1 Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.
2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.
3 The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.
4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
6 But this I say by way of concession, not of command.
7 Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that.
8 But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I.
9 But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
(1 Corinthians 7:1-9)
We often think of ancient Greece as a bastion of culture and the birth place of Western civilization, but in reality, the Greeks were really messed up, especially when it came to sex. At various times and in different city-states, men were allowed (even expected) to have sexual relationships with adolescent boys in exchange for educating them, soldiers were encouraged to have homosexual relationships with each other under the belief that one would fight harder if on the same battlefield as his lover, and women were made into temple prostitutes where men would sleep with them to “worship” their gods. As sexually depraved as our culture has become, Greece was probably still much worse.
By the time Paul wrote to the Corinthians, at least 2 incorrect views of sex had started to infiltrate the church at Corinth, a city known for its sexual immorality:
- 1. You should just have as much sex as you can, including using temple prostitutes to worship God. This possibly stemmed from the view (much like today) that sex is a natural physical function so there is no reason to deny yourself. It also could have come from a mistaken belief that the physical is less important than the spiritual; therefore, what you did with your body didn’t matter.
- 2. You should never have sex. This seems to stem from a misconception that the flesh is evil; therefore, you should deny yourself the desires of your physical body.
Paul deals with the first sinful view in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. He deals with the second one here at the beginning of chapter 7, as he responds to what seems to be a question from the Corinthians about whether they should just stop having sex. And while there were somethings about this question that were correct, it was just as wrong a question as it was right one. And while Paul is responding to a question and not laying out a systematic theology of sex, I think there are still 3 major things we can learn about sex, marriage, and singleness:
1. It is good to remain single.
Paul emphasizes this twice, once in verse one (it is good for a man not to touch a woman) and once in verse 8 (But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I.). Why is it good? Paul gets to that later in chapter 7, writing,
32 But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord;
33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife,
34 and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.
All of us who are married (especially if we also have kids) have felt the tension between wanting to serve God more and making sure we don’t neglect our families. Our families are blessings, but they also keep us from spending more time connecting with others, evangelizing, and ministering to the church. Paul knew from experience that a single person can serve God in a different way than a married person because they have more time and less cares. Even a single person who is preparing for marriage and one who is content being single have different priorities (e.g., working to save up money for a future family vs. just working to live) that makes their service to God different. What Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 is that those who are devoted to remaining single will experience intimacy with and blessings from God that a married person can never experience. That’s not to say that remaining single is better than getting married, but it is also not worse. Singleness in itself is a good thing, just as marriage is a good thing.
And let us not make light of the fact that singleness is good. This is something that the Protestant church does a terrible job of emphasizing. For example, my church in Russia always emphasized that it is not good for man to be alone. Young people were encouraged to get married, pressured to get married, and asked when they were getting married. Many of my friends in Russia were married between the ages of 18 and 20. I’m not joking when I say that a single woman in her mid-20s was pretty much already considered an old maid. As a result, girls who had not found a husband in the church by their mid-20s started to settle for someone outside the church, which was neither in line with God’s will nor good for their spiritual life, and many ended up no longer attending church.
We need to make sure we teach that getting married and remaining single are different but equal paths in worshipping, serving, and drawing closer to God. A single person who is honoring God in his singleness should never feel pressure from the church to get married or as though he is somehow lesser because he is not married.
