Sex and the Spiritual Christian (1 Cor. 7:1-7)
When my friend Craig Nelson and I were in India, we decided to speak from the Book of Genesis, alternating messages between us. We first spoke on Jacob and his wives (his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and their two handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah—see Genesis 29 and 30), entitling that message, “The Battle of the Brides.” After teaching the story of Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers from chapter 37, we came to chapter 38 and the story of how Judah unknowingly becomes a father through Tamar, his daughter-in-law. We then came to chapter 39 and the story of the temptation of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife, who eventually falsely accuses Joseph of rape.
After the second or third message, a friend informed us that one of the men had walked out during the meeting in protest. Craig and I were shocked. What had we said that was so offensive? We were told that we were talking too much about sex. This man did not want us to meddle with his sex life. We simply spoke about sex as often as the subject came up in the Book of Genesis.
If you think about it, you will have to agree that sex is a subject frequently addressed in the Scriptures, both Old Testament and New. Though the Bible handles this subject matter much differently than the secular world, it does have much to say on the subject. I can only think of one reason for matters pertaining to sex to be so frequently discussed in the Bible—sexuality must be very closely related to spirituality.
The beliefs and practices of the Corinthian saints seem to vary greatly when it comes to matters of sexual values and conduct. We have already been introduced to the liberal extreme in chapters 5 and 6. In chapter 5, Paul rebukes the church at Corinth for failing to exercise church discipline on a man living in an incestuous relationship with his father’s wife. In the second half of chapter 6 (verses 12-20), Paul confronts those who feel that having sex with a prostitute is not contrary or detrimental to one’s spiritual life. There are those in Corinth whose sexual values are shocking, even to the pagan Corinthians (see 5:1).
In our text, it seems that for some believers spirituality is a pretext for sexual immorality, while for others spirituality means abstaining from sex altogether. In chapter 7, Paul turns his attention to those who seem to regard all sex as dirty, and who therefore advocated celibacy. For those who are single, it means staying single and, unlike today, celibate as well. For those who are married, it seems to mean that these couples should also refrain from sexual relations.
In the matter of sexual conduct, the Corinthians live in a very troubled world, not unlike the world of our own day. The ancient world of Paul’s day has a very distorted view of women, sex, and marriage. A. W. Verrall, the great classical scholar, once said that one of the chief diseases of which ancient civilization died was a low view of women.64 The Greeks were not known for sexual purity:
Prostitution was an essential part of Greek life. Demosthenes had laid it down as the common and accepted rule of life: “We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure; we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation; we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately, and having a faithful guardian for all our household affairs.”65
The Roman sexual ethic was no better:
But at the time of Paul, Roman family life was wrecked. Seneca writes that women were married to be divorced and divorced to be married. In Rome the Romans did not commonly date their years by numbers; they called them by the names of their husbands. Martial the Roman poet tells of a woman who had ten husbands; Juvenal tells us of one who had had eight husbands in five years; Jerome declares it to be true that in Rome there was a woman who was married to her twenty-third husband and she herself was his twenty-first wife. We find even a Roman Emperor Augustus demanding that her husband should divorce the lady Livia when she was with child that he might himself marry her. We find even Cicero, in his old age, putting away his wife Terentia that he might marry a young heiress, whose trustee he was, that he might enter into her estate, in order to pay his debts.66
One would hope the Jews would be exemplary in matters of sex and marriage, but this simply is not the case.
In Paul’s day Judaism reverenced neither women nor marriage. “It was Josephus who wrote, ‘The woman is worse than the man in everything’ (Josephus, Contra Apionem, 2, 201). No wonder, in the light of such harsh attitudes, that the Synagogue prayer book has the man offer the daily prayer, ‘I thank Thee, O Lord, that Thou hast not made me a Gentile dog nor a woman.’”67 In the age of the coming of Christianity, even with Judaism the marriage bond was in peril. So great was its peril that the very institution of marriage was threatened. Jewish girls were refusing to marry at all because the position of the wife was so uncertain.68
Even in our own time, the ancient ritual of “female circumcision” is practiced. This surgical procedure (if one dares to dignify it by such terms) is of no benefit to the woman, but imposed upon the female so that she may never have the enjoyment of sex. It seems that in the minds of those men who impose this on women, it is the woman’s place to give pleasure to the man, but never the woman’s place to receive pleasure from the man. Sadly, among pagans and Christians alike, there is a similar (if less brutal) belief strongly held by some today. The man expects his wife to give him sexual pleasure at any time, but he feels little or no obligation toward fulfilling his wife sexually.
