Erika Harold, Miss America 2003, has just emerged victorious from a very public struggle over sex. Erika, a professed Christian, announced after winning the title that she would be using her year in the spotlight to promote sexual abstinence for teenagers. For reasons best known to themselves, the Miss America pageant organizers in Atlantic City ordered her not to do so. Then, in the face of controversy, they reversed their decision but made Erika promise that she would couch her message in the more politically correct theme of "teen violence."

One look at the multi-billion-dollar television industry upon which the Miss America pageant feeds should make clear the pageant promoters' difficulty. How many premarital and extramarital sex acts are shown or implied each year on American television programs? How many times does a message of abstinence make it onto the airwaves—outside of Christian stations? Hmmm.

Probably the most obvious and counter-cultural ethical position of Christians today—one shared by the other "peoples of the Book," Jews and Muslims—is the proscription against premarital sex.

Abstinence has not had a higher-profile or more appropriate spokesperson in modern America than Erika Harold. But her message is rooted in the earliest history of the church. Not a single church father can be found who did not assume that Christians should remain chaste before marriage.

In the early second century, the Roman governor Pliny questioned some ex-Christians, who reported that Christians met before dawn for a secret ritual that included an oath to refrain from moral no-nos, including sexual sins. The ritual so described is generally considered to have been baptism, which, as Justin Martyr described a few years later, did require the new Christian to make this kind of moral promise.

Turning to such early church manuals as the Didache, Clement of Alexandria's Paidagogos, or the many disciplinary writings of Tertullian, we find sexual sins getting a lot of attention. Fornication (sex by unmarried people) and adultery (sex between married people with other partners) are condemned in the strongest terms, and discussions keep cropping up about whether newly baptized Christians should be required—or at least urged—to remain celibate, and about whether sex in marriage should be only for the purpose of conceiving children.

Reading these discussions, you get the sense that "the sky hung low" for these people. That is, heaven was a nearby, almost tangible reality, where many natural physical functions would drop away into insignificance: no one would be married (Luke 20:34-36), be born, or die. In a church vividly aware that this was the place of which they were truly citizens, it was not a stretch to say that even God's command in Genesis to "be fruitful and multiply" was now suspended—at least, for those carrying the good news of Christ's gospel to a world next door to death. Such messengers of heaven saw themselves as strangers and sojourners in a transitory, sin-besotted physical world. The anticipation of heaven was so powerful that it motivated some to begin living as the angels do—renouncing such physical pleasures as sexual intercourse.

Article continues below

This heavenly-mindedness may help account for the fact that chastity—often called by the early Christians simply "virginity"—became a hallmark of spiritual greatness among the Christians. Neither the Jews nor the pagans had ever much linked spiritual perfection with sexual abstention.

Another (but probably less influential) reason "virginity" became the badge of honor for many early Christians was that some of their Roman persecutors, in their attempts to give Christianity a bad name, accused the Christians of engaging in secret sex rituals in their meetings. As the second-century defender of the faith Justin Martyr wrote,

"Either we do not marry except to rear children, or we refuse to marry and we exercise complete self-control. Further, to convince you that we do not have a secret rite or licentious sexual intercourse, one of us sent to Felix, the governor of Alexandria, asking him to permit a surgeon to take away his [the Christian's] testicles. For the surgeons there said that they were forbidden to do this without the permission of the governor. When Felix was not at all willing to sign [this permission], the youth remained by himself, and found his own and his associates' conscience sufficient" (First Apology, 29).

In fact, the brilliant exegete Origen did have himself castrated. He wrote, "God has allowed us to marry wives, because not everyone is capable of the superior condition, which is to be absolutely pure" (Against Celsus, 8:55).

There was another source, beyond heavenly-mindedness and defensive agendas, for such extreme practices and related teachings. This was the teaching of the Gnostic heretics. Gnostics considered the body—and indeed all matter—to be evil, created by a "demiurge" and not the good, redemptive God represented in Jesus. They therefore mandated total celibacy for their disciples."

Article continues below

The early church father Clement of Alexandria was one of many who struggled against these Gnostics. He attacked a book by the Gnostic teacher Julius Cassianus, Concerning Self-Control or Concerning Eunuchry. Cassianus argued, "Let no one say that, since we have these parts so that the female body is arranged this way and the male that way, the one to receive, the other to implant, sexual intercourse is allowed by God. For if this equipment was from the God toward whom we hasten, he would not have said that eunuchs are blessed." He concluded that Jesus had come to "reform us and free us from error and from the intercourse of these appended and shameful parts." Such teachers, said Clement, "with words fair-sounding through self-control commit sacrilege against both the creation and the holy Creator" (Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 3.91-92, 3.45).

Clement and the other fathers followed the apostle Paul in counseling against such extreme sexual self-denial. Paul was well aware of the strong pull of human sexual desire and its tendency to lead fallible humans into immorality. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he responded to their slogan, "It is good for a man not to marry," by insisting that, though this might be good for those with the gift of celibacy, like himself, heroic chastity might easily provide opportunity for the devil. To "the unmarried and the widows," he said, "if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion" (1 Cor. 7:8-9).

Paul's healthy respect for the human sex drive is reflected in his advice to married couples: "Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer." Why such carefulness? Paul returns, in the following sentence, to the primary theme of this whole passage—the difficulty we humans have in keeping our sexual actions within godly boundaries: "Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control" (1 Cor. 7:1-5).

Virtually all the church fathers affirmed marriage as a good (1 Tim. 4:3) and found at least some kind words to say about sexual intercourse within marriage. In this they joined the Jewish religious teachers, who praised marriage, repeating (from their male-centered perspective) the traditional saying "He who has no wife lives without joy, blessing, or good." But all considered premarital and extramarital sex immoral.

Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine. For further reading on this subject, see the material on sexuality in Wayne A. Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (Yale, 1993) and Stuart G. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church (SPCK, 1991).

Article continues below

Related Elsewhere

More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

Christian History Corner appears every Friday at Previous editions include:

The King Is Coming, Eventually | What if you announced the rapture, but God didn't show up? (Oct. 18, 2002)
Timeline of the Spirit-Gifted | Before Moody, Finney, Edwards, and Mather came a long line of Catholic and Orthodox believers reputed to enjoy "the promise of the Father." (Oct. 11, 2002)
Do Non-Charismatics 'Do' Holy Spirit Baptism? | Ask D. L. Moody, Charles G. Finney, Jonathan Edwards, or Cotton Mather. (Oct. 7, 2002)
Standing Alone for Unity | The attempt to bring European Christians together forced one reformer, Caspar Schwenckfeld, straight to the fringe. (Sept. 20, 2002)
9/11, History, and the True Story | Wartime authors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis help put 9/11 in perspective. (Sept. 13, 2002)
Evangelicalism's Decades of Fire | New historical survey highlights twentieth-century evangelicalism's impassioned middle decades. (Sept. 6, 2002)
A Protestant Bishop Speaks Out on the Stakes of Public Education | Why concerned parents should read the 17th-century Moravian educational reformer Jan Amos Comenius. (Aug. 30, 2002)
Spurgeon on Jabez | What history's most prolific preacher said, in 1871, about the Prayer of Jabez (Aug. 23, 2002)
History in a Flash | A new CD-ROM offers quick access to the facts of church history, plus interactive quizzes. (Aug. 16, 2002)
How the Early Church Saw Heaven | The first Christians had very specific ideas about who they would meet in the afterlife (Aug. 9, 2002)
Divvying up the Most Sacred Place | Emotions have historically run high as Christians have staked their claims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Aug. 2, 2002)