Today we have a mature conversation for married couples. It’s in answer to a question we most recently got from an anonymous woman, but one I have seen pop up in the inbox over the years, so I know it’s not an isolated question. Here it is: “Hello, and thank you for answering biblical questions, Pastor John, and for being one of the few willing to address so many awkward intimacy questions on this podcast over the years.” Yes, well that’s true. Nothing is too awkward on the APJ podcast. We’ve proven that definitively. “It’s also a Bible question, and I doubt I am the only woman who wants to know this and who is too uncomfortable to ask her pastors. Here it is: In Leviticus 18:1–30 and Leviticus 20:10–21, we find lists of sexual sins. It appears that these sins were forbidden universally, not just for Jews of the Old Testament era, because Leviticus 18:24 and 20:22–23 mention that the non-Jewish nations would be cast out of their land for committing them too.
“Most of the sins on this list are discussed again in the New Testament, so I understand they remain sins today — things like adultery, incest, and homosexuality. However, there’s one Old Testament sexual sin mentioned three times in Leviticus (15:24; 18:19; 20:18) but is never mentioned anywhere in the New Testament. And nobody seems to address it anywhere. It’s about sexual relations with a spouse during the woman’s menstruation. My question is this: Within a marriage, is this still a sin today?”
Well, if nobody addresses it, here we go. Look, I think the New Testament has something very practical, precious, and profound to say about this issue, and that’s why I’m willing to venture a few thoughts.
Of course, this is part of a huge issue — namely, Are Christians, who are justified by faith in Christ the Messiah and are participants in the new covenant that has made the old covenant old and gone, are we obliged to keep the Old Testament law? That’s the bigger question that’s behind this very specific one. So, let me say a word about that first.
Law-Keeping for Christians
The New Testament teaches (in Hebrews 8; 2 Corinthians 3; Romans 7; and elsewhere) that the Mosaic law, the old covenant from which these commands in Leviticus are coming, has been supplanted for believers in Christ with a new covenant secured by the blood of Messiah Jesus. In a profound sense, then, Christians are set free from the Mosaic law. Paul put it like this in Romans 7:4–6:
My brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ. . . . Now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
Now, that does not mean that the commandments of the Old Testament have no place in the Christian life. We have to take into account from this same author, Paul, passages like 1 Corinthians 7:19. He says, “Neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.”
“The Mosaic law has been supplanted for believers in Christ with a new covenant secured by the blood of Messiah Jesus.”
Well, that’s puzzling, because circumcision was a commandment of God. And he says, “Well, you don’t have to worry about that one. But keep the commandments.” So, he’s clearly making some kind of distinction between some kind of commandments that we’re supposed to be concerned with, and others that are not to be followed. So, what is the basis for making that distinction? How are we supposed to understand that when our lives are on a new footing? Law-keeping is not the basis of our right standing with God.
Three Principles for New-Covenant People
So, does the New Testament give us some help in how to use the Old Testament commandments, even if they don’t have the same role in our lives that they did for Israel? Yes, it does. I’m just going to give a few examples. This is a huge topic, and whole books have been written about it, and here I am dealing with it in ten minutes.
1. For example, it says that if you love God and love your neighbor, you have fulfilled the law (Romans 13:8). All the law and the commandments, Jesus said, hang on these two commandments (Matthew 22:40).
2. Another example is the relationship between the gospel and the way of life that accords with the doctrine that follows from the gospel. I’m thinking of 1 Timothy 1:8, where it says, “We know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully.” Well, the gospel has the death of Christ as its center, and so all the Old Testament commandments about the sacrifices and the priestly administrations are fulfilled in Christ, our priest, our sacrifice. So, those laws are not required because the gospel has replaced that entire system as the way our sins are forgiven, and we have this priestly connection with God through Jesus Christ.
3. One more help from the New Testament, a third illustration (and there are more). Laws are to be appropriated that were rooted in nature as God created it. For example, Paul argues in Romans 1:26–27 that homosexuality is not just wrong because it’s forbidden in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; it’s wrong because that prohibition is rooted in nature — the abiding nature that doesn’t change as God created it.
Now, there are other criteria for how to properly use the Mosaic law, but these three point the way. So, for the command that we’re trying to decide whether to obey:
- Does it express the love of God and the love of man?
- Does it accord with the gospel of Christ?
- Is it rooted in nature?
Those would be three criteria.
Two Reflections for Husbands and Wives
Now, in view of all of that, I would say that the prohibitions of sexual relations during menstruation (Leviticus 18:19; 20:18; Ezekiel 18:6; 22:10) are not demanded of us as Christians. I think that’s the implication of Romans 7:4–6, which I quoted a minute ago.
