Text: 1 Cor. 7:1-7
Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me:
It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. 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. 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. But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. 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.
It’s always a little awkward to talk about marital love in church. Let’s just be honest about it. Most of you don’t want to hear your pastor talking about this, and there are all kinds of ways that it can go wrong. But, the mood of the church has changed on this topic over the years. It used to be that conservative Christians would pass over discussions of intimacy altogether, thinking it best to leave them to private venues. More lately, however, the trend has been in the opposite direction. Christians are talking about it all the time, with pastors doing sermon series on the Song of Solomon and books being written about how marriage was instituted for pleasure. A few years ago, Dallas pastor Ed Young taught a class on this topic while in a bed with his wife. Somewhere, it seems, we have crossed the line.
Well, I’m going to try to handle this topic with the appropriate amount of care. We do need to talk about the relevant issues that come with marriage, and we need to be able to teach what the Bible teaches. However, we should notice that the Apostle Paul does not take this opportunity to “shake things up” in the church. Nothing, there’s nothing particularly racy about what he says. He handles the topic frankly but respectfully. He says that marriage was given to us by God to help us in certain ways. Some of these ways are physical and really easy to understand. The key to understanding how to use this side of marriage, according to Paul, is to always think about your spouse. Your body belongs to your spouse, and that includes lovemaking. But both spouses belong to God, and so they should help one another use the marriage to glorify God.
This morning, as a part of our study of 1 Corinthians, we will discuss what marriage is for. We will talk about the spouses’ duties to one another. And we will conclude with a very basic message: use your marriage to glorify God. This is what it’s all about.
What Marriage Is For
Here in 1 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul is explaining the right way to understand marriage. It seems that he’s actually facing a very peculiar problem. If we try to read between the lines, as it were, we can see that he is having to convince married people that they should stop withholding their physical bodies from one another, and they certainly should not get divorced in order to return to a state of celibacy. In verses 3 and 5, Paul is actually telling the Corinthians that, if they are married, they need to be making love, and with some regularity:
Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband… 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.
This is certainly an odd situation. Most modern Americans, I think it is safe to say, are not falling into this sort of a problem. But, from what we can tell, Corinth did have a group of people who believed that they should show their spiritual maturity by taking vows of celibacy, even if they were married! Paul is telling them to get their heads right.
This is why Paul says that marriage was given “because of sexual immorality.” That isn’t the only reason, of course, but Paul is just being honest with the situation. Humans have an inert sex drive, and most people are not going to be able to remain celibate for life. The solution is for them to get married. And if they are married, Paul says, they should use marriage to fulfill their desires. This is what it’s for.
Again, this is only a partial description of marriage. The classic explanation of Christian marriage comes from the old Book of Common Prayer which says this:
First, it was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name. Secondly, it was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body. Thirdly, it was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
Where does the Prayer Book get these ideas? Well, from Genesis 1 and 2, from 1 Corinthians 7, from Ephesians 5, and from Hebrews 13:4. Marriage was, after all, given before sin entered the world, and so it is bigger than merely being a remedy for sin. But now that sin has entered the world, Paul sees no reason to mince words. Marriage is for physical and romantic love. That’s why he talks about it like he does.
Think About Your Spouse
It is within this context of Paul having to encourage married Christians in the church to he says husbands “owe” affection to their wives and that wives “owe” affection to their husbands. This is a very important point that needs to be in the forefront our minds. Paul writes:
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. (1 Cor. 7:3-4)
Notice that word “due.” When something is “due,” then it is owed. It is not an optional consideration. You are not free to not do it. You must do it. Not giving someone there due is wrong. It is unjust. It is sin.
Wives, this obviously has a reference to physical love-making. You should not be under any illusions about men. They have a very real need in this area. Our society jokes about this, and many men like to boast about it, but when viewed in terms of righteousness, it is precisely a need and a potential weakness. Wives can help or hurt their husbands in this regard, and so they should remember that their bodies are under authority. They may not refuse sex within marriage, except for very specific reasons.
