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Paul's Instructions on Sex in Marriage (I Corinthians 7:1-9)

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.


Introduction: Marriage as a Biblical Covenant

Chuck Swindoll wrote a book entitled Quest for Character. In it he sites another book written many years ago. Swindoll tells us this:

"Sociologist and historian Carle Zimmerman, in his 1947 book Family and Civilization, recorded his keen observations as he compared the disintegration of various cultures with the parallel decline of family life in those cultures. Eight specific patterns of domestic behavior typified the downward spiral of each culture Zimmerman studied.

*Marriage loses its frequently broken by divorce.

*Traditional meaning of the marriage ceremony is lost.

*Feminist movements abound.

*Increased public disrespect for parents and authority in general.

*Acceleration of juvenile delinquency, promiscuity, and rebellion.

*Refusal of people with traditional marriages to accept family responsibilities.

*Growing desire for and acceptance of adultery.

*Increasing interest in and spread of sexual perversions and sex-related crimes."

As we can see from this study, and many subsequent studies since, the way we view and treat marriage and family in a society is crucial to the very survival of any civilization. In Scripture, it is seen as the first interpersonal human relationship, as we read Genesis 1 and 2, and it is the basis upon which society is formed. We see in Genesis 2:23-24, after God forms Eve from the rib of Adam, that:

The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.

Indeed, Scripture sees marriage as a covenant between three persons. Between God, the man and the man's wife. Here is what has to say about biblical covenants:

When the Bible mentions a covenant, it’s referring to a strong, solemn agreement between two parties. However, biblical covenants are very different from the kinds of agreements we make nowadays: Covenants make two into one. When two parties make a covenant in the Bible, they are joined together and identified with each other.

Also, Austin Cline from tells us this:

The Hebrew term for covenant is berit, meaning “to bond or fetter.” It is translated into Greek as syntheke, “binding together” or diatheke, “will or testament.” In the Bible, then, a covenant is a relationship based upon mutual commitments. It typically involves promises, obligations, and rituals. The terms testament and covenant can be used interchangeably, though covenant tends to be used for the relationship between Jews and God.

With all of this in mind, we now turn to the Apostle Paul's instructions on marriage found in I Corinthians 7. He had this solemn and important understanding of the marriage relationship in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians and answered the questions that they had apparently asked him.

Since this chapter has so much in it, we need to break it up into sections that can be dealt with individually in order to cover properly what the apostle is saying.

First of all, verses 1-9 talk about the marriage relationship in general, specifically in regards to an unhealthy view of celibacy. Verses 10-24 talk about divorce. And, finally, verses 25-40 cover those Christians who are single for whatever reason. Today we will look at the first 9 verses and see what Paul has to say about sex and celibacy.

Let's look a little more carefully at this section of God's Word and see what we can glean from what the apostle instructs.

We need to begin by talking about the sexually permissive culture in which the Corinthian church was living.

I. The Sexually Permissive Culture Surrounding the Corinthian Church

Sexuality in ancient Corinth might be considered quite liberal today even in our own sexually promiscuous society. Besides the fact that there were a lot of relations between friends with other friends, teachers and students, there were also relations that took place between masters and slaves. Some claim that up to 1/3 of all Corinthians were slaves, so that allowed for a lot of this type of activity in the city.

Corinth also boasted hundreds of working prostitutes who were connected to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Further, since Corinth was a major port city these prostitutes were around to cater to visiting sailors and businessmen.

In fact, things were so bad in Corinth that the term 'to Corinthianize' became synonymous with acting in a sexually immoral way.

So is it any wonder that many of the Corinthian Christians who came out of this background were having trouble understanding a healthy view of sexuality? We saw in chapter 5 that a man was even having sexual relations with his father's wife.

All of these things lead the Corinthians to ask Paul questions regarding the place of sex within marriage. We don't know the exact questions but obviously, in verses 1-9 people were asking about whether celibacy was something to be considered within the matrimonial relationship.

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Before getting Paul's answer to this question, it might be good to see the biblical understanding of sex from which he derived his answer.

