The Early Church’s View of Sexuality and Descent into Asceticism

Updated: Jan 24

The early church started out as a flourishing evangelistic movement whose goal was to go into all nations and preach Christ. There were two categories of people, the lost and the saved, and there was not any differing levels of being saved or being lost. There was certainly not a level where one could attain some uber-spirituality through ascetic practices, although there were heretical teachers in the Church that were propagating this idea (Col. 2:20-23, 1 Tim. 4:3).


There was also a seed of Gnosticism in the church that taught dualism in the sense that the physical world is completely evil and only the “spiritual world” is good. These false teachings had danger of spreading throughout the Church, which seemed to be a concern of the apostles, especially John. At a certain point, however, things changed, and there were the ascetic leaders of the Church and the less spiritual average members of the Church who got married, and lived less “holy” lives. Dr. John M. Oakes says in The Christian Story II: Finding the Church in Church History: “As the Church became more corrupt and worldly, the spirit of Christian devotion was carried on by monks and nuns who chose to cut themselves off from the world.” The seeds of Gnosticism in the Church had taken root and grown. While the Church still kept its biblical view of Christ, at least in the area of Christology, it seemed to take on some Gnostic ideas from about 450 A.D. on in Monasticism. While there were other aspects of this descent into asceticism, I am going to focus in this paper on the Church’s increasingly ascetic view of sexuality.


Some of these seeds may have been taking root even as early as the second century. For example, Justin Martyr who lived from about 100-165 A.D. said, “We Christians marry only to produce children.” So very early in Christian history we have an unbiblical view of marriage and sexuality. Sex within marriage is clearly for pleasure and not just procreation consistently throughout the Bible (see Prov. 5:19-20, Song of Songs and 1 Tim. 4:3).


Clement of Alexandria in 150- 215 A.D. also seems to attribute the fall of humanity, at least in part, to marriage rather than disobedience: "... the first man of our race did not await the appropriate time, desiring the favour of marriage before the proper hour and he fell into sin by not waiting the time of God's will...they [Adam and Eve] were impelled to do it before the normal time because they were still young and were persuaded by deception.” He also stated:"If a man marries in order to have children, he ought not to have a sexual desire for his wife. He ought to produce children by a reverent, disciplined act of will (c. 150–215, On Marriage XIV:94, XVII:102-103).”


Tertullian also in 150-230 A.D. has a negative view, perhaps not of sexuality, but of the opposite sex, and says that Jesus had to die because of women: "Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the Devil's gateway: You are the unsealer of the forbidden tree: You are the first deserter of the divine law: You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert even the Son of God had to die.” So combined with a gnostic dualism, we also see misogyny as a growing trend. Did misogyny play into a dislike of sexuality as God designed it?


This negative view of sex within marriage only increases with time. Origen, Augustine and Jerome become increasingly more negative towards sexuality. Asceticism starts to become the expectation if one is going to truly live in obedience to God, or as a truly “spiritual” person. Eventually, the teaching became so widespread that Christians everywhere believed that “only through monastic celibacy can man recover that natural—and sexless—state for which [man] was originally created ‘in the image’ of God (Sherrard, Philip. Christianity and Eros. 1976: 8).” In this way, sexuality was completely withdrawn from the image of God which God had instilled in mankind in creation. This is ironic because it could easily be argued that sexuality and gender is the main point of focus in the creation of mankind! (See Gen 1:27)


Robert T. Francoeur summarizes how Christians descended into ascetic teaching about sex: “To understand the evolution from the early sex-affirming Hebraic culture to Christianity's persistent discomfort with sex and pleasure, we have to look at three interwoven threads: the dualistic cosmology of Plato [i.e. the soul and mind are at war with the body], the Stoic philosophy of early Greco-Roman culture [i.e., nothing should be done for the sake of pleasure], and the Persian Gnostic tradition [i.e., that demons created the world, sex and your body—in which your soul is trapped, and the key to salvation is to free the spirit from the bondage of the body by denying the flesh].


Within three centuries after Jesus, these influences combined to seduce Christian thinkers into a rampant rejection of human sexuality and sexual pleasure.” (Robert T. Francoeur, The Religious Suppression of Eros.)


Seeing how early in Christian history that Christians started teach this unbiblical view of sexuality and marriage, it seemed to me that perhaps the difficulty of resorting to dualism is somewhat inherent in Christian teaching. After all, Paul did teach that those who live by “the flesh” live in death, while those who live by the Spirit have life and peace (Romans 7-8)? Paul could easily be mistaken for a dualist or ascetic, even though elsewhere he clearly reveals that he is not (Col 1:16-23).


It can be difficult as a Christian, especially regarding sexuality, to determine when our desires are “natural” or when they have become “evil.” For example, for an adolescent Christian a struggle with sexual sin to some degree seems inevitable and inescapable. They are biologically primed to have sexual desire more than ever, and yet they cannot act on that desire. Anyone who denies this to be a normal and difficult struggle for an adolescent is out of touch with reality.


To be sure, it is difficult to not simply resort to dualism in order to avoid sin, to simply conclude that all our fleshly desires and physical body are inherently evil and to therefore try to avoid and escape our flesh rather than living in the tension of scripture. It takes training to determine when we have allowed our flesh to lead us into sin and we have simply been “tempted”. We have to live in the tension of not giving excuse for sin, yet still understanding that a struggle with sexual sin, at least temptation, will be an inevitable part of the Christian life for most, so that we don’t come to hate or reject something that God has actually given us as a gift.


Perhaps monasticism was an effort to make life more simple instead of having to live in this difficult tension. We can take a lesson from where early Christianity went in their teaching about sexuality so we can avoid extreme, ascetic and dualistic teaching today.

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