Sexual Renunciation and Early Christian Masculinity

Above Image: Trevisani’s depiction (c. 1722) of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.

*What follows is a brief selection from my dissertation that otherwise looked at warrior manliness and crusading. This is taken from an chapter that considered early Christian views of sexuality and how those views later influenced the way medieval clerics judged Christian warriors on the same topic. Moreover, I’ve had students from Protestant or secular backgrounds (or sometimes even Catholic or Orthodox backgrounds) curious about the Christian roots of the modern practice of celibacy among Catholic priests or Orthodox monks and bishops, and so I typically provide some of this information as a starting point for their further exploration of the issue.


In contrast to Roman societal norms of the time (with the exception of some philosophical groups like the Stoics), which in part defined masculinity by sexual aggression and playing the active, rather than passive, role during sexual activity, early Christians rejected such popular markers of masculine identity by pointing to Jesus as having never married and having remained continent throughout his life.[1]  That Jesus was both celibate (unmarried) and abstinent is not surprising in light of the Jewish influenced environment from which he is believed to have emerged. Near the Dead Sea, large communities of abstinent ascetic males are known to have preached repentance to nearby cities in a way similar to their better known contemporary, John the Baptist.[2] While Jesus never preached the abolition of marriage, his followers often interpreted his view of the married life as a hindrance to the highest levels of spiritual commitment, as he called on his followers to abandon their families to follow him.[3]

Paul of Tarsus, for example, more directly promoted the unmarried life as superior to the married life when, in his mid-first century letter to the Corinthians, he compared how the married and unmarried states affected the Christian’s ability to serve God. For Paul, the unmarried state offered clear advantages over the married life, as he first cited his own commitment to celibacy before praising the singular devotion of the unmarried man who was more focused on the “affairs of the Lord.”[4] In contrast, the married man was “concerned about the affairs of the world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided.” Indeed, Paul explicitly noted that men who refrain from marriage do “better” than those who marry, thus establishing a powerful basis for later Christians to view the unmarried man as superior to the married man in spiritual matters.[5]

See Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 7:32-38 (NIV)

32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.

36 If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong[b] and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. 37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. 38 So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.

Early Christian writers certainly took notice of these biblical examples as they also adopted the belief that sexual renunciation, in all its forms, was superior to married life. The second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr, in an effort to show how some early Christians avoided marriage altogether and lived in complete continence, describes how a young Christian man in Alexandria petitioned, unsuccessfully, the Roman Prefect for the right to castrate himself to prove to critics that sexual promiscuity was not a secret rite among Christians.[6] While Justin’s apparent approval of the young man’s efforts is striking, especially in light of the fact that the early Church generally disapproved of the practice, there nevertheless remained some early Christian thinkers who saw either spiritual justifications for castration or practical reasons in eliminating all suspicion over the potential to engage in sexual activity.[7] The influential Alexandrian theologian Origen (d.254), for example, is reported by Eusebius to have castrated himself on the basis of his reading of the Gospel of Matthew 19:12 to avoid the temptations of lust and to enable him to tutor women without suspicion.[8] Thus Christian sources suggest that castration, while otherwise condemned by the broader early Christian community, still represented a symbol of extreme chastity for at least some Christians who invested the eunuch with the virtue of sexual continence.[9]

Other Christians took a less drastic approach, but still embraced the importance of sexual renunciation as essential to obtain the highest levels of Christian spirituality. Influential early Christian authors such as Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, and Augustine, for example, all authored works that elevated chastity above married life.[10] Indeed, the importance early Christian leaders attached to sexual renunciation as a means of achieving greater spirituality manifested itself officially in canon 33 of the Council of Elvira in Hispania in 306, which attempted, without success, to formally impose continence on members of the Spanish clergy, whether married or unmarried.[11]

Perhaps the most dynamic Christian advocates of sexual renunciation were the Desert Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries, through whom sexual abstinence became a pillar of the ascetic movement.[12]  The ascetic par excellence was undoubtedly the Egyptian saint Anthony (d.356), whose life was made known to the broader Christian world through a popular biography by Athanasius of Alexandria, which was translated into Latin and helped spread monasticism both in the East and West.[13] In Athanasius’s account, Anthony is dramatically depicted as wrestling with demons to overcome his sexual desires and his Life served as an inspiration for many ascetics, both in the East and West, who would similarly renounce their sexuality and embrace the life of a monk.[14]

