Evangelicals over the last decade have done a poor job of sticking to the centre of the road with respect to marital sexuality. The abuses and excesses being detailed in exposés like “Jesus And John Wayne” and “The Rise And Fall Of Mars Hill” have launched a (predictable) overreaction among some, leaving many confused as to what the Bible does, in fact, say about proper, kind, and loving sexual conduct within marriage.
Here is a good place to start:
“The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 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. 5 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.” (1 Corinthians 7:3–5 ESV)
Here the Bible plainly seems to be saying that sexuality within marriage should be mutual, generous and frequent.
Each of those words is important.
What the Apostle Paul says about mutuality is particularly noteworthy. He says that the husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights and the wife should give to her husband his conjugal rights. He goes on to say that 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, the wife does. That word “likewise” in verse 4 is considered perhaps the most radical word ever spoken in the ancient world with respect to human sexuality.
Everyone in the ancient world would have agreed that husbands have authority over their wives’ bodies, but no one had made that a mutual command until the Apostle Paul.
That sense of mutuality has often been obscured in evangelical conversations – particularly in the hyper-masculine contexts presently under review. Too often the only emphasis has been on the responsibility of the wife to meet the needs of the husband. There has been precious little emphasis in these contexts on the responsibility of the man to meet the needs of his wife.
According to the Bible, marital sexuality is not to be a one-sided transaction. It is to be an act of mutual service, discovery, comfort, and delight.
Marital sexuality should also be generous. The husband should GIVE, the wife should GIVE. They should not DEPRIVE (which is the opposite of giving). The emphasis here appears to be on willingness and availability.
Obviously, there is a need for some tact and discretion here.
No woman (and no man) should ever be forced or compelled into performing an intimate act that makes them feel uncomfortable. If there is something that one partner wants that the other is uncomfortable providing, they should talk about the matter in a deescalated context. If the unwillingness seems to spring from coldness or ignorance about Christian liberty, then it may be useful to discuss the matter further with a counselor. If it is merely shyness or vulnerability at play, the couple should be patient, kind, and safe and allow expression to grow naturally and organically over time.
In general, there is no shame in serving each other with our bodies. In the Garden of Eden, before the taint and corruption of sin, the Bible says:
“And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25 ESV)
Thanks be to God!
According to 1 Corinthians 7, marital sexuality should also be frequent. Paul allows for brief periods of abstinence so as to pursue particular spiritual disciplines, but these are to last no longer than a few days. After that, the couple is to come together quickly, lest they give in to temptation. To that parameter, and informed by the guidance of the Old Testament, we might also add that it is generally kind and merciful to forgo sexual intercourse during a woman’s menstrual period and to be extraordinarily sensitive to her feelings and well-being immediately following childbirth. Sensitivity during illness is also an appropriate mark of gentleness and Christian consideration.
If there should be an extended period of sexual abstinence due to illness, the couple should speak frankly about how that is affecting the caregiving spouse. Once sexual activity has begun within a marriage it can be difficult to endure a prolonged period of abstinence. Consideration is appropriate and the couple should decide together what they can do with the energy, health, and availability that they have. If the health of the partner does not allow for any sexual activity, then the affected spouse must commit to relearning the difficult discipline of total chastity. There is absolutely no scenario in which a married individual is justified in seeking sexual satisfaction outside the bonds of covenant marriage – whether through pornographic stimulation, or recourse to prostitution or adultery. God will give you the grace for that particular challenge should he ordain it for you.
For most of my life, I have felt as though we talked too infrequently and too indirectly about marital sexuality in the church. As I’ve been wading through the critiques levelled at certain segments of contemporary evangelicalism over the last several weeks and months, it occurs to me that some of the people reading this may have been exposed to too much talk and too much explicit teaching about marital sexuality and that can do great harm to men and women as well. The church should speak about whatever the Bible addresses, but it should speak about those things in the same tone, frequency and level detail as evidenced in the biblical treatments. The Bible is never crude, never crass and never coercive and there is no excuse for a pastor or a church discussing sexual matters in that way. The Bible is direct, honest, unembarrassed but discreet. I pray you will find this reminder to have been written in that spirit.
And may God alone be glorified.
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can find his personal blog, Semper Reformanda, by clicking here.
 Conjugal rights as defined by Merriam-Webster: “the sexual rights or privileges implied by and involved in the marriage relationship : the right of sexual intercourse between spouses”