Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ April 21, 2013 ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
The letters of 1st and 2nd Corinthians were written by St. Paul to instruct and encourage the young church in the Greek city of Corinth which he founded and which he deeply loved. Now, Corinth in those days was an interesting place to begin a church. To put it mildly, the city had a reputation. Specifically, it was a city of legendary sexual immorality. The fact that it was a seaport which attracted traders and sailors from the ends of the earth only added to the depravity. The town had such a reputation for sexual vice, in fact, that eventually the Greek language included the word korinthiazo (literally “to act like a Corinthian”) to describe sexually immoral people. If you were a college student from Athens in those days and wanted to indulge yourself at spring break, Corinth was your destination of choice.
As you might imagine the nature of the surrounding culture raised all sorts of theological and lifestyle challenges for this young congregation and much of what Paul writes in his letters are responses to questions the church is asking. The passage we are going to read today, in fact, is an answer he gives to a very specific question the church had evidently asked in a previous letter. It was a question about sex. In light of the sexual immorality which saturated their city, the Corinthian Christians wanted to know if it would just be better for them to refrain from sex altogether.
Let’s listen to their question and then to the response Paul gives.
1Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.’ 2But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4For 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. 5Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6This I say by way of concession, not of command. (I Corinthians 7:1-6, NRSV)
For thousands of years, maybe for all of human history, there have been two completely opposite but equally erroneous understandings of sex. These misunderstandings are ancient, but are as prominent today as ever.
Pastor and author Rob Bell characterizes these two misunderstandings by saying that when it comes to sex people either tend to think of themselves as animals or angels.
Let’s begin with animals. It has long been a widely held perception that the human sex drive is nothing more than an appetite, an animal instinct. Just like your dog, you have an urge to have sex and when the urge becomes great enough it must be satisfied. Just like eating, sex is a natural appetite and we should feel free to fulfill the appetite when we feel the need.
This view of sex was clearly prominent in the city of Corinth. It was rooted in a Greek philosophy which taught that the material world, including the human body, is temporary and ultimately worthless. It’s the soul that is important, not the body, and so it doesn’t matter what you do with the body. Do what you like. Let your natural appetites run wild, like an animal. In those days, this was a very popular way to understand sex. As you know, it still is.
Well, as a reaction to this erroneous view of sex, the church in Corinth, and many churches since, have taken a completely opposite but equally erroneous view. We are not like animals, we say. We’re more like angels. Instead of being helplessly driven by the sexual desires within us, let’s just deny them. Put simply, this view says that sex is a degrading, dirty thing, a necessary evil for the propagation of the human race.
This is the view that is behind the question that begins our passage today. The Corinthians ask Paul, “Is it well for a man not to touch a woman?” They hope Paul will confirm their suspicion that it’s not, that it’s better for them as Christians not to have sex at all. Ironically, this view has its roots in the same ancient philosophy as did the first view. Since sex is a part of our lower, physical nature we should leave it behind as we strive for our higher more spiritual nature.
Also like the first view, this second view is alive and well today. Why do you think there is so much reticence to talk openly about sex in church? Why do you think most parents have such a difficult time talking openly about sex with their own children? We sense there is something taboo, something shameful, about sex. We acknowledge that God must have been the one who invented sex but he must not have been all that happy about it.
In a beautifully gracious way, Paul corrects these two long-held errors and articulates for us what is the biblical, God-informed view of sex. I like the way the Message translation puts verse 2. In answer to the question of whether men and women should have sex, Paul writes, “Certainly, but only within a certain context. It’s good for a man to have a wife, and for a woman to have a husband.”
What Paul says here in response to both the animals in the Corinthian culture and the angels in the Corinthian church is something that the Christian church – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox – has universally agreed upon down through the ages. To begin with, the angels among us need to understand that our sexuality is not something to be denied or ashamed of but is instead a God-given beautiful and powerful gift which is a central part of our human nature. Like all things which God created, sex is good and the Bible, over and over, affirms this to be true.
You may know that there is, in fact, an entire book of the Bible called Song of Solomon which is wholly devoted to erotic poetry celebrating the loving sexual relationship between a man and his wife. The original Hebrew in this book is so erotic in places that most biblical scholars don’t have the guts to translate the text literally into English. Some of this stuff has not been approved for all audiences. And yet somehow we’ve gotten the idea that God blushes at the thought of sex? Every last detail of the act of sexual intercourse was conceived in the very mind of God. Think about that for a moment.
It is because God has such a high view of sex that he puts boundaries on it. And so in response to those of us who want to treat sex like animals, we are warned repeatedly in scripture that this beautiful, powerful gift must only be used in the way it was meant to be used. If you treat sex like your dog treats sex, as a slave to an appetite, it can turn a life-giving treasure into a life-destroying time bomb. Sex was made for the safe boundary of marriage, for the life-long covenant made between a husband and wife and in that context it is a wonderfully rich and powerfully transformative blessing.
But why? That’s the question, isn’t it? What is it about sex that makes God restrict it to the marriage bed? Well, for one, sex is far more than just the physical act of intercourse we all saw painfully diagrammed in 7th grade science class. Sex unites two people physically, yes. We all know how the anatomy and biology work. What many of us don’t know is that sex also unites two people in ways that go far beyond the physical.
Ancient Jewish culture understood this reality in far better ways than most self-proclaimed sexually enlightened modern Americans. One way we see this is in the ancient marriage tradition of the chuppah (pronounced hoo-pah), a tradition that is still practiced today. When a young couple was married in ancient Israel, they would exchange their vows underneath a canopy that was held up by four poles. This chuppah represented the spiritual presence of God which was over the covenant of their marriage.
