First Corinthians 6:1–11 teaches us something of the sufficiency of the saints to constructively address discord between church members. Then 6:12–20 addresses the matter of the sanctity of the saints, with special reference to the problem of sexual immorality in the lives of some church members. In this study, we will look at the sanity of the saints who live in a culture dominated by “sex and the city.”
Recently, a visiting pastor said to me that his young son asked him after the morning service, “What is sexual immorality?” He asked advice about how to answer. I said, “Tell him, ‘You know how mommy and daddy live together as husband and wife? Well, sexual immorality is when people who are not married live together like mommy and daddy.’” I hope that sufficed!
God’s design for marriage, which is between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman, is the standard by which all other sexual behaviour is to be measured, and yes, judged. Sexual morality, and hence immorality, is defined by God’s perfect parameters of marriage. And yet it seems that too often it is not only the world which lacks the ability to think clearly about human sexuality, but many Christians have as well. We need to do better; we need to believe better; we need to think scripturally sane about human sexuality as revealed in God’s inspired word.
Let me put it this way: The Christian is not left in the dark when it comes to understanding sexual sanctity for the Bible equips the Christian with sexual sanity.
First Corinthians 7 provides what we need to think both clearly and cleanly about God’s good gift of sex, including its parameters, its principles, and its practice. “Sex and the city” is to be countered by sanity in the church.
In our study, we will look at the opening nine verses with a view to appreciating God’s design for sexual morality within marriage, in contrast to sexual immorality outside of marriage.
We must appreciate that Paul writes these forty verses with the heart of a pastor, addressing a particular context. Therefore, though the apostolic principles and precepts remain unchanged, and hence relevant and binding in our day, these verses are not exhaustive when it comes to the particular matters related to both the married and the unmarried. Paul is answering some concerns raised by the Corinthian church (v. 1), and therefore we will need to look elsewhere for further elaboration on some of these matters (e.g. Ephesians 5), though this is Paul’s longest writing on the matter of being single.
We will look at this under three headings.
- Sexual Morality (v. 1–2)
- Marital Mutuality (vv. 3–5)
- Singular Purity (vv. 6–9)
Paul begins by addressing the matter of sexual immorality: “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” (vv. 1–2).
Apparently, the Corinthian church had corresponded with Paul, and he with them (see 5:9), concerning matters upon which they desired apostolic and pastoral counsel. One of those was the matter of marriage in an immoral culture.
Paul’s addressing sexual immorality in the previous two chapters are certainly not unrelated to the subject matter at hand. In fact, sexual responsibility in marriage will go a long way towards combating sexual immorality.
As in the previous section (6:12–20), Paul uses a Corinthian slogan to address the matter, but, in this case, it appears to be a Christian slogan he condones, though at the same time one he wants to clarify and build upon. But what was the wording of the slogan, and what did it mean?
The ESV’s “It is good for a man not have sexual relations with a woman” is translated in the KJV and NASB as, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” The CSB most descriptively captures the meaning of “touch” when it translates, “It is good for a man not to use a woman for sex.”
Perhaps this slogan was used with reflection on God’s words at creation: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18).
The word translated “have sexual relations with” or “touch” is key to understanding this passage. The Greek word means, properly, “to attach oneself to,” “to fasten oneself to,” “to cling to.” Contextually, the slogan uses the word with reference to illicit sexual relations. It seems that this slogan was a rebuke against the sexual immorality of which Paul had just written (6:12–20). Interestingly, Paul will use this word in 2 Corinthians 6:17 with reference to separating from that which is unclean. Think about that, Christian, when you are tempted to engage in sexual immorality. One cannot be unclean and at the same time glorify the God who indwells you.
While affirming the slogan, Paul is careful to not overreact, for, as he will point out, appropriate touching is not only permissible, but, in the right context, is even commanded in marriage. While condemning “sex and the city,” Paul carefully honours God’s good gift of physical intimacy in the marital relationship. Christians are to be neither perverse or prudish with God’s good gifts.
As we saw previously, the Roman world, including the Corinthian culture, viewed sexual relations in marriage primarily for procreation and therefore sex for recreation was sought elsewhere, outside the bonds and bounds of marriage. This is the reason for the exhortation strongly admonishing against sexual immorality with prostitutes (6:12–20).
We can presume that most of the church appreciated that sexual relations outside of marriage was forbidden and destructive. But perhaps some took this too far and assumed that celibacy, even within marriage, was the best practice, for they may have assumed there could be no recreational physical relations within a marriage. Though I am not sure the early church prioritised celibacy within marriage, it is possible that, coming out of a pagan worldview, they did not honour marriage as they should and hence the act of marriage as they should have. Hence, the slogan may have exceeded rightful bounds. Let me explain.
