(This article could be considered “not safe for children.” I’m not sure there are any children/teens who read this blog, but if your children do, you might want to read this first, before giving them the green light.)
When we think about sexual sin and its potential to destroy a marriage, most of us immediately assume that the sexual sin in view is pornography, adultery, or some other extra-marital perversion. Certainly, those sins have laid waste to their share of marriages. We’ve all seen it. But I challenge you to consider that there is another sexual sin that plagues marriages perhaps even more pervasively than these. It is a sin that is most likely not even considered a sexual sin by most people. And though we are warned against it and its dangers in God’s word, some may not even consider it a sin at all. For this reason, it may be the most insidious sexual sin out there.
First of all, what is a sexual sin? It is any violation of God’s standards for sexual conduct. There are sins of commission – doing what God forbids. And there are sins of omission – failing to do what God commands. As we will see from the Scriptures, the sin I’m referring to is both a sexual sin of commission and a sexual sin of omission.
First Corinthians 7 is a goldmine for sexual and marital ethics in the New Testament. “Should I marry and if so, when?” “Is divorce biblical? If so, in what circumstances?” “If I marry, whom may I marry?” “Should sexual desire be a factor in my decision to marry or not marry?” First Corinthians 7 answers these questions and a host of others.
It begins by addressing an erroneous view held by some in the Corinthian church that abstaining from sex, even within marriage, was a virtue: Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman" (1Cor 7:1).
So, beginning in v2, Paul shows that abstinence is intended outside of marriage, but is sinful inside of marriage. He writes, But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband (1Cor 7:2). We know from other passages, like Eph5:22ff, that the ultimate purpose of marriage is to serve as a living picture of the relationship between Christ and the church. But here we find that another purpose, a perhaps more immediately practical purpose, is to provide an appropriate context for sexual activity.
From Genesis 2 on, we see that marital sexuality is a blessing from God. It pleases Him for husbands and wives to enjoy their sexual union. Conversely, sexual activity outside of marriage is universally sinful. So the idea of the Corinthians, that it might be virtuous for married people to not have sexual relations, is backward. And v2 corrects this idea by assuming again what is taught from the beginning of the Bible: sex outside of marriage is sinful and is to be avoided, but sin inside of marriage is blessed and is to be pursued. But v2 goes further by teaching that sexual activity in marriage is a godly means of fighting sexual temptation.
Paul continues in v3: The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband (1Cor 7:3). Quite simply, this is a command to have sex with one’s spouse. The Holman Christian Standard Bible reads, A husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife… The New English Translation: A husband should give to his wife her sexual rights… The most woodenly literal translation would be, “the husband must pay to the wife the obligation, and the wife to the husband.”
All of these translations are good and pick up the sense of the text. This verse assumes that a wife has a right to have sex with her husband, and it explicitly commands the husband to fulfill the wife’s right. And vice-versa. Now, what we assume from this verse – that one spouse has a right to have sex with the other spouse – we don’t have to assume for long because the apostle makes that truth explicit in the following verse:
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 (1Cor 7:4).
This is startlingly counter-cultural in our modern context. Our culture tells individuals that sexuality is ONLY about self-fulfillment and you are the master of your own sexuality. Further, marriage itself is about self-fulfillment. But this is precisely backward. Now, what Paul writes in 1 Cor 7 may feel backward to us, but we must realize this is only because we’ve been indoctrinated by a culture ruled by the god of this world. It is that indoctrination that is backward. Right thinking about marriage is that it is about serving another and sexuality is about bringing pleasure to another. Period. This other-centeredness of marriage is clear from the picture of Christ and the church in Eph 5:22-33. Christ gave Himself up for the church and the church submits to Christ. This is intended to be reflected in marriage. That is the right way to think about marriage and sexuality.
The command to have sex with one’s spouse is grounded in the truth of v4 that there is a cross-ownership of sexuality that takes place in marriage. The idea expressed in v4 is that the husband’s sexuality does not belong to him. It exists for the pleasure of his wife; she owns it. Likewise, the wife’s sexuality does not belong to her. It exists for the pleasure of her husband; he owns it. (By the way, this why masturbation is sinful. In masturbation, you use sexual energy that does not belong to you for your own pleasure. It violates the other-centered, Christ-and-the-Church design of marriage and sexuality.)
So Paul has given the positive command – have sexual relations with your spouse. Then in v5 he continues by forbidding not having relations with your spouse: 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 (1Cor 7:5).
The negative command here is “do not deprive one another.” “Deprive” is a word that deserves some thought. It means to withhold something that is necessary. In this context, it means to withhold something from someone to which they have a rightful claim, keeping back something that belongs to them. Don’t do this, he writes. If you’re going to abstain, it needs to be by agreement, for the purpose of prayer; and it needs to be temporary, otherwise you’re defeating the purpose that he began his argument with – you’re flirting with temptation.
This means that when deciding whether or not to have sex with one’s spouse, the appropriate internal question to consider is not, “do I want to or feel like it?”, but rather, “does my spouse want to?” Some people have the mistaken idea that a couple should only have relations when they both desire it at the same time. This is wrong. According to 1 Corinthians 7, they should do it anytime either one of them desires it. Otherwise, they are depriving the spouse of something that belongs to them and they are exacerbating potential sexual temptation.
This teaching is part of God’s standard for sexuality in marriage. We have it stated as a command (v3) and as a prohibition (v5). To violate the command is a sin of omission. To violate the prohibition is a sin of commission. To deprive one’s spouse of sexual relations is sexual sin. And if it is a pattern, it is habitual sexual sin.
And we’re not playing cheap word games by calling it sexual sin. To violate God’s standard for sexuality is an inherently sexual sin. It is to misuse God’s good gift of sexuality. For some reason, this particular sexual sin does not carry the stigma of other sexual sin. However, it is no less sinful. And it can wreak havoc on a marriage.
Some may be thinking that this is a hit piece aimed exclusively at wives. Not true. Please consider that Paul addresses the husband first – “the husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights…”. Paul is not just using a rhetorical device here. There are men who deprive their wives. In fact, I have counseled as many married couples in which the husband was depriving the wife as I have where the situation was reversed. We must not adopt the assumptions of our culture. Similarly, we should not assume that pornography is only a male problem. It isn’t.
As with any topic, things get more complicated when we start to talk about real life situations. So I know that there are objections out there. I want to deal with those. There are also caveats that I would add to what has been written here. There are special situations. I want to present those as well. I also want to discuss why this sin is so dangerous. Further, I’d like to offer suggestions for killing this sin. But I’ll save those for the next articles in the series.
For now, consider that to deprive your spouse of sexual relations is sexual sin. Perhaps you are in the habit of doing so. Recognize that the only way forward begins with confession and repentance. Confess and repent to the Lord and your spouse. And believe that in Christ there is hope and help to change. More on that to come.
If you have comments/questions pertaining to this article, you can leave them anonymously in the comment section. No comments are automatically published. I’m the only one who will see them and you don’t have to leave your name. But your thoughts/questions may help make the other articles in this series more helpful to others.