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Against Abstinence


*1 Corinthians 7:1-5
April 22, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

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The sermon starts at 15:45 in the audio file.


Or, The Goodness of the Marriage Bed


Let us be entirely for abstinence outside marriage. There is no such thing as good or morally safe sex unless you have a spouse. Let us also be earnestly against abstinence in marriage. These are our only holy options, and they are mutually exclusive. The marriage bed is good, and keeps us good, and husbands and wives do well to get in it.

At the beginning of 1 Corinthians chapter 7 Paul begins to respond to a letter he received from them. The previous six chapters are not filler, they are full of reminders and exhortations and imperatives based on reports he had heard about them. The church in Corinth had disunity issues and discipline issues. Some of them had problems filing too many lawsuits and some of them had problems calling sexual immorality lawful.

It also seems that some of them had the opposite problem. If some were skipping down the sexual street with partners outside of marriage, others were running the wrong way down the one way street with their eyes covered and fingers in their ears. At the end of the previous paragraph Paul urged: “So glorify God in your body.” A part of the church thought they could do whatever they wanted with their bodies and it didn’t matter. Now Paul addresses another part of the church who apparently wanted to glorify God by denying their bodies. They thought what they did not do with their bodies mattered too much.

It is a group of Christians who were against sex, outside of marriage, which is right, but even within it, which is dangerous. At least some of them thought it wasn’t good, and they wrote to Paul about it, probably believing that they would get his confirmation based on his teaching about fleeing sexual immorality (as in 6:18). But they were wrong. As the author of Hebrews wrote (Hebrews 13:4), marriage should be held in honor and the marriage bed should be recognized as pure, not that to be pure one must reject the marriage bed.

This chapter, starting in the first paragraph, confronts dualism rather than condones it. Paul, with his pastor’s pen, corrects their misunderstandings about marriage, sex, celibacy, divorce, remarriage, engagement, and singleness. Rather than promote hyper-holiness he pops the hyper-holy pride of thinking that they could be more good than God.

The issue heads the paragraph in the first sentence followed by three imperatives.

The Issue: Super-Spiritual Spousal Celibacy (verse 1)

Unlike the verbal reports he heard about the Corinthians, here Paul responds to written material from them: Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. The same heading appears again a few more times in the letter, but Paul signals his transition here.

What did they say? They knew what they said, but we don’t have a copy of their letter. There is disagreement over the final part of verse 1. Who said it? Is this Paul’s teaching (so no quotation marks, as in the KJV and NASB)? Or is it a quote from their letter (as in the ESV)? Is this something they are wondering about? Is this representing what they believe?

I think it represents their understanding, and the remaining part of the paragraph corrects it. Paul does not affirm it; what they had separated Paul tries to join back together.

“It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” Why would they say this?

It doesn’t fit as a simple statement against sex. The KJV translates, “for a man not to touch a woman,” a euphemism for more than contact. But Paul just finished an extended section against sexual immorality. To join with anyone other than one’s spouse is like joining Christ to a prostitute. If the Corinthians meant it like that, Paul could have put it before 6:12 or 6:18 and he wouldn’t have to correct it.

The Corinthians appear to believe it in contradiction to Genesis 2:18. Note the word “good.” God said it was not good for a man to be alone. Some of the Corinthians were saying that being married and enjoying two becoming one was not good. Perhaps they learned it from the Stoics who advocated strict restraint on pleasures. The “touch” “euphemism is consistently used for sexual relations motivated by pleasure or passion rather than procreation” (Ciampa and Rosner), so a less than noble act. Perhaps the Corinthians learned it from demons who forbid marriage (see 1 Timothy 4:3). Perhaps they were overreacting to the lusts of the flesh on display in their city, and there is a “present distress” (verse 26) that adds difficulty.

But they seem to be advocating for a higher level of holy living. If the sexually immoral man sins against his own body, then wouldn’t it be magna-moral to not even have sex in marriage? This is an attempt at super-spiritual spousal celibacy. It’s stupid, and sinful.

The Imperatives: (verses 2-5)

Verse 2 begins with “on the contrary” to the Corinthian position. There are three commands in the next four verses that explain why the marriage bed is good. It is moral, it is right, and it is typical.

Before we look at these three points, we should keep in mind what Paul has in mind. This is a reply, and it’s his reply to their particular misunderstanding. Paul exalts marriage in Ephesians 5, and only reading 1 Corinthians 7 to understand marriage would be like only reading about how to put gasoline into your car and concluding you know all the places a car could take you. Here he addresses one specific part in marriage: sex. He is against abstinence.

The marriage bed is moral. (verse 2)

The result of man-made attempts to be holy is not high-level holiness, it isn’t even hold-the-line holiness. Man-made attempts at holiness always make it worse. Sex in marriage is given for morality.

But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. At first this could sound derogatory, as if marriage is only a “safety release valve” (Schrage). But Paul doesn’t say that sexual desires are bad, he says that sexual desires must be directed to and within marriage. “Glorify God in your body” (6:18), not by denying your body. The marriage bed is good.

It’s possible that the word “have” refers to physical intimacy anyway. Paul isn’t saying each man should find a wife and each woman should find a husband, though that comes across in verse 9. Getting married doesn’t mean getting rid of temptation anyway. He means that each spouse should “have” or “know” or enjoy their spouse. He means it is not good for a man not to have sex with his wife.

But go ahead, get married, and for those who are married, get in bed together.

The marriage bed is right. (verses 3-4)

More than okay, more than not immoral, the marriage bed is a right. One spouse doesn’t get to unilaterally decide to be “more spiritual” by abstaining from physical intimacy. That’s not how the marriage relationship works.

Here’s the imperative: The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. The command is clear, and the terms compare sex to an economy, a way things are supposed to work between two people. There is something to be given, there is someone to whom the something must necessarily be given, and there is the requirement to give.

