Sex and the Married Life. 1 Corinthians 7:1-9

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Now I will discuss the things you wrote me about. It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman. 2 But because sexual sin is a danger, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. 3 The husband should give his wife all that he owes her as his wife. And the wife should give her husband all that she owes him as her husband. 4 The wife does not have full rights over her own body; her husband shares them. And the husband does not have full rights over his own body; his wife shares them. 5 Do not refuse to give your bodies to each other, unless you both agree to stay away from sexual relations for a time so you can give your time to prayer. Then come together again so Satan cannot tempt you because of a lack of self-control. 6 I say this to give you permission to stay away from sexual relations for a time. It is not a command to do so. 7 I wish that everyone were like me, but each person has his own gift from God. One has one gift, another has another gift.

8 Now for those who are not married and for the widows I say this: It is good for them to stay unmarried as I am. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry. It is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire. (1 Corinthians 7:1-9 New Century Version)

At the end of 1 Corinthians chapter 6, Paul talks about the dangers of sexual immorality. Taken alone, that passage could leave us with a very skewed view of human sexuality. So in chapter 7, Paul offers some teaching to balance that. To put it very bluntly and in a simplistic way, in chapter 6 Paul tells us to stay away from bad sex; in chapter 7, he tells us to make sure and have plenty of good sex.

This may sound shocking to you. But the truth is, the Bible tells us that God created sex, and that he called it “good” along with the rest of his creation. Sex between a man and a woman who are married to each other was always God’s plan, even before sin entered the world (Genesis 2:23-25)

23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”

24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. 25 The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

Sex is kind of like fire. Fire can be a really good thing. It can keep you warm. It can cook your food. It can protect you from wild animals, and help you see in the dark. But fire is powerful. It needs to be contained and treated with respect in order for it to be used safely. When it is not contained, it is intensely destructive. It can hurt, maim and kill people. Its power to destroy is almost unlimited. If you build a fire in your house outside of the fireplace, you will burn your house down. Sex is like that too. It is a powerful force. It can destroy marriages, families and even physical bodies (through diseases). It can cause great psychological damage to individuals. There’s a pretty convincing argument that sex destroyed the ancient Roman empire. Even so, sex can be just as powerful for good. God made it. It bonds married couples together. It can result in children and families. Those relationships form the foundation of all civilization. Sex is enjoyable, and it can inspire people to do great things for each other.

So what Paul is saying first of all, in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, is “don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.” Sex outside of marriage is dangerous and destructive. He talks about that in 1 Corinthians 6. Some people really need to hear that. But within marriage, it is good, right and beneficial. And some people really need to hear that.

First, let’s address some common objections to this passage. It is much ignored in Christian teachings about marriage. Many others deal with it by interpreting it in such a way that it means nothing, practically speaking. Some people use a theological smoke screen to dismiss it. Folks who do these things generally point out that Paul says in verses 6-7:

I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” (NIV)

This little phrase from Paul is often used by believers to suggest that the first five verses of the chapter are only a suggestion. Doesn’t Paul say they are “not a command?” So why should we pay attention to this passage? Don’t we know more about this topic than Paul, who was unmarried?

Actually, if you look closely at the way the sentence is in Greek, Paul is most likely referring to marriage itself as the concession. He’s not commanding people to get married – but he’s conceding that many people need to. Paul had the gift of being single and celibate, and, as he says, he wishes all men were like him. Even so, he recognizes his celibacy is enabled by God’s gift, and God does not choose to give that gift to everyone. So he is suggesting that if a person’s sex drive is fairly active, that person should get married. That’s the “concession-not-command.”

Another possibility is that the “concession” is his suggestion that the couple refrain from sex for awhile for the purpose of special prayer. This would be a bit like “fasting” from sex. In fact, the New Century Version translates the Greek like this:

I say this to give you permission to stay away from sexual relations for a time. It is not a command to do so. I wish that everyone were like me, but each person has his own gift from God. One has one gift, another has another gift.

In either case, when Paul says “this is not a command,” he is not talking about verses 3-5a. It seems unlikely that after using such firm language about fulfilling marital debt, and wives and husbands having authority over each other’s bodies, that Paul would then say – “but it’s only a suggestion.” Within marriage he is saying quite firmly that the husband fulfill his duties and the wife hers; that the wife has authority over the husband’s body, and the husband over the wife’s. I might paraphrase Paul’s words like this:

It’s good for people to stay unmarried and celibate. But I recognize that most people cannot handle the sexual temptation that comes with that lifestyle. So it’s a good thing to get married. Within marriage you should not withhold anything from each other because you belong to each other. Don’t refuse to make love unless you both agree to stop for a time as a way of enhancing your prayer life. But once the time you’ve agreed on is up, go ahead and give yourselves to each other again, so you won’t be tempted.

