Rescuing 1 Corinthians 7:4 from Abusers
Let’s meet this issue head on: Sexual abuse is possible within marriage. Wherever physically or emotionally coercive behavior infects a married couple’s sexual relationship, it is abusive. Any such behavior needs to be confronted with a call to repentance.
Some will contend, “But doesn’t the Bible say that a husband has authority over his wife’s body? Doesn’t that give him the right to sex on demand and in the way he prescribes?” 1 Corinthians 7:4 does say, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.” Husbands sometimes invoke this passage to defend themselves or to complain against their wives. Do they have a legitimate point? Most of us instinctively say “no,” but how do we defend that? Here are three ways to explain that this passage does not justify sex on demand, even in marriage.
The issue in this passage is not “sex on demand” but “forced celibacy.”
It is important to note the question that this passage answers. Paul begins, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’” Whether this is a Corinthian statement or his own, Paul begins this discussion by acknowledging that there is some moral value to voluntary celibacy. But Paul then proceeds to argue not only for marriage as a check against immorality but also to warn against “depriving one another” in marriage. Apparently, the matter to which Paul is responding involved valuing celibacy to such an extent that not only were men being encouraged to refrain from marrying, but even those who were married were encouraged to eschew sex altogether. In other words, the presenting issue is husbands thinking swearing off sex with their wives would be a spiritual virtue. They thought they would win religious points by giving up sex in their marriages.
So this is not a question of “sex on demand” but a question of “forced celibacy.” This is about a husband unilaterally deciding that there will be no sex in “his” marriage—and thinking that in doing so he increases his righteousness. Paul corrects this by pointing out that this is a violation of the wife’s rights. Consigning a woman to a sexless marriage was a serious sin, with implications much bigger than deprivation of pleasure; it would condemn her to barrenness (see the story of Onan and Tamar in Genesis 38:6–10 for an example of what God thinks about this). 1 Corinthians 7:11 provides evidence that some likely carried this celibacy virtue to the next logical extent: Divorcing one’s wife would be best—perhaps with the “kind” motive of freeing her to have children with some less righteous bloke. But that is not Paul’s solution. Rather, he explains that sex in marriage is a duty and a right; forced celibacy is wrong.
However, saying, “You should not force celibacy on your spouse,” is not the same as, “You must give sex to your spouse on demand.” Many times, circumstances or differences in mood or desire result in one spouse saying, “Not now, dear.” Such circumstances are not what this passage is talking about; they do not even come close to approaching the forced celibacy suggested here. It is incorrect to use this passage to deny someone the right to say, “No.”
Responding to a one-sided question from the man’s argument, Paul’s answer is pointedly mutual.
I find it ironic that the presenting issue in this passage involves men supposing it virtuous to deprive their wives of sex, while it is more common nowadays to hear men invoking this passage to complain of being deprived by their wives. Yet in either of these scenarios, part of the man’s problem is that he thinks it’s all about him. Paul corrects this by taking a statement speaking one-sidedly from the man’s perspective and answering it in a pointedly mutual way. Unlike other passages in which Paul gives differing instructions, different roles, or different authority to the husband and the wife, here, in the context of sex, he takes pains to emphasize perfect equality and mutuality. Beginning in the second half of verse 2, Paul gives a series of parallel statements, alternating speaking the exact same words to husbands and to wives. In fact, he carefully makes sure that even the order of address does not favor one over the other: In verse 3, the husband is addressed first, and then in verse 4, the wife is addressed first. In verse 5, they are addressed as a couple: “Do not deprive each other….”
This mutuality makes clear that Paul is commanding not an attitude insisting on rights, but rather of giving rights. He is calling on married couples to give of themselves for the good of the other, instead of seeking to get their “needs” met. As Dave White summarizes, “God gave us 1 Corinthians 7:1–5 because spouses need to be taught that selflessness must govern the marriage bed, and serving each other is the path to deep joy and fulfillment.”¹ This mutuality also creates a logical problem for the would-be abusive husband: If he would demand sex from her, claiming his authority over her body, won’t he need to use his own body to do it? But according to the passage, he doesn’t have authority over his own body; rather, she does. The mutuality of the authority makes all coercion and demand logically impossible.
This passage is best understood in the light of other commands of Scripture.
This passage’s call to mutual, selfless service is consistent with the rule of love expressed throughout the Bible, so it is right to group these verses with passages such as Philippians 2:4: “Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others”—and Ephesians 5:25—“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” A husband who knows and submits to his Bible will never use 1 Corinthians 7 to control or manipulate his wife.
¹God, You, and Sex: A Profound Mystery (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2019) 97.