In chapter 7 Paul continues the theme of believers walking uprightly in our relationships. Because of Christ’s atonement (i.e., his sacrificial substitutionary death on the cross and his resurrection for those who trust in him) God is glorified in our bodies. How? Let’s read:
“Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.3 The husband must 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, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1 Cor.7:1-5)
Let’s make several observations. First, it’s good to be single. Apparently someone had previously written to Paul from Corinth concerning the state of the church and wrote: “…it is good for a man not to touch a woman.” Here, he can’t mean that there is to be no physical contact because he would be contradicting his command elsewhere to greet one another with a holy kiss.
Contextually, this has to do with sexual intercourse as the following verses unfold. What’s “good” about a man not touching a woman? It seems he’s referring to the virtue of being unmarried for the purpose of glorifying God and being about the business of the kingdom as the rest of the chapter depicts. That is, singleness in the church is not to be frowned upon, but rather appreciated and lauded.
As the self-existent One, who is the source of all life, the virtue of goodness is necessarily based on God’s ontological status (i.e., the divine nature in all its perfections shared by each member of the trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit) and thus the Creator rather than the creature determines what is good. Here, to be single is good, but immorality is not and thus a real problem. Thus, Paul offers a “game changer”, as we say.
Second, it’s good to be married. While singleness is a good thing, it’s not if immorality is a struggle, thus, marriage is the good option Paul commands: 2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. The clause, “But because of immoralities” calls attention to sexual sin contextually (6:12-20) and offers the solution “each man is to have his own wife and likewise also the wife to her husband”. There are several observations that can be noted.
First, each man is to be devoted to the one woman he has entered into covenant with and not another wife. Second, that being the case, the singular term “wife” not wives supports monogamy, not polygamy. Third, this is a safeguard for those longing to sexually express themselves within the context of a one flesh union between a man and a woman. Fourth, this contradicts the in vogue notion of “same-sex marriage” that many in Western civilization have embraced. Fifth, the same holds true for women. Sixth, both male and female have a bent to immorality, both are culpable before Gods’ court of justice, and both are graciously given a solution—marriage. Now in this covenant relationship there are duties given for flourishing to obtain.
Third, duties obtain for both man and woman. Paul continues his thought and describes the duties both husband and wife are to fulfill toward each another. When Paul says; v-3 “The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband” he makes abundantly clear that they equally share the responsibility to make the marriage union flourish.
First, Paul grounds his command of duty/fulfillment on the idea and reality that “authority” over the other’s body is a non-negotiable. What does authority here mean? On the surface, biblically when one has authority over another they possess the power to command persons (and affect them) to live a certain way, to do certain things. This attribute of authority again is grounded in God’s being—one way image bearers express the Creators presence, objective reality, His existence.
Second, Paul is sounding the alarm when he states in v-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.”
The alarm here is that both husband and wife belong to each other, they are distinct persons, but have a one flesh union which forever changes how they are to live. It seems clear that they are not “free” to make autonomous sexual decisions, but instead are to always submit to the desires of each other within God’s design for sexuality (which clearly exclude bestiality, homosexuality, heterosexual adultery, etc.), but not as clearly when it deals with oral copulation.
When we consider a text that does not give us specifics (e.g., Paul here does not specify what I brought up), a wise approach to get at the meaning of a biblical text, is to consider the entirety of what Scripture teaches (on a given topic) deal first with the clearest texts and then proceed to the more obscure texts. By this approach, the obscurity, while not completely removed, does have more light shed on it by the clearer passages in scripture. After Paul describes both duties and authority, he commands both husband and wife to obey.
Fourth, husbands and wives are commanded to stop sinning against each other. Paul gives a prohibition because then like today, husbands and wives were sinning against each other by depriving each other of sexual intimacy v-5; “Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
To deprive means to withhold something good possessed by one for the benefit of another—the covenant spouse here. That is, if one spouse desires sexual relations the other is to concede. Only by mutual agreement is the married couple to withhold sexual relations.
This opens up a “can of worms” that’s filled with pain, manipulation, and abuse which reveals our brokenness as people. Nevertheless, we must understand that what fuels this command is love for God and Christ Jesus (though imperfectly expressed) in the marriage union between a man and a woman.
Men often don’t walk in a loving manner toward their wives and wives accordingly to their husbands. The reason for such turmoil is the real distinctions between men and women. The lack of appreciation and understanding of these distinctions has from Adam and Eve unto today been a real problem. That is, according to God’s design, a man’s greatest need is to be respected, while a woman’s supreme need is to be loved. And while the needs are distinct, both spouses are commanded to honor one another.
The prohibition to “stop depriving one another” means that if that’s presently the case, it is to cease in the present. Yet, if mutual consent to withhold obtains, it’s for a very practical purpose; “so that you may devote yourselves to prayer”. Could it be that Paul is commanding the spouses to entreat God with the same passion with which they sexually pleasure each other? I don’t see why not, but this activity of intimacy between spouse and God has a “time” or “duration” of activity not specified.
There’s a time for everything under heaven Solomon wrote and here Paul is saying to married couples, “there’s a time for sex and a time to refrain in order to pray”. Whatever the duration here, the key is that the spouses are in agreement. So there’s a time for sex and a time for prayer, but he does not end it there.
Paul finishes the command and provides the reason for it: “and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control”. Both spouses are addressed because when marriages fail and adultery occurs there’s usually culpability from both parties. Paul is alluding to the practical need for sexual relations to continue when he says, “come together again” for the purpose of denuding satanic temptation to commit adultery.
The reason for the command is because there’s a lack of self-control, thus the loving act for the spouses to do is to sexually fulfill each other (however imperfectly it may be done). Obedience here is the path of holiness to the LORD which is our highest good and joy.
These verses unfold the gravity of marriage and their reflection of God’s love and care for His people. Elsewhere Paul explains that marriage is the mystery unveiled of Christ and His union with the Church (Eph.5).
We live in a time where “sexual liberation” is lauded in a way that actually dishonors God and thus dishonors human beings. Sexuality expressed according to God’s design is magnificent, when it goes awry, while for a time may be exhilarating, will in the end be another means for human destruction. God have mercy on our souls and bodies.