Abstinence is Good, but Not in Marriage
1 Corinthians 7:1-7
Abstinence is Good, but Not in Marriage
Many times Christians have been very reluctant to address these kinds of issues thinking them to be inappropriate topics for discussion. I believe that one of the negative consequences of the church’s unwillingness to teach frankly and openly on the subject of sexuality is the rampant sexual immorality that is so prevalent in our society. The church has not addressed the subject; Christian parents at home have not addressed the subject. Now as a result, the vast majority of our society has been misinformed and led astray by immoral individuals who very much are talking about this subject, but much of what they teach is perverse and untrue.
Paul is very open in teaching about sexuality and he teaches about it in this open letter addressed to the entire church at Corinth. Paul did not begin this subject by asking that it be read in private only to the men or only to the women. He did not say be sure the young people leave the room before reading this. Too many times we have kept silent on these subjects so that our young people, if they want to know anything about it at all are forced to look to what the world has to say about the subject. I say, let them hear about it from God’s word and they will be far better off.
In 1 Corinthians 6:13 we saw Paul teaching that there is a higher purpose for the body than marriage and a greater means of finding fulfillment and gratification than sex. The Bible says that, “The body is . . . for the Lord and the Lord for the body.” In other words, the body (including its desires) is designed and created for the Lord and the Lord is the only one who can truly fulfill the body’s purpose and the Lord is the only one who can truly satisfy the desires of the body, because the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body.
Contrary to the common philosophy of the world, the Bible does not teach sexual gratification as a necessity, nor does it even teach marriage as being preferable to abstinence. The Bible does not teach that there is greater potential for fulfillment in life as a married person than there is as a single person. Nor does the Bible teach that sexual gratification in marriage is God’s ideal intention for mankind. What the Bible does teach is that sexuality in marriage points us toward an even greater union and greater intimacy and greater fulfillment that is possible in this life through relationship with God alone. Intimacy with God is the ideal ultimate intention of God for mankind and you don’t have to be married to experience it.
Now when I taught on these verses some of you jumped to the false conclusion that I was putting down the sexual relationship between a husband and wife in marriage. Some of you wrongly understood me to say that the Bible teaches that celibacy is preferable to sexual intimacy even in marriage and that those who are truly spiritual will not seek sexual gratification, even if they are married. Some were confused and thought I was suggesting that married couples, if they are truly spiritual, will practice abstinence in their relationship with each other. In today’s study of 1 Corinthians 7:1-7, Paul is responding to the same confusion and misunderstanding that had arisen from his teaching.
Remember that Paul had taught in Corinth for over a year and since leaving Corinth he has been corresponding with the church by letters in which he continued to teach them. This is not the first time he has taught them on this subject of sexuality and marriage. But there were many in Corinth who were misinterpreting his teaching and taking it to extremes. Based upon Paul’s teaching about the body being for the Lord and the Lord for the body, some of them had come to the conclusion that sex is worldly, or even that it is dirty, and therefore it is best for everyone to avoid all sexual involvement. Some had concluded that a married couple, if they really wanted to be spiritual, should practice abstinence from sexual relationships with each other and maintain strictly a spiritual marriage rather than a physical marriage.
This practice was apparently resulting in marriage problems. Some were seeking to end their marriage and others were becoming sexually involved outside of their marriage because their spouse had embraced the idea that sex was unspiritual. This thinking was no doubt a contributing factor to some of the Corinthian men turning to the prostitutes for their sexual gratification as we saw in 6:15-16. Therefore they have written Paul a letter in which they are raising some of these issues and asking questions seeking to get clarification. Here in chapter seven Paul begins, one by one, responding to the issues they brought up in their letter to him.
Vs. 1 “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”
If you are using an NIV Bible you need to be aware that their translation of this verse which reads, “It is good for a man not to marry”, is their own interpretation of the text but is not what the original says and it is misleading. It is not talking about marriage. The text literally says “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.” In this context the word “touch” means to have sexual relations with her. (Leon Morris, p. 102). The ESV translates this as, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” The issue was not marriage but sexual intimacy in marriage.