Paul’s words concerning sex and marriage were desperately needed in his day and no less needed in our own day. Let us listen to the finest sex education available to men—a word from God on sex and marriage, through the Apostle Paul.
Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 are in response to a question asked by some of the Corinthian saints who correspond with him. Paul is required to address a group of Corinthian saints who have adopted an extreme view of sex and marriage. Paul’s words in the first seven verses of chapter 7 should be understood in light of the broader teaching of the Bible concerning sex and marriage. Before devoting our attention to the distorted views of sex and marriage which some of the Corinthians hold, let us remind ourselves of what the Bible as a whole says on the subject.
In Genesis 2:18, we read that God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone: I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Being alone, that is, being single, was not good, and so God created a helper suitable for Adam, a wife to be his companion and counterpart. From the Book of Proverbs, we know that God designed marriage and sex not only as a means for bringing children into this world, but also as God’s appointed means for a man to find pleasure in his wife:
15 Drink water from your own cistern, And fresh water from your own well. 16 Should your springs be dispersed abroad, Streams of water in the streets? 17 Let them be yours alone, And not for strangers with you. 18 Let your fountain be blessed, And rejoice in the wife of your youth. 19 As a loving hind and a graceful doe, Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; Be exhilarated always with her love (Proverbs 5:15-19).
In the New Testament, we are told that Jesus attended a wedding and then miraculously provided wine when their supplies were exhausted (John 2:1-11). The Apostle Paul assumed that elders and deacons would be married, with children (1 Timothy 3:2, 12). Paul also encouraged younger widows to marry (1 Timothy 5:14). He claimed the right as an apostle to “lead about a wife” (1 Corinthians 9:5). The writer to the Hebrews also held marriage in high esteem, and the proper realm for sexual enjoyment between husband and wife. “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4).
In the Bible, marriage is viewed as the norm, and the single life as the exception. Marriage is viewed as holy, righteous, and good. Those who seek to prohibit marriage as something evil are identified as false teachers by Paul (1 Timothy 4:1-5). When we approach 1 Corinthians 7, we must do so confident that marriage is a good gift from God, a gift many Christians gratefully receive and enjoy.
Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman (NASB).
Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry (NIV).
It is generally assumed that the Corinthians wrote a letter to Paul asking his advice on certain matters. Beginning with the statement, “Now concerning the things about which you wrote…” in 1 Corinthians 7:1, Paul continues to go back to their questions (not necessarily in the order they raised them) and to give his answer. It seems good to ask our own question, like the little lady in the TV commercial who asks, “Where’s the beef?” Where’s the question? Paul does not say, “Now concerning the things you have asked,” but rather, “Now concerning the things about which you wrote….” There is a considerable difference here.
Some people ask a question which is not meant to be enlightening. Many questions are asked in a way which cleverly “teaches” the one who is asked or others who are listening. Some seek to undermine the teaching or authority of the one asked. This is surely the purpose of the questions the scribes and Pharisees asked our Lord. But here, we should recognize that we are assuming something not specifically stated. Were the Corinthians really asking Paul questions? And, if so, were their questions sincere?
I raise this issue because of what Paul has already told us in his letter to the Corinthians. There are divisions in the Corinthian church. Various little groups have their own leaders and their own doctrines. Each group takes pride in itself, in its leader, and in the “wisdom” it possesses. Those in one group look down on those in another, because they are not so wise nor so persuasive and powerful, nor well esteemed by the pagan world of that day. One thing many Corinthians share is their disdain for the Apostle Paul. They believe they are wise, and Paul is foolish:
8 You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and I would indeed that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you. 9 For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. 11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now (1 Corinthians 4:8-13).
In the light of Paul’s assessment of his standing in the hearts and minds of the Corinthians given here, it seems we should be very careful about assuming too much when we come to those things the Corinthians have written to Paul. Are they—wise as they are—trying to enlighten Paul? It is indeed possible.69 Are they writing to Paul as their spiritual father and mentor, wanting to hear and to heed his wisdom? It is not very likely. I am therefore inclined to view their communication with Paul with some suspicion. Paul may very graciously avoid giving us any greater detail than to specify the issues raised by their communication with him, whether rightly motivated or not.
