This post is a part of the series comparing the teaching on various gender passages in the Bible.
1 Corinthians 7:3-6 says,
3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Summary of Different Opinions:
Most agree this verse should be interpreted to mean that Paul applauds sex in marriage, and stresses the importance of both spouses taking an active and agreeable role in sex. Most agree that sex should meet each other’s desires and is an obligation that if not met should be because both spouses have agreed to withhold for a reason, and for a determined time. Both spouses seek the Lord’s will through prayer.
The only disagreement that arises between Egals and Comps is a matter of scope. Does this passage provide a pattern for the marriage relationship in general? Or does this mutuality only apply in the bedroom?
Egalitarians believe this verse teaches mutual authority and mutual consent in marriage. They believe the emphasis on mutuality concurs with the creation mandate for marriage (“… a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24) , with the mutuality found in Ephesians 5:21 (“Submit yourselves to each other”), and with the emphasis on loving your spouse’s body as your own in Ephesians 5:28-30.
On the hot topic of authority, Egals believe it is significant that out of all the problem passages, this is the only one that links the word exousia-authority (means to have power over; to be a master) to marriage. Exousia is not given to the husband alone, but equally to both spouses. The wife has authority over her husband’s body. The husband has authority over his wife’s body. Both should submit to each other’s authority.
What if the spouses don’t agree? Egals believe it is significant that this passage, which is instruction for one of the most important aspects of marriage, does not single the husband out as the decision maker. The husband is not given extra exousia to override his wife’s will in this matter. The decision to abstain must be mutual. Their will must be in symphony (consent; agreement), or unified. Husband and wife seek to find the Lord’s will together.
This passage encompasses the Egalitarian understanding of marriage. It stresses mutuality and unity.
The Only Time the Bible Uses the Word “Authority” (exousia) in the Context of Marriage Should Lead Couples to Cherish Unity
Complementarians don’t have a lot to say about these verses. They conclude it means that our bodies are not our own, belonging ultimately to God. They compartmentalize the mutual authority found in verse 4 as only dealing with sex in marriage, and believe it does not apply to the marriage relationship as a whole. They believe Ephesians 5:23 makes it clear the wife is to submit to the husband, which implies the husband carries the weight of authority. The wife’s authority is limited between the sheets.
Wayne Grudem says,
…1 Corinthians 7:3-5 shows that there are areas of mutual obligation between husband and wife, and that we can extrapolate from that and say that the husband’s leadership in the marriage should not be a selfish leadership that fails to listen to the concerns of his wife. But in that very context, and in dozens of places throughout the rest of the book [Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood] we argue that the husband has an authoritative leadership role in the marriage that the wife does not have. (Grudem, Wayne. Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth. p. 212)
You’ll have to scroll down to find the paragraph on 1 Corinthians 7. Like I said, there aren’t too many articles written by comps on this passage. http://www.cbmw.org/Resources/Book-Reviews/The-Nature-of-Authority-in-the-New-Testament-by-Walter-L-Liefeld-from-Discovering-Biblical-Equality (link is broken, and I haven’t been able to find a new one. I apologize!)
7 thoughts on “Problem Passages: 1 Corinthians 7:3-6”
I believe the major problem in this debate is the process by which a married couple decides how frequently sex is to be mutually enjoyed. Assuming two Christians get married under a stale understanding of Biblical marriage text, it is easy to see how the wife can come into the marriage with one expectation of how frequently sex in her marriage should occur, while the man comes into it with a different expectation altogether. In 1 Corinthians 7, There is no mention of the “normal” frequency of sex in marriage, as defined by God the Father, or Christ the Lord, or even Paul the apostle. Therefore, even if a man and woman were to come together with a healthy, vibrant understanding of Biblical marriage text, they could still come into the marriage with different ideas of the kind of sexual frequency they would like to experience.
I submit that a smart pastor in today’s sex-confused society should never let this happen. Said pastor would have the usual marriage classes available to people preparing for marriage together, and one question that should be included would be something like: “How often will you want sex in your married life?” If a man and woman are asked this question, and a mutual agreement is struck before they have their ceremony, then it becomes a moot point whether someone “feels like it” or is “too tired” or not. Doesn’t it?
I made it a point to discuss with my wife (then fiance) how often I’d want sex once we were married, and I didn’t hear any opposition from her at all. Where is the justice now that we’ve been married for a couple years, and she’s begun to want sex at a much different rate than what we first agreed upon? All I know how to do is continue to cleave to my Bible in the hopes that she will do the same. I’m lost beyond that. I do not know how to reconcile our differing opinions.
