1Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry. 2But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. 3The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. 5Do 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. 6I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
When I was younger, dieting was viewed quite differently than it generally is today. Dieting is still done with great fervor, but most people understand, at least in theory, that a proper diet must be done wisely with healthy, balanced meals, and accompanying exercise. When I was younger, however, it was much more common for people to diet by simply starving themselves. They began to view eating in general as the enemy and would avoid it all together. The problem with that is that two major things were working against that. One is that the body thinks its starving and so hangs onto its fat reserves rather than burning them. The second is that the human will can only hold up against our natural inclinations for so long. What usually happened is that the starvation diet would crash and burn in the midst of a great binge of eating.
In Corinth, there were apparently at least two camps of thought. Some Christians were claiming total freedom and doing whatever they wanted with their bodies. They believed that what was done with the body had little if any effect on the spirit, so why not do it all. There was apparently another group, however, that seemed to be following the line of thinking of many pagan philosophies of the day that included the belief that the body was inherently evil. All pleasures of the body needed to be avoided because they inhibited the development of the spirit. The eventual goal, in this philosophical line of thinking, was for the soul to be free of the body after death. This was the view that Plato espoused, but it is not at all biblical.
Paul has already addressed the first view with several examples, now he turns to the second viewpoint. He does so by answering a question that had arisen amongst at least some in the congregation. They had written Paul an earlier letter asking several questions and now he is going to give his answer. To fully understand his answer, though, it will help to realize that the Roman (and therefore Corinthian) view of marriage was as an arrangement of status and public image, especially for the rich. The Roman emperors greatly encouraged marriage among all people. Marriage, however, was not a very advantageous situation for women. They had very little rights within a marriage and the prospects of unmarried women were very limited in this society. Divorce could be had with a simple declaration of such. This meant that a good marriage was considered to be one that was harmonious. Pleasure was often sought outside of marriage.
In answering their question on marriage, then, Paul is dealing with both the societal view of marriage as well as a pagan-infused Christian philosophy that was teaching that sex and pleasure, even within a marriage, was not desirable and should be avoided. Paul’s overall point is obscured in the NIV translation of verse one which actually says “It is good for a man to have no sexual contact with a woman.” He is quoting what the Corinthians have written him. In theory, Paul agrees with this statement, to a degree, but his full answer is that just as starvation diets don’t really work, neither does this philosophy. Bodies were ultimately made to glorify God, but God also made them to have sex within the confines of marriage. Sex within a marriage is glorifying to God and should not be avoided. The one trying this starvation approach will find themselves exploding in inappropriate ways as evidenced by the apparent visits some had made to prostitutes (see chapter 6) or even the many well-documented problems that Roman Catholic priests have had with sexual matters in modern times.
In this short section on marriage, Paul sets many societal assumptions on their head. His declarations that each spouse literally has ‘authority’ over the body of the other, and that women were free not to be married if they so chose, are quite remarkable and are thoughts that appeared nowhere else in the ancient world. Paul affirms that sex within a marriage is a good and God-ordained thing. Withholding from it in no way enhances one’s spirituality or brings one closer to God. If both parties agree to abstain for some special period of prayer or a spiritual retreat, then both must agree and it needs to be for just a short time. If they try to completely abstain from sexual relations within their marriage they will find, just as the diets, that both their physiology and the power of their will to overcome temptation will be working against them.
Many readers have misunderstood Paul’s remarks in verse 6 regarding a concession as referring to Paul saying that marriage is a concession to keep people from sins of sexual immorality. That’s not Paul’s point at all. The concession to which he is referring is the fact that they may still feel the need to withhold from marital sex for a short time to focus on their spirituality. Paul believes that these are not mutually exclusive activities. Thus, the need for short and mutually agreed-upon sabbaticals are a concession that are wise advice, they are not something that must be done as a command from God.
Paul’s words in verse 7 have also been often misunderstood. Paul’s point here is that chastity, the freedom from the need to be married is a gift that enables some to focus more directly on the work of the Kingdom. But we must understand that Paul believes that marriage is also a gift. Each has their own gift, his language is inclusive not exclusionary. He is saying that his personal preference is for the gift of being single but at the same time, he realizes that it is neither possible, practical, or even preferable for all people to have that gift. In the same way, I have occasionally said that I wish that everyone had the gift to teach, yet I realize that in the reality of the Church this is not possible, practical, or ultimately preferable. Paul sees each believer in the community as gifted by God in some way, and it is the responsibility and privilege of each person to use those gifts for God’s own purposes.
Paul’s belief is that everything within a marriage should be for the purpose of glorifying God. How does this challenge you in your own marriage? If you’re not married then how does this change your views of marriage and dating? What can you do in your own relationships to ensure that they glorify God in every aspect?