Cherishing the Flame, 1 Corinthians 7:1-7


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1 Corinthians 7:1-7

Text Comment

v.1       The Corinthians had written a letter to Paul and he is now responding to what they wrote.  The same formula, “now about” will occur five more times in 1 Corinthians, almost certainly indicating in each case, that Paul is taking up another matter raised in their letter to him (e.g. 8:1; 12:1).  As at 6:12, it makes much better sense of what follows, if quotations marks are placed around the words following the colon.  But what are those words?

The NIV has almost certainly made a mistake in its translation of v. 1.  What the Corinthians had suggested in their letter, literally, was:  “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”  In the usage of the Greek language of the period, in every instance so far identified, “to touch a woman” is a euphemism for sexual intercourse.  No use of the phrase has been found meaning “to marry.”  Though Paul will later take up the question as to whether it is good for Christians to marry, in the first six verses of chapter 7 he is dealing with a different question:  viz. whether those already married should abstain from sexual relations.  Here is the Greek dualism raising its head as it did in the previous paragraph.  They were arguing in this way:  “The realm of the spirit is what matters, not the realm of the body.  And now, living in this spiritual realm as we do, would it not be better to avoid sex altogether?  Why should spiritual people grovel in this most physical of acts?  After all, in heaven there will be no marriage or giving in marriage – there we will be like the angels – why should we not aspire to be like them now?”  It is possible, of course, that some of the people making this argument, were the very women whose husbands were, perhaps as a result, resorting to prostitutes, as we read last week.

This idea of spiritual marriage, by the way, marriage without sex, would continue to reappear in early Christianity, so powerfully tending toward asceticism were the prejudices of Greek culture.  In the 4th century, Chrysostom will still be preaching against this practice of a sexless marriage.

v.2       Paul now begins his rebuttal of the position that an active sexual life was somehow beneath the dignity of a truly spiritually minded man or woman.  “Having one’s own wife or husband” is a euphemism for sexual relations.

v.4       This is an entirely radical position that Paul is taking.  In the Greco-Roman world of that day, marriage was often much more a social arrangement than a love affair.  The husband had the power and authority and, especially among the higher classes, the relationship with his wife – usually arranged and often purchased for the sake of status or as an aid to financial or social or political advancement – was often more like that of a father to his daughter or uncle to his niece.  No one in that day would have said that the husband’s body belonged to his wife!  But Paul is asserting plainly that there is a mutual sexual responsibility in marriage.  There is a right of sexual pleasure and fulfillment that marriage confers on both spouses equally.  For Paul, unlike too many Christians through the ages, sex in marriage is definitely not the privilege of the husband and the duty of the wife.  It is the privilege and responsibility of both equally.  [Witherington, 175; Fee, 286]

v.5       The word “deprive,” interestingly, is the same word rendered “defraud” in 6:7-8 in the case of the man who had defrauded his Christian brother.  Strong words for a sexless marriage!  Clearly this seems to be a reference to an existing practice in the church and Paul is condemning it, though allowing that there may be acceptable reasons for a strictly temporary sexual abstinence.  Paul is well aware of the temptations that mount for both husbands and wives when marriages are not romantically and erotically fulfilling.  He apparently sees some of the sexual immorality in the church that he has been dealing with in the previous paragraph as having its origin here.

v.6       The simplest way to read v. 6 is to take Paul to be saying that, while their general position, favoring abstinence from sexual relations in marriage, is wrong and must be abandoned as leading to all manner of evils, his concession that they may abstain for a time for the purpose of prayer is only that, a concession, not a command.  He does not want them now to behave as if everyone should be always abstaining for the sake of prayer!  That is just the sort of misconstruing of Paul’s remarks the Corinthians were past masters of.

Too often Paul has been taken here as meaning that marriage itself is a concession to the great danger of sexual temptation and that, therefore, celibacy is a higher and more spiritual state of life.  Paul does not say that and his concession is not about marriage itself, but about abstaining sexually for prayer!  There is nothing of this kind of asceticism in the Bible.  Even a person who had taken the vow of a Nazirite and who had given up many things was not required to be sexually celibate.

v.7       Paul draws this section to a conclusion by admitting that he feels the single state has great advantages.  He will indicate what they are later in the chapter.  But, he knows that it is not for everyone, God has not given the gift of celibacy to everyone, not even to most.  And one must live according to God’s provision which is always good and always right.