It is almost certain that Paul is not making his own statement here in verse one, but rather he is quoting one of their statements from their letter. (Fee and Thiselton) Paul does not disagree with this statement when applied to relationships outside of marriage but he strongly disagrees with it when applied to a husband and wife. Some of the Corinthians were taking the position that the life of celibacy was superior to the married life and that those couples who abstained from intimate physical relations were more spiritual than those who were sexually active. Now some are questioning Paul about this in their letter to him. And Paul begins to address the subject by saying, “Now concerning the position some of you have taken saying that “it good for a man not to touch a woman”. They had people on opposite extremes in Corinth. Some were indulging in all kinds of sexual immorality and some were reacting by going to the other extreme of opposing all sexual activity as sinful, even in marriage.
After reading through chapter seven you could summarize Paul’s position this way, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman, but in the context of marriage the opposite is true, it is good for a man to have sexual relations with his wife. In fact it is his duty.” When you take into consideration all of Paul’s teaching on this subject you find that Paul does not elevate celibacy above marriage, but neither does he elevate marriage above celibacy. Both have advantages and disadvantages.
Genesis 2:18 says, “And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” This passage is often cited as evidence that it is not good for man to be single. But that is not what the Bible says, but rather, “It is not good that man should be alone”. Adam was more than merely single; he was the only human being on the planet. He was alone. The point of Genesis 2:18 is this, “God made man to be a sharer. God created us not to be cul-de-sacs of His bounty but conduits. No man is complete unless he is conducting grace (like electricity) between God and another person. (No unmarried person should conclude that this can happen only in marriage.)” (John Piper, “Brothers We are not Professionals”)
Vs. 2 “Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.”
In contrast to their view Paul qualifies their statement. Outside of marriage this is true, it is good for a man not to touch a woman, but such abstinence within marriage is not only discouraged but is wrong and is forbidden.
“Nevertheless”, can also be translated as “but”, meaning in contrast to your position of abstinence in marriage let me say something. The statement, “because of sexual immorality” is literally plural in the Greek and should read, “Because of sexual immoralities.” As in the NASB. (Fee, p. 277) The plural suggests that Paul has specific instances of immorality in mind. For example, their practice of withholding affection in marriage is resulting in the sexual immoralities that are already occurring among them. If you look to the context of the previous chapter that we have just studied, what are some of the sexual immoralities that are occurring among them that Paul may be referring to? Verses 15 and 16 of chapter six indicate that some of the men are seeing prostitutes. It could be that because some husbands are being deprived of sexual relations with their wives that they are going to the prostitutes which Paul clearly identified as sexual immorality. (Ibid.) Paul strongly opposes seeking sexual gratification outside of marriage but instead he says, “Let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.”
This is not saying that everyone should find a partner and get married. Paul contradicts throughout chapter 7 this idea that everyone should get married. “To have a wife” is an idiom that is common in biblical Greek and usually means to “have sexually”. (E.g., Mark 6:18; John 4:18; 1 Cor. 5:1) (Ibid.) Paul is saying “Let each man who is already married have sexual relations with his own wife and let each woman who is already married have sexual relations with her own husband.”
Vs. 3-4 “Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”
“Having” your own spouse means to embrace and have full marital intimacy with them. Apart from the Bible, all other ancient writings regarded sexual intimacy as being either for the sake of procreation or as a one sided pleasurable experience for men that women provided. But the Bible is the first to teach that the affection between a husband and wife was to be mutual and that the husband shared the same responsibility toward the wife as she did towards him. In marriage we are obligated to minister to the needs of our partner. There is no place for celibacy in marriage. And there is no place for a one-sided duty of one to meet the needs of the other. This is a strong statement against male chauvinism. In the marriage union the man has just as much responsibility to meet the needs of the wife as she does to meet his needs. This is not limited to the sexual relationship alone but to fulfilling all of the marital responsibilities of loving and caring for one another. This idea is strongly reinforced by Ephesians 5:25 where husbands are instructed to love their wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her. And Ephesians 5:28 says, “So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies.” What you want done for you must also be done for her.
Notice that verse four reinforces what was taught in chapter six, that our body is not our own. But in chapter six the Bible taught that our body was for the Lord and therefore we are not our own but have been bought at a price by the blood of Christ and belong to Him. Remember that marriage is supposed to be a picture of what our relationship with Christ is like. He is the groom and we are His bride. Just as in our relationship with Christ, our body is not our own, so too in our marriage relationship, our bodies are not our own to do with as we please. Jesus, our groom, laid down His body for our sake that we might have abundant life.