We know from Paul’s words in chapter 5 that when a man is found to be living with his father’s wife, the church does not mournfully exercise church discipline; rather, they become proud (5:2). Some Corinthians are proud as a result of sin and their response to it. When Paul raises the issue of sex and marriage in chapter 7, he is dealing with the opposite extreme in the church … those who have overreacted to fleshly lusts, seeking to overcome them by asceticism. These folks are just as proud of their asceticism as the others named in chapter 5 are of their fleshly indulgence.70 Perhaps these ascetics have become so smug they assume Paul will applaud them. After all, when it comes to sexual abstinence and remaining single, Paul stands out among the apostles, and among those in the churches (see 1 Corinthians 9:4-5). They may not agree with Paul on many matters, but these ascetics seem to want Paul’s endorsement here. Paul’s words in response to their communication will shock them. They will not get what they expect nor what they want. They will get much more than they asked.
Before attempting to interpret Paul’s words in verse 1, we must pause to point out that the translation of the NIV is inaccurate. The expression, “not to touch a woman,” is a reference to sexual intercourse, not marriage, and thus the NIV is in error when it translates as it does.
The idiom ‘to touch a woman’ occurs nine times in Greek antiquity, ranging across six centuries and a variety of writers, and in every other instance, without ambiguity it refers to having sexual intercourse. There is no evidence of any kind that it can be extended or watered down to mean, ‘It is good for a man not to marry.’71
The Corinthian ascetics would not sanction sexual immorality. Indeed, they would not sanction sex. They feel that sex is dirty, whether within marriage or without. This tells us more about the ascetics than it does about biblical morality: “To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled” (Titus 1:15). Having concluded that all sex is evil, these folks follow out the implications of their false doctrine. If all sex is evil, then it is evil to enjoy sex in marriage. Husbands and wives should abstain from sex, unless for the bearing of children (if that). And those who are single should avoid the “temptation to have sex” by avoiding and abstaining from marriage. Paul cannot and will not endorse such a view.
What is most impressive in chapter 7 is the gentleness of the Apostle Paul. He is certainly practicing what he preaches. Remember these words Paul wrote to Timothy about dealing with those who are in error:
23 But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:23-26).
How easy it would have been for Paul to come on strong with these Corinthians. Instead, he gently seeks to show them the error of their thinking and conduct. He clearly distinguishes between his personal convictions, his counsel (advice), and his authoritative apostolic commands (see 7:6-7, 40). His approach is to introduce the issue at hand and then gently correct the errors. In later chapters (e.g. 8-10), Paul’s initial gentleness leads to a very clear and forceful conclusion.
The ascetics of the Corinthian church have over-reacted to the immorality of that day, concluding that all sex is dirty and should be avoided, even within marriage. When Paul says, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” I think he is repeating the position held by the Corinthian ascetics. This was their slogan. Paul repeats the statement, not because he agrees with it in its entirety, but because he agrees with it in part. He will shortly set out to clarify the circumstances in which celibacy could serve a beneficial purpose. I am going to advance to verses 6-9 at this point to suggest just how sexual abstinence could be beneficial. I do this because the main thrust of verses 1-7 is to address the role of sex within marriage. Later verses will expand upon the benefits a celibate lifestyle can produce.
6 But this I say by way of concession, not of command. 7 Yet72 I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. 8 But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. 9 But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn.
The first thing we should observe is that celibacy does have its benefits. When celibacy (abstaining from sex, and thus from marriage) contributes to the cause of Christ, it is depicted positively in the Bible. Our Lord spoke positively of celibacy:
11 But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matthew 19:11-12).
Paul speaks positively of it as well in 1 Corinthians 9 in reference to his choice and to that of Barnabas also to remain single (1 Corinthians 9:4-6). Finally, in the Book of Revelation we are told that the 144,00 will be celibates:
3 And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders; and no one could learn the song except the one hundred and forty-four thousand who had been purchased from the earth. 4 These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb (Revelation 14:3-4).
