Can a wife say ‘no’ to sex with her husband? Can a husband say ‘no’ to sex with his wife? Does 1 Corinthians 7:5 contradict human rights expressed through self-ownership?
A popular interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:5 says spouses may never say ‘no’ to sex unless it’s for “medical reasons.” This interpretation relates to some objections from Christians about the principle of self-ownership. In this view, you can’t own yourself because God owns you (which confuses the vertical and horizontal relationships at issue). In addition, you can’t own yourself if you’re married. This is due to the authority spouses have in marriage as referenced in 1 Corinthians 7. So is this a valid critique that Christian libertarians are mistaken on? Are we the ones mistaken about self-ownership?
Does 1 Corinthians 7:5 contradict human rights?
Human rights expressed as self-ownership
All humans are created by God, and so He is every person’s Owner. God in Christ is the Creator and Owner of all things (Colossians 1:15-17). At the same time, having created humans in His image, God has given each person a stewardship over themselves and their property. In relation to other humans, we call each person’s stewardship their self-ownership. And this self-ownership can be extended to acquisition of ownership in scarce resources. Ownership is the right to exclusive control, use, or disposal of a resource. We call this ‘property rights’ (in one’s person and things; cf. Exodus 21:16; Matthew 20:15; Acts 5:4); one’s civil/political right. (emphasis added)
We hold that God gives us self-ownership. This self-ownership allows us to be held accountable for actions – both to each other and before God. Self-ownership is a natural limitation on humans. It’s a foundational principle of justice and part of natural law that humans can intuitively understand.
So the fundamental reason why it’s a crime to murder, steal, or rape, is that it’s a violation of self-ownership. That is to say, violating self-ownership is a rights violation. Acting on our rights (eg. using our property in a peaceful way) is founded on self-ownership as well. But this does not necessarily mean that acting on rights is always moral. Immoral (but not criminal) actions are vices. They may be sinful according to Scripture, but not according to God-given norms for civil justice. (Ie. it’s not something that justifies the responsive use of the sword.) Yet, acting on a vice doesn’t negate the right.
We may have a legal right to do something, while being morally prohibited by God to do so. We should not confuse exercising our legal rights as synonymous with acting morally. Likewise, we cannot confuse immoral action with something that ought to be criminal. See discussion on the distinction between civil justice and morality.
What we call conjugal rights, are rights in so far as the state may not use violence to intervene. In relation to husband and wife, though, conjugal rights are not “enforced” in the same way civil rights are.
What is Paul talking about in 1 Corinthians 7?
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 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. 1 Corinthians 7:1-5
The Context of 1 Corinthians 7
Gordon Fee writes a popular commentary on 1 Corinthians. Fee explains this passage answers a specific question asked by the church in Corinth. They had erroneously concluded Christians should end their marriages, or at least stop having sex with their spouses, to avoid sexual immorality.
But Paul answers this question not merely with a “yes! Continue having sex,” but he goes beyond to explain why. The primary purpose of this whole chapter is that Christians are to “remain in the status to which you’ve been called.”
vv. 1-7 —to the married: stay married with full conjugal rights
vv. 8-9 —to the “unmarried” and widows: it is good to remain unmarried
vv. 10-11—to the married (both partners believers): remain married
vv. 12-16—to those with an unbelieving spouse: remain married
vv. 25-38—to “virgins”: it is good to remain unmarried
vv. 39-40—to married women (and widows): the married are bound to the marriage; when widowed it is good to remain that way
p. 268 Fee’s Commentary on 1 Corinthians
Paul isn’t compelling Christians to involuntarily submit to sex. (That would mean God advocates for marital rape!) Paul encourages Christians! They need not change their marital status or avoid sex with their spouse to be sexually moral. So, marriage is not a sin; sex within marriage is not a sin; therefore, be free to express the love due each other.
Paul grants the caveat that husband and wife may mutually agree to abstain from sex (v. 5), but reminds them that it should be temporary. Paul does not give exact time parameters or justifiable reasons. He only adds a reminder to be devoted in prayer and to return to the sexual union. These details are left to the discretion of the couple.
What spouses owe each other is love. Commitment to the sexual relationship being one expression of marital love. What is not owed is ownership (the right of exclusive control, use, or disposal) of the body. Humans cannot and do not own other humans. Why would Christian marriage change this? That would make Christian marriage a means to slavery. Slavery is the distortion of marriage brought by the Fall. I raise this point in my interview concerning abuse.
For a perspective on singleness from this passage, please read
An Open Letter to Christian Singles, by Gregory Baus.
Christian love is a voluntary expression
Some argue the only legitimate reason to abstain from sex is for medical reasons. (This is ironic given Paul doesn’t explicitly state this exception. Yet purveyors of this view believe they’re taking a “plain reading” of the text). Barring a legit medical reason, they hold a spouse may never object to sex. Yet, Paul says no such thing!
