Church and Sex
Prof. Dr. Kurt Erlemann / Protestant Theology
Photo: Sebastian Jarych

Church and sex: Heaven opens for many the first time

Prof. Dr. Kurt Erlemann on an outdated sexual morality of the established churches

Around 1700, the development of the Enlightenment began, encouraging people to use rational thinking to question authority and overcome all structures that hindered progress, including church teachings on sex and marriage. In the centuries that followed, the sexual revolution transformed the Western world. Church and society moved further and further apart on issues of sex and gender.
Protestant theologian Prof. Dr. Kurt Erlemann talks about traditions, misconceptions and a sexual morality that needs to be re-examined.

For centuries and right up to the present day, hostility toward the body and lust have determined the relationship of the established churches to sexuality. Wuppertal theologian Prof. Dr. Kurt Erlemann sees several backgrounds responsible for this: "The one background I see in Greek philosophy, as far-fetched as that seems, because in Greek philosophy, especially in Platonism, a distinction was made between spirit and matter, between soul and body. And the body, matter, came off pretty badly in that." Any physicality was considered bad. Only the spirit and the soul were considered superior. That then solidified in Christian theology with Augustine (Roman bishop and church teacher in the 4th/5th century), who then established the doctrine of original sin in the church on that basis, he said. "The doctrine of original sin is not a growth of the Bible," Erlemann emphasizes, "but comes from Augustine, who in turn was influenced by Platonism. So then marriage was seen more and more as a procreative institution."

Apostle Paul recommends sex every day if possible

There is an entire book in the Bible, namely the Song of Solomon, a collection of love songs addressed by a couple to each other, in which the joy of erotic love is expressed in beautiful poetic images. The question inevitably arises whether this is not a contradiction with the `procreative institute`? "Yes," the theologian answers succinctly, because, "the Jewish, Old Testament image of man is precisely not that of Augustine, but it is a unified, holistic image of man that does not distinguish between a superior soul and an inferior body. Man is holistically man with everything he has, with spirit, sense, mind and also with sexuality." This is reflected in the poetic images of the Song of Songs, and even Paul, who is accused of downright sexophobia, experiences Erlemann differently: "The apostle Paul is not so sexophobic. He says of himself that he is charismatically gifted, so that he does not need sexuality, but he also knows his people and knows very well that sexuality is an important thing. So important that he recommends married believers to have sex every day if possible, so that the temptation might not come at some point to try it with another partner (1 Cor 7). That was very important to him. And there's no mention of bringing children into the world every day." When asked if erotic love is a good gift from God, he replies, "If it is a gift from God, then it is a good gift. Essential in this gift, in my opinion, is respect for the partner, for the partner. No one should be degraded to a sex object, that's what's essential, and then it's a good gift from God."

No sex without procreation? - The interpretation of a blessing promise

The Bible says: 'Be fruitful, multiply`. But is that synonymous with 'no sex without procreation`? In this context, Erlemann emphasizes the idea of blessing, which should not be interpreted as a command. "It is about a promise. 'You will be fruitful' is first of all a promise of blessing, and that is right and important." In addition, he said, one must also consider the time in which this text was written, because at that time it was about the preservation of the people of Israel in a foreign environment. It was important to multiply, because otherwise the people would have perished in the Diaspora.

Respect and appreciation are more essential than the question of sexual orientation

When the Bible says 'God created them male and female', it teaches: there are two sexes. They must have sex with each other! But sex between two men 'is an abomination to the Lord`. "Homosexual love is widespread in the ancient world," the theologian counters this statement. "We know this from Greek stories, where homophily is quite a common phenomenon, and it is not necessarily viewed negatively there at all, it was commonplace. You also see it in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. There are non-Jewish people who are homosexual. The defense against homophilia has to do with trying to distance oneself as a people from these foreign practices in order to preserve one's own identity in this regard as well." As a matter of principle, one should always keep the historical background in mind when making biblical statements, and not think that one has to transfer them 1:1 to present-day conditions. "Essential in any relationship between partners, regardless of gender, is respect and appreciation. Those things are much more essential than whether the sexual orientation is right."

Same-sex sex is sin

"Sex as a sin is very popular," Erlemann says, "We have Augustine in the background and the sexual morality that derives from that. And that has persisted from the 4th/5th century to the present, to some extent." But there have been changes, he said. In this regard, he said, one must differentiate between official Catholic and Protestant statements. "The EKD (Protestant Church in Germany) expresses itself somewhat inconsistently," the scientist notes, "although the blessing of same-sex couples is advocated, but whether this blessing is now to be equated with a church wedding, that is judged inconsistently. It is left to the conscience of the pastor on duty whether he or she wants to perform such a blessing or not. Here, each individual is also bound by his or her conscience." In the Catholic Church, he said, things look different, and the German Bishops' Conference expresses great restraint. "The Vatican clearly says no to any blessings and invokes the transmitted sexual morality of the Catholic Church, even if from the base, as it were, is often called for the blessing of homosexual couples for demonstration purposes." The Catholic Church, he said, distinguishes between the individual person who has an orientation, perhaps homosexual, and the institution of marriage. On the one hand, people are welcome, regardless of their sexual orientation; on the other hand, marriage as a sacrament, as an institution of two sexes sanctified by God for the purpose of procreation, is not shaken.
However, in Erlemann's opinion, it should be noted positively that at least a pastoral rethinking has already taken place in Germany.