Verse four is a strong statement against the prevailing attitude of our generation that a woman has rights and authority over her own body. This argument is especially used to justify a woman’s right to abortion. But in the context of marriage neither spouse has authority over their own body. The emphasis is not on “possessing” or controlling the body of our spouse; but rather, in marriage I do not have authority over my own body, to do with it as I please. In marriage there are obligations and responsibilities toward one another that cannot be neglected. Therefore, one partner cannot deprive their spouse from the affection and consideration that is due them. There has to be a mutually agreeable arrangement worked out whereby the needs of both partners are equally considered and met.
Vs. 5 “Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
The Bible literally says here that to withhold sexual affection from your spouse is to defraud them. It is to cheat them out of what is rightfully theirs. Your body is not your own to do with as you please, it belongs to the Lord. And since marriage is a picture of our relationship with Christ, to withhold your body from your spouse is as wrong as withholding your body and your affection from the Lord. There is only one exception given to this command not to deprive and there are two conditions attached. The exception is that intimate affection may be withheld so that the couple can give themselves to prayer; in other words so that they can give themselves to their relationship with the Lord. The two conditions attached are that both partners must be mutually agreeable to the decision and that there be a time limit that both agree to place upon the abstinence.
The best time for uninterrupted prayer and devotion is typically also the best time for a husband and wife to spend quality time together, either in the evening when the day’s work is done or early in the morning before the responsibilities of the day begin. In order that they may devote this precious time to their relationship with the Lord a husband and wife could shift their focus from each other to the Lord. This underscores the fact that our relationship with each other as husband and wife reflects the supreme relationship between us and the Lord. And only that relationship with the Lord takes priority over our relationship with one another. Guys, sports are not an exception permitted for neglecting giving attention to your wife. Many other examples could be given.
What we are talking about here is one of the privileges of marriage. But it is also one of the disadvantages of marriage. With the privilege comes the responsibility—a responsibility that can be huge. Before going into marriage you need to consider not only the privileges but the cost. Consider the cost. Later on in the chapter Paul identifies this marital responsibility as one of the reasons there can be an advantage in remaining single.
1 Corinthians 7:32-35 “But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world—how he may please his wife. There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world—how she may please her husband. And this I say for your own profit, not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper, and that you may serve the Lord without distraction.”
But the times that married couples spend devoting themselves to the ministry of the Lord cannot be allowed to take them apart from each other for a prolonged period of time. The last part of verse five says that after a time apart so they can be devoted exclusively to the Lord they must come back together and give devotion to their own relationship with each other. Their failure to give attention to their own marital relationship is contributing to the big problem of sexual immorality in the church.
Not all believers are so fragile in their relationships as were these Corinthians. And not all believers are so lacking in their self control as these Corinthians. But a strong marital relationship does minimize the risk of unfaithfulness in the marriage.
Vs. 6 “But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment.”
What is this verse talking about? Look at what we have just studied and you will see. Certain members of the church at Corinth were promoting abstinence in marriage, saying that to be truly spiritual you must abstain from any sexual involvement. Paul has responded strongly against this view, insisting that married couples have a God-given responsibility to mutually fulfill their marital responsibilities toward each other. Then in verse five Paul gives one concession, citing one example of when it may be appropriate for a husband and wife to abstain from each other for a period of time, in order to devote themselves to prayer. But such periods of abstinence for prayer is a concession, he is not a commanding them to take extended periods of time apart from each other to be devoted to prayer.
Vs. 7 “For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.”
Paul wishes that all men had the time to devote themselves exclusively to the Lord like he has, but he quickly acknowledges that not everyone has been given that gift from God. Celibacy is a gift from God and it is a good gift. In Paul’s opinion he wishes all men had this gift, but he acknowledges that not all do. We must each be faithful to that which God has called us to.
But we are wrong to lift up marriage as God’s ideal for everyone. It is not. Marriage is good, but so is celibacy good. But both are gifts. The one who is called to be celibate will not make a very good spouse and the one who is called to marriage will not make a very good single person. You are wrong to try to exercise your desire for celibacy inside of a marriage and you are wrong to try to find sexual fulfillment outside of a marriage. We must each function in that which we are called to and the hope of success in our place of calling, whether single or married is to depend upon the grace of God.
Copyright © 2008 by Parkdale Grace Fellowship
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