Concerning Virginity by Ambrose (21,477 words)
Of Holy Virginity (18,933 words), Of The Good of Marriage (13,792 words), Of the Good of Widowhood (11,942 words) and On Marriage and Concupiscence (40,252 words) by Augustine
On Virginity (24,741 words) by Gregory of Nyssa
Letter to a Young Widow (6,741 words) By John Chrysostom
To His Wife (7,583 words), On Monogamy (12,175 words), On Exhortation to Chastity (6,969 Words), and On the Veiling of Virgins (9,630 words) by Tertullian
Christians have never not talked about sex. Just these works from some well-known church fathers represents a total of 155,302 words on everything from virginity to marriage to widowhood. These are only an example of the teachings that survived – it’s merely the tip of the iceberg on the subject that was lost to time, that wasn’t written down, that was destroyed at some point. For reference – that’s more words than J.R.R Tolkien’s The Two Towers or The Return of the King has (and it’s roughly 20,000 words shy of matching The Fellowship of the Ring – odds are there are more documents on the subject out there, they are just not included in this list). Only it’s a lot less enjoyable to read.
It seems like Augustine and Tertullian are the two heavy-hitters on the subject. They were biased on the topic of marriage and predisposed to be against it. Augustine viewed sex and marriage as inferior to celibate lifestyles. Even though he had a sexually promiscuous youth, a wife, and a concubine – the result of the heresies he had been exposed to left him feeling that marriage was a necessary evil for the purpose of procreation that ought not be enjoyed as that would be sinful. Besides, he reasoned, there are already so many people on earth that it’s not necessary for people carry out the first commandment: to be fruitful and multiply. Rather, he preached heavily on the virtues of virginity and chastity. Tertullian had disdain for marriage as well. He believed that a widow who remarried was committing a form of adultery. Both lived in a time where extreme asceticism was a popular spiritual path – men and women, wealthy and poor alike would renounce everything and everyone, they would live in desert communities – usually in cells by themselves – and give every minute of every hour of every day to following God. We might not realize it today, but much of what is taught in the church today is based on what these two men taught so very long ago.
By the middle ages, women were left with two options: celibacy or marriage. Marriages were typically arranged to strengthen the economic status of the households involved, love or sexual attraction didn’t figure into it – a common saying back the day was: “No man marries without regretting it.” The poorer classes were more likely to marry for love, but because marriage involved the transfer of property, it wasn’t an affordable option. Marriages were meant for procreation. Thomas Aquinas said that any man who slept with his wife solely for pleasure was treating her like a prostitute. Jerome said: “a man who is too passionately in love with his wife is an adulterer.”
The Victorian era was the first to see the rise of love as being a valid reason for marriage, and the world really hasn’t been the same ever since. We see Colonials getting involved in courtship. But it’s the same world where the Shakers maintain their standard of absolute celibacy. Since Christian ideas are nothing new, and usually borrowed from some form of an earlier teacher – I’d contend that the prominent honor of celibacy through the ages continued to be their path. As to the rest of Christianity, they were fighting to redeem marriage out of a system that was about property and inheritance and redefine it in the light of love.
So he we are today, a society built on love, where arranged marriages give us an uneasy feeling. We’re looking the newest addition to the list, the Nashville Statement (1,295 words) and seeing that much of it is indeed a novelty compared to the historic body of works from church fathers. Though odds are there might be some agreement found in scattered references – it’s hardly the same topic because of our two distinct cultures and how we ended up where we’re at now. It bears little love for the virginity that they so frequently praised as a high calling or a station with a role in the church. Our church has bowed and sacrificed to the wrong idol for a very, very long time. We forget our history and don’t realize that two thousand years of strict condemnation has created more heartbreak and bitter judgements than it has brought peace. They say the definition of insanity is to do the same thing expecting different results – surely by now, it’s insane to continue a policy that has yielded so little good fruit and so much rotten fruit. We need a better solution. We need love – Let’s talk about that.