Sometimes sex should stop in marriage.
The sometimes is really important. Not all the time. It’s not what is normative or typical. It’s sometimes. And, at the same time, be sure that sometimes really means some-times. Real times. These are actual moments, or seasons, that never present themselves as the anomaly they should prove to be in the long run. We’re talking about a tangible pause from sex, however brief and limited the stopping may be.
The biblical text on this topic is 1 Corinthians 7:1–5, and though the meaning is pretty straightforward, the way this text plays itself out in the life of the church can run askew in two different directions. One error is to use this passage to support a pattern of self-fulfilling sexual demands; the other is to use this passage to fuel a culture of fear in the marriage relationship — and both combine to produce damaging implications.
Let’s expose these misuses and then chart a course for the gospel-empowered sometimes of sexual abstinence in marriage.
Look at the Passage
First, here’s verses 3–5 of 1 Corinthians 7:
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.
As mentioned above, this is pretty straightforward. Sex between a husband and a wife should be common. That doesn’t necessarily mean every single day, but it should be prevalent. Often, not seldom. Sex is integral to the marriage relationship. It is due, Paul explains in verse 3, a right, happily owed by one another to one another. Verse 4 tells us the husband’s body is under the authority of his wife, and the wife’s under her husband, and, as verse 5 says, the two should not deprive one another.
There is an exception to this command, but one that is heavily qualified. A husband and wife should abstain from sex when 1) they both agree to abstain; 2) it is for a limited time; and 3) it is for the purpose of prayer and the eventual resuming of intercourse. This exception should be rare — so rare, as one commentator observes, that in verse 6 Paul takes another step to highlight its infrequency by calling it a concession, not a command (Anthony Thiselton, NIGTC, The Epistle to the First Corinthians).
Why Bother Discussing Something So Rare?
So if this is the case, why should we even talk about sexual abstinence in marriage? If Paul is so clear on how rare it should be, why bother discussing it?
Most of us don’t. When we look at these verses isolated from the meaning of sex and a theology of the body, the apostle seems to be saying to Christian couples: “More sex! More sex! More sex!” But this is not the only thing he says. The sexual abstinence part comes into play, not so much by Paul’s exception in verse 5, but by what he means in verse 4, when he explains who has authority over our bodies in marriage. We’ll see this more vividly when contrasted with the main misuses of the text, but first the two misuses.
Misuse #1: “Give me more sex, because the Bible says so.”
A truncated explanation of 1 Corinthians 7:5 inevitability leads to this rationale. But whether it’s the husband or the wife pleading this case, it turns into trouble as soon as the other spouse isn’t on board.
If the husband quotes this verse, trying to convince his wife into sex when she doesn’t want to, he is opposing the very theology that’s foundational to it. He is making a self-fulfilling demand — something Paul has eliminated in 1 Corinthians 7:4. How? Because the husband’s body is under the authority of his wife.
The husband, whose body belongs to Christ (1 Corinthians 6:16, 19–20), and is under the authority of his wife, does not have the authority over his body to make demands out of mere self-interest. He relinquished that right in marriage. The wife has authority over his body now, and he has authority over her body — which means that his sexual desires should be consistent with what is in the best interest of her body, not his.
The Christian husband doesn’t make demands that his wife’s sexual desire be adapted to match his own. One application of this text might be more sex for some couples, but the text is betrayed when it becomes the basis for berating our spouse for sex. Denny Burk captures it concisely, “This text is not about coercing one’s spouse to do what he or she does not want to do” (What Is the Meaning of Sex? 114).
Misuse #2: “Have sex with your husband, or he will find it somewhere else.”
The first misuse happens behind closed doors, but this one is often public advice, whether in conversation or from the platform. “Or-else sex” is out there online and in women’s Bible studies near you, and the results are extremely sad. While it circulates among women, perhaps primarily from an aging generation, men are probably at fault.
And though it’s poor logic, we can see how the error occurs. Paul twice mentions the temptation to sexual immorality as one motive, among others, to keep the marriage bed active (1 Corinthians 7:2, 5). But the issue is complex. Sexual satisfaction may dissuade a man or his wife from falling into sexual temptation, but Paul doesn’t mean that it’s sin-proof, especially when the meaning of sex is misunderstood.
Pleasure is a part of the meaning of sex, along with the purposes of affirming the marriage covenant, procreation, love, and more. Let’s be thrilled that pleasure is part of the picture, but always remember that sex is about more than pleasure. By misunderstanding this one purpose and letting it eclipse the others, pleasure can easily morph into sexual greed. The good-intentioned wife who never says “no” may be feeding in her husband an idolatry that will not be content to stay at home. The husband who threatens an extramarital affair if the sex dries up is not acting like a Christian.
