The Bible is the inspired word of God. It is the place we can go to get direction and guidance for day-to-day life. It addresses issues we face and contains incredible wisdom we can apply to our lives. But occasionally passages of scripture are interpreted in a way I believe was not intended. The misinterpretation may cause damage to individuals and relationships. One passage I believe is often misread is from 1st Corinthians.
“It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 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.5 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.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (1 Co 7:1–5). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
As a counselor working with Christian couples to improve their marriages, I am aware of serious problems with how this passage is interpreted in some evangelical churches today. I believe that this passage is sometimes presented in ways that coerce women into conclusions, and consequently actions, that are clearly not what Paul is saying. In fact, those conclusions are not what the Bible consistently teaches about marriage and relationships with spouses.
I want to make some initial comments to set the stage for the rest of this article. Paul is not saying there is a universal truth that sexual relations are bad. Paul is warning of the danger of sexual immorality, and that can exist inside and outside of the marriage covenant.
We have a propensity to think narrowly and take things out of their context. In this passage we read about sexual immorality and about conjugal rights and reduce those to a physical act. But conjugal rights are not exclusively a physical thing. By making this assumption, we lose sight of the context of the overall marriage relationship. We truncate the truths that Scripture teaches, to the singular issue of physical union, to sexual intercourse.
But joyfully, Scripture talks about marriage in much richer ways. Genesis 2 reveals God’s establishment of the marriage relationship when it talks about the creation of Adam and Eve, and as it follows their story after the entrance of sin into creation. We need to understand that God created Adam as an embodied spirit. Adam, along with all who follow him, are bodies and spirits combined in one being. We cannot lose sight of this truth or we fail to understand ourselves.
In Genesis 2, God concluded that it was not enough to create Adam. In fact, he created Adam and all the creatures who were to inhabit the world, and in His evaluation of that creation concluded, “it is not good for the man to be alone.” Adam was with God. Adam had all of the animals God had created to fill the earth. In spite of being with other “beings,” Adam was alone in a sense that God judged to be “not good.” As a result God created humanity male and female to reflect the community of the trinity. “Let us make man in our image.” Eve was the perfect helper for Adam and united they had the opportunity to be more than either one could be alone.
So God caused a deep sleep to come on Adam. Adam awoke and God had created a woman. Adam saw Eve and spoke of the joy he had at the relationship God had provided through Eve’s creation. “This at last….”
As Adam and Eve spent time with each other the depth of their relationship matured and we read that Adam “knew” Eve and she conceived Cain. Obviously this knowledge included physical, sexual union. But we are guilty of terrible minimization if we limit this knowledge to simply physical activity. This indicates a total knowledge of the other person. Adam and Eve, as embodied spirits, shared their lives with each other. They related emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically. Their relationship engaged all of who they were.
Jesus is the model for how a husband relates to his wife. Since Paul tells us that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves his bride, we need to closely examine this relationship. We read of this all-encompassing dynamic in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3. Jesus sacrifices Himself for His bride. His physical interactions with the church include protecting the church at the cost of His comfort, His health, and even His death. He relates to the church spiritually. He washes His bride in the Word. He sanctifies the church and brings her to spiritual completion. She is spotless, blameless, without wrinkle or blemish. He reveals Himself to the church. He interacts emotionally with the church and knows her fully.
Husbands are called to love their wives in the same ways. Our relationship with our brides must have emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical elements. We cannot limit what the Bible teaches about marriage to discussions about sex.
So now we return to the scripture from 1st Corinthians, having an understanding of the overall context of marriage in Scripture. We recognize there is an emphasis on the physical aspect of marriage in this passage. It contains a warning about the dangers of sexual immorality. It starts by making the comment that sexual relations are not necessary.
Paul is not trying to say that sexual relations are essentially bad. We have the rest of Scripture teaching that marriage is something God established because it is good. What he is saying is he believes that given the urgency of building the kingdom, it is good if people focus on that and not be distracted by other things. Paul speaks later in this chapter about devoting ourselves completely to the work of the church as she reaches the world with the gospel. But sexual immorality is such a danger, that even in a time when Paul believes we should focus on establishing Jesus’ kingdom, he agrees that marriage is one of God’s provisions for battling our temptations.
There are many different aspects of sexual immorality. The word Paul uses is porneia. It is the root of our word pornography. At times, it is used to discuss unmarried sexual activity, but it covers much more. At the root of this immorality is a core of selfishness. That selfishness includes treating others as objects rather than image bearers, using others only for our personal sexual satisfaction, whether that is through the use of images, bodies, or even fantasies to provide the “sexual fulfillment” for which we lust.
But if we think Paul is saying that just having a physical relationship or “sex” is the answer to sexual immorality, we are wrong. A simplistic understanding of what Paul is saying is the source of much damage to individuals and to the church at large. Paul is talking about the whole of the marriage relationship. Healthy relationships between spouses include all of who we are as people. These relationships are wonderful protection against settling for the fragmented and destructive experience of a merely physical relationship. In today’s language we often refer to this holistic relationship as intimacy. An intimate relationship is a lot of work. It requires time, transparency, and trust. It is in such relationships that we grow in our sanctification and become who we were created to be.
Sadly, I see this passage being wrongly used in some churches today. I know of husbands and church leaders teaching that we are required by scripture to be sexually active with our spouses and that it is enough to be sexually active physically. In some cases women are told that if they provide their husbands with satisfying sex, they will free them from sexual immorality. The problem comes in because the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual components of relationship are ignored in this demand. We reduce having a husband or wife to the concept of having a sexual partner. We limit conjugal (marriage) rights to physical, sexual rights. We reduce depriving each other to refraining from the physical act of intercourse. We elevate the importance of the physical and completely separate it from the overall relationship we are commanded to enjoy with our spouse. In doing this, we rob those who are hungry for what they are created to have. We deny the importance of relationship and love, and diminish emotional and spiritual nurture.
So in trying to rigidly adhere to scripture and force our spouse to, “do your duty,” we foster sexual immorality even as Paul is warning us against it. It is immoral to truncate the marriage relationship by commanding the physical relationship separate from the complete relationship God provides through marriage. To ask someone to submit to being physically present in sex without recognizing that they are embodied spirits is to objectify them. When I fail to relate to my wife as a complete individual who bears the image of God and who brings the offer of a complete relationship to me and instead use this passage to tell her that she is required to engage in physical, sexual activity with me whether that feeds her emotionally and spiritually is a sinful denial of who we are. It fragments her and denies her spirit whether I understand that or not. This kind of selfishness and objectification is at the heart of pornography. It is essentially sexual immorality.
Please hear this clearly. That which is essentially immoral is not made moral by taking place in the covenant of marriage. Selfishness and objectification are the roots from which pornography grows. It is always wrong to allow this root into the sacred relationship marriage is created to be. It pollutes the marriage. It is incredibly destructive. It does not strengthen the bond. It kills it.
Husbands, please love your wives well. Engage with them holistically and feed them as complete individuals. We are created to share ourselves emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically. When we cultivate our relationship with our wives emotionally, intellectually and spiritually they will gladly join with us. When we have this foundation, our wives are free to express themselves physically in their love for us.
There is much more to address in the way we are to relate to one another in marriage, but that will have to come in future articles.