Sermon notes from 1 Corinthians 7:1-5
There seems to be very little respite In our culture from sexual stimulation. Sex is everywhere. There are few places to which we can retreat to escape from our sexually super heated society.
- Sex is on the billboards advertising everything from ice cream to cars.
- It’s in our office conversations as people brag about their sexual conquests or engage in explicit discussions about others.
- It’s on our TV screens masquerading as documentaries about the adult film industry.
- It’s in the newsagents with the red tops or the soft porn glossy men’s magazines.
- And it’s on the internet where apparently a third of web traffic is pornography.
Our passage this morning deals with sex. Over the last few months we’ve been looking at the letter of 1 Corinthians. And we’re beginning a series this week of three talks in chapter 7 which address the issues of sex, separation and singleness. We may think that it’s slightly odd going to the Bible for teaching about something so contemporary. Well sex wasn’t invented yesterday. We’re not the first culture to struggle with how to employ our sexuality. The Corinthian context wasn’t that different to our own. In some respects it may have been more familiar with sexual debauchery than we are. This after all is a church in which from chapter 5 we learn that a church member had been sleeping with his stepmother and from chapter 6 we learn that church members had been visiting prostitutes. The church in Corinth wrote to their absent pastor to ask his advice on the subject of sex. You wouldn’t normally expect a Vicar to be of any help, but there you go!
If you’re new to church please don’t think that this is a subject that we preach on every week! I don’t know how you feel about that. You could be relieved. Or you could be disappointed! In many respects I’d prefer to be preaching about Jesus. I’d be more comfortable with that. And I suspect you would be as well. But it’s here in the Bible. And, let’s be honest, since the issue of sex is never that far away, it’d be good to know what God thinks, wouldn’t it?
Though the subject matter is sex and marriage please don’t think that God’s word has nothing to say to those of us that are currently single. Your heart may have sunk when you looked at the preaching programme and realised what the subject matter was.
Presumably God has revealed these things to us because He thinks that we all need to know them. And so let me suggest three lines of enquiry for those of us that are single
- We need to know these things because this is what we need to know about marriage before we get there.
- There’s a danger that we may entertain an idealistic view of marriage and this ought to alert us to being unrealistic.
- We need to know these things because these are the issues that our married friends are facing because we’ll want to support them.
In these opening verses Paul has three things to say about sex and marriage.
1. In marriage sexual abstinence is a disaster (1&2)
7:1 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.
Paul quotes back to his readers the opinion that they’d expressed in their letter to him. Their slogan was ‘it’s good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman’. Literally it was ‘it’s good for a man not to touch a woman’. Their point was not that men should avoid physical contact in general with women but that they should avoid sexual contact in particular. He uses the word ‘touch’ as a euphemism for sex. This was a church in which some tolerated incest and prostitution and others proposed complete and total abstinence. What a shambles. The abstinence view probably came from the super spiritual who thought that there’s something spiritual to be gained by mastering a natural desire.
The Corinthians would not be the last to suggest that sexual abstinence was the spiritual choice. In the Middle Ages a character known as Yves of Castres advised people that they should abstain from sexual activity on certain days if they wished to be holy and pleasing to God. He argued that on Christians shouldn’t have sex on Thursdays because Christ was raised to heaven. Fridays were out because Christ died on that day. Saturday should be kept free out of respect for the Blessed Virgin Mary. Sunday was the day Christ rose from the dead and Monday was the day to honour dead Christians. Never has the middle of the week been so keenly anticipated!
In some cases Paul would want to agree with their view. There are specific situations where sexual abstinence is the spiritual option. But not in marriage, not really.
As far as God is concerned, the only permissible context for sexual activity is marriage between a man and a woman. The reason for that is that God designed sex to perfectly express the one flesh union described for us in Genesis 2 between a husband and a wife. Therefore homosexual sex [sex with someone of the same gender], pre-marital sex [sex with someone to who’s not yet your wife] and extra-marital sex [sex with someone who’s not your wife] all involve a rejection of God’s intent for sexual activity.
If we’re not married then God’s word to us is stop having sex. If you’re sleeping with your boyfriend or your girlfriend then you need to stop, get married and then start again! Of course, we’re all sexual sinners here. Most of us have a past. And this is a church for sinners because it’s a Christian church. God welcomes sinners and so do we. But God also promises transformation and requires repentance and we’re into that here. This is a place to find help to put the sexual mistakes of your past behind you and move on in new life.
Now I guess we expected that. We expected God to be anti-sex. Except He’s not. He just wants it happening in the right context. And the right context is marriage. And so when married couples decide to stop having sex they’re flirting with disaster. Paul literally writes, ‘but because of sexual immoralities let every husband go on having his own wife and let every wife go on having her own husband’. This clarifies for us that Paul is not commanding single people to get a marriage partner but that he’s commanding married people to go on having sex.
Because of the normal sexual drive, married couples need to have frequent sex. If they don’t then one or perhaps both of them will seek sexual satisfaction elsewhere, perhaps especially in a context where sexual promiscuity is rife.
