Sex isn’t inherently a sin in any major religion. However, Christianity and several other religions do teach that some kinds of sex are sinful — usually sex outside of marriage and any non-procreative sex that can’t result in a pregnancy. Some basis for these beliefs originates from the Bible, but many details regarding when sex may be considered sinful are simply interpretations of vague biblical passages that don’t come directly from the Bible. Today, some Christians are challenging the idea that sex is a sin.
Why some kinds of sex are a sin in Christianity
A sin is usually defined as any act that goes against divine law or God’s will, making them immoral acts. The most common Christian explanation for why some kinds of sex are considered to be sins has to do with the idea that God made sex a sacred act for married people to enjoy, and no one else. Christians often describe sex as the ultimate form of bonding that should be saved for the person you intend to spend the rest of your life with. Sex with people you’re not intending to marry is often viewed as either “using” others in a selfish way for your own pleasure, or as something that could hurt your connection with your future spouse.
Beliefs about godly intentions aside, these explanations are only partially true: Sex can be a wonderful way to bond with a partner, and some people do find sex with someone you love to be particularly intimate and appealing. But connecting with others sexually doesn’t mean sex with your spouse later down the line will be any less connective and beautiful — just like dating and falling in love with someone before meeting and falling in love with your spouse doesn’t make your love for your spouse any less legit.
Moreover, sex outside of a romantic relationship isn’t manipulative or selfish if both partners are consenting adults. Sex with a casual partner can be a fun, compassionate, connecting, and intimate experience.
“It’s not the marriage that makes it sacred,” Rev. Dr. Rebecca Todd Peters, a Christian social ethicist, preacher, and religious studies professor at Elon University, tells O.school. “It’s the behaviors and the relationships and the ways in which those behaviors are honoring other people, honoring the humanity of the other people, honoring the relationship and the trust and … the moral obligations you have to other people in your life and to the community.”
If both people want it, enjoy it, and take care to make sure their partner enjoys it too, any sex can be a fun, healthy, and harm-free experience. Not all sex has to be rooted in romantic love — though it certainly can be if that’s your preferred cup of tea!
How Christians came to view sex as a sin
According to the creation story in the Bible, God told Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply,” so based on that, many Christians see procreative sex as being aligned with God’s will.
But according to Dr. Marika Rose, a Christian theologian and senior lecturer in philosophical theology at the University of Winchester, one of the reasons the earliest Christians became concerned with sex was its connection to death. Sex often led to childbirth, which often led to death as there was no modern medicine. This made it seem as though God were punishing people for having sex. Dr. Rose says that connection was particularly meaningful in the context of Christianity, wherein it’s believed that repeated sin is what keeps us from heaven — referred to as “eternal death.”
“You have this narrative in Christianity of people were created, they sinned, and that’s why Jesus had to come — to save us from death,” Dr. Rose explains. “If death is seen as the consequence of sin, then sex is kind of tangled up with that.”
These days, the chances of dying during childbirth are significantly lower, but the early Christian fear of the connection between sex, death, and sin left a lasting imprint on Christian views of sexuality.
Rev. Dr. Peters notes that the Christian religion originated within the Roman state, where Christians were a religious minority. Unlike the Romans, who had stories of gods partying, having sex, and acting unjustly or foolishly regularly, the Christian faith was based on one god wholly committed to moral good. While the Romans weren’t necessarily approving toward sex, Rev. Dr. Peters says most of the punishment was by way of social ostracization. But for Christians, the social faux pas of sexual impropriety became laden with divine moral condemnation.
Finally, Christianity also rose at a time of widespread, unmitigated patriarchy — the systemic oppression of women and emphatic embrace of men as the superior gender. The earliest social teachings against sex were based on controlling women, who were considered possessions of their fathers and husbands. Christian pastor and ethicist Sara Wilhelm Garbers, M.Div., says it’s impossible to ignore the fact that patriarchal legacies have deeply affected Christian thoughts on sex: “Fundamentally, Christianity has long been rooted and practiced in patriarchal societies, and the theological perspectives are reflective of this.”
What the Bible says about sex
Sex is mentioned regularly throughout the Bible, including many references to what’s “good” sexual behavior and what counts as “immoral” sexual behavior. Here are just a few examples:
“Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:18-19)
“Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” (Hebrews 13:4)
“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7)
While these passages seem to condemn sex outside of marriage, Christians today have varying interpretations and perspectives on sex to offer. “The first thing that’s important to think about when we think about the Bible is it’s a book from a whole different time and a whole different culture,” Rev. Dr. Peters explains. “There are all of these things about marriage in the Bible that we dismiss. We say that’s not our culture.”
She also notes that even biblical literalists tend to pick and choose the parts of these passages to focus on. No matter how you feel about premarital sex, for example, most of us agree people shouldn’t be killed for it, despite the fact that parts of the bible suggest we carry out such punishment.
Minister and pleasure activist Latishia James-Portis, M.Div., tells O.school that the view that premarital sex is sinful is never stated explicitly in the Christian Bible. Sex within marriage is held to be sacred, but sex outside of it is never directly condemned. Instead, what’s condemned is “sexual immorality.” Sexual immorality can mean many things, including nonconsensual sex, sex that’s selfish or manipulative, or sex that breaks relationship commitments (i.e. cheating). Several passages do emphasize the importance of spiritual concerns over all bodily inclinations — from getting drunk, to greed, to having sex.
Rather than biblical literalism, Rev. Dr. Peters suggests adopting a different hermeneutic (a method of interpreting something) for how to read the Bible and how to understand Church teachings. For example, your hermeneutic might be rooted in the earnest belief that God will always act in mercy, justice, and compassion. How can you read the Bible from that lens? Or perhaps your hermeneutic is that of Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruther: What honors the full humanity of women?
Every person who lives by the Bible has a specific hermeneutic for understanding it. Figuring out yours, Rev. Dr. Peters explains, is taking responsibility for your faith as an individual believer.
Some Christians believe it’s time to stop calling sex a sin
“Christian social teachings focus far more on how it is we are embodying the love of Christ here in Earth than on whether or not we are having sex,” James-Portis says. “To me a ‘good’ Christian sexual ethic is one that respects autonomy, is consensual, kind and compassionate, and does not use people as a means to an end.”
Christian pastor and ethicist Sara Wilhelm Garbers, M.Div., tells O.school it’s “unhelpful and wrong” to talk about sex as a sin. “The word sin is so problematically laden with meaning in our times,” Garbers explains. “What I instead would talk about in framing up an ethic of sexuality is a central ethical commitment that sexual activity and expression of all kinds must be rooted in a way of being that honors both (1) our personhood and that of any others with whom we engage and (2) is rooted in an ethic in line with the greatest commandments to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.”
Wilhelms and James-Portis both emphatically believe that you can view sex positively, enjoy having sex, and still be a good Christian.