II. Paul's Biblical Understanding of Sex

The Apostle, knew the Scriptures as well as any man of the time, being a pharisee. And, from the beginning, the Bible reveals sexual intercourse as God's good gift to human beings. In Genesis 1:28, God told Adam and Eve to:

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

This command implied that they have sexual relations.

I also like what has to say about the further biblical reasons for sex in marriage. They say:

"Besides expanding the human race, God designed sex for the physical, emotional, and spiritual union between one man and one woman for life (Genesis 2:18, 23–24; Matthew 19:4–6; 1 Corinthians 7:32–34). God's design for sex between a married man and woman is good and honorable (Hebrews 13:4). There is nothing shameful, dirty, or dishonorable about sex; in fact, in their state of innocence, "the man and his wife were both naked, and they were not ashamed" (Genesis 2:25)."

The place where the Bible sees sex as sinful is any time it is done outside of its originally intended place within the commitment of the marriage bond. This is called fornication, and, in several places, Scripture tells us of the destructive nature of sex outside of marriage. For example, Proverbs 7:21-27 warns of an adulteress. It says:

With her many persuasions she entices him;
With her flattering lips she seduces him.

Suddenly he follows her
As an ox goes to the slaughter,
Or as one in fetters to the discipline of a fool,

Until an arrow pierces through his liver;
As a bird hastens to the snare,
So he does not know that it will cost him his life.

Now therefore, my sons, listen to me,
And pay attention to the words of my mouth.

Do not let your heart turn aside to her ways,
Do not stray into her paths.

For many are the victims she has cast down,
And numerous are all her slain.

Her house is the way to Sheol,
Descending to the chambers of death.

And though Paul was, more than likely, dead by the time the book of Hebrews was written, it is no doubt that he would have agreed with what was said in chapter 13 verse 4 which tells us:

"Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterers."

He may not have said that himself, but, in I Corinthians 6:9,10, he did say this:

"Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God."

We can see from all of this that Paul would have a positive view of sex within marriage, even to the point of seeing it as a necessity. While, at the same time, he would see the need for celibacy outside the marriage bond. And that is just how he presents it here to the Corinthians.

What we may be surprised about, however, is that he doesn't make one life choice, as inferior to the other. By that I mean he doesn't make marriage out to be the better choice over singleness, or vice versa. Further, he doesn't say that marriage and sex are for everyone without exception, though it is the way to go for the majority of Christians and for obvious reasons.

III. Singleness and Marriage Equally Valid (1-2)

Paul saw both marriage and singleness as equally valid life choices in order to bring glory to God by one's life. Here is what he said in I Corinthians chapter 7 verses 1 and 2. He states:

"Now, concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband."

When Paul is talking about not touching a woman here, he is using a Jewish euphemism for sexual intercourse.

Some of the Corinthians had the notion that because of the sexual sin and the marital confusion in the culture around them, it would be far better to be single. And that, somehow celibacy, or abstinence from sex, was a more spiritual choice to make as a believer. This could have led some to falsely decide to divorce in order to get back to a single state. However, though these verses elevate singleness as long as it includes celibacy, they in no way teach that marriage is wrong or inferior as we see in the next verses. As a matter of fact, because of the temptations that all of us face in this world, and the weakness of the flesh, most men and women should seek the marital union.

IV. Sexual Union is a Duty for Each Spouse (3-4)

Within that union, Paul sees sex as a duty that each spouse has to perform in order to keep the marriage healthy. While celibacy is right for the single believer, it is wrong for a married couple. Especially, in a culture saturated with unbiblical sexual practices. Marriage is God's provision for sexual fulfillment and each spouse needs to care for the other's needs.

Paul has completely rejected the idea of celibacy within marriage. The apostle may have been partially speaking against early heresies, such as Gnosticism, that claimed that the body was evil and sex should be avoided, even in marriage. He says that just the opposite is true because regular sex keeps one from being damaged by giving in to the temptation of sexual sin.