Although many in Roman society prized sexual activity as a significant marker of one’s manhood, Christians who renounced sex did not view themselves as lesser men. To the contrary, sexual renunciation became a sign of manly strength and only contributed to the esteem with which chaste men were held within the Christian community.[15] This was because sexual renunciation by Christians was understood as rooted in struggle with sin, always requiring a manly battle of the will.[16] Even more than Anthony, Augustine of Hippo, who was perhaps the most influential Christian authority of Late Antiquity, became associated with the spiritual struggle against sexual desire. As one scholar has noted, his deeply personal Confessions are “…couched in metaphors of masculinity and focused upon powerful action, decisive strength, and honorable fighting.”[17] Indeed, Augustine’s vision of Christian manhood is one that emphasizes his well-known struggle against sexual desire through physical warfare between the spirit and the flesh. [18] To win a victory over the flesh was to express one’s masculinity in unmistakable ways for many Christians in Augustine’s era, as right moral action was deemed the essence of Christian masculinity. Conversely, moral weakness, as represented in one’s inability to overcome the desires of the flesh, was considered a characteristic of women.[19]

See also:

[1] On Jesus’s abstinence see Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 41. On Roman views of penetration see John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 74-75 and Jennifer Larson, “Paul’s Masculinity.” Journal of Biblical Literature 123.1 (2004): 93. Larson notes “…free elite males who played a passive role in intercourse…willingly surrendered the masculine prerogative, thus allying themselves with lower status groups…” See also Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch, 87. Kuefler emphasizes how Roman traditions of pederasty held it as a mark of maturation and manhood when an adolescent boy switched from being penetrated to penetrating others. On the association of Roman masculinity with sexual aggression see Theodore W. Jennings Jr. and Tat Siong Benny Liew, “Mistaken Identities but Model Faith: Rereading the Centurian, The Chap, and the Christ in Matthew 8: 5-13,” Journal of Biblical Literature 123:3 (2004): 474-475.

[2] See Burrus, Begotten, Not Made, 90, for a brief examination of how patristic authors such as Gregory of Nyssa cited John the Baptist as a biblical model of Christian celibacy. She cites Gregory as noting, “It is my belief that they [the biblical examples of Elijah and John the Baptist] would not have reached to this loftiness of spirit, if marriage had softened them.”

[3] Brown, The Body and Society, 40-42 See also The Gospel of Luke 18:29. The author of the Gospel of Luke notes that many “left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God.”

[4] See 1 Corinthians 7: 32-35. On Paul’s declaration of his celibacy see 1 Corinthians 7:8. See also Richard M. Price, “Celibacy and Free Love in Early Christianity,” Theology and Sexuality 12:2 (2006): 123. Concerning Paul’s arguments in Corinthians 7, Price notes, “…these arguments reflect major themes in his own [Paul’s] theology- the need for single minded devotion to Christ, the nearness of the end, the unimportance of worldly concerns and interests. It is indeed likely that the Corinthians had learnt their love of celibacy from Paul himself.”

[5] See 1 Corinthians 7: 38. Many early Christian writers used 1 Corinthians 7 as the basis for promoting the superiority of celibacy over marriage. In reference to Paul’s commentary in 1 Corinthians, for example, Tertullian later noted, “This passage I would treat in such a way to maintain the superiority of the other and higher sanctity- preferring self control and virginity to marriage.” See Tertullian, “The Five Books Against Marcion,” in  Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian : Three Parts, I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1957), 462. See also Price, Celibacy and Free Love, 122. Price notes “More surprising is the fact that in the first two centuries of Christianity marriage…was attacked… as actually incompatible with full Christian commitment.” Kate Cooper also highlights the later arguments of Jerome on the superiority of the chaste cleric to the married cleric. She noted, for example, that Jerome had argued that chaste men had “better sense than their married counterparts” and that a man considering marriage is a man whose judgment cannot be trusted. See Kate Cooper, “Insinuations of Womenly Influence: An aspect of the Christianization of the Roman Aristocracy,” The Journal of Roman Studies, 82 (1992):156.