When Paul speaks of sexual abstinence and celibacy, he does so in a very carefully defined manner. Notice the qualifications Paul sets down regarding sexual abstinence:
(1) Paul does wish that all of the Corinthians could be single (and thus sexually celibate). Paul indicates his “wish” that all men were as he. It is clear that this could not and should not be. Paul simply desires that men might be free from distractions in order to devote themselves to serving God (see also 1 Corinthians 7:34-35).
(2) Paul does not seek to impose this on the Corinthians; he indicates this is his wish, stated by concession and not as a command (oh, that we might be so honest). The ascetics seem to have imposed their view of spirituality upon all. Paul does not represent his preference as a biblical imperative, but as a personal preference which God has allowed him to express as such. Unlike many of us, Paul carefully distinguishes between those commands which are from Christ, and must not be ignored, and the counsel he offers which men can (and perhaps should) disregard. I am reminded of Paul’s advice to Apollos, which Apollos declined to accept and apply:
12 But concerning Apollos our brother, I encouraged him greatly to come to you with the brethren; and it was not at all his desire to come now, but he will come when he has opportunity (1 Corinthians 16:12).
(3) This distinction between concession and command is not an indictment against the inspiration of the Scriptures, but an affirmation of them. Some might question why anything we find in the Scriptures is less than a command, but this is the very nature of convictions. When Paul indicates that a certain view or preference of his is not by divine revelation, and therefore not binding on his readers, he is demonstrating personal integrity by not trying to give the impression that his desires are God’s desires. By doing so, he also underscores the fact that the rest of the Scriptures are inspired and authoritative:
14 You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them; 15 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-17).
If any of Paul’s statements are less than a “thus saith the Lord,” we can count on Paul to tell us so.
(4) Paul does not speak of celibacy as a spiritually superior state but as a less distracted state, a way of serving our Lord with greater focus and consistency. The Corinthian celibates surely thought of themselves as more spiritual and were proud of their celibacy. They must have looked down on those who were married. But it doesn’t take a Harvard graduate to recognize that many singles today who know Jesus Christ as Savior are not serving God with the intensity and focus of some who are married and have families.
(5) Paul sees this singleness and celibacy as a matter related to one’s gift and calling. Unlike most students of the Scriptures, I am not saying that celibacy is a spiritual gift. I am saying that celibacy is related to one’s gift and calling. If one were to conclude that there were such a thing as “the gift of celibacy,” it would have to be from this passage, and quite frankly, this passage does not compel one to reach this conclusion. Consider the reasons that there does not seem to be such a thing as a gift of celibacy:
- Nowhere else in the Bible is celibacy identified as a spiritual gift. There are several texts in Scripture where various spiritual gifts are enumerated. In none of these texts is celibacy listed as a spiritual gift.
- In 1 Corinthians 7:7, Paul does not call celibacy a gift. Paul simply says each one has his gift, “one in this manner, and another in that.” The expression, “one in this manner, and another in that” is unusual, if Paul means for us to conclude that celibacy is a spiritual gift. One would have expected him to say, “one has this gift, and another that,”73 or something to this effect. Paul seems to be speaking about the manner in which different gifts are exercised and not what the particular gift may be.
- If celibacy were a spiritual gift, it differs from all the other spiritual gifts. Every other gift is related to a function. Every other gift can be converted to a verb. The gift of helps entails helping. The gift of teaching entails teaching. The gift of exhortation entails exhorting. Just exactly what does the gift of celibacy do? So far as I can tell, it does nothing other than to prevent one from having sex.
- If I correctly understand those who believe celibacy is a gift, then the gift of celibacy is the absence of sexual desire. If not the absence of desire, celibacy is an added measure of self-control. Those whom I have heard speak of celibacy as a gift do not define it very carefully. Usually it would seem as though the one who is celibate is the person who does not desire sex or marriage. I have never met such a person, at least as far as the absence of sexual desire is concerned. There are many people who may not wish to marry, but few of them claim to lack sexual desire. How does the absence of sexual desire (if there is such a thing) minister to the body of Christ? If there were a gift of celibacy, I know of a number of people who are widowed or divorced who would welcome such a gift, but I have never seen it.
