No Abstinence within Marriage (1 Corinthians 7:1)

When it comes to human sexuality, Christians have gotten a bad rap. If I read our critics rightly, we are either ascetics whose only word regarding sex is “No,” or hypocrites who indulge our sexual appetites with an enthusiastic “Yes,” even as we denounce others’ indulgence of the same. Either way, we don’t come out looking good in the eyes of others.

Having a good reputation is a good thing, of course, unless it’s not. There’s a difference between looking good and being good, after all, and it’s quite possible to look good to bad people, in which case you’re a bad person too. The crucial issue is the standard of evaluation.

For Christians, the standard of evaluation that matters most is God’s Word, which says “Yes” to sex inside marriage and “No” to sex outside of it. In that respect, the biblical teaching is both simple and clear in broad outline, but it also contains some complexifiying detail, such as what we read in 1 Corinthians 7:1-40.

Unfortunately, this passage—especially its first seven verses—often has been misinterpreted. The misinterpretation starts with verse 1, which the NIV translates as follows:

Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.

I use the word unfortunately because the NIV translation of the second half of verse 1 is misleading. That translation reads, “It is good for a man not to marry.” In Greek, a more literal translation is, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” Most modern translations recognize this as a euphemism for sexual intercourse and translate accordingly. For example, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (ESV).

Is this Paul’s point of view? On the one hand, yes. He writes, “I wish that all men were as I am” (verse 7a), and he was celibate. Contemporary Christians have often forgotten that lifelong celibacy is a spiritual gift that God gives to some Christians (verse 7b).

On the other hand, no. Paul counsels husbands and wives to fulfill their marital duties to one another in verse 3. And he advises them not to “deprive” themselves “except by mutual consent and for a time” in verse 5. Indeed, the Greek word translated deprive here is translated as cheated in 6:7-8. A sexless marriage is, in Christian terms, a fraud. Paul further argues in verse 5 that married sex is an aid to sanctification, helping the Christian couple resist satanic temptation and grow in self-control.

The issue, then, in verses 1-7 is not whether unmarried people should marry but how sexually active married people should be. The slogan, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” is the Corinthians’ motto, not Paul’s. They advocated celibacy within marriage. From Paul’s point of view this is an error. As Gordon Fee summarizes Paul’s point, verses 1-7 teach that there should be “no abstinence within marriage.”

That hardly sounds like asceticism to me.

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