Sexual Intimacy and the Rights Over a Spouse's Body in Marriage

Thoughts on the Application of 1 Corinthians 7:3–5

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. 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.

This is paradoxical counsel to married couples, and I think Paul knows it. It does not give either spouse the right to demand certain sexual acts from the other that he or she does not want to give. It is more complex than that. Follow the thought with me.

What is paradoxical and delicate about this text is that logically it doesn’t work. What it does is call the couple to a profound effort to please the other without settling who will wind up getting the most pleasure, especially because each person will get pleasure in not asking the other to do what the other finds unpleasurable.

Here’s what I mean. If her body is his and his body is hers and each has authority over the other’s body, then he has the authority to ask her to do something he would find pleasurable, and she has the authority over his body to ask that he increase her pleasure by not asking that she do that.

Stalemate.

This is real life. I have dealt with it in my own marriage, and I have seen it in many couples. Logically, the text leads to stalemate. And I think Paul knew it. He was leading them beyond logic in this matter.

This is analogous to Romans 12:10 where Paul tells us, “Outdo one another in showing honor.” I will try to honor you and you will try to honor me, and who will have the greater joy of honoring the other more? It is a mysterious dance of love in the Christian community as we lay down our rights and our demands, and seek to outdo one another not in what we can get but in what we can give.

Similarly in marriage. We are seeking mainly to please the other. She wants to please him, and so is prone to give what he desires. He wants to please her, and so is prone not to demand what she finds unpleasant to give. And vice versa.

Here’s one way that the paradox is broken.

The leadership of the husband is defined by Paul not mainly as demanding his rights but as laying down his life for the good of his wife (Ephesians 5:25). Therefore, the predominant resolution of the sexual paradox is that the husband gently and tenderly takes the lead in seeking to maximize his wife’s pleasure, taking her longings deeply into account, rather than pressuring her to adapt to his.

The practical application of 1 Corinthians 7:3–5 is not resolved by logic or taking turns or male dominance or female submission. It is resolved in the mystery of love that discovers even here, when our physical pleasure is more prominent than anywhere else, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). There is a holy and humble and self-sacrificing competition to make the other maximally glad. The logical stalemate is broken by the miracle of grace: With God all things are possible.

Living the mystery of love with you,

Pastor John

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