Christianity and sexual morality  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Christianity supplemented the Jewish attitudes on sexuality with two new concepts. First, there was the idea that marriage was absolutely exclusive and indissoluble, thereby restricting the sphere of sexual activity and eliminating the husband's ability to divorce at will. Second, there was the notion of virginity and celibacy as a moral ideal, rendering marital sexuality as a sort of concession to carnal weakness and the necessity of procreation.


New Testament

The Council of Jerusalem decided that, although Jesus may have admonished Jews to keep to their traditions and laws, these were not required of gentiles converting to Christianity, who did not, for instance, need to be circumcised, and could continue to consume shellfish. The Council's final communication to the various gentiles' churches was,

That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.
Acts 15:29

It is unclear exactly which sexual practices are considered fornication (sometimes translated as sexual immorality). Throughout the New Testament, there are scattered injunctions against adultery, promiscuity, homosexuality, and incest, consistent with earlier Jewish ethics supplemented by the Christian emphasis on chastity.

  • It is good for a man not to touch a woman. (1 Corinthians 7:1 (KJV))
  • They that have wives be as though they had none; (1 Corinthians 7:29)

Later Christian Thought

A general consensus developed in medieval Christianity that sexual acts were at least mildly sinful, owing to the necessary lust involved in the act. Nonetheless, marital relations were encouraged as an antidote to temptations to promiscuity and other sexual sins. St. Augustine opined that before Adam's fall, there was no lust in the sexual act, but it was entirely subordinate to human reason. Later theologians similarly concluded that the lust involved in sexuality was a result of original sin, but nearly all agreed that this was only a venial sin if conducted within marriage without inordinate lust.

In the modern era, many Christians have adopted the view that there is no sin whatsoever in the uninhibited enjoyment of marital relations. More traditional Christians will tend to limit the circumstances and degree to which sexual pleasure is morally licit.

Sexual abstinence

Many Christians teach that sexual intercourse is meant to take place within the context of marriage, and that sexual abstinence is the norm outside of that. But for married couples, Paul of Tarsus wrote that they should not deprive each other, except for a short time for devotion to prayer.

Catholicism defines chastity as the virtue that moderates the sexual appetite. Unmarried Catholics express chastity through sexual abstinence. Sexual intercourse within marriage is considered chaste when it retains the twofold significance of union and procreation.

See also

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