Some of the men I’ve talked to at my church are apparently in the same state of confusion that I am in. And if any of the men I’ve talked to are actually rather certain of their opinion, then they have neglected to let me know, for fear of looking like a “mister know-it-all,” or even perhaps… something worse.
We can talk until we’re blue in the face about what the bible actually does say. But what if our spouses are not receptive to it? And what about the lack of specification included in what our bible does say? How are we to live practically as married couples if we’re failing to discern together some of those small details the Bible actually leaves out? When in doubt, (and neither opinion is contrary to the Lord’s word) then whose authority is it really to decide? Being a husband myself, Complementarianism sounds pretty good to me.
David, this sounds so sad to me. I’m sorry you’ve been dissapointed. It sounds like your wife has been dissapointed in sex, as well. I think the majority of couples struggle with sex at some point, myself included. Jesus, the perfect human, was celibate. So it is possible to live without it and be filled with hope, joy and love! But when you want it and expect it, it can become a challenge.
I think it is wise for couples to discuss their expectations of sex before they get married. I also think it is wise to understand the biology of each other’s bodies. Do you know how she ticks? Do you know what turns her on? What turns her off? Do you understand how a woman’s body changes as she ages? There are many factors affecting libido: time of cycle, childbirth, nursing, hormonal balances, stress, emotional security, marital harmony, etc. To hold a spouse to a “standard” of sex does not take real life into consideration. I think that is why God does not give us a law of sexual frequency. Because His law is to love the other. To set aside our personal expectations for them. If the standard is love, then sex is based on the other inidividual, and all of us individuals are varied and changeable.
I tell you, your statement, “All I know how to do is continue to cleave to my Bible in the hopes that she will do the same,” sounds hopeless, and rigid all at the same time. You married a woman, not the Bible. You are to cleave to HER. Listen to her. Believe her. Even when she refuses you. Even when she changes on you. Even when she is unlovable. Even when she disagrees with you. I can say with absolute assurance that God wants you to be as great a Lover as He is. And you can accomplish this even without intimacy, if that is what it takes. Paul expounds on how to love this way 6 chapters later.
I think that is the point of this passage. Wives are given a voice in sexual relations, for better or worse. Whether you are complimentarian or egalitarian, it doesn’t matter. “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” You can not force yourself on her. God says you do not have that right. When the Bible is silent, (even when it isn’t) the law of Love supercedes and focuses it all. The law of love is greater than any “authority” he has given you in marriage.
I may have missed the mark with my comments, David. And if your wife was commenting here, know that my advice would be the same. The goal is to be so busy pleasing each other, both of you are satisfied. But, your spouse may never get to that point. You can continue to love, regardless.
One thing Comps DO emphasize for this passage is context, found specifically in the preceding two verses: “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me…” and Paul goes on to address the topic at hand, specifically sexual matters and remaining pure within or outside marriage. The context is pretty definitive in 7:1-2 and the subject matter continues through verse 9, whereupon the verse reiterates and sums up the passage (and subject matter) nicely.
Does the context emphasis change anything I’ve listed? Do you believe Egals don’t pay attention to this context?
Kristen, I’ve found it so enlightening that God asked the husband to fulfill his “marital duties” in the marriage promises. Not the wife. (See https://kbonikowsky.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/the-jewish-way-in-love-and-marriage-by-maurice-camm/)
The emphasis of the wife being sexy has gotten so twisted in Christian marriages, hasn’t it? In the practical outworking, when the husband is focused on making sex pleasurable for the wife, there is a sweetness and service it brings to the husband’s attitude in the entire marriage. The focus is on the other spouse’s desire, not her submission to his desire.
I might also add that if one partner is “too tired” frequently, the other partner should strongly consider where he/she might be more supportive and shoulder more of the workload!
Too many times I have heard of this passage being used to guilt one of the partners (usually the wife) to provide sex on demand because of the “do not deprive one another” clause. This is against the spirit, if not the letter, of the verse. Having “authority” (which in this case might be better translated “rights”) over one another’s bodies does not override the “do unto others” law of love, nor the 1 Cor. 13 admonition that love “seeks not its own [way].” Neither partner should constantly give excuses for not having marital relations; but neither should either partner guilt the other into giving in against her/his wishes and needs. In any event, I believe “deprive” refers to something more on-going/long-term than a simple “I’m sorry, I’m too tired tonight.”