provide sex and marriage counseling. Not so. These selections from the earliest period of the Christian pastoral tradition (pre-Nicene, before 325 a.d.), will provide glimpses of the sort of counsel Christian pastors have been giving from the very outset of the tradition. It should be kept in mind that much of the writing of this period was done under hazardous conditions of persecution and social stress, when the Christian community was a tiny minority in a hostile political environment. Our purpose for including these selections is not to imply that a completely adequate view of sexuality was worked out by these earliest pastoral writers, or one that could be adequate for all other historical situations. At least they demonstrate that the need to provide guidance and understanding of sexuality has been perceived from the beginning of Christian pastoral activity.

Clement of Alexandria developed some preliminary theories on the psychology of sexuality. He suggested, for example, that the delay of intercourse tended to make it more desirable:

In the evening, after dinner, it is proper to retire after giving thanks for the good things that have been received. Sometimes, nature denies them the opportunity to accomplish the marriage act so that it may be all them more desirable because it is delayed. (Clement of Alexandria, Christ the Educator, Bk. II, Ch. 10.97. FC 23, p. 174)

He did not think much of the heavy use of perfumes for the enhancement of sexual attractiveness:

Let the women make use of a little of these perfumes, but not so much as to nauseate their husbands, for too much fragrance suggests a funeral, not married life. (Clement of Alexandria, Christ the Educator, Bk. II, Ch. 8.65, FC 23, p. 150)

Since sexual differentiation is the gift of God, so must sexual conjunction of married partners be blessed by God, as part of God&#8217s own design in creation for propagation:

For the conjunction of man and wife, if it be with upright intent, is agreeable to the mind of God. “For He that made them at the beginning made them male and female; and He blessed them, and said, ‘Increase and multiply, and fill the earth&#8217” (Gen. 1:27, 28). If, therefore, the difference of sexes was made by the will of God for the generation of multitudes, then must the conjunction of male and female be also acceptable to His mind. (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, Bk. VI. Sec. V, ch. xxvii, ANF VII, p. 462)*

In sexuality, human beings share actively in God&#8217s own work of creation. It is precisely because of the great value, not disvalue, of the generative capacity that important social constraints are attached to its use:

“Do not sow the unconsecrated and bastard seed with concubines, where you would not want what is sown to grow.” In fact, he says: “Do not touch anyone, except your wedded wife,” because she is the only one with whom it is lawful to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh for the purpose of begetting lawful heirs. This is to share in God&#8217s own work of creation, and in such a work the seed ought not be wasted nor scattered thoughtlessly nor sown in a way it cannot grow. (Clement of Alexandria, Christ the Educator, Bk. II, Ch. 10.91, FC 23, p. 170; cf. Lev. 18:20ff.)

The early tradition did not hesitate to speak of human cooperation with God in married sexual intercourse:

It remains for us now to consider the restriction of sexual intercourse to those who are joined in wedlock. Begetting children is the goal of those who wed, and the fulfillment of that goal is a large family, just as hope of a crop drives the farmer to sow his seed, while the fulfillment of his hope is the actual harvesting of the crop. But he who sows in a living soil is far superior, for the one tills the land to provide food only for a season, the other to secure the preservation of the whole human race; the one tends his crop for himself, the other, for God. We have received the command: “Be fruitful” (Gen 1:28), and we must obey. In this role human beings become like God, because they cooperate, in a human way, in the birth of another (Clement of Alexandria, Christ the Educator, Bk. II, Ch. 10.83, FC 23, p. 164)*

Promiscuous sexual intercourse was never thought to have the dimension of mystical communion available to those whose married union of fidelity in love God has blessed:

There are some who call Aphrodite Pandemos [i.e., physical love] a mystical communion. This is an insult to the name of communion…. They have impiously called by the name of communion any common sexual intercourse. The story goes that one of them came to a virgin of our church who had a lovely face and said to her: “Scripture says, ‘Give to every one that asks you.&#8217” She, however, not understanding the lascivious intention of the man gave the dignified reply: “On the subject of marriage, talk to my brother.”… These thrice wretched men treat carnal and sexual intercourse as a sacred religious mystery, and think that it will bring them to the kingdom of God. It is to the brothels that this “communion” leads. (Clement of Alexandria, On Marriage, secs. 27–28, LCC II, pp. 52–53)

Oden, T. C. (1986). Crisis Ministries (107). New York: Crossroad.

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