Verse 4 explains more, but note for now the angle Paul puts on it. Each spouse has a right to receive; each spouse is due. But the emphasis is not on taking what is one’s due but rather giving to the other what is due to them. Paul addresses the husband’s giving first. Husband: give. Your wife has a right. So also, wife, give. Your husband has a right. Paul does not say, however, “Husband, demand. Your wife owes you.” Nor does he say, “Wife, fuss. Your husband owes you.”

As I said, verse 4 teases out the mutual obligation and uses all the vocabulary over again to address both the wife and the husband like watering a flower from the left and the right. 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.

The economy of the marriage bed involves private property, but the owner is not who we’ve been taught by the world’s catechism to think. The wife’s body is owned by her husband. Her sexuality is his property, not hers. A wife submits in bed to her husband. And, so also for the husband, with all the same words and the same point of submission. A husband submits in bed to his wife. His sexuality is her property, not his. The husband’s body is owned by his wife.

First century Roman culture may have accepted that wives were property, but the idea that husbands were property was the new tabasco.

This is about the marriage bed, not about her calorie intake (necessarily) or his exercise habits (or lack thereof, necessarily). It also expects communication and agreement. We do not have a case of co-ownership; in this economy the King and Queen of the Bed have equal rights, and they must get along. The point is unity, not utilitarianism. The point is to give yourself to the one you belong to, not to take what belongs to you in such a way that ruins intimacy.

I’ve heard too many professing Christians husbands (maybe wives talk similarly, but probably less so) abuse this truth and insist that the wife must do whatever he wants whenever he wants it. Those men do not talk about their responsiveness, nor do they talk about how such demands increase their righteousness. They treat their wives more like slaves, when in fact he is the slave, to his own self-indulgence.

One additional application to the singles. You also are not your own. As Christians, you are bought with Christ’s blood, and His will is your sanctification. Serve Jesus with your sexuality. And take application from this paragraph. If a wife’s body is her husband’s, is it hers to do with whatever she wants until she says “I do”? Can she subdivide the property, sell off, or give away, some of the parcels, prior to the wedding day? Not if you believe this Scripture. The same applies to every single man. Your sexual parts, which include the reproductive organ and all the reproductive impulses, must be saved in their entirety for the one to whom they properly belong. You may not know who they belong to yet, so you should be devoted to total abstinence until such time as the pastor says, “I now pronounce that you no longer need to keep your hands to yourself.”

Dads with daughters, when the question comes, “Who gives this woman to marry this man?” what will you be giving? Dads with sons, are you modeling Christlike giving of yourself, even when your son can’t see you? Moms, are you controlling your emotions about the fact that I haven’t mentioned your part yet? Are you helping your daughters exercise Spirit-gifted self-control over their appearance and their crushes and their perspective?

The marriage bed is typical. (verse 5)

Back to spouses, the third imperative is really a prohibition. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time. The word deprive could also be translated “defraud” (KJV), or steal or cheat. Like the man who cheated laborers by fraud when they mowed his fields (James 5:4), so is the married man or woman who holds back intimacy.

The expectation is that sex is as frequent as reasonable, which depends on health and separations and various situations. But under normal circumstances, abstinence is the exception, and it must be a mutual decision. A wife can’t choose to be a sex-martyr for sake of serving Jesus in celibacy. Spousal celibacy is not serving Jesus. Again, perhaps there is a temporary pause, but don’t put super-glue on the pause button.

The example Paul gives is that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and fasting from food serves a similar purpose. But all fasting all the time leads to starvation, and all abstinence all the time in marriage leads to sin.

Set aside a short time, but then come together again. Abstinence in marriage is abnormal. The final reason given turns to holiness again: so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. Again this doesn’t mean that the desire is bad, but that Satan loves to pervert the desire and turn it toward something bad. God gave the body, He gave the desire, and He gave the woman to the man and the man to the woman in marriage.

Don’t try to be more spiritual than God. There are some who God gifts with a stronger desire for celibacy than for sex, see verse 7. But there are many who have taken vows of celibacy believing that they could make themselves more righteous only to lose to the flesh. It would be a different discussion if Popes and priests had proven otherwise, but the proof is in the pederasty. The appropriate response to being thirsty is not to not drink, it’s to “drink water from your own cistern” (Proverbs 5:15).

Conclusion

Ours is a sexually charged world because God made it that way. Ours is a sexually immoral–confused and twisted and enslaved–culture because of sin. We are not out of Satan’s sights. Ashley Madison, a website for married people who want to cheat, has the tagline: “Life is Short. Have an affair.” Their database was hacked, and names exposed. There are other sites for hooking up, there will be virtual reality prostitutes. Before all that Jesus said that sexual immorality and adultery come from within, out of the heart of man (Mark 7:20-21).

The solution to sexual temptation is not self-imposed celibacy. The solution to sexual temptation is not found in a monastery or on a wifi-free compound in Montana. The solution is repentance and faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ and goodness of the marriage bed.

Get your sex from a wife for whom you have to die (Ephesians 5:25-33). Give yourself to a woman, to all of the responsibilities that come along with belonging to her and her belonging to you. Submit to God, and cherish your wife like Christ does the church. It takes Twoism to make a thing go right.

You are free to have as much sex as you want, in marriage, with mutual agreement. Paul is against abstinence in marriage, and so should be every Christian husband and wife, because God is against abstinence.


Charge

Jesus has a plan for your sexual morality. He wills that you be pure and He wills that you use the means He’s provided: your wife or your husband. Or He wills that You wait until you get a wife or a husband. He is surprisingly and helpfully practical when it comes to making His people spiritual, almost like He made the earth and the body and marriage in the first place.

Benediction:

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24–25, ESV)