2. If you are single, do not have sex … at all.
This applies whether you are single and hoping to one day marry or if you are single and planning on remaining so as long as you live. You see this right off the bat in verse 1, where the phrase “it is good for a man not to touch a woman” is not only a euphemism for sex but also implies that any thing sexual counts as sex. We like to create gray areas that we think lie somewhere in between sin and purity, but Paul doesn’t leave room for those gray areas when he says not to even touch a woman. There is sin or there is purity. There is nothing in between. One of the verses I always try to keep at the front of my mind is Job 31:1: “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” Job understood that even looking at a woman with sexual intent is sinful. We also saw this principle earlier in Matthew when Jesus said in Matthew 5:28 “that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
I think Paul also gives a practical reason why singles should refrain from sexual immorality when he says in verse 4, “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” While this certainly applies to the already married couple, I think it also applies to the single person. If you are not married, but one day will be, your future spouse has authority over your body … even if you haven’t even met that person yet. You owe it to that person to keep yourself pure for him, just as he ought to keep himself pure for you. Of course, Paul’s later discussion of marriage in Ephesians 5 brings an added dimension to this passage, revealing that for all of us, Christ is our Bridegroom. Therefore we all, whether married, single and looking, or single for life, are obligated to keep ourselves pure for our Husband, who has authority over our bodies (see also 1 Corinthians 6:19).
3. If you are married, have sex often … but only with your spouse … and enjoy it.
Much of our contemporary church culture is still influenced by Victorian era ideals, and I think the most prominent area where we see this is the issue of sex. For the most part, sex is still a taboo subject for Christians, and we hesitate to discuss it … unless, of course, we are condemning sexual sin. We are so careful to point out everything that is bad about sex, but we are not equally as conscientious to point out what is good about sex. I think we often contribute to the slanted, misguided view of sex that the world has. Because, though we may not say it often enough, sex within marriage is good. In fact, Paul says here that married couples are supposed to have sex. He says the husband and wife are to fulfill [their] duty to each other. He commands them to [s]top depriving one another. Sex is both a privilege and a responsibility for those who are married, and I think Paul gives 2 reasons here for having sex:
a. Having sex prevents us from sinning sexually. In verse 5, Paul says, “come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” In verse 9, he writes, “it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Sex within marriage is beneficial to both partners in helping them remain sexually pure in their thoughts and actions (the Every Man’s Battle and Every Woman’s Battle books do a great job on this topic, and there are versions for young men and women as well). Even unbelievers get this. I remember an Everybody Loves Raymond episode where Ray (a sportswriter) is about to go out of town to cover a story and gets into an argument with his wife, Deborah. He’s surprised when she initiates intimacy that night, but she explains that having sex the night before he leaves on a trip is “the rule.” Even the world, with a distorted view of sex, understands that sex within marriage prevents sin.
b. Having sex glorifies God. At the end of chapter 6, Paul told the Corinthians to “glorify God in your body.” He was speaking particularly about refraining from sexual immorality, but I would make the case that it can also be applied to maintaining sexual purity, and in the marriage relationship, this includes sexual intimacy. As I said before, the world has a convoluted view of sex, and it is our responsibility as Christian husbands and wives not only to condemn sexual immorality but also to model true sexual intimacy. When Paul says, “Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time,” the implication is that sex should be the rule, not the exception, in marriages. If you do “fast” from sex for a period of prayer, Paul then says to “come together again.” That phrase “come together” means “to exist” and implies oneness. Paul tells the married couples to be together, to exist together, as one. Sexual intimacy within marriage is the place where we revert back to being “naked and unashamed,” where we live in unadulterated harmony with God and the partner he has given us. We are to both glorify God in the act of marital intimacy and in the witness we therefore give to the world on God’s original design for sex.
Things to Reflect on in Light of this Passage:
1. Do I ask questions like, “When are you getting married?” to single people that might make them feel like a second class citizen in the church or cause them to feel pressure to rush into an inappropriate relationship?
2. If I am single and not looking, have I made a covenant to refrain from all sexual immorality, recognizing that my Bridegroom has authority over my body, and have I devoted the time, money, effort, etc. that would be devoted to a family to God instead? If I am single and looking, do I recognize that my future spouse has authority over my body even now, and do I use that as my standard in how I relate to the opposite sex? If I am married, do I recognize my spouse’s authority over my body or do I see it as mine to use as I want?
3. If I have a healthy sexual relationship with my spouse, do I model that sexual purity and oneness for my children and others to see as example of true intimacy? Can the world tell that our relationship is somehow different and more fulfilling? If I do not have a healthy sexual relationship with my spouse, what is hindering us from surrendering our bodies to the one to whom they belong?