Paul’s language in this section is chaste and modest, as befits the holy Word of God.  But, his point is direct and unmistakable.  The doctrine here is the doctrine found in the rest of the Bible and often there in still more explicit form.  It is the doctrine of Proverbs and of the father who tells his son that the true answer to sexual temptation is an erotically fulfilling marriage.  After warning his son of the power of sexual temptation and the danger of succumbing to it, he says to him:

            “May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the

wife of your youth.  A loving doe, a graceful deer – may her

breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her

love.”  [5:18-19]

In the context that statement is a beautiful and straightforward affirmation of the importance of sexual love in marriage as a barrier to sin.  There are, of course, far greater and higher reasons for marriage being a matter of sexual intimacy and delight and fulfillment.  These are celebrated in the Song of Songs, and, in particular, the character of sexual love as both the instrument and fulfillment of the total union of two hearts and lives.  One flesh means many things, but, among them, it certainly means sexual union and sexual union as the instrumentality of the perfection of a complete communion of two personalities in love.

The Christian church has always known this, even when it has not always lived up to its knowledge.  Here is the 17th century Puritan, Thomas Watson.

 “It is not having a wife, but loving a wife, that makes a man live chastely.  He who loves his wife, whom Solomon calls his fountain, will not go abroad to drink of muddy, poisoned waters.  Pure conjugal love is a gift of God, and comes from heaven; but like the vestal fire, it must be cherished, that it go not out.  He who loves not his wife, is the likeliest person to embrace the bosom of a stranger.”  [The Ten Commandments, 160-161]

And long before Watson, Chrysostom, in the 4th century, spoke so openly and frankly about the holy pleasures of married love and the sexual union of husband and wife that he had to defend himself against the criticism of those in his congregation who were embarrassed by such candor.  No, he said, it is the way the Bible speaks.  “There is no need to blush when talking openly about marriage…”  [Kelly, Golden Mouth, 134-135]

We may sometimes miss the erotic celebration in biblical texts concerning sexual attraction and fulfillment in marriage because the erotic element is clothed in an elaborately figurative language, but those who read those texts in the first place, would have had no difficulty at all understanding what was being said.  Song of Songs was read every year at the Passover, the most sacred of Israel’s pilgrimage feasts.  And it is replete with the most explicit affirmations of sexual pleasure as a primary component of married love.

            “I liken you my darling to a mare, harnessed to one of the

chariots of Pharaoh.”

Egyptian chariots, as everyone knew, were pulled by stallions.  The presence of a mare would sexually excite the stallions and cause mayhem in the ranks.  Israel even knew a battle tactic in which a mare was released among the enemy chariot horses to divert their attention.  The picture is of a husband who is sexually fixated on his wife; he can’t keep his hands off her.  “May you ever be captivated by her love,” the father hopes and prays for his son, and, no doubt, also for his daughter in regard to her husband.  Indeed, what is particularly interesting about the Song of Songs is the way in which erotic desire and delight is expressed equally by the wife as by the husband.

The Bible teaches and Paul confirms here in 1 Corinthians 7 that sexual love is intrinsic to married love and to fidelity in marriage.  In 6:16 he warned against men making use of prostitutes by reminding them that sleeping with a prostitute, or anyone else you are not married to, causes you to become one in body with her.  And to prove that point he goes back to Genesis 2 and quotes the fundamental principle laid down at the origin of marriage, when God first gave Eve to Adam, that “the two will become one flesh.”  That is to say, when the Bible says that when a man and woman marry they become one flesh, it is saying something about their sexual relationship.  It may be saying more than that, but it is certainly saying that, because “one flesh” also happens when a man sleeps with a prostitute.  Sexual, physical union lies at the heart of marriage and has from the very beginning.

