What does 1 Corinthians 7 actually say about sex, marriage and abstinence?

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My social media timeline has been dominated recently by controversies about what Christians believe and the Bible teaches about sex and relationships.  In the context of those controversies, 1 Corinthians 7 crops up frequently.  The three particular contexts in which it has come up have been:

  1. The recent controversy over Josh Butler’s book, Beautiful Union which some people saw as drawing on a belief that men are dominant and active in sex whilst women as passive and submissive.  Whilst I don’t think this is what Butler intended to argue, I have seen examples where that kind of thinking was clearly in view.
  2. Linked perhaps to that, questions about mutuality in marriage and the complementarianism v egalitarianism debate.
  3. Discussions about how we view singleness with some Christians arguing that there is a gift of celibacy given to a very few people which enables them to live a single life whilst most people need to get married in order to satisfy their sexual urges.

I think that in fact, all three debates are to some extent linked and at times I get the impression that we spend a lot of time debating based on what we think 1 Corinthians 7 says.  So, I thought it might be worth just giving a bit of time to looking at what the passage actually does say. I’m going to focus specifically on verses 1-6 and their implications for how husbands and wives are to relate to each other.  This does have some implications for the singleness/abstinence question but we won’t focus on that here. I’ll come back to that later.

It also has implications for questions around consent and potential abuse within marriage and that’s where we’ll focus the application.

As with much of 1 Corinthians, Paul is responding to things that the Corinthian church have said, things they’ve asked him about.  He has clearly had some questions from him around marriage, sex and celibacy.   So we begin with a statement “it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (v1).

  This could be Paul’s initial response to the question “is celibacy good?” If so, then his answer is “yes, this is a good thing to aim for.” We might then assume that the rest of the chapter is setting some constraints around that.

However, one of the things that has been observed as people have looked through 1 Corinthians is that there is a pattern of Paul making these strong statements and then responding to them with a “but…”  There is a strong view that these statements when followed by a “yes but” response do not originate from Paul, rather, he is restating the position that the Corinthian church themselves were holding. He is taking their absolute positions and inviting them to consider for a moment, the other side of the argument.[1] 

One of the pressures on the early church was from those who saw holiness as represented by an acetic life style with the pleasures of this world including food, drink, comfort and sex denied.  That strand of thinking was there in many cultures before the Gospel arrived and continues to today. 

So, Paul basically responds by warning that there is a risk with that kind of thinking that it will lead to sexual immorality.  Now, it is worth noting that in Scripture, if a desire is in and of itself bad, then we are instructed to put such sinful desires to death.  The believer, filled with the Holy Spirit is not meant to accommodate those desires and should not need to.  So, I would suggest that Paul in effect, responds to the absolute statement by in effect affirming the goodness of sex and of sexual desire.   

So, he argues, that because of the dangers of “sexual immortality” monogamous marriage is good.  The reference seems to be to not to sexual immorality as a general risk but to specific immorality in Corinth. This would reflect the general problem of a wider culture but also specific sin that was happening in Corinth.  We know specifically that there was one horrendous case of a man committing incestuous adultery with his father’s wife (5:1). We also know that some of them had to be warned and rebuked against the use of prostitutes (6:12-19).  This is where sexual desire became sinful and so Paul will not permit a situation where the church members are outwardly appearing pious by claiming to abstain from sexual relations within marriage whilst seeking illicit pleasure elsewhere when refused by a spouse.[2] 

So, Paul says that the solution to this sexual immorality is not to continue the absolute legalism around sexual intercourse, demanding celibacy even within marriage.  Rather, sexual relations are to be encouraged within marriage. Husband and wife are to given themselves willingly to each other (v3).  Here he insists that neither husband nor wife have complete and independent autonomy over their own bodies.  Rather, they belong to one another. This in effect an outworking of the concept of “one flesh.”  They are therefore not to “deprive one another” (v4).  However, Paul allows that they may mutually agree to abstain together for a short period of time for the purpose of prayer, a form of fast if you like. However, he has concern for their lack of self-control and advises that this should be for a short, fixed period (v5).

Paul then states that what he is saying isn’t to be treated as a command, a positive instruction on what they should do.  Rather it is a concession.  It is often assumed that this is referring to sex and marriage itself being a concession given that Paul describes his own singleness positively in the following verses.  However, it more naturally refers to the advice about temporary abstinence, the obvious example of a concession in the passage.  Paul is saying that it is okay to abstain for a fixed period of prayer by mutual consent but unlike their letter suggested, this is not to be taken as a legalistic command.[3]

Now, it is important having looked at the detail of the text to observe a couple of things.  First of all, that the whole teaching is grounded in mutuality and in preferring the needs of each other.  This fits with broader themes in Paul’s teaching.  It is not about a wife  acquiescing to her husband’s demands and certainly not about him imposing them on him.  When I looked at Ephesians 5:22-32, I argued that the Paul taught mutual submission within the context of the husband’s headship.  In other words, a husband has specific responsibilities arising out of headship. I think we can describe them in terms of protection and provision but wives and husbands are to submit to each other.  A husband is to love his wife, this is sacrificial, acting for her needs and therefore, as reformers like John Calvin traditionally held is a form of submission. His wife submits by letting him love her. 

One reason why I believe that when Paul says “submit to one another” (Ephesians 5:21), he has mutual submission between husbands and wives in mind, is because of 1 Corinthians 7:4.  Note that in Ephesians 5, “one flesh” as both cause and consequence of the command is made explicitly clear. It is important to make clear therefore that this understanding is possible within a complementarian approach and does not undermine or subvert what Paul has to say about headship. It is important though that we are clear that the word “head” does not indicate inequality between the sexes and certainly is not permission for husbands to be domineering or controlling. 

This helps us to think through what the text is not saying.  It does not mean that you must never say no to sex on a specific occasion. It does not grant a husband the right to sex whether or not his wife is consenting (and note that the logic of that would have to work both ways). Nor does it excuse sexual sin.  You are responsible for your own actions and for your own self-control or lack of it.   There are all kinds of reasons as to why someone may not wish to engage in sexual intercourse on any given occasion from health and physical discomfort, circumstances such as grief and mourning or simply the thoughtless behaviour of the other party. 

I would go a stage further and say that the issue Paul has in mind is also not about when a person, perhaps for any of those reasons is unable to engage in sexual intercourse for an extended period of time.  In such a situation, the answer surely is not to impose legalism but rather to understand and seek to resolve any underlying issues.

Rather, Paul is dealing explicitly with the situation where a husband or wife, or both together have made a conscious and permanent decision to remove sex from their marriage. In this particular case out of a kind of false piety.  This should control how we apply it.

The other thing I want to pick up from the passage is that whilst yes, sexual intercourse is to do with procreation, this passage makes it clear that this is not all that it is about, otherwise the issues of abstinence and concern for one another’s needs would not be at stake.  Sexual intercourse is about intimacy and it is about pleasure both for man and woman.  Both should have a mutual concern for the other.  This means that neither husband nor wife should see sex or their partner as there to meet their needs, rather our concern should be for the needs of the other.

A lot of nonsense and a lot of horrific stuff would be avoided if we engaged properly with what God’ Word is actually saying.

[1] C.f. Fee, 1 Corinthians, 269. See also, Clampa & Rosner, 275.

[2] C.f. Clampa & Rosner, 276.

[3] C.F. Fee, 283-4.

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