Is sex really important in marriage? Has a sex-obsessed society caused Christians to see sex as more important than it is? Or, have Christians reacted against the sex-obsessed society by downplaying how critical sex is for married couples? It seems the church has some of both groups. Who’s right?
Does the Bible address this? Yes! The idea that sex is not important in marriage is the very thing that the Apostle Paul was strongly arguing against in the first part of 1 Corinthians 7. Below we offer a line-by-line examination of this important passage. Scripture in red, our comments in black.
1 Corinthians 7:1 – 7 NKJV
1a Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me:
The Apostle is responding to questions they had written. Based on what Paul says, it’s likely he was answering questions influenced by Gnosticism. Gnostics believed the way to salvation was by “secret knowledge” that came from some hidden spiritual source. One group of Gnostics taught the body and spirit were completely separate and sins of the body did not matter (see 1 Cor 6:13) while another group taught enlightenment came by denying the body (see Col 2:20 and 1 Tim 4:3 & 6:20). Those in the second camp said married couples should not have sex, as this would better allow them to learn the secret knowledge.
Paul spent a good deal of time battling Gnosticism, as it was a major heresy in the early church. Being of Greek origin, Gnosticism was especially prevalent in the gentile church.
1b It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
“Not to touch” could be translated as “to fasten one’s self to, adhere to, cling to.” In this case the meaning is not just any touch, but sexual touch. Paul is talking about being single and celibate.
2 Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.
Paul tells us (see verse 7) that celibacy is a gift that allows a person to serve the Lord better. He also tells us it’s the exception, not the norm. For those not so gifted, marriage is necessary to avoid sexual sin. This idea, that we are commanded to marry to avoid sexual sin, is not popular with today’s Christians, but Paul is not ambiguous about this point.
3 Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband.
In the Greek, Paul is saying that we are each owed sex by our spouse (literally a debt that is owed). It’s not a favor or an option, it’s required by the marriage covenant. In addition, sex is not something we earn. Our “right” to sex is positional. Just being a spouse means we are to meet the sexual needs of the person to whom we are married.
4a The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.
The Greek here is interesting, and not easily explained in English. The idea is of two things which are both true, but one is “more true” or of more importance. For example, “I love my wife and I love God.” Both are true, but the second is more important. Jesus used a similar construction in Luke 14:26 ESV. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus was not really telling us to hate our “father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters,” rather He was saying we need to love Him so much that by comparison, we hate all others. In 1 Cor 7:4 Paul is saying that the wife has some authority over her sexuality, but her husband has so much more authority that in comparison she has no authority. Yes, her body is to give her sexual pleasure, but it’s also important for her body to give him sexual pleasure.
4b And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
This is the same thing, with the spouses reversed. Given that God recognizes a gender difference in a number of areas (especially between husbands and wives), Paul is making a major point when he says there’s no gender difference when it comes to sex in marriage. Men are as required and as responsible to meet the needs of their wives as women are to their husbands. This truth is very opposite the “sex is for men” thinking that is still prevalent in some church circles.
By the way, when you consider most women cannot really enjoy sex if other areas of the marriage are not in good working order, this verse is very far-reaching. A man who does not meet his wife’s need for emotional and relational intimacy cannot fulfill his obligation to her sexually. This very clearly makes such an omission a sin, not a “personality difference.” A physically and emotionally healthy woman who is having all her non-sexual intimate needs met is going to find it far easier to enjoy sex.
5a Do not deprive one another …
Literally, this means “do not rob, defraud, or deprive.” In the Greek, the concept is that you are stealing from someone that which belongs to them. Saying no is not a case of refusing to give something, it is taking from the spouse what God says is theirs.
5b … except with consent …
Another translation could be “by agreement.” There can be no significant abstinence unless both husband and wife agree to it.
5c … for a time …
The Greek indicates a predefined time. No open-ended abstinence, the duration must be agreed to ahead of time.
5d … that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer …
Many versions read only prayer, but the Greek has two distinct words which clearly mean fasting and prayer. This suggests that God considers abstaining from sex as more severe, and a greater sacrifice, than abstaining from food. (If this is the case, a lot of us have our priorities reversed from God’s!) In addition, the requirement that fasting accompany sexual abstinence limits how long we can do it.
Based on this passage, Paul seems to be giving only one reason for sexual abstinence in marriage.
Of course taking such a strong stand results in someone saying, “What if one person is sick?”
This is not refusing, it’s being unable. On the other hand, being unable because of something you choose to do (work too much, sleep too little, give too much time to others), is a choice. For those who are married, sex is supposed to be a top priority and we are expected to say no to things that will significantly interfere with our ability to give ourselves sexually. Clearly, there are some higher priorities, like feeding your family, or making the money to feed them, and there are occasions where such priorities will interfere with a couple’s sex life. However, a couple needs to work to change the situation as soon as reasonably possible.
5e … and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
The Greek word translated as “lack of self-control” here literally means “incontinence.” The Apostle seems to be saying that those who are designed to be married have not been given the self-control needed to go without sex and avoid giving in to sexual sin. A similar statement occurs in 1st Timothy 5:11-12 where Paul says that younger widows (those under 60!) will “feel sensual desires” that are so strong they will set aside a pledge of celibacy to remarry.
Some will argue that self-control is a fruit of the spirit, and as such, any solid Christian can control him or herself sexually, no matter what. While we are certainly expected to exercise self-control and avoid temptation and sin, Paul seems to think this level of self-control is beyond most (maybe all?) who have not been given the gift of celibacy. Both here and in verse 2 he seems adamant that regular sex is the only prescribed way to avoid sexual immorality.
6 But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment.
We’ve heard it suggested that the “this” mentioned here is referring back to verse 2. Contextually it seems far more likely that the “this” that Paul is referring to “as a concession” is the allowance to abstain (under strict limitations) in order to focus on prayer and fasting. This makes sense if we consider that the Gnostics believed that the way to salvation was to deny the body and search for the “secret knowledge.” These heretics taught that even married couples shouldn’t have sex, as this would better allow them to learn the secret knowledge.
Paul very forcefully counters this wrong teaching that sex in marriage should be, or could be, limited. It seems the Corinthians had written to Paul (recall verse 1) asking if they could abstain within marriage for “spiritual gain.” Since there is some small precedence for this in the Old Testament (for very important situations), it’s hard to say “absolutely not.” On the other hand, Paul did not want to support Gnostic false teachings. So, after setting some stringent restrictions on abstinence in marriage, Paul makes it clear that he was not commanding couples to do this, but rather was making an “allowance” or “indulgence” for those who might feel they should occasionally abstain for this one reason. Also, recall that Paul only allowed this if the husband and wife both wanted to abstain.
7a For I wish that all men were even as I myself.
Paul is talking about his ability to be single and not succumb to sexual temptation.
7b But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.
This is where Paul indicates that celibacy is a gift, something given to some by God for His glory and His service. God gives the gift, so either you have it or you don’t – and you can’t pray it into existence, as Paul shows in 1 Timothy 5:11-12.
For a look at how we can live out 1 Corinthians 7, see Sexual Stewardship.