The old language of the Christian wedding service used to acknowledge this candidly.  When the groom gave his bride her ring he said, “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship…”  But Paul is careful to insist upon full mutuality here.  Notice his great emphasis on this here.  In v. 2 the same is said of both husband and wife; in v. 3 the responsibility of a sexual marriage is laid on both husband and wife in turn; in v. 4 he says the same thing of both the wife’s body and the husband’s; and, once more in v. 5, a point is made that what he is saying applies equally to both spouses.

This mutuality, of course, is a great part of the problem in the sexual relationship of marriage.  Men and women are not the same.  Indeed, in the matter of sexuality, they are profoundly different.  It was in respect to sexual differences that H. L. Mencken once said, “The elementary notion of standardization seems never to have occurred to the celestial Edison.”

Psychologists and Psychiatrists speak of the male manner of sexual thought being more focused and the female more contextual.  They point out that there is even a difference to be observed in the way men and women use their eyesight in sexual matters:  men making greater use of the macular, the focused, the straight-on sight and women more the peripheral with its attention to color and motion.  The physiology of sex has been thoroughly studied over the last hundred years and has confirmed what wise and observing people have always known:  sexual arousal, stimulation and fulfillment happens very differently in men and women.

It is this vast difference that God has created between the two sexes that so often complicates this dimension of life and makes even godly men and women feel that Paul is mocking them and their hopes and their longings by his counsel here in 1 Corinthians 7.  Would that it were so easy, they think; would that it were so simple as mere obedience on my part.

In a fine book on marriage published in 1965, the author picked up on that point and with the candor and realism so characteristic of good Christian writing about marriage, said this:

            “…take the main item in the ring bestowal:  With my body I thee worship.  A man can give his wife so little besides trouble.  He makes a life of hard labor for her, preempts most of her available time by begetting children upon her, and then leaves her alone with the whole business for the greater part of every working day.  It is the precisely the worship of his body for her that she so badly needs and so seldom gets.  And from an occasionally aroused husband she will never have it, though she wait a hundred years.  That can come only from a worshipful spouse who works at his devotions with discipline and perseverance.  People admit that it’s hard to pray.  Yet they think it’s easy to make love.  What nonsense.  Neither is worth much when it is only the outcropping of intermittent enthusiasm.  Both need to be done without ceasing; and that puts a premium on the minor manifestations.  Obviously the sexual act is central.  But the circle that is drawn around it consists of a thousand small passes and light touches.  …by a vast amount of incidental tenderness.”  [R.F. Capon, Bed and Board, 75-76]

I like that very much:  a truly, happily, sexual marriage “can come only from a worshipful spouse who works at his [or her] devotions with discipline and perseverance.”  Paul would, of course, have agreed.  His simple statements here must be understood in terms of the entire context of his ethical teaching.  He speaks here simply of a sexual marriage, but he would have been the first to understand how much that involved and required.  He would never have supposed it an easy thing, a simple thing, an uncomplicated thing to achieve and then to preserve this sexual harmony and sexual fire in a marriage.  He would be aghast at the thought that someone would take him to mean that it is enough if husbands and wives simply go through the motions frequently, as if that and that alone was what made a faithful marriage.  Not at all.  What he is after is what the father in Proverbs was after for his children, what the lovers of the Song of Songs were after:  the breathless passion and eroticism of true and complete married love which, of course, he would have been the first to say can only take place in the context of true love and true faithfulness.  Sex is a central factor and dimension of this married joy and fulfillment, to be sure, but it is sex mixed with tender affection, with romantic attraction, with practical and sacrificial attention to the welfare and happiness of the other, and with the communion of hearts in the greater, higher purposes of life, the love of God and the service of Christ’s kingdom.

Anything this important, anything this sacred is going to take commitment.  It will require humility to admit what one does not yet know, patience to learn lessons that take time to learn, love to care first for the happiness of the other, faith to believe that in the keeping of the commandments of God there is a great reward.  Think of it just that way:  learning to make love this way is like learning to pray and, while there are many difficulties in the way that must be surmounted, they will and can be surmounted by the devout and eager worshipper.