Commentators Ciampa and Rosner found 25 references in the ancient world confirming that the word “touch” in this verse meant exactly that, and usually in a horrible way.
In the Romanised world, the head of a household viewed those under his authority as his property to be used and to be “touched” in any way he chose. Therefore slaves, both male and female, could be used for sexual relations, in addition to prostitutes. Again, these sexual relations were for sexual recreation. The Corinthians were right to condemn this. It was not good, in this sense, for a man to touch a woman. Never!
But having addressed this principally in the previous passage, Paul wants to be very clear that not all “touching” is to be abhorred, for there is a place for recreational physical intimacy in the marital relationship. This is captured in the next statement: “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.”
What is Paul advising? Is he saying that marriage is merely a utilitarian safeguard against sexual immorality and therefore men and women should marry simply to avoid sexual sin? Is marriage all about sex where flesh is greedily consumed? Never! In effect, Paul is restoring to marriage the physical intimacy that the wisdom of the world has sought to steal from it. And while redeeming marriage, he is, at the same time, radically rescuing the dignity of women, particularly married women.
A Radical Message that Reforms Marriage
Paul’s response throughout the entire chapter is radically countercultural. The gospel does that. As our hearts are regenerated by the grace of God, our minds are transformed by the word of God and hence are decreasingly conformed to the wisdom of the world. And one transformational fruit is with reference to how we think about our bodies (6:20), and the bodies of others, including both bodies in the marital bond. In short, Paul is affirming, contrary to a sex-obsessed culture, that the marriage bed is not only for procreation but also for recreation. In fact, the marriage bed is the only legitimate place for either procreation or recreation. It is the one place where sexual relations occur without sinning against one’s body. The marriage bed, biblically understood, is a place to glorify God (6:19–20).
What He is Not Saying
Paul is not saying, as is too commonly asserted, that men and women should marry simply to avoid sexual immorality. He will address that later, but here he is arguing that those who are married are literally to “have” each other. You are to “have” your own wife or husband, not in the sense of acquiring one, but by maintaining regular sexual relations with the one you already have (Ciampa and Rosner). You should have and hold your spouse in the most intimate of ways.
In summary, the biblical norm for married couples is sexual relations confined to their relationship. Any other form of sexual relationship is forbidden, including prostitution, an illicit massage, pornography, and phone sex, among other things. The place for sexual satisfaction is one’s own marriage bed. Every other empty promise is to be resisted by fleeing (6:18).
Too often, husbands, and sometimes wives, try to justify illicit sexual behaviour by complaining that their spouse does not please them physically frequently enough. That may be so, but sexual immorality is forbidden. Categorically.
The sexual act was never just about procreation (though that is certainly a significant aspect of it), but, because of the one-flesh relationship, recreation is included. There is no spiritual benefit to celibacy in a marriage relationship unless for the purpose of mutual spiritual growth (see v. 5).
As we will see in our studies, there is more to marriage than the sexual relationship. This passage, like the rest of the book, is about the wisdom of the cross. And that wisdom is to inform every room in the house.
Having addressed the matter of sexual morality, Paul now shifts focus slightly to talk about marital mutuality.
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 7:3–5)
The language in this passage emphasises mutuality in the marital relationship. We might take that for granted and therefore it might be hard for us to appreciate how these opening verses shot across the bow of the sexually-immoral cultural (sinking) ship of the first-century ancient world. Paul’s emphasis upon mutuality in the marriage relationship would have been shocking, to say the least. Insane, to most. It certainly would not have been appealing to most men in the culture, but the wisdom of the cross never is.
Again, the gospel is a radical and revolutionary message about self-denial, a message rooted in serving others. The sinless Lord Jesus Christ took upon himself a body (Hebrews 10:5–7) and served sinners in that body, ultimately dying for them suffering the wrath we deserved. That sacrifice was effective because Jesus denied himself, resisted temptation to sin, including selfishness. Those whom he saves therefore also take up their cross, sacrificing themselves for others while denying ego-centric living. The Christian does this in every sphere, including the marriage. Marriages are to exemplify this selfless sacrificial mutual concern. And this goes for the marriage bed as well.
As we have seen, it was a given that the husband had conjugal rights, including conjugal rights with his slaves. In the delicate language of the KJV, the head of the household could legally “touch” others, whether the wife approved or not. For Paul to now say that a husband must give to his wife her rights is, well, amazing. But this is what the gospel does. It turns an upside-down world right side up.
The mutual concern for “conjugal rights” means that the husband is to be concerned for his wife’s needs and desires as much as his own. After all, Christians, being called to love God with their whole heart and soul are thereby strengthened by that love for God to love their neighbour as themselves. When it comes to marriage, a husband’s nearest neighbour is his wife and so he will consider her as much as he considers himself.
