Early Church Attitudes To Nudity


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Clement of Alexandria on exposing our nakedness


The famous early Church leader, Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.) expressed the typical attitude of Christians in the 100’s and 200’s A.D. to women exposing their nakedness to any man, except that related to a husband and his wife, when he wrote: “Women should not seek to be graceful by avoiding broad drinking vessels that oblige them to stretch their mouths, in order to drink from narrow alabastra that cause them indecently to throw back the head, revealing to men their necks and breasts. The mere thought of what she is ought to inspire a woman with modesty…On no account must a woman be permitted to show to a man any portion of her body naked, for fear lest both fall: the one by gazing eagerly, the other by delighting to attract those eager glances.” [1]

Clement spoke very highly of marriage in Chapter 23 “On Marriage” in Book 2 of his writing “The Stromata”. He did not oppose husbands and wives exposing their nudity to each other.

Roberts and Donaldson’s translation of the latter part of Clement’s quote above states: “But by no manner of means are women to be allowed to uncover and exhibit any part of their person, lest both fall, - the men by being excited to look, they by drawing on themselves the eyes of the men.” [2]

Clement did not regard a woman or man’s sexual organs or “pudenda” in Latin as being created as sinful and shameful. But he regarded the unbiblical usages of these as being full of shame and sin. He wrote: “For neither are knee and leg, and such other members, nor are the names applied to them, and the activity put forth by them, obscene. And even the pudenda are to be regarded as objects suggestive of modesty, not shame. It is their unlawful activity that is shameful, and deserving ignominy and reproach and punishment.” [3]

In his “The Instructor” Clement of Alexandria wrote the below about how shameful and sinful it was to exhibit and expose our sexual organs to sexually mature members of the opposite sex to whom we are not married and in some cases to our own sex: “More nobly the apostle says, ‘Be haters of the evil; cleave to the good.’ For he who associates with the saints shall be sanctified. From shameful things addressed to the ears, and words and sights, we must entirely abstain. And much more must we keep pure from shameful deeds: on the one hand from exhibiting and exposing parts of the body which we ought not, and on the other from beholding what is forbidden. For the modest son could not bear to look on the shameful exposure of the righteous man; and modesty covered what intoxication exposed – the spectacle of the transgression of ignorance…

For He is admirable always at cutting out the roots of sins, such as, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’, by ‘Thou shalt not lust.’ For adultery is the fruit of lust, which is the evil root. And so likewise also in this instance the Instructor censures licence in names, and thus cuts off the licentious intercourse of excess. For licence in names produces the desire of being indecorous in conduct; and the observance of modesty in names is a training in resistance to lasciviousness. We have shown in a more exhaustive treatise, that neither in the names nor in the members to which appellations not in common use are applied, is there the designation of what is really obscene.” [4]

In his above words, Clement taught that adultery is a result of lust. Lust is a desire for someone who or something which is outside of God’s will for you. Clement connects lust or sexual desire outside of marriage with seeing the nakedness of the bodies of sexually mature members of the opposite sex.

In his writing “The Instructor”, Clement of Alexandria wrote about human sexual organs: “I feel that the reason this organ is also called the private part is that we are to treat it with privacy and modesty more than we do any other member.” [5]

Note Clement said the early Christians treated their genitals with greater privacy than any other part of their bodies.


The Epistle of Ignatius to the Philippians


In Chapter 6 of the early church writing “Epistle of Ignatius to the Philippians”, there is a strong rebuke of the pagan practice at the time in the Roman Empire of males and females exposing their nakedness to the members of the opposite sex to whom they are not married: “And why dost thou abuse the nature of the Virgin, and style her members disgraceful, since thou didst of old display such in public processions, and didst order them to be exhibited naked, males in the sight of females, and females to stir up the unbridled lust of males?”


Tertullian on covering our nakedness, shame, lustful eyes and fantasies


Tertullian expresses the attitude of Christians in the 100’s and 200’s A.D. to modesty and to the shame and blushing caused by a person of a particular maturity exposing their genitals to members of the opposite sex to whom they are not married: “If Adam and Eve felt it necessary to clothe themselves once they had come to the knowledge of good and evil, then we claim to have the same knowledge once we first experience shame. From this age when the genitals cause blushing and must be covered, concupiscence is fostered by the eyes which in turn communicate desire to the mind, until a full knowledge has been attained. Then, man covers himself with the fig leaves…and he is driven out of the paradise of his innocence.” [6]

In the above, Tertullian teaches that:


·           because of the Fall of the human race, a child will usually begin at a certain age to experience shame and blushing about exposing their genitals and seeing the exposed genitals of others.

·           a child’s genitals must be covered with clothes from a particular age.