- I understand celibacy to be the conscious choice to control one’s sexual desires and to remain single so that one’s gifts and calling may be more effectively utilized. Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ. Apostleship, along with other gifts, was bestowed upon Paul at the time of his conversion. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for Paul to carry out his calling if he had been married and the father of a number of children. Can you imagine a family man going from city to city, living in one home and then another, sometimes being self-supporting, and other times living on the gifts of others? Can you see Paul’s wife and family being cast into prison with him, or being left alone without any support? Celibacy was the ideal state for a man like Paul, who had his gifts and calling. I think that is what Paul means when he says, “… each man has his own gift, one in this manner, and another in that.” We might paraphrase Paul’s words in this way: “Each man has his own gifts and calling, which are carried out in one manner or another, some serving God through marriage, and some serving Him through remaining single.” Some ministries are conducted much better in the context of marriage and the family. Paul would have trouble, for example, showing hospitality. Whether one chooses to marry or to remain single should be determined on how that person’s gift and calling can best be fulfilled. For some, this will mean marriage (and all that comes with it, like the pleasures and responsibilities of sex); for some it may mean celibacy (with the freedom and undistracted life that comes with it).
Staying single (and thus sexually inactive) may be the calling of some. If it is your calling, it is for the glory of God and for the promotion of the gospel. But the single life and sexual abstinence is not the rule, as Paul knows. And so in verses 2-5, we find Paul speaking of the role of sex in marriage.
2 But because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. 3 Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Notice the three-fold parallel structure in verses 2-4 which stress the mutuality of sexual pleasure and sexual duty:
- Let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband (verse 2).
- Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband (verse 3)
- The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does (verse 4).
Paul does not stress the submission of the wife to her husband here, as though it is his role to get pleasure from his wife, and her role to give pleasure to her husband. There is mutual submission here,74 so that both the husband and the wife are to subordinate their interest (pleasure in sex) to the interest of their mate. Consider the guiding principles for what we might call “Spirit-filled marital sex.”
(1) The norm is that Christians will marry and that as a Christian couple, the husband and wife will enjoy regular sexual relations. The ascetics are absolutely wrong in thinking and teaching that sex is unspiritual and thus inappropriate even within the bonds of matrimony. Consistently abstaining from sex in marriage is not only unnatural, it is unholy.
(2) A healthy sex life is a preventative for immorality. A healthy and pleasurable sex life between a husband and wife is a normal and natural release of sexual tension, and thus it is helpful in the prevention of sexual immorality. Good sex in marriage is not a guarantee that there will be marital fidelity. If one mate is unfaithful to the other, it does not necessarily mean that the offended spouse has failed to satisfy the other. David certainly had enough wives to satisfy his sexual appetites, but he committed adultery anyway. The lusting eye is never satisfied. Nevertheless, Paul speaks of sexual relations in marriage as a preventative for sexual immorality outside of marriage: “Because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.” The ascetics are wrong. To abstain from marital sex proves to be a temptation; to enjoy marital sex promotes edification.
(3) Both husband and wife should eagerly engage in the sexual act as their duty, both to God and to their mate. It is not just the wife who is commanded to give herself to her husband; the husband is likewise commanded to give himself to his wife. In fact, the husband is first commanded to give himself to his wife, and then the wife to her husband (see verse 3).
(4) Both husband and wife should not only give themselves for sex, but each should seek to produce the ultimate pleasure for their partner. Reaching the ultimate pleasure in the sexual union is what best insures against immorality. Frustratingly unfulfilling sex to one partner or the other will also tempt one to be immoral. The “use me” mindset in sexual intimacy falls far short of the mark which Paul sets for us here. The duty of the husband is to satisfy his wife sexually, just as the duty of the wife is to satisfy her husband. This is the best one can do to stay sexually pure and to encourage one’s mate to do likewise.
(5) Neither the husband nor the wife has the authority to deprive75 their mate sexually. If I have not said it clearly enough, I will say it bluntly here: it is wrong to deprive one’s mate of the pleasures of sexual intimacy. There is nothing spiritual about avoiding sex. I think I should also say that there is nothing particularly spiritual about demanding sex either.
(6) Those Christians who have been forcibly making a celibate of their mate by withholding sex are commanded to stop sinning in this fashion. Paul’s command to “stop depriving one another” in verse 5 strongly implies that a number of Corinthian Christians are already withholding sex from their mates. Paul tells us that withholding sex from your mate is sin, a sin which must be repented of, and a sin which we must correct by obeying our Lord’s command through Paul. Paul spoke of the benefits of staying single by concession, rather than by command. But the instruction to husbands and wives to sexually fulfill each other is a command, not a wish or a suggestion. To refuse to change in this area is to willfully disobey one of God’s commands.
