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When abstinence is sinful

The bible is clear: frequent sex is a duty for both husband and wife.

-Darren Middleton-

It saturates our screens, it inundates the internet, it dominates the cultural discourse but all too often, in conservative Christian circles, sex is absent from the pulpit.

Seventeen years of pastoral experience has taught me that sexual relations in too many Christian marriages are suffocating in an atmosphere of defeat and negativity that cannot be reconciled to Scriptural teaching.

Now of course we live in a broken world, so there are many reasons why sex in marriage is not all it can be. Such factors as age, accidents or mental or physical illness may result in sexlessness in marriage. However, putting aside the exceptions, the biblical rule is this: sexlessness in marriage is sinfulness.

In 1 Corinthians 7:1-6 the Apostle Paul answers the implied question from the Corinthian church: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” In their culture of immorality, easy divorce and remarriage, where Greeks used prostitutes and courtesans for pleasure, and wives to provide children and household stability – some Christians reacted with a sort of sexual austerity policy.

And Paul responds, saying “because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.”

In other words, Paul says, sex is not optional in marriage. If you are planning to get married, you are planning to have sex. You are spouses, not roommates. To that end premarriage counselling should include the pointed question: Are you willing to meet your spouse’s legitimate sexual needs? If you are not willing to do so, don’t get married.

The word translated “conjugal rights” means to pay, repay, give or fulfil an implied duty or obligation (in this case marital sex). To have sex with your spouse then is to fulfil a covenant obligation, likened by Paul to a debt or a duty paid. The same Greek words are used in Matthew 18:26, 32 and Romans 13:7 concerning the paying of outstanding debts.

Withholding sex from your spouse becomes an act of theft or fraud, meaning in most cases, sexlessness is sinfulness!

Consequently, there is an expectation of continued sexual availability of both partners in marriage. So, while sex is a delight, it is also a duty and/or debt. Therefore, withholding sex from your spouse becomes an act of theft or fraud, meaning in most cases, sexlessness is sinfulness!

Moreover, it’s God’s will that sex should be frequent in marriage. Paul writes, “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. Now as a concession, not a command, I say this.”

Paul expects that apart from an extended time of prayer, Christian couples would not deprive one another of sexual relations. And even that is a concession not a command! Of course the reader may well ask, so how frequent is frequent? My answer would be that, given Paul allows a concession for what I imagine is an extended time of prayer, I think frequent would be measured in days, not weeks and certainly not months.

For many, sex will be daily, for others it may be every few days, certainly weekly. But if it was less frequent it would make Paul’s extended prayer concession somewhat redundant. (How long are your prayer meetings?) So temporary periods of sexlessness in marriage to concentrate on a season of prayer by mutual agreement is a concession offered by the Apostle, but certainly it’s not a command (vs.6).

So we can say with certainty that frequent sex is God’s will for married couples. However, it is also God’s will according to 1 Peter 3:7, that husbands should “live with your wives in an understanding way…” The idea is that the husband studies his wife like a book, and gains personal insight into how she thinks and feels. The result of this is that he lives with her in a knowledgeable way, which appreciates that sex for married couples functions both as a thermostat and a thermometer.

For many men, sex is like a thermostat regulating the warmth of the marriage, whereas for many women it’s a thermometer recording the warmth of their marriage. Many men think, if the sex is frequent the marriage will be good. Many women think, if the marriage is good the sex will be frequent.

Importantly then, just as frequent sex is God’s will for marriage, so is living and loving in an understanding way. I say that because navigating differences in sexual desires between men and women can be difficult. Nonetheless, frequent sex in a loving and understanding marriage is God’s revealed will for married couples.

This is important not just because it satisfies legitimate sexual needs within the marriage, but it also helps keep the marriage bed pure. Paul says in Vs.2 and 5, “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband…so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self control.”

Many men think, if the sex is frequent the marriage will be good. Many women think, if the marriage is good the sex will be frequent.

The idea here is that sex is satisfying legitimate sexual needs of your spouse (that you agreed to satisfy when you agreed to become one flesh). Paul twice states that a result of a satisfying sex life
is that we are not easily tempted to satisfy those needs elsewhere. But there is never any justification for satisfying sexual needs outside the covenant relationship, nor are Paul’s comments meant to be used as leverage against a spouse, e.g., “give me sex or I might look elsewhere”.

However, it is equally important to remember that Paul is offering wisdom here to married couples, encouraging a sexual generosity that satisfies their spouse’s sexual needs. The idea being, that in doing so, you also help your spouse’s resolve to resist the manifold temptations of the Evil One, whether that manifests itself in an opportunity to commit adultery, watch pornography or engage in other forms of lust. Paul commends frequent, generous sex that satisfies your spouse’s legitimate sexual needs, and in doing so reduces the temptation or attraction of sexual immorality.

So God’s will is for frequent sex in marriage that ameliorates the cultural effects of sexual immorality and the obvious temptations that follow. But there still exists one nagging question: What do you do when one spouse desires to have sex daily, and the other is more than happy with weekly?

Verse 4 seems to be the solution. “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.”

Paul’s answer seems to be that because our bodies belong to the other, our attitude should be that of seeking to outdo one another in love and honour. In other words, understand sex not as taking, but as giving. There is an expectation of generosity, and expectation that in giving, rather than taking, we will meet the legitimate needs of our spouse, putting their needs and preferences before our own. And as each seeks to meet the other’s desires, compromise will be the natural and happy outcome. However, whatever compromises are made, they should bring us closer to the biblical norm of generous, frequent sex, and not further away. For we have already established this general truth, that being sexless in marriage is being sinful.

Darren Middleton is pastor of North Geelong Presbyterian Church, Vic.

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