Authority for the Good of One Another
Paul’s use of the word “authority” further expresses the mutuality of the marital relationship. The word means to exercise authority over someone else. Paul clearly teaches there is mutuality of “ownership” between husband and wife. Paul is addressing Christian husbands and Christian wives and the assumption is that each is under the realisation that they are “bought with a price” (6:20; 7:23). Therefore, out of loyalty to their Master, they will willingly submit to his word in all matters, including here.
When a husband and wife, informed by the gospel and the wisdom of the cross, seek how they can serve the other, wonderful harmony is experienced. In every room in the house. Perhaps starting in the kitchen, as they say.
In v. 5, Paul continues the theme of mutuality in the physically intimate aspect of marriage, stressing that to withhold sexual relations from your spouse is akin to robbery or fraud. This is the meaning of the word “deprive.” This holds true for both husband and wife. We need to tread carefully here.
Though Paul’s purpose is positive, sinful people have misused this text as a manipulative club compelling a wife to sexually satisfy her ungodly and selfish husband. This is not Paul’s point. When a husband quotes this verse to his wife, or a wife to her husband, while at the same time living in such a way that they deny the Lord who bought them, then the wife/husband has every right to ignore the quotation.
Again, the gospel informs Paul’s counsel. Those transformed by the grace of God through the righteous life, redemptive death, and justifying resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ will be aware to perfume the marriage bed with the love of God in Christ Jesus. The Holy Spirit is as committed to producing love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in the bedroom as he does in every other room of a believer. It is the measure of the sinfulness of the old man that Christian husbands, and Christian wives, can turn a most precious act of love into a perverse manipulative demand. Do not read 1 Corinthians without your gospel glasses on. That my friend is what we can truly call safe sex.
For a Time
Paul recognises there may be legitimate mutually agreed upon times when the husband and the wife refrain from enjoying and exercising their conjugal rights. Paul indicates a gospel-driven reason: “that you may devote yourselves to prayer.” Paul, however, is quick to add “but then come together again” in union otherwise “Satan may … tempt you for your lack of self-control.”
It should not be missed that Paul assumes a praying marriage, as does Peter (1 Peter 3:7). Christian husband and wife, do you pray together? Do you appreciate the power of prayer?
The word behind the phrase “lack of self-control” is only used once elsewhere, in Matthew 23:25 where it is translated “self-indulgence.” Having just warned about sins of sexual immorality in the highly sexualised city of Corinth and the licentious zeitgeist of the culture, Paul was concerned to protect the marital relationship. He took care to provide biblical counsel as a means of guarding the temple of God (6:19–20) and the marriage (6:16) from defilement through sexual immorality.
Again, keeping in mind the cultural milieu regarding sexual mores, Paul was concerned to protect the individuals, the marriage, the church, and the testimony of the gospel from desecration. In other words, don’t overestimate your spiritual strength. You need to pray in your marriage, and yet you also need to play within your marriage. Wise counsel.
Finally, Paul turns to the matter of singleness.
Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
(1 Corinthians 7:6–9)
Paul introduces a subject to which he will return again later in the chapter; namely, being single, and his preference to remain single. We will explore the significance of singleness in future studies but, for now, I want us to understand the context as well as the content of these words in vv. 6–9.
The word “concession” means “permission” in the sense of, “If you will pardon my opinion, for I am not giving a biblical command, but my preference would be for the unmarried to remain so. However, I recognise that the church is made up of various members with various gifts from God to strengthen the church. So if being married is God’s gift to you, wonderful. I recognise that circumstantially some need to marry because their sexual passions are a ‘gospel-distraction. However, I also understand being single to be a gift from God for the Christian’s discipleship and for the wellbeing of the church.” We need to unpack this for there is often too much confusion and error in this area.
From what Paul writes in this chapter, we know he was unmarried. Perhaps he was widowed, or perhaps his wife had abandoned him at his conversion to Christ, or perhaps he never married. (Being a rabbi and probably a member of the Sanhedrin it would have been very out of the norm if he had not been married.) Regardless, he writes as one who was unmarried and this is clearly his preference (v. 8). Paul shares his “wish,” not God’s command. He acknowledges that, when it comes to being married or not being married, both are a “gift from God.” This is important to understand. On several levels.
First, Paul is writing to Christians, to a local church, and so the gift should be interpreted with reference to the body of Christ. (See how he elsewhere [1:7; 12:4, 9, 28, 30, 31] uses charisma in the context of the church.)
Our individualistic obsession turns God’s gifts into another form of, “What do I get out of this?” when we should be thinking, “How will the church benefit from this?” God’s gifts in respect of our station in life are under his sovereign determination and are designed to build up the one institution that will last throughout eternity: the church.
