“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7:1-5)
What a radical view on sexual relations! We will look at three counter-cultural principles in this passage: that it’s good for singles to abstain from sex, that sex is not for yourself but for your spouse, as a “right,” and that the only reason for spouses to refrain is for prayer and by agreement. Paul mentions temptation twice and reminds us that Satan will use our temptations to cause us to sin, especially when we are lacking self-control. We know that Paul is speaking of singles in verse 1 because he would not immediately contradict himself in the next verses when he instructs husbands and wives to give each other their conjugal rights. If a single person is not overcome by sexual desires, Paul encourages them to remain single. However, marriage is the proper and God-given direction to those who need sexual intimacy, since God works all things together for good for those who love him and are called by him (Romans 8:28).
The ESV’s use of conjugal “rights” for the husband and wife is sometimes translated “due” or “obligation.” John Gill describes this as “’due benevolence,’…a euphemism, and designs the act of coition; which as it is an act of love and affection, a sign of mutual benevolence, so of justice; it is a due debt from divine ordination, and the matrimonial contract.” (1) In contrast to the idea today that sexual relations are my business and my “right,” the Bible remains firm on the moral law that sexual intimacy is for marriage alone, and in marriage, sex is an act of love toward the other, each having the right to this intimacy. The idea of rights is carried into verse 4, which speaks of each spouse having “authority” or “power” over the other’s body. Matthew Henry succinctly says, “marriage, and the comforts of that state, are settled by Divine wisdom.” (2) Knowing that we are called to die to ourselves, and lose our lives for Christ’s sake, we can easily appreciate that everything in marriage, including sexual intimacy, is to serve others in love (1 Peter 2:24; Luke 9:24).
Finally, husbands and wives are to separate sexually by mutual agreement only, for a time of prayer. Since it is a husband’s right to his wife’s body, and it is a wife’s right to her husband’s, it only makes sense that they will have to agree to give each other “space,” rather than take it from each other. There is no other logical way to separate sexually within marriage, but sexual intimacy alone is addressed. Personal intimacy, which is a need of all people at all times, and disagreements should be addressed in prayer before the Lord so that the marriage relationship does not suffer from the withholding of this right. Otherwise, sexual “favors” become a weapon in the hands of the withholding spouse.
Marriage is complicated! But in the Lord, with his wisdom and consistent commands, it becomes a delightful encounter between a man and a woman who seek to love each other with the love of Christ. Does Christ’s love guide your marriage?