Single of us may find it surprising that the Apostle would need to say this. We assume that married couples are having sex all the time. But very often that’s simply not the case. The complexities and pressures of married life, the weariness of work and the demands of raising a young family can really take their toll. It is not uncommon for sexual activity to drop off the radar. Couples can quickly end up living a life with no sexual contact.
If we’re married and this has become the case we need to address it. We’re in great danger and we’re only months away from disaster. It may already be the case that the husbands in particular have found some other avenue for sexual fulfilment. Wives don’t be naive about this one. Talk to your husbands. Husbands be honest with your wives.
And so Paul argues that if a married couple abstain from sex they are taking a very great risk.
2. In marriage sexual intimacy is an obligation (3&4)
3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 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.
The translation ‘conjugal rights’ is accurate but it’s probably not the most helpful. No one understands what it means anymore. And when we have a stab at it we’ll end up going down the wrong track. Because of the word ‘rights’ we suspect it might be misused by domineering husbands to demand sexual activity from their unwilling wives. That’s not only unfortunate; it’s inaccurate. The expression has more to do with not withholding what we’re obliged to offer. The emphasis is not on demanding our rights but giving what’s owed. When we marry someone we promise to give them ourselves. We tend to think of marriage as getting a husband or getting a partner. But marriage is about self giving and that includes our bodies. And therefore sexual intimacy expresses and effects self giving love.
So, the husband should give himself to his wife because he has no right to withhold his body from her. And likewise for the same reason the wife should give herself to her husband. This is not about getting sexual intimacy but about giving it. What Paul has in mind is both the husband and wife developing an ‘other person’ view of sexual intimacy.
Much of our sexual desire and appetite has to do with what we can gain. But that’s a not a Christian view of sex. A Christian view of sex has to do with bringing pleasure to our marriage partner. And so Christians ought to make the best lovers. We ought to aim to be the best in bed that we can be, for the sake of our marriage partner not our ego!
If we’re single then it’s worth being realistic about what we might be committing to if we’re to marry. If we’re not prepared to commit ourselves to the lifelong sexual satisfaction of our spouse then we ought not to get married. It’s been said before but it seems to me that the world’s greatest lovers are not those who enjoy a string of successive women but they are those who can satisfy one woman for the whole of her life. That’s what we’re aiming at if we aspire to be Christian husbands.
If we’re married then it’s worth asking whether we know what to do in order to give our partner the sexual satisfaction that they’d like. What that means will be discovered through communication. Perhaps it’ll be awkward at first as we broach subjects that we find a little embarrassing. One article I was reading this week suggested that each marriage partner write down what they like. Not so that they can demand it from the other person but so that their partner can decide to give them what they desire. I think that’s a great idea. We need to ask ourselves what does my husband or wife find attractive and appealing about me; what arouses their sexual desire.
In general it’s fair to say that what men and women require is different. On the whole men are stimulated by sight and so wives ought not to be ashamed of dressing and behaving in such a way that flatters their femininity and that their husbands find attractive.
On the whole women are stimulated by time, touch and tenderness. I know it sounds like an American rock ballad but there’s something in it. What most wives want from their husbands is some time during which they can receive some attention and enjoy the opportunity to talk about things and share their lives and not simply a house. Just before I got married a friend, who is now on the staff at a church in Cambridge said ‘you need to remember that sex starts in the kitchen’. ‘That sounds exciting’ I replied to which he responded ‘no, you idiot, it means you need to talk to your wife over supper’.
If I might generalise, most men want more sex and most women want better sex. I think there’s common ground. Both want sex, which is something to build on. Husbands, if you were better at sex your wife will want more. Wives, if you let your husbands have more sex they should improve with practice!
3. In marriage sexual activity is a necessity (5)
5 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.
The only concession that Paul makes to the abstinence view is to permit a couple to temporarily break off their sexual activity in order to pray. That puts sexual activity in marriage in some kind of context! It’s obviously so important that there’s only one thing that really trumps it for priorities. And that’s prayer.
There will sometimes be legitimate reasons why a married couple need to abstain from sexual activity. Physical intimacy can become problematic at some points in marriage. I don’t intend to discuss those here but I recommend a book from the Good Book Company called ‘One Flesh’ which helpfully explored these issues and others to do with the sexual side of a marriage relationship.
Even though Paul concedes that prayer is a legitimate reason to hold a sex fast, he does add a couple of qualifying statement. The decision should be by mutual consent. And it mustn’t go on too long. His point is that we must not leave the door open for Satan to tempt us because of our woeful inability to reign in our own lusts. We can help our marriage partner in their battle against sexual temptation by fulfilling their sexual desires in the bedroom.
Take some action and get it in the diary. Be proactive.
What are the implications of this for those of us that are single?
Thank you for listening to this and for being patient as we’ve thought about many applications to marriage.
It is right that you abstain from sexual activity until you are married. You need to continue to resist sexual temptation outside of marriage, just as married couples do. And we need to help you to do that. We’ll think more about your situation in the next couple of weeks.
What are the implications of this for those of that are married?
If we want a Christian marriage then we need to be prepared to give our marriage partner sexual satisfaction on a regular and frequent basis for the rest of our lives. We owe it to them because that’s what we promised and that will help them in the battle against sexual temptation.