A man approached me after hearing me speak on the topic of sexual intimacy and thanked me for talking openly about such a vulnerable subject. Then he began sharing his story with me. He had just divorced his wife of 29 years because of a lack of fulfilling sex in their marriage.
I wish I had heard you speak when we first got married. At this point, it’s just too late for us. Neither of us have been sexually satisfied in our marriage. Although she didn’t want the divorce, I really believe it is a kindness to her. Now we can both pursue someone who will meet our sexual needs.
I’ve heard hundreds of stories like this. Christian men and women use Scripture to say that great sex is an essential right in marriage. One spouse forces another to have sex when and how he likes because “it’s my marital right.” A spouse goes through decades of miserable sexual experiences because “it’s my duty.” If sex is broken for too long, they assume their marriage isn’t worth saving.
Unfortunately, a lot of Christian teaching on marriage and sex has reinforced this thinking. All of the focus is on whether or not a couple fulfills a sexual obligation. Does the Bible teach that great sex is a right in marriage? Some point to Corinthians 7:1-5 to suggest that it does.
Let’s take a look at what Paul wrote:
Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
As we walk through this passage, we need to remember two things: 1. This instruction is within the context of an ongoing discussion with the Corinthian church. This is why Paul quotes them. He is responding to something they asked, and we don’t know the full context of this conversation. 2. This instruction is within the context of the entire Bible. When we build a theology of sex (or anything else) on a few isolated verses, we will often end up with a theology not representative of the entire message of the Bible. This is what I fear has happened in the case of these verses.
If you only read I Corinthians 7:1-5 to understand sex in marriage, you would probably conclude:
Sexual desire is a really bad thing. God made marriage to try to tame us sexually. That’s why you have to give each other sex whenever one of you wants it. Otherwise, you (or your spouse) will fall into sexual sin. The only reason why you should deny your spouse sex is if you agree to have a period of prayer—and how long can a person really claim to be praying?
For much of the early years in my marriage, this is what I thought the Bible actually taught about marriage and sex. I heard sermons and marriage seminars essentially reinforcing this message. I was supposed to meet my husband’s sexual needs because if I didn’t, he would be justified in cheating on me. This made me feel like a sex object to my husband. Although I knew Mike loved me, I still sometimes felt like physically I was being used for his pleasure based on a biblical teaching.
Oh, I wish that for those many years I had a more complete understanding of the beauty of God’s gift of sexual intimacy! Here are three things I wish I had learned about God’s design for sex in marriage.
The spirit of I Corinthians 7 is not to present sex in marriage as an obligation, but a call to take seriously the symbol of two lives united as one. My friend Linda Dillow describes this passage as a picture of a “gift exchange.” Both the husband and the wife share their bodies with the other as a gift of love, symbolizing their lifelong promise.
Notice that Paul emphasizes both the wife and the husband’s sexual needs. The call to meet your spouse’s sexual needs does not just refer to the person who has the higher sexual desire. The lower desire spouse (whether it be the man or the woman) also has needs, feelings, and even fears to attend to. Unfortunately, most couples apply this passage only to the person who wants sex and completely ignores the needs of the person who has to “give it.”
If your sex life revolves around one of you, something is wrong. If your spouse rarely enjoys sex but engages in it just to keep you from temptation or to please you, your sex life is unbalanced. In almost every marriage, one spouse will need to nurture the sexual desire of the other. This may include communication, counseling, patience, and learning to trust through non-sexual touch.
Most men and women who have a low sexual desire in marriage stay stuck in that place because they never take the time to explore and address barriers to intimacy. Mutual love calls us to consider the emotional, relational, and sexual needs of both the husband and the wife, no matter who expresses the desire for more sex. I Corinthians 7 is calling a couple to take seriously the journey of sexual intimacy, understanding that it has the power to unite or divide them.
Let’s say that we have a big anniversary coming up and I tell my husband, “Mike, I want to go to Hawaii for two weeks to celebrate our 25th anniversary.” And what if Mike responds, “That’s a nice thought, but we don’t have the money for that kind of trip. And if we were to plan a trip like that, I’d much rather go to Europe.”
In response to Mike, what if I said, “I don’t care how much it costs. I don’t care if you’d rather go to Europe. I don’t care if we have to get a second mortgage on our home. I want you to take me to Hawaii for two weeks. I deserve this after twenty-five years of marriage!”
What’s wrong with this picture? The purpose of an anniversary is to celebrate our love and to remember the vows we made and have kept. But in the planning of the celebration, my demands show a selfish, uncaring heart. If I acted like this, not only would we have a miserable trip, but my husband would likely be dreading the next 25 years of marriage!
The Bible clearly teaches that marriage and sex are a reflection of Christ’s love for His church. The act of sex should point to the unconditional love of Christ, not a selfish attitude that requires you meet my needs. Any man or woman who demands sex from a spouse has missed the whole point. Sex is a symbol of love. Demanding the symbol ironically obliterates the love sex was created to celebrate.
The celebration of covenant love means that both the husband and wife take steps to pursue actual oneness and unity. The sexual journey is not just about what’s happening with your body, but the pursuit of intimately knowing each other. Both the spouse that demands and the one who withdraws puts a moratorium on this pursuit of unity. Sacrificial love calls both of them to work toward genuine intimacy, not just a sexual release.
It is also a gross misinterpretation to think that Paul is blaming a wife for her husband’s sexual sin (or vice versa) or putting pressure on her to meet his needs so he doesn't look at porn. It’s not marital sex that helps us control sexual temptations. As Paul taught in Galatians 5, it is only yielding to the Holy Spirit that can have that effect in our lives. Christian husbands and wives, under the power of the Holy Spirit, steward their sex lives for the greater purpose of covenant love.
Why do we expect Christian singles to have total self-control and denial sexually, and then assume within marriage we have the right to have every desire and fantasy met, even at the expense of the one we are called to love? Whether you are single or married, self control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. The inability to steward your sexual urges, temptations, and desires is not a marriage problem, but a reflection of your lack of surrender to the Holy Spirit.
God’s best for you is not a pain-free, blissful sex life. Don’t get me wrong: Great sex in marriage is a gift. But the greater gift is the character you must develop to love each other well, in season and out of season. God’s gift of sexual intimacy is extremely complicated and profound. Indeed, He has designed it so that a couple married for fifty years might still be exploring the intricacies of what it means to know each other and become “one flesh.”
Without question, the secular culture around us has cheapened sex to be about a physical experience. Let’s be careful that we don’t allow a simplistic Christian view of sex to do the same. God, in His goodness, has a gift more profound than simply pursuing a great sexual experience with your spouse. He has invited you to journey together toward intimate knowing, exploration, and learning to love each other in the most profound way.
You may also find the following resources helpful:
Beyond a Happy Marriage (blog)
Your Sexual Differences Can Make You Better Lovers (blog)
Passion Pursuit: What Kind of Love Are You Making?, a 10-week Bible study through the Song of Solomon.
Java with Juli #151: The Naked Truth About Sex in Your Marriage (member exclusive)