So, the question becomes: If we don’t have an absolute prohibition, what should guide us in this matter? I’ll suggest two considerations for a husband and a wife to think and pray about. One is the roots of the prohibition in the Old Testament, and the other is the path of love between a husband and wife.
1. Yesterday’s Old Testament Roots
Now, think with me about the roots of this Old Testament prohibition of sex during menstruation. Here are two verses.
You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. (Leviticus 18:19)
If a man lies with a woman during her menstrual period and uncovers her nakedness, he has made naked her fountain, and she has uncovered the fountain of her blood. (Leviticus 20:18)
Two issues, it seems, then, lie behind the prohibition: (1) uncleanness and (2) the exposure of the fountain of blood — whatever that means.
Now, the term uncleanness, very importantly, does not refer to sinful impurity. We know this because no sacrifice was required in Leviticus because of this, but only washing with water (Leviticus 15:19–24). In other words, there’s no sin involved in her menstrual flow. That’s not what the uncleanness refers to. It’s not sexual or sinful impurity.
The issue was ritual purity rooted in real cleanliness. Before the more modern ways of dealing with the menstrual flow, for countless generations, menstrual bleeding was a perennial problem for women (indeed, for men too) of cleanliness. Menstrual rags were metaphorical in the Bible for filthiness. This was the word used in Isaiah 64:6: “All our righteous deeds are like [filthy menstrual rags].” It was a tremendous burden for women to have to deal with. And very likely, the issue of sexual relations was simply considered extremely unsanitary and made the whole challenge of a woman’s cleanliness even more difficult if there were sexual intercourse involved.
So, that’s my reckoning with that first word unclean and its roots. It’s the roots of the simple burden of, How do we maintain appropriate cleanliness in the community?
Fountain of Life
Here’s the second one: uncovering her fountain. This is something different than the problem of cleanliness. This is probably a reference to something sacred and profound.
The woman’s monthly cycle is a constant testimony of a woman’s glory of bearing and nurturing life in her womb. She has that potential. It shows up and manifests itself every month. Every month, she is reminded that she has the incredible potential. The welcome of life is signified every month by the building up of blood. And life is in the blood (Leviticus 17:11). Life is in the blood. It is a life-giving spring or fountain. And during the menstrual flow of blood, there is the reminder that a life did not happen this month, though it might have. That’s how much potential resides in that fountain.
And my guess is that this entire process, with all of its profound potential as the fountain of life, was simply not to be casually observed. It was not to be intruded upon. It was to be concealed. It was an indictment, when Leviticus 20:18 says, “He has made naked her fountain.” This is not a matter of cleanliness. This is a matter of sacrilege in the Old Testament. The fountain in its sacred flow is to be protected.
That’s my effort to understand those two roots in the Old Testament of why it was forbidden.
2. Today’s Path of Love
And I can imagine a Christian married couple today thinking this through, along both of those lines, and choosing freely, as Christians, to refrain briefly — because the Bible says husbands and wives shouldn’t abstain from sexual relations for long, but briefly abstain from sexual relations — not because they have to, but because they choose to for reasons that they themselves agree on (1 Corinthians 7:1–5).
“This issue is going to be resolved by love. And love will discern the deep things of the heart and the body.”
But since I don’t think that the prohibition of sex during menstruation is an absolute requirement, how shall a couple settle the issue when one of them feels one way and the other feels the other way? And I use the word feels rather than theologically thinks, because that, my guess, is really the issue. It’s not doctrine here; it’s desire. That’s what’s driving the issue here: either desire for sex, or desire not to have sex. There are two desires that are competing.
This is where the principle of love that I mentioned a moment ago is going to work its miracle. Here’s the guideline from 1 Corinthians 7:4: “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.”
Which means that he has authority to have sexual intercourse with his wife during menstruation. And she has authority not to have sexual intercourse with her husband during menstruation. Which means this issue is not going to be resolved by authority; it’s a draw. It’s going to be resolved by love. And love will discern the deep things of the heart and the body. And if she finds sexual relations during menstruation offensive (or he does), his inclination will be to exercise self-control and love for her sacrificially, like Christ — for her sake, and really, thus, for his. And if she finds his desire for her to be very strong, she may give him that gift, or she may surprise him with some other pleasure.
But I would say, especially to husbands: as the leader, you should take the lead in exercising self-control, which is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22–23), and so bless her and win her affections, which I don’t doubt will pay dividends in the rest of the month.