As we've said before, marriage is a covenant between the spouses and God. Because of the covenant relationship, each spouse is given the right over the other spouse's body for satisfaction. Notice, it's not the husband who has authority alone in this area. It is not a slave/master relationship. Indeed, both spouses mutually have a right to each other. Neither wife nor husband have independent authority over their own bodies. They belong to one another.

In our modern world, many object to the idea of someone else having control over their bodies. But the Christian idea is that we are bought with a price (II Corinthians 6:19,20; Ephesians 1:7; Galatians 3:13; Galatians 2:20). God is now our master, just as sin was our master before we were saved. The two places where Christ's Lordship over us is seen is in our avoidance of sin and the mutual expression of sexuality within marriage.

V. Deprivation Should be Short and for Spiritual Reasons (5-7)

Paul goes on to say that if there is sexual deprivation there should be a spiritual reason for it and it should be for a mutually agreed-upon short time. Paul says this:

"Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control." (5).

After the agreed-upon abstinence, sexual desire will intensify, and it will be a time when Satan can get the best of you. You and your spouse can become vulnerable to his attacks and the desires of the flesh.

Paul goes on to say:

"But this I say by way of concession, not of command. Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that." (6)

Some people connect this verse to verse 5 and some say it refers to verse 7. Here is how explains it:

If Paul is referring to the prior verse as a concession, he would be making it clear that mutual abstinence is something married couples may agree to for a time, not something Paul is commanding. The "concession" aspect would be Paul allowing for sexuality and marital agreements despite his personal preference for celibacy.

More likely it is that Paul is prefacing his remark in the next verse: that he, personally, would like every Christian to be unmarried and unattached as he is. This verse, then, would mean to clarify that the words which follow are merely Paul's preference and his perspective. God does not command anyone to be like Paul in this way."

The apostle was, at this point in his life, both single and unburdened by strong sexual desire. This he saw as a gift from the Lord. However, he was keenly aware that most people don't have this gift of celibacy. They have the gift of a spouse and marriage. Here Paul sees both singleness and marriage as God's gracious gifts to the ones who possess them.

VI. Singles Without Sexual Self-Control Should Marry (8-9)

Paul concludes this first section on sex and celibacy of the married and single by giving this advice to the unmarried Christian:

"But I say to the unmarried and to the widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry for it is better to marry than to burn with passion." (8-9).

The term 'unmarried' here is used only 4 times in the New Testament and only in I Corinthians. This term distinguishes the unmarried from the widows, that is those single by the death of a spouse, and virgins who have never been married. Each use of unmarried in in I Corinthians always refers to those who were formerly married, presently single and not widowed. They are the divorced. It is likely that these persons wanted to know, and asked Paul if they could or should remarry as believers.

Paul's advice is that it is good for them to remain 'even as I.' Paul, who was possibly a widower at the time, since pharisees usually get married, here is probably affirming his former marriage by identifying with the unmarried and widows.

Because of the freedom a single person has in service to the Lord, the apostle's first suggestion is that they remain single. However, if they don't have sexual self-control, he is saying that they should marry, for that is far better than being constantly dominated by sinful sexual passions.

The phrase 'let them marry' indicates a command here. This is because a person cannot live an effective life for the Lord and be controlled by unfulfilled desires. That is especially true if one lives in a sex-obsessed society like Corinth, or like we live in today for that matter.


When it comes right down to it, no matter what form of life a Christian is leading, whether single or married, our first obligation is to bring glory to the Lord Jesus Christ. For the single person, that is a life of celibacy and devotion to God's service. For the married, a portion of that life of service to the Lord includes serving one's spouse, including mutually fulfilling each other's sexual needs.

This latter covenant of marriage is what most people will be gifted with most of their adult lives. There is nothing wrong with that just as there is nothing wrong with the former life of living single, or totally without a spouse. Both are equally valid in the eyes of God, and both have their advantages as well as their disadvantages.

Whichever we are called to at this particular moment in our lives, may we treat sexuality with the same sacredness that God intended when He first created Adam and Eve.

Whether we be married or single, this life with all of its pleasures and problems, is very short and the only things that will matter in the end are the things done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. May He be fully pleased with how we have lived our lives on this earth.

© 2022 Jeff Shirley

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