It is tragic that there are women in Bible-believing churches who have sex with their husbands out of fear. Ultimatum intimacy. Blackmail love. If I don’t please my husband sexually, he will have an affair. This is a culture of fear, not faithfulness. Could there be anything more distant from what a Christian marriage should be? This relationship should be the model of unwavering love, and instead the wife is pressured with the need to manipulate her husband’s devotion.
I ache for the women in our churches about this misuse, for this terrible burden, for the thought that you must secure your husband’s commitment by giving him sex. This is not the path of marital intimacy, and it emphatically is not the Christian vision.
Sex Is Deep Magic
Both of these misuses undermine the wonder of sex. The first makes it all about the individual, the other makes it a pawn. But at the heart, the one-flesh relationship between a husband and a wife, says Dennis Hollinger, “points beyond the physical to the spiritual, emotional, and social oneness of the marriage covenant” (The Meaning of Sex, 101). Truly, sex is magical. It is an up-close drama that uniquely taps into the depths of marriage’s mystery — the mystery once hidden, and now out in the open, picturing Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32). The meaning of sex, and this passage in 1 Corinthians 7, is about a husband and wife serving one another — and that’s the only way we can understand the gospel-empowered sometimes of sexual abstinence.
The Christian husband wants to serve his wife; the Christian wife wants to serve her husband. Both want to outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10). Both count the other more significant than themselves (Philippians 2:3). And when this dance is at its best, it will, at times, give rise to, and graciously overcome, what John Piper calls “the stalemate.” He writes, “[The wife] wants to please [her husband], 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” (Sexual Intimacy). Burk explains, “It is not about insisting on one’s autonomy and authority but about being a servant to one’s spouse” (115).
Where the Husband Leads
The mutuality of sex seen in 1 Corinthians 7:1–5 is clear. The husband’s authority over his wife’s body is no greater than her authority over his. It is a terrible mistake to apply the pattern of gender roles to this issue of sex in such a way that the husband, by virtue of his headship, requires the wife to submit to him sexually. This is absolutely not the case. In fact, the influence of the husband’s role is precisely what makes him defer to abstinence. Husbands are to love their wives as “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Husbands, then, are to lay down their lives, not make sexual demands according to selfish pleasure. Piper writes, “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.”
It really is about being a servant — which is why sometimes the sex should stop.
Speaking specifically to men, sometimes the best way you can serve your wife sexually is by not seeking it. Sometimes the abstinence route is the masculine thing to do. In these cases, choosing to abstain from sexual intimacy for the good of your wife is the “glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility” — which is an apt description of true manhood.
There seems to be a disconnect on this point in our day. There has been a simultaneous rise in Christian literature of both books on manhood and books on sex, but very little has been said about how to be a godly man in the bedroom. The typical advice seems to play right into our sex-crazed world, as if Christians are going to impress the world by proving that we have sex, too. It doesn’t matter what mainstream media outlet picks up the story, or what the polls suggest, any notion that Christians having good sex is a greater witness to the world than a laying-down-your-life type of love just reveals how deeply misguided we are. The message that turned the world upside was not that Christians enjoy monogamous sexual pleasure, but that Jesus loved us to the uttermost by giving up his life for our good. And that’s the love Christian husbands are called to emulate, especially in bed (with its glorious monogamous sexual pleasure).
The church doesn’t need Christian gigolos, but men who willingly lay down their lives, and when called for, their sexual desires, for their wives.
In Your Bedroom
This is for real-life. This call to serve — and sometimes abstain — goes for both spouses. The effects are felt the moment a husband or wife walks into the bedroom and finds their spouse, whose body is under their authority, not feeling up to par. Maybe this is a surprise, perhaps an unforeseen end to an earlier expectation. Or maybe it’s the 100th night in a row of a debilitating illness.
Maybe it’s the wife who had a long day with the kids, or maybe she is in the middle of a nine-month pregnancy, or in the six-week span of recovering from pregnancy, or maybe the husband is battling a serious illness, or is encumbered by an unusual amount of stress at work — it could be a hundred things. And whatever it could be, when Christian spouses encounter this scenario, they consider first what is in the best interest of the other’s body.
Speaking again to men, when this is our wife’s circumstance, whether by doctor’s order or by that vibe we can intuit, it is our privilege to lead in laying aside our sexual desires for her good. Maybe just for a few nights, or maybe many months, depending on the situation, the sex should stop and we should pray. We should lead our wives in prayer that our marriage reflect the glory of Christ and his gospel, that God transpose the unfulfilled passion for sex into an enjoyment of his sufficiency, and that, as much as possible, the circumstances that made the sex stop stay a sometimes.
Because it’s sometimes that sex should stop in marriage.