A Clash of Cultures ~ 1 Corinthians 7:1-7
Big Idea: Sex within marriage is just as much a spiritual activity as prayer is. Christian spouses should not deprive one another of this ‘right’ lest Satan exploits it for his evil purposes.
“Sex is a good spiritual activity” sounds more like a mantra from a New Age guru than a Christian missionary. So believers probably expected Paul to affirm the Corinthian pro-abstinence, pro-celibacy slogan (7:1) – “it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” Yet Paul’s surprising antidote to sexual immorality was not to have less sex, but to have more!
Sexual attitudes and norms in first-century Corinth were quite liberal, even by our modern standards. It was common for men to have sex outside marriage. Hundreds of prostitutes, associated with the cult of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, were readily available in the bustling port-city. Greeks considered sex with prostitutes – mostly female slaves – to be socially acceptable. Likewise, sex between men (homosexuality) or men with teen boys (pederasty). (Paul alluded to this in 6:9, “men who have sex with men.” “That is what some of you were,” he wrote in 6:11.)
Social distinctions – class and wealth – also mattered a lot. Marriages were carefully arranged by families. Couples, therefore, did not marry because they “fell in love” or were sexually attracted to one another. Hence, sex in Greco-Roman marriages were mostly for procreation. (Sexual pleasure was to be found elsewhere.)
Due to a shortage of suitable wives – female infanticide thinned out the pool of available women – Greek men often married, around the age of 30, to teen girls, sometimes as young as 12. Because of this, husbands were clearly the dominant authority figure in the marriage. (A husband could also easily divorce his wife if she displeased him.)
Now what might happen if such men got serious in their walk with God? Consider alcoholics who get serious with sobriety. What usually happens? They abstain. Completely. This might explain why some Corinthians were so pro-celibate even within marriage. They equated abstinence with spirituality. Deny the body in order to enhance the spirit. But this is not always true. As Christians, we glorify God in (and with) our bodies, not in spite of it.
Sex is a holy calling for Christian couples. “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife,” Paul writes (7:3), “and likewise the wife to her husband.” Duty means sex is not optional. It is a moral obligation required from both spouses.
When Christians marry, they vow to give themselves to one another – “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health” – holding nothing back. Sex is also part of the deal. So the question, “Are you willing to be sexually available to your spouse till death do you part?” is also implied.
The notion that a woman’s body belongs to her husband was common among first-century Greeks. What’s astonishing in Paul’s letter is the notion that a husband’s body belongs, not to himself, but to his wife! This means the Christian husband can’t do as he pleases with his body. His body is her property, to do what pleases her. “The husband,” Paul writes (7:4), “does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”
So he is not to withhold his body from her sexually; nor she withhold hers from him. Even prayer is not an acceptable excuse to abstain! (7:5) Why? Sexual intimacy between husbands and wives guard against Satan’s schemes to destroy our marriage unions. Satan hates Christian marriages because that’s what God uses to display Jesus’ love for his church to the world (Ephesians 5:32-33). By destroying Christian marriages, Satan cripples the church’s witness of Christ to the world.
As Tim Keller wrote in The Meaning of Marriage (2011:224):
Sex is perhaps the most powerful God-created way to help you give your entire self to another human being. Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, “I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.”
That’s why sex (within marriage) is a good spiritual activity. What’s at stake here is not merely a spouse’s sensual pleasure but the church’s witness of the gospel to the world.
Questions for personal reflection or group discussion:
1. If you are a married Christian, what are some ways that you can practise to make your marriage vibrant and cohesive, not only to keep your marital vows, but also to demonstrate Christian witness to your non-Christian community?
2. What can the community-in-Christ do to support married couples in their marriage?