November 25, 2020

Does 1 Corinthians Say that Withholding Sex from Your Spouse is Sin?

I find Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 7 to be some of the most perplexing statements in the Bible. Here, we have Paul lead off a passage by saying that what he’s about to say is his opinion, and not from God… but it’s in the Bible. Isn’t everything in the Bible from God?

Paul starts off the passage by saying that people should be content being single (without realizing that this would lead to celibate priests and Shakers) and then goes into an oft quoted passage on what the frequency of physical intimacy should look like in marriage.

It’s at this point that we get into what was lighting up Married Christian Twitter this past week, when @RegReformedGuys asked whether or not a wife or a husband should bring their spouse before the elders if they were not getting enough physical intimacy.

As you can see, the first question about the man bringing his wife before the elders for not being intimate with her husband got a whole lot more activity than the second one about the wife doing the same. The first one had people weigh in all sorts of different ways, with one side arguing that refraining is a sin to the fact that most of the time if a woman refrains she has a good reason.

Here’s a sampling:

It’s really an interesting thread if you read through it and see the reactions. The truth is, we all come to this question with baggage: Our own relationship, our own thoughts about the topic, and our own perspective. But what is the Bible’s perspective?

Well, I talked once before on the fact that 1 Corinthians 7 tells us men that we have to meet our wife’s needs. We also know that in order to be a faithful wife means meeting our husband’s needs. But how do we answer the question? By understanding the directive, the context, and then making a Biblical application.

The Directive

First, we need to understand the directive:

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.

I Corinthians 7:5

The text clearly states that a husband or a wife is not to deprive their spouse of sexual intimacy except for a limited time and the point of that time would be for prayer and or fasting, and that you would come together again quickly to prevent temptation.

So we’re going to have to figure out some good definitions, aren’t we?

Deprive

The Greek word for deprive is ἀποστερέω (apostereō) which means “deny, withhold, cause someone not to possess something.” This fits right in with the verses that just proceeded this statement:

The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 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.

1 Corinthians 7:3-4

So if the husband does not have rights over his body– his wife does, and vice versa, then withholding a body from a spouse is depriving them of the use of said body and Paul is saying that this should not be done.

Conjugal Rights

Conjugal rights is ὀφειλή (opheilē) in the Greek, and it translates to “what one should do, obligation, marital duty”. The dictionary states that marital duty is “(euphemistic) The duty to be available to one’s spouse for sexual intercourse.” Catholic websites agree:

Namely, the marital duty remains to render to one’s spouse the conjugal act, to which they have a right to, anytime it is reasonably requested.

Or, as this Catholic dictionary defines it, “Sexual intercourse due by the husband to the wife and the wife to the husband, to which they have bound themselves by marital contract.”

So, yes, by command of God, each husband owes sexual intercourse to his wife and each wife to her husband. It is not moral to withhold it unreasonably, lest you be guilty of sin—possible even mortal sin.

What is the Marital Duty Husbands and Wives Have to Each Other?

Even the secular state, grounded in Christian tradition, states that not fulfilling this marital duty can be grounds for divorce.

Kansas … has a 60-day residency requirement to file for divorce, as well as a 60-day waiting period between a divorce filing and a court hearing. “Incompatibility” and “the failure to perform a material marital duty or obligation” are the legal grounds for divorce in Kansas.

Kansas Divorce Laws

If you thought going before the elders of your church because a husband or wife was not fulfilling her conjugal rights, what about going before the state?!

The Exception

Paul does provide for one exception from this command… if you part for:

  • An agreed upon— both parties have to agree that you are going to refrain
  • Limited time— the time limit is not indefinite, but for a implied short time
  • To devote to prayer— For a specific purpose, to pray
  • Come back together— The end of the limited time should feature the physical union renewing

The only way that you are not supposed to fulfill your marital duty according to 1 Corinthians 7:5 is if you both agree to do it for a limited time which is devoted to prayer and features a time that you’d come back together again.

This means that if you’re withholding because he is sick or she is physically incapable and you agree to it, and you pray about, and you plan to get back together, then you’re in line with this passage. But if this is one sided, you’re not praying but you’re counting wrongs or you just don’t want to do it, and you have no plan of when it should return– if it ever will– then you are not in the bounds of Paul’s exception.

Assuming That You’re Pursuing Godliness

I think that often times we get into issues with the texts about marriage in the Bible because we’re trying to find the line. What I mean by this is that we’re trying to see how far we can go, where the boundaries are and how close we can get to them without violating them.

We do this with the discussion of submission in marriage, where we talk more about the limits of submission than we talk about the beauty of it and how to make it work to ultimately make a marriage blossom. So we get all tangled up in defining what commands a person or church doesn’t have to submit, whether Sarah submitted, and whether the state has the right to close your church.

Same is true for this question. Instead of being a passage to encourage sexual fidelity to one another, to convince a church that thought that sex was purely carnal and that singleness was the only way to please God, and to let people know that sex inside marriage was right and that a husband’s true care and concern for his wife was righteous and the same for the wife– it didn’t make them less Christian, we get this question of should we drag a spouse before elders to bring up their sexual problem.

So, I’ll bite… The right time to go to the elders is long before it comes to 1 Corinthians 7. The right time to seek help is when you find that there’s not attraction, that there is a sin problem that isn’t getting resolved, when you aren’t on the same page… Because withholding sex from either spouse is probably a sign that other issues are at play– greed, selfishness, anger, jealousy, envy… all of these things can prevent a couple from being all that God wants them to be.

Is it sinful to withhold sex? The Bible says that if it’s not for prayer and for a limited time the answer is yes. The question is, why has it gotten there. If it’s purely rebellion about not wanting sex, why is that the case? Sometimes it’s just that it’s been crowded out and needs to be a priority again. If that’s the case, what are you waiting for?

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