Sin is not passed on via the vas deferens

The link between sexuality and guilt in the sense of the doctrine of original sin propagated by Augustine must be revised in Erlemann's eyes. "Nowhere does the Bible itself indicate that sin would be passed on through the vas deferens, so to speak," he gives as a consideration. "When Paul speaks about sin and sees man standing in Adam's original sin, he does not mean sin passed on from generation to generation via the sexual act, but he soberly states: every man taps into Adam's footsteps by de facto taking guilt upon himself in his life." This is an active action out of personal responsibility and has nothing to do with 'original sin'. Paul also condemns the fact that sexuality can also be culpably abused, but here there is no original sin in the sense of genetic logic to be recognized. "The tenor of biblical statements is that sex should rather be linked with spirituality, and I agree with that."

For many, the first time - and not only the first time - is heaven.

The dimension of the sexual should not be reduced to the purely physical level, explains the theologian, because it is always about two people who grow together in a very special way. "It's actually a spiritual experience that you can have there. The first time, and not only the first time, heaven opens up for many. It's a spiritual experience, an almost mystical experience, when you perceive that you're dealing with a partner here with whom you become one. If you don't think and feel along with this personal dimension, then you devalue the whole thing, the partner and yourself as well." And that is not what the divine inventor had in mind.

Jesus and sex, does that go together?

In the New Testament, there are biblical passages that portray Jesus as being very intimate with both a woman and a man. When asked whether Jesus and sex could also be thought of together, the scientist first smiles. "These considerations are of course very media-rich and have already led to many Jesus films, where Jesus then had an intimate relationship with Mary Magdalene or perhaps was even gay and was with the favorite disciple John. Now I can't read all that out of the passages in the New Testament," he makes unequivocally clear. According to John 12:3, the sinner Mary, for example, performed a sign act on Jesus that was due to a corpse as an anointing after burial, in the prophetic knowledge that an anointing for death would not be possible later. Just because she is portrayed as a sinner and sprays Jesus with perfume does not make it an intimate relationship, he said. "And in John 13:23, that's about the favorite disciple whom Jesus loved lying against his chest. There, of course, you can read out a special intimate relationship, but it doesn't have to have been sexual or even homosexual. Let me put it this way: According to the gospels, Jesus was celibate, he was a charismatic person who had a mission or a vision and brought it among the people. The price for this life was, among other things, the renunciation of sexuality. Anyway, nowhere do we read anything about sexual relations that Jesus had. This is also completely irrelevant to the meaning of Jesus as Son of God, Savior of the world." That Jesus, on the other hand, was a sensual and emotional man can certainly be seen in the Bible, he said. "Jesus also drank wine, he rejected fasting where it didn't fit, he spoke of the kingdom of God in very sensual images and had feelings like anger and mercy."

On the way to a self-determined sexuality?

In the Protestant church today, we are noticing an increasing social and legal recognition, especially of homosexual orientation and lifestyles, as well as the slow opening of the sexual-ethical discourse on homosexuality and bisexuality. There seems to be more transparency and honesty overall in the discussion and evaluation of different sexual life plans. "My experience is mixed," Erlemann says, explaining the situation. It always depends, he says, on the officiant*s who are to perform a blessing or marriage ceremony among same-sex people. "I myself have already married a lesbian couple in the Protestant student congregation, I have no problems with it, because for me other facets of the partnership are in the foreground. These are mutual respect, appreciation, the love of these people for each other, which even makes family life possible and creates a protected space in which children can also grow up. I can experience all of that." If one sets thus exactly like with heterosexual relations on faithfulness and responsibility, then this liberalization is quite understandable and at the longest at the time. In history, the church has always reacted rather than acted, which is why ecclesiastical rethinking usually only begins when the social framework conditions are fulfilled. Today, Jesus can also be a role model again, he said. "If you look at the way he dealt with men and women, that was already revolutionary for his time. The way he valued the people around him, he was ahead of his time. After that, the wheel was turned back again," says Erlemann. Now we have an opening in society with room for discussion, and the church has to react. In any case, he says, the EKD is reacting in an appropriate way and is focusing on other aspects that are important in relationships between people.

Why does the church have such a hard time with the topic of sex?

"Why does the church have such a hard time? That's actually too sweeping a statement for me," Erlemann counters. "There is no such thing as the church. There are different churches, there are different ministers who, for a variety of reasons, find it difficult or not. There are personal sensitivities at play, prejudices, clichés, religious imprints from childhood and, of course, over a thousand years of imprinting a sexual morality that cannot be undone in a few years."
In addition, the experienced theologian also pleads for critical restraint in a digital world that quickly distorts the topic of sexuality. One should never forget, he sums up, that one is always dealing with people and therefore it is not wrong to be reserved. "You can see that the area of sexuality is very often trashed in the media. Sexuality is a very sensitive area, and that needs to be emphasized."

Uwe Blass (interview 12/15/2021)

Kurt Erlemann studied Protestant theology in Munich, Zurich and Heidelberg. He received his doctorate in 1986 and then worked as a vicar of the Baden State Church and as a school pastor. After his habilitation, he took on teaching positions in Hamburg and Koblenz. Since 1996 he has held the chair of New Testament and History of the Early Church at Bergische Universität.

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