Recently, I wrote about the problem of false guilt and shame which can interfere with a person’s ability to think clearly and relate rationally to others. False Guilt and Shame | Pastoral Counseling Syracuse NY (revmichaelheath.com)
Today I want to talk about shame and guilt about sex and the major source of these destructive feelings, i.e. traditional religious teachings about sex and pleasure. Over the centuries, traditional Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrines have caused of a lot of needless stress. And, as hard as it is to believe, they continue to be a source of pain for many.
From a psychological point of view, traditional Christian beliefs viewed normal sexual feelings to be in conflict with God’s law and, therefore, sinful. Thus, lacking positive teachings about sex, natural desires evoked feelings of sinfulness and even self-hatred.
Those who suffer with this conflict need to know that this antipathy was not always the case. It is important to understand the evolution of Christian thought and how the delights of sex found in Song of Solomon were squelched and replaced with negative views.
While complex, two major developments are largely responsible for this change: 1) apocalyptic expectations. and 2) The disappointment of those expectations experienced by the delay of the Jesus’ 2nd coming (the Parousia). Let me explain,
Christian Apocalyptic Expectations Looking back, it is important to remember that life for early Christians in the ancient Roman Empire was extremely difficult. Their religion was outlawed and they were persecuted and killed for worshiping.
As a result, many Christians looked to escape this world. Belief in the apocalypse, i.e. Jesus’ return offered hope. Believers trusted that the 2nd Coming would end this world and inaugurate the Kingdom of God. Christians believed that this wondrous event was not far off. St. Paul, in fact, believed that Christ’s return would occur within his lifetime. (I Thess 4.15-17)
And here is another detail that many miss. This new, spiritual era was not of the material world. Without physical bodies, sex would not exist. St Paul wrote, “…there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:29)
The Delay of the Parousia The second coming of Christ or, the Parousia, was regarded as the fulfilment of the resurrection. The problem is, it never happened. Beyond the emotional disappointment, the delay of the Parousia became a huge theological problem. Christ’s no-show was a problem because it created an unfilled theological gap regarding sex, a topic with which Christian leaders didn’t think that they would have to deal.
Evidence of this is found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he, on one hand, reassured them that having sex within marriage was not a sin, but on the other hand was quick to add that being celibate is better. (“And if you take a wife, you have not sinned. And if a virgin marries, she has not sinned’ (1 Cor 7:28), and ‘… he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better’ (v. 38). What does 1 Corinthians 7:28 mean? | BibleRef.com
Since Jesus really didn’t talk about sex, the longer the delay went on, the more problematic the unanswered questions became. For example, 100 years after Paul, was celibacy still better than marriage ?
Fumbling in the Dark Thus, for the first few centuries, Christianity was quite diverse in its beliefs and practices. For example, women were ministers who celebrated communion in house churches. Likewise, it was common for priests to be married.
As time passed, however, the varied teachings of Jesus were consolidated into an orthodoxy. As Christianity became an organized institution, women and, later, married men were banned from ordination. With respect to sex, church doctrine became increasingly negative.
St. Augustine, while brilliant in many ways, expressed this antipathy to sex. Sadly, having converted to Christianity after having lived a hedonistic life, his writings reveal that his own unresolved guilt spilled over and contaminated his theological reasoning about sex.
An example of his bias is found in his response to the theological question of whether a newborn child needs the sacrament of baptism. He wrote: Because the child was conceived while his/her parents were feeling sexual lust, its soul was contaminated with sin. Thus must be baptized to escape damnation. Augustine on why babies are evil – Stephen Hicks, Ph.D.
In the 13th century, St Thomas Aquinas stated that sex was a sin even between husband and wife unless they were having it to conceive a child. Saint Thomas Aquinas on Marital Chastity (catechism.cc) Not surprisingly, all other forms of sexual activity were also condemned. Things like masturbation or unmarried sex were deemed to be offensive to God and therefore sins.
No wonder, given this legacy which has been passed down by clergy, parents and religious teachers, that many Christians continue to experience a serious conflict between following church doctrine and feeling good about themselves … not to mention fully enjoying sex.
That said, the good news is, that if you are uncomfortable with sex or are plagued by guilt or shame because of it, there is help. Besides feeling better, it is important to understand that sex and spirituality are not incompatible. There are denominations in which having a joyous attitude toward sex is part of having a rich spiritual life and being a faithful Christian. (https://www.ucc.org )
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC December 1 2022