(7) Sexual abstinence is to be a rare and temporary exception to the norm of regular sexual union. There are obviously times when normal sexual relations are temporarily interrupted. In the Old Testament, a man was not to have sex with his wife during her monthly period (see Leviticus 15:19, 24; 18:19). Here, Paul speaks of the temporary interruption of a couple’s marital sex life to facilitate prayer. The reason should be obvious, especially for parents with children in the home. Bedtime seems to be the only “private” time two parents have. This means that besides sleep, closing the bedroom door affords the opportunity to enjoy sexual intimacy; it also affords the opportunity for prayer. Frankly, it is difficult to have both prayer and sex on the same agenda, especially if the prayer is urgent and extended. For a bachelor, Paul seems to understand married life very well.76
Paul sets down some very stringent requirements regarding the cessation of normal sexual relations in marriage. First, the decision to abstain from sex must be mutually reached by the husband and the wife. There must not be a unilateral decision made by one spouse. Second, a cessation of normal sexual relations should only take place for matters of great urgency. I understand Paul’s words in verse 5 to refer to specific, urgent matters of prayer, and not normal prayers. The King James Version may well be the original text, and it includes fasting with prayer.
Third, normal sexual relations should be resumed quickly, so that Satan may not take advantage of their lack of self-control. This statement should have really irritated the Corinthian ascetics, who thought of their sexual abstinence as the epitome of self-control. Not according to Paul! Sexual abstinence did not strengthen these saints in their battle with the flesh and with Satan; it weakened them, and it made them vulnerable.
Unfortunately, I have known of situations in which “prayer” was the excuse of one mate for avoiding sex with the other. Who can be more pious than one who gives up sex for prayer? And who can be so unspiritual as to criticize anyone for neglecting their sex life to enhance their prayer life? It is the ultimate spiritual “lion in the road” (to use an expression from the Book of Proverbs). A “lion in the road” is a compelling reason (excuse) for avoiding what one really doesn’t want to do. If the truth were known, a healthy sexual relationship between a man and his wife may facilitate a richer prayer life. I say this on the basis of Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:7 “You husbands likewise, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with a weaker vessel, since she is a woman; and grant her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” Surely “living with one’s wife in an understanding way” includes the sexual relationship. A sexually frustrated and irritated mate is not a good prayer partner.
The church at Corinth did not write to Paul about divisions and factions, about false wisdom or pride, about leaders who looked down on Paul and his gospel. They wrote to Paul about sex, and specifically, about abstaining from sex. They do not want advice from Paul on their sex lives; they only want his endorsement. But if they had wanted advice on matters of sex, do you think they would have expected wise counsel from Paul? How can a man who is both a bachelor and a preacher teach these “worldly wise” folks anything about sex? They must believe they know it all. They may have been the Dr. Ruth’s of their day. But, wonder of wonders, God chose to give the finest sex education available, the best counsel on sex in marriage, through Paul. Once again, the wisdom of God is vastly other than the wisdom of men!
I wish I could have seen the looks on the faces of the Corinthian ascetics as they heard Paul’s response to what they have written. These folks must be so puffed up with pride at their self-control and victory over fleshly desires. While they differ with Paul in many matters, surely they think Paul will applaud them for maintaining that sex is dirty and should be avoided, even in marriage. They do not want Paul’s advice or instruction, only his endorsement. What they receive is something entirely different. Paul agrees that abstaining from sex can be beneficial, but only in the most restricted applications. Instead of applauding them for abstaining from sex in marriage, Paul instructs them to engage in sex with their spouses as a duty. This must not be done with gritted teeth, and the goal of each mate should be to satisfy the other.
The Corinthian ascetics think that spirituality is antithetical to the enjoyment of sex within marriage. Paul wants his readers (which includes us) to understand that spirituality encompasses every aspect of one’s life, including sex. If you are married, have you ever thought of whether your sex life is Spirit-filled or not? You should. Paul is teaching husbands and wives that servanthood is the fundamental ingredient to satisfying sexual intimacy in marriage. How many times have you read these words penned by Paul in his Epistle to the Philippians:
1 If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2 make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:1-8).
