The early Christians developed a highly distinctive view of sexual morality, drawing from both Jewish roots and Greco-Roman philosophy, but standing apart from both as a unique creation.
Christian sexual morality, based upon an entirely new set of ethical standards, was not only distinct from its surrounding culture but also one of the most defining features of the early church. The view of sex that Paul put forth in his letter to the Corinthians was an extension of the Christian attitude toward creation and the human person.
In the 40s-60s Paul traveled through the Roman world, urging people wherever he went to repent of their sins and believe the good news of Jesus Christ, who had died to take away the sin of the entire world – the Gentile world included. Gentiles did not need to become Jewish, as Paul was, to experience salvation. Around 52 AD Paul traveled to the Greek port town of Corinth, a prostitution hub whose patron goddess was none other than Aphrodite. Paul founded a church in Corinth earlier out of a group of former Eros-worshippers, but immediately after he departed from the new body of Christians, they began arguing amongst themselves about various matters. As followers of Christ, which ritual purity laws and moral laws were they still bound by? Would there be any limits to their Christian freedom?
In 1 Corinthians 5-7, Paul addresses a certain case involving a relationship between a man and his father’s wife. This relationship was even outside of the acceptable sexual norms for gentiles. Some members argued that every kind of sexual behavior was acceptable because those in Christ were no longer under the law. Paul strongly condemns this libertine view, asking, “do you not know that when a man has sex with a woman, two become one?” Here Paul presents a view of sex that is simultaneously physical and spiritual. The body, Paul says, is a temple, consecrated and holy – a physical place where the divine and the human meet. Therefore, sex is more meaningful than mere flesh meeting flesh, and sex with a prostitute means pollution of the temple. The word Paul uses to describe sex with a prostitute – and all sex outside of marriage – is porneia. The word does not have a fitting English equivalent; porneia evokes adultery, idolatry, unfaithfulness. Its meaning is weightier than that of the preachy “fornication.”
In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul also addresses a group of encratites who believed that all sex is immoral. He also refutes them. “I wish that all were as I myself am,” he says, referring to his celibacy, but he realizes that singleness is not possible for everyone. Therefore, “each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” Paul says this “by way of concession, not of command.” For more than a millennium later, celibacy would be the ideal for orthodox Christians. But, for Christians who did marry, marriage must look entirely different than it did for the rest of the Roman world.
Paul said that gentile Christians need no longer follow the ritual purity laws to which the Jews were bound. Greco-Roman culture was so different from Jewish culture that it would be impossible to hold Gentile believers to the same customs. Moreover, Paul argued throughout his writings that it is faith that justifies, not works of the law. However, he made clear that Gentiles must still follow the moral teachings of the law and live in a manner worthy of the gospel.
Paul’s idea of Christian marriage is unique and radically egalitarian in its cultural context. Recall the dual standard throughout Plutarch’s “Advice to the Bride and Groom.” Unlike Plutarch, Paul promotes a single standard of mutual partnership and fidelity within marriage. “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Agape is the foundation for marital love. The New Testament contains over 300 instances of this word, which conveys sacrificial love – the same kind of love that Christ displayed through his life and death by crucifixion. Agape is the essence of Christian marriage; in contrast, the word eros does not appear in the New Testament at all.
Paul was promulgating the gospel message several decades before the four canonical gospels were written, and aside from the Sermon on the Mount and a teaching against divorce in Mark 10, the Gospels say little about sexual morality. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians lay the foundation for the orthodox Christian teaching on sex and marriage.