1 Corinthians 7:5. That’s a sticky verse. And today we’re going to start a three-part series on what Paul’s trying to say in 1 Corinthians 7!
The most common conflict when it comes to sex in marriage is about frequency: one spouse tends to want more sex than the other, and this leads to the higher-libido spouse feeling unloved. Why doesn’t my wife want to show me love? Why doesn’t my husband desire me? Then this starts a vicious circle where the other spouse thinks, “is that all they want from me? Am I just an object?” And it goes downhill from there.
I’m not trying to answer the question how often should married couples have sex–I tackled that here–I want to look at the broader issues so that we can come to that conclusion ourselves, as a couple. So let’s dive in.
Often in Christian circles, when things start spiraling downward about this frequency of sex issue, someone will pull out 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, which says:
3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps 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. (NIV)
I’d like to spend a few posts this week looking at what 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 really means.
Let me start by sharing some stories with you. One woman wrote me last week, saying,
Last week my husband was away on business for five days. We usually have sex about 4 times a week. After he came home and we had the kids in bed, we started kissing and I [began to make love to him]. He stopped, because he was upset that I wanted just sex, and didn’t want to [please him in other ways first]. I was only interested in what would make me feel good, and not interested in how he liked to feel good.
This woman, who is making love with frequency with her husband, has been told that she is never good enough because she doesn’t like the sex acts that he does. And she isn’t supposed to deprive him, he says.
In the comments to my post on “Sex Should be Mutual“, one man wrote this, in response to my saying that men need to be sensitive when a wife is recovering from childbirth or is having our periods:
Paul tells us “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, so 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.” (1 Cor 7:5)
The period of abstinence after pregnancy and during the wife’s period is not by mutual agreement so that the couple can devote themselves to prayer. It is being forced on us men because we are being told to give our wives a break.
Since the husband did not agree to stop having sex, the wife can’t either, he claims.
And that’s my point of contention today: too often these verses are used as weapons, which makes sex into simply an obligation. Here’s how I replied to this man:
God does not ask us to love Him without first loving us. It’s mutual. And sex should be mutual, too. God created it for women as much as for men. And when we start saying, “men need sex and can’t last five days without it, so women need to service him,” we make sex into something very transactionally based and obligation based.
That is no fun.
I believe that most things in the Christian life are not cut and dry.
We live in constant tension, and indeed, the Bible is in tension. Is it grace or works? Is it justice or mercy? Is it free will or predestination? None of these things has easy answers; the truth is always found in the middle, after struggling. And that struggling is important, in and of itself. We’re supposed to wrestle with God on the hard questions.
And so I believe that these verses include some wrestling. So today I’m going to wrestle with one side of it, and then I’ll wrestle with the other tomorrow before coming to a conclusion on Wednesday about what the Do Not Deprive verses mean in their complete context..
Do not refuse one another, except by mutual consent and for a time…
He wrote do not deprive.
Deprive is not the same as refuse. I believe many people interpret this verse to mean refuse. Are women obligated to have sex every time a man wants it? Are we ever allowed to refuse?
Well, let’s look more closely at deprive.
If I were to say to you, “do not deprive your child of good food,” what am I implying? I’m saying that your child should get the food that is commonly recognized for good health: three healthy meals a day, with some snacks. I am not saying that every time your child pulls at your leg and says, “Mommy, can I have a bag of cheetos?” that you have to say yes. You are not depriving your child of good food by refusing a request for Cheetos.
Deprive implies that there is a level of sexual activity that is necessary for a healthy marriage. And, to extend the food analogy a little bit, this doesn’t mean that we should be aiming for the minimum, either: for instance, life in concentration camps proved that you could keep people alive with one meal a day at 800 calories. But that is NOT healthy.
So we shouldn’t be aiming for the minimum; we should realize that there is a level where two people can feel intimate and close, and that is likely quite frequently.
But it does not mean that it is every single time a person wants sex.
The fact that the preceding verses in 1 Corinthians 7 say that the husband’s body is the wife’s, and the wife’s body is the husband’s, implies that one person cannot and must not force himself or herself onto the other person. And by force I’m not talking about just physical force. There’s emotional blackmail, there’s shutting down, there’s telling someone, “you’re just not good enough”. There’s acting like the man in the first email, who was upset because his wife preferred mutual intercourse to the racier things that he wanted instead. And he took it out on her.
Let’s assume that it’s the wife with the lower libido for a minute (though it certainly isn’t always) and look at it this way:
If her husband’s body belongs to her, then she has the ability to also say, “I do not want you using your body sexually right now with me.”
If she feels sick, or is really sad, or is exhausted, then her having ownership of his body also means that she can say, “I just can’t right now” without needing to feel guilty–if she is at the same time not depriving him.
I believe that the admonition “do not deprive each other” refers to the relationship as a whole, not to each individual moment.
So if, in the relationship as a whole, you are having regular and frequent sex, then if one of you says, “not tonight”, that is not depriving. That is simply refusing for right now.
There are many commenters who have said that a wife doesn’t have the right to refuse according to this verse, because she would be depriving him. To this I would print this comment from reader Kelly:
Yep, some of the comments you read by men on these marriage websites are precisely why Christian women are beginning to advise each other not to risk marrying a Christian man! (I’m not kidding). Look, guys, here’s a quick lesson in the blindingly obvious: there’s no quicker way to make sex unappealing to your wife than by demanding it, regardless of how she feels. No better way of making yourself unattractive and frankly repellent than by sexual coercion. No no effective way of losing your wife’s respect – she wants a real man, not some oaf (because if you can enjoy sex knowing the other person isn’t enjoying it, there’s something very wrong with you). And really, no one past the age of 14 should need telling that. Of COURSE, a sexless marriage has problems that need addressing. Of COURSE you should ask if you want more/different sex to be happy. Of COURSE you can explain to her why sexual rejection hurts. But here’s a little clue (again from the ‘stating the obvious’ files): why do I enjoy nothing more than making love with my husband? Why can I not keep my hands off him? Why am I keen to give him pleasure even if I’m occasionally not in the mood or unable to participate myself? Because, while making it obvious he finds me desirable, he also wouldn’t WANT to have sex with me unless I was an enthusiastic participant. Because he can’t stand the idea of it being a one-way experience.
And I would echo what Kelly said at the beginning of her comment: in conversations with men, I have often found that it is the non-Christian men who are more giving and tolerant of their wives than the Christian men. Too many Christian men think they have the right to demand sex whenever and wherever because of this verse. And it is not true. That is ignoring the mutuality of the whole context of that passage, and I think distorts what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 7:5.
There is a difference between refusing occasionally and depriving someone habitually.
Tomorrow I’ll look at it from the other side–our obligation to have regular and frequent sex–and then I’ll try to put forward a balanced approach.
For now, though, what are your initial thoughts? Have you ever heard this verse used as a weapon?
Sheila is the author of The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex.31 Days to Great Sex is here (only $4.99!) It's the best $5 you'll ever spend on your marriage!
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