[6] Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin, the Martyr,Early Christian Fathers, The Library of Christian Classics Vol. 1 Eds. Cyril C. Richardson (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953), 260.

[7] On the general disapproval of castration in the early Church, see Daniel F. Caner, “The Practice and Prohibition of Self Castration in Early Christianity.” Vigiliae Christianae 51:4 (1997): 396 and Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch, 249. On Christian opponents of castration who claimed the practice was unmasculine, see Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch, 263. On the reasoning of those who sometimes found the practice acceptable, also see Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch, 260. Kuefler notes, “Readers of Biblical texts in Late Antiquity…could turn to any number of passages that condemned eunuchs and castration as religious unorthodoxy and sin. But the same readers could turn to other passages that depicted eunuchs and castration as symbols of orthodoxy and devotion.”

[8] See Eusebius, Church History, Book 6, Chapter 8. Matthew 19:12 describes “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

[9] See Caner, “The Practice and Prohibition of Self Castration,” 398-99 and Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch, 258.

[10] See, for example, Tertullian, On Exhortation to Chastity (c. 196), Cyprian, Of the Discipline and Advantage of Chastity (c. 250), Augustine, On Continence (c. 421).

[11]  Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Development. Trans. By Father Brian Ferme (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 22. The date of the Council of Elvira is disputed. Cardinal Strickler gives a date of 311, while the editors of Concilios Visigoticos e Hispano-Romanos places it between 300 and 306. See Concilios Visigoticos e Hispano-Romanos, ed. Jose Vives, Tomas Marin Martinez, and Gonzalo Martinez Diez Espana cristiana, Vol.1 (Barcelona and Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, 1963), 14.  Samuel Laeuchli places it at 309. See Samuel Laeuchli, Power and Sexuality: The Emergence of Canon Law at the Synod of Elvira (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1972), 86-87.

[12] Gillian Clark, “The Old Adam: The Fathers and the Unmaking of Masculinity,” in Thinking Men: Masculinity and Its Self-Representation in the Classical Tradition, eds. Lin Foxhall and John Salmon (London: Routledge, 1998), 176. Clark describes sexual renunciation as the “most prominent” aspect of asceticism.

[13] On the spread and influence of the Life of Anthony, see Marilyn Dunn, The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages (Malden, MA.: Blackwell, 2000), 2 and Carolinne White, Early Christian Lives (London: Penguin, 1998), xxiii, 4.

[14] Athanasius, “Athanasius: Select Works and Letters,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Second Series, Vol. 6 Eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1971), 196-197. See also Brown, Body and Society, 213-216 and White, Early Christian Lives, xxiii.

[15] Roman society would not have uniformly viewed a Christian male’s chastity with derision. Indeed, Stoic philosophical ideals held much in common with Christian ideals of chastity. The Stoic view of sexuality as called for restraint from sexual activity so much as it represents indulging in one’s passions. This was because passions represented undesirable impulses that led to “uncontrolled and unreflective actions, damage one’s well being, and conflict with human nature.” See K.L. Gaca, “Early Stoic Eros: The Sexual Ethics of Zeno and Chrysippus and their Evaluation of the Greek Erotic Tradition.” in Aperion 33 (2000): 207-238.

[16] Ruth Mazzo Karras, “Thomas Aquinas’s Chastity Belt: Clerical Masculinity in Medieval Europe,” in Gender & Christianity in Medieval Europe: New Perspectives, eds. Lisa M. Bitel & Felice Lifshitz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 56. See also Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch, 174. Kuefler notes, “…chastity was resistance to sin, a refusal to succumb to the weakness of temptation that had banished Adam and Eve from Paradise. The association of sexual renunciation with steadfastness and strength, in turn, helped to give it a masculine flavor and appeal.”

[17] Erin Sawyer, “Celibate Pleasures: Masculinity, Desire, and Asceticism in Augustine,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 6.1 (1995): 3.

[18] Sawyer, “Celibate Pleasures,” 4.

[19] Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch, 20-21.