How often have you considered Paul’s teaching here as governing your sexual relationship with your spouse? If marriage is a reflection of the union Christ has with His church, then how would we think the physical union of a man and his wife is not of great importance to God? True, this is a “private” matter, between man and wife, but why would we think the angels would not be watching and learning (see 1 Corinthians 11:10)? Sex is not “dirty;” it is a gift of God, which is to be enjoyed in the confines of marriage and to portray the most precious “union” of all, the union of God and His church.
God has uniquely fashioned the man and the woman so that they are very different. I do not mean different in the biological sense, but different in their makeup. Husbands tend to respond very quickly; wives are not as quickly stimulated and not by the same kinds of things. I have heard it said by some that men and women are mismatched, sexually speaking. And so they are, by divine design. Sex cannot be mutually satisfying without real love. In this sense, biblical sex is “making love.” And love is manifested in sacrifice. Only as both the husband and the wife sacrifice their own interests (sexually speaking) is the other satisfied. Sacrificial servanthood is the key to Spirit-filled sex.
I want to be very clear here that we are not just talking about some kind of technique, which, if followed, brings maximum pleasure to the one who employs it. The husband should be sensitively attuned to his wife, seeking to bring her fulfillment. But this is not just because it is the way he will find his own fulfillment. Love-making in marriage seeks to bring pleasure to one’s spouse at one’s own expense. There is a lot of talk about “maximum sex,” but sex should never be approached selfishly as the means to the ultimate goal of self-satisfaction. “Taking up one’s cross” applies in the board room and in the bedroom.
In his Epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul specifically deals with sex as a part of the believer’s sanctification:
3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, 5 not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. 8 Consequently, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8).
Sanctification includes the avoidance of sexual immorality (verse 3). It also involves the Christian relating to his or her spouse sexually in a way that is distinctly Christian and not pagan (verses 4-5). It is clear that we may sin in the matter of sex, and that God is the avenger is such cases (verse 7). God has not called us to impurity but to holiness, and this holiness will be evident in the way we sexually relate to our spouse (verse 7). To reject Paul’s “sex education” is to reject the Spirit of God (verse 8).
I am not amazed that the unbelieving world, sex-and self-crazed as it is, finds frustration more than fulfillment in the bedroom. I am deeply distressed that many Christians are living defeated lives in relation to sex. Some are simply not having sex, usually due to the disobedience of one of the two partners, and sometimes due to the apathy of both. Some are engaging in illicit sex, either by means of pornography or illicit sexual unions outside of marriage. Others find sexual stimulation in the workplace by telling off-color stories and by suggestive dress and talk. The newest temptation is “cyber sex,” illicit sex by means of the computer. I don’t think I will tell you all of the ways this can be done. Hopefully, I do not know them. Here is a definite area of danger, and I hope that you can see that it is totally self-serving.
Paul’s teaching in verses 1-7 present us with two apparent problems. First, Paul speaks of marriage and sex as a preventative to immorality: “But because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband” (verse 2). These words seem to suggest that Paul views sex and marriage in a less than noble way. Is sex only a preventative and not a pleasure for the Christian? Paul’s second statement raises similar questions: “Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband” (verse 3). Is sex only a duty and not a delight?
I would say first that in our fallen world and culture, sex is viewed primarily in terms of selfish pleasure. Sex, apart from biblical servanthood, is self-centered pleasure seeking. I would like you to consider sex in the light of the “great commandment” of the Bible:
34 But when the Pharisees heard that He had put the Sadducees to silence, they gathered themselves together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 “This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 “The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:34-40).
The whole Law can be summed up by two commandments: (1) love God with all of one’s being, and (2) love your neighbor.
How does one love God? Peter tells us how we are to conduct ourselves in relation to God:
14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, 15 but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; 16 because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each man’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay upon earth; 18 knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers (1 Peter 1:14-18).
Loving God requires being holy. Being holy means not being conformed to those lusts which once dominated us as unbelievers. Immorality is one of the sins which characterizes the Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Thus, the Christian should fervently desire to avoid immorality. And so when Paul speaks of marriage and sex as a preventative for immoralities, why should we think Paul is taking sex lightly? Righteousness is the higher goal, and marriage (and sex) are a means to this goal. Paul does not think little of sex; he thinks more highly of righteousness. Isn’t being godly a higher goal than being sexually fulfilled? The problem is not with Paul; it is with us. We value sex more highly than pleasing God.
