Visions of Daniel

Saint Paul's Surprisingly Positive Outlook on Sex


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Contemporary study of the Bible uses "historical-critical method." It proposes that the ancient texts mean what their authors originally intended, as best as can be determined, and not what a 21-Century reader would make of the texts in translation. On this basis, it appears that Saint Paul held a surprisingly positive outlook on sex (Countryman, 2007).

Paul was engaged in "culture wars" between Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity. He struggled to reconcile the rampant sexual practices of the Gentiles with the more reverential attitude of the Jews. He had to sort out the cultural taboos of the Gentiles and the purity rules of the Jewish Law, on the one hand, from what he believed to be truly right and wrong, on the other.

The Jewish requirement of circumcision is the easy case in point. Paul argued that, if circumcision is required, salvation through faith in Christ is forfeited (Galatians 5:2-6). But stickier sexual questions remained. Four examples are illustrative.

First, in a long discussion of sex in 1 Corinthians 5-8, Paul compares eating food with having sex. He seems to anticipate our contemporary psychological understanding that human sexuality has profound interpersonal implications; it is not a merely biological function. Thus, Paul argued, food is meant for the stomach, but sex is "for the Lord," for "your [plural] body is a temple for the Holy Spirit" (6:12 -20). Using Christian symbols, Paul was pointing out the lofty nature of human sexuality. It entails interpersonal matters and carries moral consequences. It is a spiritual reality. It is even a social issue, for "the body" about which Paul spoke was the "one body in Christ" that all Christians make up. Paul taught that sex is best expressed in stable relationships that foster and support communal order and cohesion. Therefore, he wrote, "Shun harlotry" ( 6:18 —interestingly, Paul did not say it is wrong, evil, or forbidden, but to be avoided: it is not the ideal), for it is a passing event that makes no lasting contribution to the betterment of society; it is wasteful; it offends against "the body."

Nonetheless, second, Paul had no concern for procreation. He literally believed the world would end during his lifetime, so he advised against any new enterprises, including marriage and business ( 7:29 -31), and he advocated celibacy. Yet this is the context of Paul's notorious comment, "Better to marry than to burn [with passion]" (7:9). Far from demeaning sex, Paul was recommending it for people with intense sexual urges, not for having children, but for the pleasure, comfort, and mutual bonding that sex provides. He was probably influenced by the Song of Songs, a collection of blatantly erotic-romantic poetry that somehow made its way into the Bible, also never mentions procreation, and portrays sexual lovers as equals because of their passion for each other.

Third, Paul seems not even to insist that sex belongs only in heterosexual marriage. Except among the wealthy, marriage was not a regulated institution in his day, in any case, and a strong argument can be made that Paul allowed same-sex relationships. In Romans 1:18-32, he portrays two results of the idolatry of the Gentiles, that is, their not following the religion of Israel. Verses 24 to 27 explicitly name "impurity," and sexual practices provide the example. Paul describes these acts in terms that apply to social taboos: degrading, shameful, atypical. (The traditional unnatural of 1:26 must be a mistranslation, for the same term is applied to God's doings in 11:24.) In contrast, verses 18-23 and 28-32, before and after the section on sex, contain numerous ethical terms: ungodliness, wickedness, base minds, evil, improper conduct. This contrast could hardly be accidental. A climactic statement of Paul's overall argument states his point: "Nothing is unclean in itself" (14:14). Paul, as all the ancient rabbis, understood the prohibition of Leviticus 18:22 ("With a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman," that is, you shall not have penetrative sex: no other male-male sex was forbidden) to be a matter of Jewish purity or religious taboo, not something wrong in itself.

Finally, unlike others who wrote in his name (1 Timothy 2:11-15 and the interpolation in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35), Paul was no misogynist. The final chapter of Romans commends 29 disciples by name. Ten are women. Three of them—Phoebe, Prisca, and Junia—were leaders in their churches, "pastors," in today's terminology.

The sex-negativity that has dominated the Christian tradition is not rooted in the Bible. Rather, it has its roots in the philosophies, especially Stoicism and Neo-Platonism (Boswell, 1980), that shaped Christianity in the second to fourth centuries.



Boswell, John. (1980). Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

L. William Countryman. (2007). Dirt, Greed, & Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today, revised edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.