C.S. Lewis, in his A Grief Observed, the meditation he wrote after the death of his wife, acknowledged that when he married he found himself looking at himself very differently than before.  Even his own body, he said, “had such a different importance” because it belonged to his wife, just as Paul said.  [13]  And he and his wife had thrown themselves into this, as Christian spouses should.  In Lewis’ own words,

            “For those few years [she] and I feasted on love; every mode of

it – solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as

dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and

unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers.  No cranny of heart

or body remained unsatisfied.”  [10]

That is the way to think about all of this.  There is a feast here, a feast for both to enjoy.  It requires a great deal to put on a feast so that it may be enjoyed by those who attend.  The table must be set, the food must be purchased and prepared, the wine chosen, the guests invited, the music and the lighting provided for.  The more feasts one prepares, the better at it one becomes.  The more feasts a couple put on together, the more they know what food and drink, what music and lighting, what settings on the table will be most pleasing.  No, to feast well, to enjoy that special pleasure, much attention to detail is required.  But when the details are mastered, what pleasure follows.

Paul is not denying that at all.  He is just reminding us that feasting is what marriage is for and that it is wrong for Christian husbands and wives to refuse to feast.  They need to feast and it is their right.  God has given them this right.  And husbands and wives are responsible together to make sure that in their marriage they feast on love.

Paul’s goal is not simply a marriage that is secure and polite and which provides certain benefits to both the spouses and the children.  He is after a marriage that lives up to the noble and beautiful ideal of communion of heart and of body so compellingly presented in Holy Scripture.  That is the only marriage that properly reflects the goodness and the generosity and the wisdom and the genius of the God who made marriage and made us for marriage.  There is nothing ordinary, nothing conventional, nothing merely commonplace in God’s inventions.  All the more in those creations which were designed for the happiness and welfare of his children.  Those things, marriage among them, are the most beautiful, elevating, exciting, pleasing, fulfilling, completing things that we know.  We know this.  We know that marriage ought to be pleasure and romantic thrill and satisfying communion of heart and the best companionship.  That is what God made it for.

Obviously, sexual passion, pleasure and fulfillment is a significant dimension of that ideal.  And when you have a marriage like that, you have many wonderful blessings, a joy and pleasure in life that is one of earth’s greatest foretastes of heaven.  But you also derive from such a marriage a large measure of protection from sin.  Secure in the pleasure and fulfillment of your own marriage, you are much less likely to seek that pleasure elsewhere.  More than that even, happy in wedded love, you are far less likely to be driven by unhappiness into the various states of mind from which all manner of sins arise.

It seems almost antique to speak of such things in a culture like ours – how marriage serves as a barrier to sin, sexual sin and sins of other kinds.  But the reason the culture doesn’t care is because it doesn’t believe that it will ever have to answer to a holy God for its sexual sins.  Let it believe that for just a moment and it will suddenly find marriage and the sanctity of marriage and of the marriage bed fabulously important for this reason alone!  That by marriage, by a loving, faithful, sexually fulfilling marriage, we may keep at bay those temptations to sin that might very well be our everlasting undoing.

Those of you who already know how important it is to live a holy life should have no difficulty hearing Paul and paying careful attention to what he is saying.  You spouses, you husbands and wives can live together in the same house, you can have and raise children together, you can eat at the same table, you can even sleep in the same bed, but if you are not “having one another,” if sexual love in the rich, biblical sense of that term is not the regular and happy pattern of your married life, you are not living according to the law of God, or his intention for you as his children and your marriage is not what it ought to be.  And the result of that is not only that you are being deprived of one of life’s great joys and your spouse is as well, but you are exposing yourself to danger.  You are inviting Satan to tempt you and you can be sure he will never pass up an opportunity to undo a Christian when the Christian himself or herself hands him that opportunity on a silver platter.

So no more of a sexless marriage!  In fact, I will dare to go beyond the Apostle Paul, though I think he would agree with me.  I will tell you straight out:  you have no permission to separate sexually from your husband or your wife even for the sake of prayer until you first have begun, really begun to feast on love.  When you are feasting on that love, then it will mean something to give it up for prayer.  But only then!