I’m not commanding you to stop making love for the sake of prayer – I’m just suggesting it. I wish everyone could be celibate like me, but of course, that’s a gift from God, and he doesn’t give it to everyone. We all have our own different gifts.

Maybe you still aren’t convinced. All right then, suppose that the scripture really is saying “this is only a suggestion, not a command.” What should our approach be? If we ignore it, aren’t we actually saying “I don’t need any suggestions from the Holy Spirit!” It is sort of tragically humorous to say, “Well, it’s just a suggestion from God.” For my part, if God gives me a suggestion, I want to follow it! I want to implement all the suggestions the Lord is willing to give me about how to build and maintain a strong, fulfilling marriage.

So, at least for the purposes of this discussion, we are going to take this passage seriously. How does this work in an every day, real-life marriage?

First, we need some background. I think the following statement is generally true. There will probably be exceptions, but consider this idea:

Most of the time, sex for men is partly emotional, but mostly physical. What I mean is, the emotional aspects of it are usually achieved for men through the physical part of it. On the other hand, Most of the time, sex for women is partly physical, but mostly emotional. What I mean is, the physical part of it is usually not as important for women as the emotional atmosphere surrounding sex.

Let’s put that tidbit of knowledge to work with 1 Corinthians 7:3, which says literally that a husband should fulfill his “debt” to his wife. I think that “debt” in the context of this passage, is really all about intimacy. Let me speak directly to husbands for a moment. If your wife’s need for intimacy is mostly at an emotional level, then you ought to work hard to create an emotional environment in your relationship that is tender, caring and intimate. You can do this through conversation (probably a lot of conversation). You should take care that you really listen to your wife, and make sure that she realizes you are listening. You can use tender touches throughout the week – holding hands, a soft stolen kiss, rubbing her feet or back, showing her through non-sexual physical touch that she is very important to you. You can bring her flowers, buy her gifts, write her notes, and help her with her household tasks. All these things contribute to intimacy for most women. According to 1 Corinthians 7;3, you should not withhold this intimacy from your wife. In fact, according to God’s plan for marriage, you are part of God’s plan to fulfill her God-given desire for intimacy. If you choose to withhold emotional intimacy from your wife, it will usually make sex with you very difficult for her. Not only that, but most wives are not ready to engage in lovemaking unless they feel loved, cherished and emotionally safe. Now of course, when it comes to the physical act of making love, you shouldn’t withhold either.

I understand that most men aren’t naturally drawn to creating emotional intimacy. That doesn’t matter. The scripture says not to withhold what she needs. Elsewhere it says explicitly to “love your wife” (Ephesians 5:25). In this passage, where Paul says “don’t refuse one another.” The Greek word there is the same word as “defraud.” So husbands, don’t cheat your wife out of the emotional intimacy that she is supposed to get only from you.

Now, what about the wife’s “debt”? Your husband needs emotional intimacy too. Even so, men often meet a lot of their need for emotional intimacy through sex. He will want to know that you respect and admire him, and that you love him. But sooner or later (probably sooner), he will also want to make love with you. Just as it is hard for a woman to want sex without emotional intimacy, it is hard for a man to want emotional intimacy without sex. In fact, most men experience sex as a need rather than simply a want. Now, he doesn’t have to behave like Atilla the Hun, but you should be aware that you are God’s instrument for fulfilling your husband’s God-given, physical need for sex. In a very real way, you minister to your husband, and help him experience the grace of God through sex. And the Bible tells you not to refuse this to him. Beyond just the act, you can create an atmosphere of sexual intimacy. You can do this in a variety of ways: try seducing your husband in a time or place where he doesn’t expect it – he will glow with the thought for days afterward. Once or twice a year, go away together for a weekend, just the two of you, and make physical intimacy the main point of your time together. The main thing about creating an atmosphere of sexual intimacy is that you communicate to him that you want him! Remember within marriage, sex is Good! Nothing is wrong or dirty if it is done willingly and lovingly within marriage.

I understand that most women are not naturally drawn to creating sexual intimacy any more than men are drawn to creating emotional intimacy. But 1 Corinthians 7:3 says not to withhold from your husband, and 7:5 says, “do not refuse to give your bodies to each other.” As I just mentioned, the word “refuse” might be translated “defraud.” So wives, don’t cheat your husband out of the physical intimacy that he is supposed to get only from you.

Something must be very clear at this point. We are talking here about working out together what you will do in your sexual relationship as husband and wife. If there is disagreement, you must work through it lovingly and respectfully. There is no case when a husband should force himself upon his wife (or any woman) when she is unwilling. That is called rape, and it is both immoral and illegal – even for a husband to do to his own wife.

God bless you as you seek to apply these truths this week…and have fun!

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