The second dimension of the great commandment is that we should love our neighbor as ourself. How does this relate to the subject of sex within marriage? Our wife (or our husband) is our neighbor. We are to love our spouse as we love ourself (see also Ephesians 5:28-32). To do so, we must put the (sexual) interests of our mate above our own. Living by the law of love makes it my duty to sexually fulfill my spouse. Is my duty demeaning, something for which I should apologize? It is my duty to keep the commandments of my Lord. Is this demeaning? Not at all! The goal for which I should strive is to see my duty as my delight. This is the way David and other godly men approached God’s law (see Psalm 40:6-8; see also 119:9-16, 24, 137-144).
I would like to suggest to you that sex is similar to worship. Indeed, in the pagan cultures (such as with the Canaanites in the Old Testament and the Corinthians in the New) sex was a part of worship (see also Exodus 32:1-6 and 1 Corinthians 10:6-8). And no wonder, for making sex a part of worship assured the “worshippers” of instant satisfaction.
I fear that we approach worship in a way that is all too similar to the way many approach sex. Some, who feel like worship does not satisfy or fulfill them, are inclined to avoid it. We evaluate worship more in terms of what we have gained than in what we have given. I would remind you that the operative term when it comes to worship is sacrifice, not fulfillment. I would further say that worship (like sex) is not so much about seeking pleasure for ourselves as it is about giving pleasure to God.
Sexuality and spirituality are very closely related. Paul calls for each of us who knows God through Jesus Christ to elevate our sexuality to the standard God has set, to make sexuality an expression of our spirituality to the glory of God, and ultimately for our good.
64 William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958), p. 199.
65 Barclay, p. 201.
66 Barclay, p. 202.
67 Cited by Gary Inrig, Life in His Body (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1975), p. 156.
68 Barclay, pp. 200-201.
69 “Rather than a friendly exchange, in which the new believers in Corinth are asking spiritual advice of their mentor in the Lord, their letter was probably a response to Paul’s previous Letter mentioned in 5:9, in which they were taking exception to his position on point after point.” Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary, F. F. Bruce, General Editor, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987 [reprint, 1993]), pp. 266-267.
70 Is it possible that some who were proud in chapter 5 are proud because the immorality of this man living in an incestuous relationship made their asceticism look pious? Maybe they do not put out sinners so that the pseudo-righteous look pious.
71 Gordon D. Fee, p. 275. Fee goes on to say of verse 2, “Second, there is no known evidence that the idiom ‘to have a wife’ means ‘to take a wife.’ In fact this idiom is common in biblical Greek and usually means either to ‘have sexually’ (Exod. 2:1; Deut. 28:30; Isa. 13:16) or simply to be married or to be in continuing sexual relations with a man or woman (see esp. 5:1 and 7:29; cf. mark 6;18; John 4:18).” Fee, p. 278.
72 I have serious doubts about the choice made by the translators of the NASB here. The King James Version (and the Greek texts which underlie it) seem to give the correct rendering of “For” and not “Yet.” Verse 7 is thus an explanation of Paul’s statement in verse 6.
73 Thus, the New English Bible actually paraphrases, “I should like you all to be as I am myself; but everyone has the gift God has granted him, one this gift and another that.”
74 Compare Ephesians 5:21 with 5:22-33.
75 “The use of the verb ‘deprive’ is especially striking. This is the same verb used in 6:7-8 for the man who had defrauded another. It is a pejorative word for taking away what rightfully belongs to another…” Fee, p. 281.
76 There are some, of course, who argue that Paul had once been married. This conclusion is the result of several inferences. It begins with Paul’s statement in Acts 26:10 that he “cast his vote” against some saints who were on trial for being Christians. The first assumption is that Paul must have been a member of the Sanhedrin to be able to “cast his vote.” The next assumption is that all those on the Sanhedrin had to be married (this does not come from the Scriptures). Therefore, it is concluded that Paul was once married and was either divorced or widowed. This is possible, but in no way is it a fact which the Scriptures compel us to assume. One way or the other, it really isn’t important.