Question continued: 1 Corinthians 7:5—Is any sexual activity between a husband and wife permissible? Does this mean a spouse should have sex with their partner whenever their partner desires? Is it really a wife’s job to meet her husband’s needs to give him strength to fight temptation? What does this mean exactly for the wife? Does she have to fulfill her husband’s needs whenever he has them? Does it work the other way too?
1 Corinthians 7:5 provides us with a good example of how we should never take a single verse out of context without looking at how it relates to the surrounding sentences and paragraphs. In other words, this verse is a sentence within a thought that the author is presenting. The other thoughts and the argument the author is building have to factor into our interpretation and our application.
The first question you must ask is why Paul wrote this letter in the first place. As you read this letter it becomes quite apparent that Paul was writing to address very specific situations that were happening within this congregation. He explains that our daily lives need to be continually changed and transformed (sanctification) because of our commitment to Christ and he gives very practical and pointed information to these Christians on how this transformation should be evidenced within their lives.
The first six chapters of this book are an attempt to deal with contentions within the church at Corinth and urges unity in both perspective and practice. In the beginning of chapter seven, Paul begins to respond to a series of very specific questions that this church had asked (written) him about. They are introduced by the phrase “now concerning” and include marital issues, liberty and responsibility, spiritual gifts and church order, an offering for famine relief, and Apollos.
So the verse in question, 1st Corinthians 7:5, is a single verse within a larger section, and is located within the argument the author is making. The theme that immediately precedes the section of Scripture that we are looking at deals with the dangers of sexual immorality outside of marriage. The end of chapter six calls them to remember what a high price was paid by Jesus to redeem them and admonishes these people to flee from sexual immorality and to honor God with their bodies. With this in mind verses 7:1-7:40 deal with marital issues. Verse five is within a unit of thought (7:1-7:9) that deals with marriage and celibacy.
Part of the challenge with many biblical passages is they respond to letters we don’t have or circumstances we don’t know about. The Bible Knowledge Commentary says that Paul is most likely commenting about the “abandonment of marital duties on the part of some in Corinth” and that these practices “had contributed to the immorality he had just described.”
So with this in context, here is Paul’s basic argument:
- Paul is celibate and wishes more could be that way as well—more time to devote to Christian work instead of a spouse and family.
- It is much better to be married than to be in unmarried sexual sin.
- Once married, Paul stresses the equality and reciprocity of the husband’s and wife’s sexual relationship by emphasizing the responsibilities of each to satisfy the needs of the other.
- Celibacy within marriage can only happen for a short time and only if it was mutually agreed upon beforehand and is for the purpose of a concentrated time of prayer.
So now, to address the questions listed above. This Scripture does not address whether any sexual act is permissible between a husband and wife. In context, it’s safe to say that Paul was writing about sexual intercourse here—not other types of sexual practices. I can say that there are passionate arguments on both sides of this question but I must say that just because something might be permissible, it doesn’t follow that we should automatically use that freedom. Loving and honoring our spouse and taking their feelings and beliefs into account on matters that can be debated are paramount in loving them well.
The other questions are all inter-related. We have to remember that ultimately we are to honor God with our bodies (last verse in chapter six) and we are not to withhold sexual intimacy from each other. Paul has just made the case that withholding sexual intimacy can help to cause sexual immorality so why wouldn’t we want to help each other stay pure? But we must also remember that we are called to love and honor each. Can you think of an instance in which it would be either unloving or dishonorable to ask your spouse for sexual intimacy immediately? I think the answer is obviously yes. We also must take the writings of Paul in which he presented over and over that while we may have the right to do something, we should not necessarily assert our rights. But again, taking into account some possible exceptions, why would we ever not want to help our spouses maintain sexual purity? And yes, this applies equally to both men and women.