Sex, Procreation, and Historical Context

BedIn a  previous post I said this:

If you could not physically have sex you could not get married. There was no marriage of the heart only. If you could not have sex the Lord had made you a eunuch (Matthew 19:12). If you went to battle and lost your man parts, you could not marry. But if something happened physically after marriage the vows still held.

Geneva refused marriage to those who could not have sex. One question that arose from this comment was, “Did they do this because they felt marriage was for procreation?” The answer to this is yes, but it helps to put the laws in their historical context. What I am about to say is brief and there are exceptions, but in general it is true.

When the reformation began in the late 1400’s procreation as the purpose for marriage was assumed. For Medieval Church the primary and in some cases only good that could come out of sex was children. Sexual intercourse was a compromise and if you were going to compromise at least bring a child into the world. Virginity was the highest good. Celibacy was exalted as the great aim. Those who were really devoted to God became priests or nuns who never had sex.  Those who could not do this could get married. Even where this was not explicitly taught, it was everywhere implied by the celibate priesthood. Truly holy men and women did not need sex. So when the reformers came on the scene the main reason for having sex was to make babies.

The reformers across the board agreed that sex was for procreation, but added two more reasons for sex.

First, they emphasized sex within marriage as a way to avoid temptation. The Medieval church would have taught this as well, but it gained new traction in the Reformation. Many people viewed sex as sinful or dirty even in marriage and thus sex was often be infrequent or absent all together in marriage. This left men and women open to sexual temptation. Thus exhortations to not be cold in the marriage bed are sprinkled throughout the reformers’ writings.

Second, they taught that the sexual relationship was not just for children or protection from temptation. It was also for joy, pleasure, and companionship in marriage. Thus a refusal or the inability to have sex struck at the core of a loving, one flesh marriage.

For these reasons, Martin Bucer said that frequent intercourse was necessary for a good marriage. Pastors and elders often pried into people’s sex lives if they had reason to doubt frequent and regular intercourse. They also allowed elderly widows/widowers to remarry, even if procreation was no longer possible. So while procreation was a key reason for marital sex, it was not the only reason. Here is a quote from Kingdon’s book

For Calvin and Beza, sexual intercourse was an essential part of marriage. Married couples were expected to retain a healthy sex life, even if they were not, or no longer capable of having children.  “Satan dazzles us…to imagine that we are polluted by intercourse,” said Calvin. But “when  the marital bed is dedicated to the Lord, that is, when parties are joined in his name, and live honorable, it is something of a holy estate.”

Steven Ozment, in his great book When Fathers Ruled, notes that by shifting the playing field so that sex involved more than procreation the door was opened for birth control. Here is the key quote.

The Protestant conception of marriage as a special companionship, the best of friendships, helped make it possible to appreciate marriage for reasons other than the production of progeny, and this created a  moral climate favorable to contraception.

Of course, the reformers adamantly opposed birth control of any kind and would have been horrified at the acceptance of birth control by Christians in our modern age.

What priority was given to these three purposes of the marriage bed varied from reformer to reformer and often the same reformer would at times emphasize procreation at other times sexual protection and still at other times the companionship that came from the marriage bed. A lot of this depended on the context in which they were writing or speaking. Procreation was clearly in view when Geneva restricted marriage to those who could have sex. But so was sexual protection, companionship, and joy.

In the evangelical church today, it is only companionship that is stressed. Rarely is sex seen as being for procreation. People have babies of course. But marriages that purposely avoid children are not decried in our culture as they would have been then. Even the idea of the marriage bed as protection from temptation is not mentioned much today. In the Reformation it was assumed that sex was for procreation. Today procreation is usually seen as an extra and unnecessary appendage to the marriage bed, which is a bad thing in case you were wondering.