Is sex dirty, or is it holy?
This question neatly frames the difference between the Corinthians’ view of sex and Paul’s. For the Corinthians—or, at least, some of them—sex was a dirty act that should be avoided. Their motto was, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Corinthians 7:1). Consequently, they advocated abstinence, even within marriage. For Paul, however, sex is a holy act between a husband and a wife, who possess, have obligations to, and hold authority over one another’s bodies (7:2-4). Indeed, it is a sanctifying act, that is, one that aids a husband and wife’s progress in holiness.
Consider what Paul writes in this regard in 1 Corinthians 7:5-6:
Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command.
The word deprive in verse 5 is a strong one. Paul uses the same word in 6:7-8, where it is translated by the word cheat. James 5:4 uses the same word to describe “the wages [landowners] failed to pay [their workers],” or, as the ESV translates the verse, “the wages…which you kept back by fraud.” Just as it is wrong to defraud an employee of his wages or to cheat a fellow Christian out of his legal due, so it is wrong to deprive a spouse of his or her marital right to sexual intercourse. A sexless marriage is, in Christian terms, a fraud.
And fraud is precisely what the Corinthians—or, at least, some of them—seemed intent on perpetrating upon their spouses. Worse, they offered a spiritual justification for their inaction, namely, that they abstained in order to pray. They seemed to assume that one could not be both spiritual beings who prayed and physical beings who made love to their spouses. Orthodox Christian theology teaches that we are spiritual bodies or embodied spirits who both pray and, when married, have sex.
Paul conceded that on occasion, married Christians may abstain from sex for the purposes of intentional spiritual formation, as long as the abstention was mutual and time-delimited. A sex-fast, in this regard, is similar in purpose to a fast of food. But just as one would not stop eating altogether, one should not—if married—stop having sexual relations all together.
Why? Because sex is (or can be) an aid to holiness. The Corinthians’ unbiblical asceticism resulted in an uptick of visits to prostitutes. Had they maintained normal relations with their spouses, they would have been able to resist that temptation and instead practice self-control, meaning sex solely within the bounds of marriage.
The great error in Christian spirituality is denigrating the bodies God has given us under the mistaken notion that the spiritual has nothing to do with the physical. God gave you a body. Use it rightly!