Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. – 1 Corinthians 7:1-6 ESV
As is usually the case in any congregation, there were two views or opinions influencing the church in Corinth. We have already seen that their Greek, dualistic way of thinking to see all sin as something done in the body and, therefore, permissible. They viewed themselves as being made up a two natures: the body and the spirit. And they were using this pagan outlook on life to excuse their immoral behavior. But there was evidently another group within the church who viewed believed in dualism, but viewed it as a threat. Their solution was to practice a form of abstinence. Since they viewed the body as evil or sinful, they would simply deny the body anything that might cause it to sin, including sexual relations. In a letter written to Paul by the congregation, they had commented: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Corinthians 7:1b ESV). And while Paul sees a seed of truth in this statement, he also see a serious danger. Their ongoing struggle with temptation toward sexual sin was going to make abstinence extremely difficult to carry off. The solution, according to Paul, was God-ordained marriage. He tells them, “because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs” (1 Corinthians 7:2-3 NLT). It is not as if Paul did not believe in abstinence or celibacy. In fact, in just a few verses he tells the unmarried and widows in the church , “it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:8-9 ESV).
Abstinence may result in the absence of sexual contact, but it cannot eliminate the problem of lust. It was Jesus who said, “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28 ESV). Simply refraining from sexual intercourse does not fix the problem, because the problem lies within the heart. Again, Jesus said, “For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander” (Matthew 15:19 NLT). Their attempt to separate the spiritual and the physical was based on man’s logic, not God’s Word. God had created marriage as the proper means by which men and women could enjoy His gift of sexual intimacy. And while marriage does not eliminate the problem within the hearts of men and women toward sexual, it does provide a God-ordained outlet for the expression and experience of the act of sex between a man and a woman.
But Paul knew that the dualistic viewpoint of the Corinthians could even be used to mess with God’s divine design for marriage. There would be those who chose to practice abstinence even within the context of their marriage. Paul makes it very clear: “Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer” (1 Corinthians 7:5a NLT). They were not to deny one another sexual intimacy, unless they had a very good spiritual reason for doing so, and the only one Paul lists is prayer. And even if they practice abstinence for the purpose of prayer, they are to do so for a very limited time period. Why? Because Paul knew their hearts. Which is why he warned them , “Afterward, you should come together again so that Satan won’t be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:5b NLT).
At the heart of Paul’s commands on this topic are his concern for the spiritual well-being of the congregation in Corinth. He had a burden that their relationship with Christ be lived out and permeate every area of their lives, including their marriages. He made a concession toward abstinence in marriage only if it was done in order to concentrate on more pressing spiritual matters, such as prayer. For one spouse to deny the other their rightful access to sexual fulfillment would be un-Christlike and selfish. Paul makes it clear that the husband’s body does not belong to him, but to his wife. And the wife’s body belongs to her husband. There is to be a selflessness and an attitude of sacrifice at the heart of every Christian marriage. It is not more spiritual to deny your spouse what God has intended for their good, in order that you might satisfy your own desires.
I think Paul’s admonition to the Philippian believers echoes his thoughts here. “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too” (Philippians 2:3-4 NLT). What better place to practice those practical warnings than within the context of a marriage? Any attempt to live a more godly life that ends up hurting someone else or denies the other person their rights, is misguided at best. We are to die to self. We are to put the other person first. We are to sacrifice. Spirituality is not about abstinence, but about obedience – obedience to the will of God as expressed in the Word of God and as lived out by the Son of God. He is our model. The Christ-like life is one of sacrifice, service, humility and selfless love for others.