Second, and related to the above, marriage is God’s gift to the church in various ways.
For church members who are married, the purpose is Christian discipleship, both your own, your family members, and sons and daughters of God whom he saves and adds to this body. But I fear that, like retirement, Christians all too often waste their God gifted station in life.
Brothers and sisters, remember that, if God has gifted you with marriage, it is for his glory and for the good of his church besides for your own good. Do you see your marriage as a means for the Great Commission? Do you see your marriage as God’s gracious means to spiritually parent his sons and daughters? Do you see your marriage as the means to disciple your brother/sister in Christ to whom you are married?
Whining about Weddings
This understanding of God’s giftings should inform how we approach weddings. After all, if marriage is a gift from God for the wider benefit of the local church, then the ceremony celebrating this gift should be guarded by the gospel and should be celebrated by the church. Sadly, too often many Christians think no differently about weddings than non-Christians. Increasingly rare are Christian weddings that reflect the wisdom of the cross rather than the wisdom of the world.
Weddings are far too expensive shows that make bride and groom the centre of attention. Even in Christian weddings, inappropriate apparel, which ignores passages like this, are the norm. Weddings too often ignore faithful Christian stewardship of resources. The fear of man and ungodly competition too often determines what the event looks like. Sadly, the church body is often marginalised.
Third, we need to consider what is often termed “the gift of singleness.” What does this mean? Too often, the assumption is that this “gift” refers to a very low desire for physical intimacy. I don’t see that in Scripture. And I don’t think that is Paul’s point here. Again, to be unmarried (widowed, never married, divorced) and to belong to Christ is God’s gift to you for the church. Paul will explain this in more detail later, but here he makes clear that some church members are unmarried and this is a gift. But he does not say that this will or should be a person’s lifelong status. Rather, while the person is single, it is how God has gifted the Christian for the church.
Those who are single are not to be defined by what they are not. Rather, in the sovereign design of God, the currently single person is thereby gifted to serve the church, in a variety of ways. Singles can perhaps be a spiritual parent to brothers and sisters in Christ. They can reveal the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for a fulfilled life. They can serve as a foreshadowing of the church’s teleological-eschatological future of our marriage to the Lord Jesus Christ. They can help those who are married to grow in Christ. They can serve the Lord in an undistracted way. Those who are single are not to be pitied: They are to be treasured. As Eugene Peterson says, “God, not your marital status, defines your life.”
Fourth, strong sexual desire is not necessary an indicator of the gift of marriage. And be careful if you think it is. Paul speaks of a lack of self-control in v. 5, and refers again to this in v. 9. He later speaks of “strong passions” (v. 36) and “having … desire under control” (v. 37). This is certainly a passionate chapter! And though he does not condemn someone from marrying who has a “burning passion,” neither does he command it (contra Leon Morris). That is, Paul does not believe strong sexual desire demands marriage nor does he teach that a lack of strong sexual desire bars one from marriage. After all, where is there any mention of this in account of the first marriage (Genesis 2)?
Hardly a Compliment
Flippantly, v. 9 is bandied about as some kind of justification for getting married. But if you read it carefully, and particularly in the context of vv. 36–38, it is actually a less than noble reason to marry. After all, the phrase, “But if they cannot exercise self-control” is hardly a compliment!
Imagine saying of your child, “Isn’t it great that our child is controlled by his strong passions? Wow, we sure are proud!” Compare 9:25, where self-control is commended in an athlete as a template for a faithful believer.
The point is that marital physical intimacy is God’s gift to help one in their weakness so that they will not be distracted from a gospel-centred life. The desire for physical intimacy, which may lead to marriage, in no way exalts the individuals as receiving a special, elevated status which a single person has not received.
We need to handle this text carefully, lest we create an expectation of marriage when we might better create an expectation for self-denial. Marriage is good—a good gift from God. But if fleshly desires are the major motivating factor, we are missing the point and the marriage will miss its greatest blessing: union in and with Jesus Christ.
We must keep before us that our “burning passion” will perish but, for eternity, our loving passion for Jesus Christ will grow (Matthew 22:29–30).
Though “it is better to marry than to burn with passion,” and therefore marriage, of course, can be pursued, it is even better to learn self-denial and so, if one does choose to marry, the relationship will be others-focused, not self-focused. We need to teach our children self-control which will go a long way towards teaching them how to treat their bodies and the bodies of others.
Brothers and sisters, we need sanity when it comes to sexuality. Sex and the church looks radically different than sex and the city. Understanding we are bought with a price, let us use our bodies to reflect God’s weighty and wonderful design for both singleness and marriage. And let us bring his weight to bear upon our passions. As we do so, we will demonstrate the sanity of the saints.