23 Jul 2020
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.
In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, Juli Kellogg, who works as a volunteer in our women’s ministry, shares her story of sexual abuse as a child and how her growing understanding of God’s justice led to her healing. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)
For months, I’ve seen and heard story after story of women who were sexually abused, mistreated, and manipulated. I can imagine how hard it was for these women to tell their stories.
I know, because it happened to me.
When I was twelve, my family was in turmoil. My biological father left when I was two. My mother and stepdad were struggling through an impending divorce, and life was chaotic. I didn’t know what to expect from day to day, so I learned the art of taking myself out of real life and fabricating my own reality. I read books, lived in fantasy worlds, and hid under the stairs for hours to rock with my knees hugged tightly to my chest when trouble brewed on the home front.
During this time, my mother left me for a month with a man she thought she could trust to take care of me. After my first week with him, he began coming into my room nightly and raping me for the rest of my time there. Moreover, he spent the days prepping me by taking me out to dinner, paying stylists to make me look a particular way, and showing me pornography.
I reacted to this just like I had trained myself to react for years; under the guise of protecting myself, I pretended I was unaffected. While I could not control what was happening to me, there was one thing under my control: I refused to acknowledge that it affected me. When asked how things were, I put on my rose-colored glasses and replied, “Everything is fine.” My security was purchased at the cost of reality.
After going back home, I even returned to his house and endured several more months of abuse. Why did I go back; why did I not protest? Because in my mind, nothing bad had taken place. If I didn’t go after he invited me back, I would have to acknowledge that something awful happened to me. A war ensued inside me: either I give up reality to have control or give up control to live in reality. I chose to ignore what was happening to me for the illusion of control.
Reality, however, was about to come for me.
In the midst of this turmoil, a friend invited me to church. A few months later, God captured my heart, and the landscape of my life underwent a gradual transformation. Growth was slow, messy, and painful, as I grew in understanding that control does not lie with me but with a sovereign God. At times, I felt safe, believing this. Other times, when I encountered hard circumstances, I would slip back into my typical way of controlling my world. I felt safe then, not because I believed God was in control, but because I wouldn’t acknowledge the reality of what was going on.
This continued into my marriage. Jacques and I, friends since middle school, got married in college. A great job offer moved us to a scenic city where we became leaders within our church, expanded our friendships, cherished our extended family, and had a beautiful son. Things were “good.”
All these wonderful things were cut off in an instant when Jacques took his life.
Like all human relationships and marriages, we came up against difficulties. Jacques struggled with depression, and the more he struggled, the harder it was for me to believe I was secure. So, when things started to get hard, I slipped back into my old way of denying reality, seeking to control my interpretations as a means for security. I believed that things were, in fact, “good,” and I did nothing to deal with reality.
My husband’s death finally blew apart my way of handling life. Ignoring reality was no longer an option. Thanks to the loving pursuit of others in the church, I sought counsel. In counseling, other issues were brought in, including the abuse that I had reinterpreted in such a way that seemed to deny the bad. My counselor challenged me to face the trauma of my experience. Yet acknowledging the evil done to me invariably led to the question, where was God during the abuse? In my mind, it seemed that both could not exist at the same time. I had no answer.
As I began wrestling with this question, another believer guided me to Ezekiel 34, which radically reoriented the way I looked back at my story and God in the midst of it. This chapter begins with God speaking to the shepherds of Israel, accusing them of treating the sheep with “force and harshness.” They abused their authority, leaving the sheep “scattered” and defenseless, “food for all the wild beasts” (vv 4,5).
I saw the connection between the abuses the people of Israel endured with my own. We both had shepherds charged with our care who, instead of caring for our needs, used us for their appetites.
As I read the passage, it seemed that God was just letting this happen. But then I read verse 10. He says, “I am against the shepherds.” This is not a weak response. This is an indictment. In Jeremiah 23:1-2, speaking of the same shepherds, God speaks judgment to the shepherds, “I will attend to you for your evil deeds.” Then it hit me: I saw the connection between the abuses the people of Israel endured with my own. We both had shepherds charged with our care who, instead of caring for our needs, used us for their appetites. God hadn’t ignored what happened to me. He didn’t look past what was done to me. Rather, he condemned the shepherds who abdicated their responsibility and said that He would demand full payment for the weight of their atrocious actions.
As I continued to read, God’s wrathful response to injustice became as much a comfort as his grace was to me when He first saved me. To somebody like me, who had experienced unspeakable abuse as a child, the truth of God’s justice was what I needed.
I was finally freed to face reality, to call the abuse done to me wrong, and to grieve my losses. Because God did.
I saw that God did not relinquish control to these wicked shepherds. Instead, he was enraged by their abuse, and he was always the ultimate Shepherd, fully in control, as he promised, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…” (Ezekiel 34:15-16).
Not only was God present, but he also was not watching idly. He was working out his plan of redemption in my life.
I found this incredible! “I,” “my,” and “myself” are repeated more than almost any other word in the entire chapter. It is so personal. Far from being far away, God mourned for me, as he reminded me that “I am the Lord [your] God with [you]…” (Ezekiel 34:30). My security lay not in myself–through my habit of denying reality–but in God, who, through everything, was with me and watching over me and would not leave me, until his purposes would be accomplished in my life, just as he promised Jacob (Genesis 28:15).
Not only was God present, but he also was not watching idly. He was working out his plan of redemption in my life. “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out… and I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered…” (Ezekiel 34: 11, 12). God himself came to the rescue in Jesus, who said, “I am the good shepherd [who] lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Jesus, God incarnate, identified with me in experiencing perversion, betrayal, abuse, and all the pain this world has to offer. Then, Jesus experienced the full justice of God’s wrath, so that he could rescue me.
Now, when I struggle, I am freed to look to the God of Ezekiel 34. Instead of battling to feel secure by denying what is happening, I can recognize the reality that I have a protector who came to battle against the powers of evil on my behalf, who has redeemed me, who knows my pain, and who continues the work he began in me through his Spirit.
I have found that living in the reality of God’s story is far richer than any false reality I could ever create.
Amidst these joys, I fight to remember that in healing, terrible wrong is not meant to be simply washed away, but it can be used as a tool, in God’s hands, to drive me deeper into relationship with him and others. Remembering that also brings to mind the faces of those he sent to me in my church, walking with me in my pain, showing me how to live and love.
I look forward to that glorious day when the brokenness I see in myself and the world will truly be healed. On that day, we will meet our Savior face to face and “[we] shall dwell securely, and none shall make [us] afraid,” (Ezekiel 34: 28).
Penny Freeman talks more on this subject in the accompanying video: How Do I Live with My Story of Childhood Sexual Abuse? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
If childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is part of your story, Penny Freeman offers three suggestions in this video that might help you move forward. To read more on this topic, read Juli Kellogg’s blog, “Sexual Abuse, Brokenness, and Redemption: A Journey of Healing and Seeing.“