Next time you’re near a time machine, I recommend traveling back to one of the earliest Christian churches—say, in 2nd-century Rome—and paying close attention to what you see and hear. You’ll be struck, of course, by the diversity and the odd, sometimes troubling juxtapositions: Here is a community where slaves and slave owners are drinking from the same Communion cup, where the grip of Caesar’s reign is loosened by a stronger cry: “Jesus is Lord.” Here is a group of people who give alms to the poor, who fast and sometimes mourn for the world’s pain, and sing hymns in open defiance of death, as if dying has somehow lost its terror for them. And here, perhaps most strikingly of all, is a community in which a large percentage of people are single—by choice.
The early Christians, in spite of the “family values” their differing Jewish and pagan pasts had taught them to celebrate, prized virginity. Women and men alike in the early days of the new Jesus movement gave up sex and marriage in droves. As many historians have noted, it’s one of the most extraordinary things about the beginnings of Christianity. In a world where sex was as readily available as the body of the slave in your anteroom or the prostitute in the brothel down the street, a disproportionate number of Jesus-worshipers opted for celibacy. And this may be our first clue as to what a Christian “spirituality of sex” might be: Sex, for Christians, isn’t necessary. It doesn’t “complete” anyone. It isn’t god, and it doesn’t save. If the early Christians shocked Rome by their refusal to worship Caesar, they were equally shocking in their refusal to worship sex.
You can read the rest here.
If I’d had more space, I might have gone on to make the complementary point that if sex is unnecessary, that means that sex (within marriage) is a gift. As I’ve written elsewhere, drawing on the work of our friend Chris Roberts,
First, celibacy makes it clear that marriage is a gift and a calling, not a right or a guarantee that we must demand or insist on. You can see this idea adumbrated in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19. When he’s asked about divorce, he forbids it, citing God’s original creative design for a lifelong marital covenant (verses 4-6). His disciples immediately recognize what a high standard this is—how impossible it can seem to fulfill those kind of vows—and so they suggest that perhaps opting out of marriage is preferable. And Jesus replies, “Not everyone can accept this teaching.” There is exegetical debate about how to construe that answer. Is Jesus saying not everyone can accept marriage (verses 4-9), or is he pointing ahead to what he says next, namely, that not everyone can accept celibacy (verses 10-12)? Either way, the same point emerges—namely, that both marriage and celibacy arecallings, invitations, or vocations. They’re not things that God owes anyone.
The new preparatory catechism for the coming World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia this year, Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive, makes this point especially well:
The Church offers marriage as a vocation, a possibility; it therefore cannot be a law or requirement for a flourishing Catholic life. It follows, then, that celibacy needs to exist in the Church’s social life in order for marriage to be a matter of freedom rather than compulsion. Celibacy is the alternative if there is indeed more than one way to order one’s sexual life, one’s maleness or femaleness, to heaven.
So, when people practice celibacy, they serve as visible, tangible reminders in the church of the gift-character of marriage. Marriage is a grace. It is a discipline God calls some Christians—most Christians, as it happens—into. And by living an abstinent life, celibates can build up the common good by reminding the church of that fact.
And here’s how my Patheos entry ends:
So, what is a Christian spirituality of sex? In four pithy sentences, it might go something like this: Sex is unnecessary. Sex is impermanent. Sex is divinely ordered. And sex is (or can be) transformative. Above all, sex is about Jesus Christ. Whether by giving it up in celibacy or by enjoying it in marriage, Christians want their sex to be a sort of pointer or window onto the lavish, rapturous, closer-than-kissing love that God has for humanity, the love that God showed when he gave up his body and his life for us on the cross.