However, the text does not stop here. If it did, then criticisms of chauvinism might apply. But Paul does not say that this is only a message for wives to make sure they are taking care of their husbands. He also says that the husband’s bodies are under the authority of their wives. This is an incredible thing to consider. Women need to be loved as well. Women need to be loved in particular ways. This too is the stuff of jokes, but we should pay careful attention. Noticing the different contours and men and women’s needs is essential to having a happy marriage.
Men’s desires are like a light switch. You can pretty much flip the switch on or off, and that’s about all you need to know. That’s a bit of a simplification, of course, but I think it’s true enough for the most part. Women, on the other hand, are like dimmer switches. They gradually move from dark to bright. They need to be wooed, and they need to be showed a loving affection over time. This is true even, or perhaps I should say especially, outside of the bedroom. For a husband to properly love his wife, he ought to be listening to her and serving her. He needs to be spending time with her. He needs to demonstrate to her that he cares.
How does Ephesians explain this dynamic? It uses that powerful metaphor of Christ and the Church:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:22-33)
Yes, the wife is called to submit to the husband there. But the husband is called to love the wife, and the way that the husband should love the wife is the way that Jesus Christ loved the Church. Husbands should provide self-sacrificial service, giving up things that they want so that their wives can be holy and glorious.
And so wives, make yourselves available to your husbands. Understand that you are an immensely important means of their sanctification. And husbands, make yourselves available to your wives, fully. Make sure you are spending time with them, talking with them, listening to them, and loving them. You are also an immensely important means of their sanctification. Both of you belong to each other. You owe yourselves to each other.
Use Marriage to Glorify God
Notice one more thing, here. Paul does allow for temporary celibacy within marriage, if it is used for prayer and fasting. “Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer” (1 Cor. 7:5). This must be consensual. It can’t be a power play on anyone’s part. And it has to be for the right reason, to devote one’s time to fasting and prayer. This is not a practice that we do enough of these days, and it is not a practice that we much understand. I wonder how many of us seriously incorporate fasting into our lives?
Jesus fasted. He fasted for forty days in the wilderness. And he taught us about fasting as well. He said that some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting (Matt. 17:21; Mark 9:29). That means, at the very least, that prayer and fasting can be a way that God increases His spiritual power within you. And Jesus taught us that, when we fast, we should be careful to avoid using it as a way to boast. “When you fast,” He says, “do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance” (Matt. 6:16). Instead, Jesus says that we should keep our fasting secret, knowing that God sees it and will reward it as He sees fit.
So we should fast, and we should fast more than we do. We should even consider ways that we can fast within our marriages. This will have to be done together, with both partners informed and willing, and it should be done in an appropriate way. Paul says that it should only be “for a time,” and then he quickly says, “come together again” (1 Cor. 7:5). He does not want us setting traps for ourselves to fall into.
This means that our marriages must be used to glorify God. Yes, they are for us. Spouses are gifts to one another. But that does not subtract, in any way, from the fact that we are, whether married or not, called to devote our whole existence to God. Indeed, our love of God must always come first, before our children and before our spouses. It should even come before our love of ourselves.
Marriage, then, must be used to glorify God, and we should help our spouses to do that. Spouses should work together, asking themselves seriously how they can do this. They should love together. They should fast together. They should pray together. And they should love together again, all with the desire to grow closer to one another as they grow closer in the Lord.
Our thoughts of love and relationships change over time. Our thoughts about marriage change over time. And that’s ok. We should be aware of that and be smart about it. You should not feel the same way after 10 years of marriage as you did on your honeymoon. Hopefully your love has grown deeper and warmer, but it is not the same. Don’t get suckered into false and sentimental notions. Don’t try to capture high-school romance. Work towards mature and wise Christian love.
However, since marriage is between sinners, it can be hard. Once there are kids, challenges at work, busyness, and lots and lots of distractions thrown into the mix, marriage can be very hard. And because of this, it can be easy to forget what it’s all about. You should guard your loves, and one way that you do this is by reminding yourself what marriage is for and how you should love your spouse.
Marriage is a very practical thing. It meets basic needs. And it becomes the “normal” for how we live our lives. Let’s make it a good normal. And let’s make it a good normal for how we live a life of loving God. Marriage is a good thing. It’s a good gift that God gives to us, and He gives it to us so that we can be helped in using it for His glory.
Let us pray.