·           concupiscence – the evil perverted use of God-given sexual desires – is produced in the mind by the eyes of those above a certain age looking at the exposed nakedness of others to whom they are not married. [7]


Tertullian did not believe that sex was evil. Instead he taught that only wrong uses of it were evil. He wrote: “It is lust that has befouled the intercourse of the sexes, not the natural use of this function. It is the excess and not the normal activity which is unclean. Thus has natural intercourse been blessed by God: ‘Increase and multiply.’” [8]

In his writing “On the Apparel of Women”, Tertullian wrote about the clothes of women, the outward appearance of women, Christian modesty and men being tempted to sin sexually in their thoughts and imaginations because of the way women dressed. In the below quote, Tertullian says that in the eyes of perfect God-inspired Christian modesty, a woman should both not desire and also hate or loathe having any man who is not her husband having sexual thoughts or desires towards her: “You must know that in the eye of perfect, that is, Christian, modesty, (carnal) desire of one’s self (on the part of others) is not only not to be desired, but even execrated by you: first, because the study of making personal grace (which we know to be naturally the invite of just) a mean of pleasing does not spring from a sound conscience: why therefore excite toward yourself that evil (passion)? Why invite (that) to which you profess yourself a stranger? Secondly, because we ought not to open a way to temptations, which, by their instancy, sometimes achieve (a wickedness) which God expels from them who are His; (or,) at all events, put the spirit into a spirit into a thorough tumult by (presenting) a stumbling-block (to it)…” [9]


Their caution and modesty in opposite sex relationships outside marriage


In the 100’s and 200’s A.D., the pagan Romans accused the Christians of all engaging in incest. The early Church Father Minucius Felix (lived in late 100’s or 200’s A.D.) answered this charge in Chapter 31 of his writing “The Octavius of Minucius Felix.” Felix wrote: “Argument:

The charge of our entertainments being polluted with incest, is entirely opposed to all probability, while it is plain that Gentiles are actually guilty of incest, the banquets of Christians are not only modest, but temperate. In fact, incestuous lust is so unheard of, that with many even the modest association of the sexes gives rise to a blush…Thus, in short, we do not distinguish our people by some small bodily mark, as you suppose, but easily enough by the sign of innocency and modesty.” [10]

The above words are evidence that the early Christians placed a high emphasis on the Biblical teaching on modesty. The quote shows some early Christians even unnecessarily had even stricter standards than those found in the Bible about males and females who were not married, mixing together.


Bishop John Chrysostom on genitals and modesty


In Homily 31 of his writing “Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians”, Bishop John Chrysostom wrote the following comments on Paul’s words “our unpresentable parts have greater modesty” in 1 Corinthians 12:23: “For nothing in us is dishonorable, seeing it is God’s work. Thus what in us is esteemed less honorable than our genital members? Nevertheless, they enjoy greater honor. And the very poor, even if they have the rest of the body naked, cannot endure to exhibit those members naked.” [11]

This is typical of the attitudes of the early Christians in the years up till sometime in the 300’s A.D.


Why they used the Latin word “pudenda”


In the writings of some of the early Latin Church Fathers, they used the Latin word “pudenda” when referring to human genitals. In Latin, “pudenda” means “parts of shame”. The reason they did this was because they believed that the exposing or exhibiting of our naked genitals to sexually mature members of the opposite sex to whom they were not married, was shameful in God’s eyes.

In his writing “On Marriage and Concupiscence” Bishop Augustine of Hippo wrote about the shame of exposing our genitals or pudenda: “That concupiscence, however, which we have to be ashamed of, and the shame of which has given to our secret members their shameful designation, padenda, had no existence in the body during its life in paradise before the entrance of sin…” [12]


Bishop Ambrose of Milan on modesty and nudity


The early church leader Bishop Ambrose of Milan (approx. 340-397 A.D.) gave an example of how important the early church regarded modesty and the avoidance of showing your nudity to those of the opposite sex to whom they were married when he referred to the fictional story of a young Christian female virgin who was fed to the lions: “They (the lions) set an example of piety when reverencing the martyr; and gave a lesson in favor of chastity when they did nothing but kiss the virginfeet, with their eyes turned to the ground, as though through modesty, fearing that any male, even a beast, should see the virgin naked.” [13]




[1] Clement of Alexandria, “The Instructor”, Book 2, Chapter 2 (Quoted in Havelock Ellis, “Studies in the Psychology of Sex”, Volume 1, F.A. Davis Coy, Philadelphia, 1923, page 27.

[2] A. Roberts and J. Donaldson (Editors), “The Ante-Nicene Fathers”, Volume 2, Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, page 246.

[3] Clement of Alexandria, Book 2, Chapter 6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Clement of Alexandria, “The Instructor”, Book 2, Chapter 10, 90 (translated by Simon P. Wood in “Clement of Alexandria – Christ the Educator”, Fathers of the Church Inc, New York, 1954, page 169.

[6] Tertullian, “On the Soul”, Chapter 38, Part 2.

[7] Obvious exceptions to this would be seeing the nakedness of our own babies or little children of the opposite sex (see Job 1:21 and Ecclesiastes 5:15) and babies and little children observing their parents’ nakedness (see Psalm 22:9 and Joel 2:16).

[8] Tertullian, “On the Soul”, Chapter 27, Point 4.

[9] Tertullian, “On the Apparel of Women”, Book 2, Chapter 2.

[10] Minucius Felix, “The Octavius of Minucius Felix”, Chapter 31.

[11] John Chrysostom, “Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians”, Homily 31.

[12] Augustine of Hippo, “On Marriage and Concupiscence”, Book 2, Chapter 26.

[13] Ambrose of Milan, “Concerning Virgins – to Marcellina, his sister”, Book 2, Chapter 3, 20.

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