For the first seventy or so years of Christianity's existence, the Greco-Roman world paid it relatively little attention. There were persecutions here and there (like the one that claimed the lives of Peter and Paul). But, for the most part, it wasn't until the second century that their pagan neighbors began to focus their attention on just how different Christians were.
As Michael J. Kruger of Reformed Theological Seminary wrote at The Gospel Coalition, one major difference was that "Christians would not pay homage to the other 'gods' " of the Roman world. Since paying homage to these "gods" was a civic as well as a religious duty, this refusal caused Christians to be viewed with suspicion. Incredibly, some pagans even accused Christians of atheism!
As Kruger notes, there was another area in which Christians stood out like the proverbial sore thumb: and that was sex. As Kruger writes, "While it was not unusual for Roman citizens to have multiple sexual partners, homosexual encounters, and engagement with temple prostitutes, Christians stood out precisely because they refused to engage in these practices."
Thus Tertullian, the second-century apologist who has been called the "Father of Western Theology," wrote that Christians "do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us except our wives."
The author of the second century "Epistle to Diognetus" wrote that Christians speak and dress like their neighbors and added "[Christians] share their meals, but not their sexual partners."
Obviously, Christians regarded sexual ethics as a mark of what it meant to be what Peter called "a peculiar people."
But that still leaves us with the question "why?" Were they and the God they worshipped "killjoys" who were opposed to pleasure? That's how they and we have often been depicted, that is, when they (and we) weren't being accused of trying to subjugate and oppress women.
To understand why all of this is, to borrow a phrase from the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, "nonsense on stilts," you need to understand the world into which Christianity was born and how revolutionary the Christian message concerning sex really was.
That's one of the subjects of "Paul Among The People" by classicist Sarah Ruden.
The "Paul" being referred to was of course the apostle Paul, whom many moderns at best regard as "grumpy" when it came to women and sex.
As Ruden says, "Paul was not a 20th-century feminist . . . but [modern women are] the beneficiaries of a very long list of reforms. [And] Paul, I think, got all that started."
To understand why that's the case, it helps to remember that much of the sexual activity Michael Kruger refers to was far from-consensual. It was little more than "institutionalized violence," which included "the rape of slaves, prostitution, and violence against wives and children."
Paul's denunciation of the sexual mores of his time was a part of his larger message "of all people being sacred children of God" and an expression of outrage at how they were being treated.
In other words, it was a message of true freedom.
Thus, when Christians refused to share their wives, it was a gift to their wives, who, in pagan society, had no say in the matter. When they honored women pledged to perpetual virginity, they were setting young women free from being treated as assets by their father in cementing alliances with other families.
Christians weren't anti-sex, they were pro-human dignity. So much so that their sexual morality and vision for marriage shaped and transformed the culture around them. Not the other way around.
And that's something modern Christians would do very well to remember.