What role should sexual relations play in marriage? Since marriage is the God-ordained arena for giving of yourself in a sexual relationship, how is this supposed to work out? First Corinthians 7:2-5 guides us to the heart of the matter: those married in Christ should have robust sexual relations that are mutually beneficial, helping both husband and wife to navigate the tricky waters of sexual immorality.
Sexual relations in marriage
The husband and wife are supposed to “fulfill their marital duty” to each other (1 Corinthians 7:3). Notice that this frames sexual relations within marriage as a duty each spouse owes to the other. The use of the phrase “deprive one another” in verse 5 also displays sexual relations as a mutual duty. After all, if it wasn’t yours to begin with, then you can’t be deprived. If only all duties in life had such potential for pleasure…
Of the much that could be said regarding the duty of delight within marriage, I want to highlight two issues. First, this teaching on sexual relations is surprisingly equal in its attention to the sexual desires of both the man and woman. Second, we must be careful to not misrepresent the power that marital sexual relations have in helping each spouse remain sexually pure.
It takes two…
It is refreshing to notice that Scripture here provides a relatively balanced picture of human sexuality. Often in discussions of sex throughout history, women get overlooked (or ignored, or minimized, or misrepresented, etc.). When we read these verses in 1 Corinthians, notice that women’s sexual desires receive as much attention as men’s.
That is very different from a common sexual script we hear today, the common male-dominated picture where men try to take what they want from reluctant women who put out as a means to meet some other goal. In contrast to this lopsided, male-dominated view of sexual activity, 1 Corinthians calls for spouses to jointly work out patterns of life that result in a mutually beneficial sexual relationship.
Of course, the particulars of working out such a relationship are complicated. Each couple needs to figure out their own balance of give and take. This requires exploring, trial and error, and communication. For example, one spouse may find it uncaring to be approached for sex after they had a bad day; another may desire that.
Sexual relations need to stand in balance with all the other rights and responsibilities of life. But they are a right and responsibility. The biblical ideal commits a husband and wife to the project of knowing one another in deep ways such that their sexual relationship is a blessing to each.
Communicate. Couples tend to follow a simple pattern doomed to fail. They don’t talk about their sexual desires and pleasures with each other. Then they are frustrated when things are out of balance. It is hard to forge a mutually beneficial sexual relationship when both parties are always guessing in the dark. Spouses, to pursue the biblical ideal of 1 Corinthians 7 requires talking to each other about the status of your sexual relationship.
Sexual relations are not a rescue project
While recognizing the beauty—or at least beautiful potential—of sexual relations in marriage, there is an important limitation. This limitation has to do with how sexual relations in marriage relate to sexual immorality (that’s porneia).
There is a long-running idea in certain Christian circles about sexual relations in marriage. It goes something like this: girls need to remain sexually pure and modest until marriage where they can then rescue the boys from their sinful sexual longings. While this is a crass and simplistic way to put it, the basic idea is clear. On the one hand, yes, when a man and woman marry they should direct their sexual longings at one another. The problem, though, is that this simplified message under-estimates the destructive power of sexual immorality. It is also wrong to the degree that it puts pressure on women to guard the sexual morality of men, but not really vice versa.
According to 1 Corinthians 7:2, people should get married “because of sexual immorality.” That is, marriage is a guard against being herded down wrong paths by sexual desires. Based on this verse, many Christians have conveyed the idea to young people that getting married fixes “sexual immorality” issues. If you just wait until marriage, then everything will work out great and sexual immorality will blissfully disappear. This often well-intentioned advice, though, is wrong.
The problem is that this will never work if one (or both) of the parties in a marriage come in already devoted to sexual immorality. And, let’s face it, sexual immorality is one of the key idols of our time. We are primed, trained, and encouraged to devote ourselves to it.
Sexual relations within marriage are not a pathway to rescue anyone from sexual bondage. They are more like a pleasure garden to tend together. But if one or both spouses have a tornado of sexual immorality raging inside, the pleasure garden has no chance to grow and bloom. Pornography, habitual masturbation, and/or affairs will destroy the garden.
Worship of sexual immorality will not be defeated by sexual relations with a spouse, no matter how often or enthusiastic they be. Rescue requires far deeper work of grace and self-repair.
Sexual relations in marriage should rank among the most pleasant and fulfilling duties a spouse ever has. This beautiful duty calls for spouses to know one another and aim at fulfilling one another’s needs and desires. There is no place in this vision for tyrants, demands, or power struggles. Instead, spouses get to tend with each other a pleasure garden that is theirs and theirs alone.