What is prohibited is deprivation of love – not a conscientious objection to sex. It would be sinful to vindictively deny your spouse expressions of love, especially sex. But that doesn’t mean there are no good reasons for genuine objections of conscience. What those genuine objections are, clearly are variously independent as Paul does not delineate them. To presume there are never good reasons to say ‘no’ to sex, is to reduce marital love to animalistic impulse. Obviously, any objection would need to be communicated to the other spouse in such a way as to produce consensus and mutual agreement.
Coercion (or violence) to “enforce” conjugal rights cannot be legitimate because God does not legitimize coercion or violence (found in the sword) to make others express love. We love because God first loved us. The “enforcement” so-to-speak for love due is love itself. We owe God our love – he doesn’t use coercion or violence to enforce that. He uses his own love poured out on us.
Sex cannot be an expression of love if it is transactional or coerced
What is love? Love is not blind nor is it a delusion. It’s not a mere appetite or desire, and it’s not merely a means to happiness. It’s also not mere attachment or a chemical in the brain. To make claims that love is anything of these things is not to be morally wrong, but factually wrong. So don’t confuse sexual attraction with love, or the presence of sexual desire with a deprivation of love.
Factually speaking, according to Dietrich von Hildebrand, love is a value-response. Love sees the true self of the beloved, affirms their person, and desires happiness for the beloved. In other words, the one who loves sees the beloved as complete in their person – flaws and all – and has intrinsic value. It is no mere coincidence that 1 Corinthians 7 precedes 1 Corinthians 13, which accurately – though not precisely – defines love. There is absolutely nothing in Scripture that lends itself to the idea that sex in marriage is a transactional enforcement of conjugal rights.
But what if husband and wife fail to agree on temporary abstention?
The word for authority in 1 Corinthians 7:5, exousiais, is the same in Romans 13. So these passages discuss God-ordained authority in these particular spheres: marriage and civil. Just like in Romans 13, the authority given to spouses in marriage may not violate other God-given norms. Such as, civil rights or Christian liberty and freedom of conscience. And, just like in Romans 13, Paul is prescribing the norm not describing all possible things in a marriage (or singleness).
In other words, Paul is not baptizing anti-normative things as if they’re justified by the marriage-bond. So, as civil governance may not initiate coercion or violence against people to execute it’s God-ordained authority, spouses may not initiate coercion or violence against the other spouse to execute God-ordained authority. These are anti-normative.
Moreover, Fee points out that Paul is referring to the mutuality of love. This is the opposite understanding from the pagan view which viewed sex as a woman’s obligation and the man’s privilege.
… in Christian marriage one comes under the “authority” of the other … Here the implication is that in the mutuality of sexual relations the body of the one is the “free” possession of the other … But in responding as he does, with emphasis on the full mutuality of sexuality within marriage, Paul puts sexual relations within Christian marriage on much higher ground than one finds in most cultures, including the church, where sex is often viewed as the husband’s privilege and the wife’s obligation. For Paul the marriage bed is both unitive (cf. 6:16) and an affirmation that the two belong to one another in total mutuality. (p. 280)
Since the pagan view of marriage was that of slavery, where the husband owned the wife as his property and therefore she was obligated to his whims, the Corinthian church thought the Christian response was sexual ascetism. Paul corrects the Corinthians. He doesn’t say, “no, the pagans have it right – wives do your sexual duty to your husband.” Instead, Paul is saying, “no, you’re not like the pagans.” Expressions of love are good but they are about companionship and mutual love. No such mutuality exists when the woman’s sexual needs are not treated as equal to the man’s. No such mutuality exists if sex is viewed as an obligatory transaction.
This is important! The erroneous interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:5 – that there are no valid reasons to say ‘no’ to sex in marriage other than medical – lends itself to abuse and marital rape. Many Christians decry the divorce rate, but never consider why the divorce rate is what it is.
They may go as far as to point out that wives are the primary initiators of the legal proceedings. But this statistical factoid says nothing of the real reasons for these divorces, nor does employing “no-fault” divorce. While this passage certainly isn’t the cause of all divorce or abuse cases, it’s a common problem.
So if there’s a disagreement about whether to abstain from sex for a reason of conscience, what must happen to resolve that disagreement cannot be coercion or violence. Ie. one spouse cannot force the other spouse to ensure satisfaction of the conjugal rights referenced in the text. And if husband and wife cannot arrive at consensus on such a matter, there is a much deeper problem in the relationship than just not obtaining a sexual transaction. This would be a symptom the marriage is in trouble and need of intentional work in therapy.
You can’t force love! – even to satisfy conjugal rights.