After the marriage vows were spoken, however, the union was not complete. At that time the wedding party would lead the couple to their bridal chamber, attach the chuppah above their bed, leave them there alone, and then the couple would consummate their marriage while all the guests waited outside. Try and imagine this happening at the next wedding you attend. The couple is married at the church. Then you and the other wedding guests lead them to the hotel down the street and wait in the lobby while the young bride and groom go up to their room and have sex for the first time. Then, when they are finished, the couple comes back downstairs and, after a few wise cracks from the groomsmen, the whole group heads over to the reception.
That’s what happened. A Jewish wedding feast in those days would not begin until the couple had sex because they were not fully united as husband and wife until they had sex. You see, the Jews understood what scripture taught: sex has tremendous power to unite people. As one contemporary writer put it, “physical union brings metaphysical communion.” So much so there are several Old Testament scriptures which command that a man who sleeps with a woman who is not his wife must now take her as his wife because she now is his wife. From God’s perspective, you see, sex and marriage are so synonymous that one cannot be understood without the other. In God’s eyes, if you have sex you’re married, and you’re not fully married until you have sex.
This is a timeless truth that has been largely lost on us in our time but which we would do well to recover. There is something deeply mysterious and powerful about sex that unites two people in ways that go way beyond the physical. And this is precisely why sexual union is only meant to occur when it is accompanied by life-union. In other words, I dare not give my body to you unless I am also willing to give my whole self to you. To do one without the other not only makes no sense, but also has the potential to do great damage.
C.S. Lewis put it wonderfully when he wrote, “The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union. There is (not) anything wrong about sexual pleasure, any more than about the pleasure of eating. . . (but) you must not isolate that pleasure and try to get it by itself, any more than you ought to try to get the pleasures of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again.”
Our culture is so confused on this and the confusion is so infectious that it’s got people in the church so confused to the point that fewer and fewer Christians even are saving sex for the covenant of marriage. In fact, we’re so confused that many of us have come to believe the culture when it tells us that the best sex is actually before or even outside of marriage. It’s the old joke: What’s the one food that makes people allergic to sex? Wedding cake. We laugh but to some extent we believe it.
What’s actually funny is that the facts tell a whole different story. In 2011 Oxford published a study based on the work of sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker entitled Premarital Sex in America. This study offered, among other things, a wealth of empirical research demonstrating why many of our perceptions about sex outside of marriage are simply myths. The fact is, the sooner a dating relationship becomes sexual, the greater a chance for break up. The fact is, living together before marriage greatly increases the likelihood of divorce. The fact is, the most sexually satisfied people today are not in the club scene but rather tend to be couples in loving, committed, long-term marriages. Fact is, sex was never meant to be enjoyed apart from marriage just as marriage was never meant to be enjoyed apart from sex. And this is not just because sex outside of marriage is morally wrong. It’s morally wrong because it’s personally harmful. God’s boundaries on sex, like all of God’s boundaries, are not meant to keep us from freedom; they are meant to set us free.
Paul himself addresses this fact when he writes in verses 3-4, “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.” Essentially what Paul is saying here is that the marriage bed is meant to be place of mutual self-giving. The primary goal of the husband in sex is to satisfy his wife and the primary goal of the wife in sex is to satisfy her husband. When this happens, the gift of sex begins to be enjoyed in its fullest, most beautiful sense. It no longer is just about me as an animal trying to just satisfy some selfish, uncontrollable appetite. But neither is it about participation in some shameful act only for the purpose of having children. Instead, sex in marriage is about mutual servanthood where the greatest sexual pleasure should be the pleasure of seeing your spouse getting pleasure.
In this way, sex in marriage becomes a vividly stunning picture of what marriage itself is meant to be. As writer Tim Keller puts it, in the realm of human relationships marriage is the ultimate form of “self-donation.” In marriage a husband and wife give themselves to one another wholly and without reservation, “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish and honor, till death do us part.”
I remember feeling the weight of the transformation when Esther and I got married. All at once everything I possessed became hers as well. Though granted it wasn’t much, every dollar I had in the bank was hers. Every piece of furniture I owned was hers, at least for as long as it took for her to sell all that junk a post honeymoon yard sale. My family was now her family. I now shared parts of my heart with her that I will never share with any other person, not even my best friends or my children. By California state law, we were now legally united in ways that would not be easy to undo. Never again would a day go by when she would not know where I was. I no longer thought about life from the perspective of one. My decisions, choices, priorities, relationships were now all shared with another. In marriage I found my whole person engaged in a unique act of self-disclosure and self-commitment.
That whole-life oneness and self-donation of marriage finds its deepest physical expression in sex. Two people each giving themselves fully for the sake of the other. As a man gives himself fully to his wife in sex, freely offering his body to her, and she does the same for him, sex then has extraordinary power in marriage to unite and lead to deep soul nurture and personal transformation.
To go even further, let me make clear that God’s Word is teaching us here that sex is not merely a symbol of deep unity in marriage but can actually help lead to deeper unity in marriage. This is why Paul, in verse 5, encourages married couples not to refrain for too long a time from having sex. Sex in marriage should be frequent and reciprocal. Let me translate that for you. The Bible is saying: “Married couples, have lots of sex.” In fact, Paul is so adamant about this that he says the only reason that a married couple who can have sex should not have sex is if they want to take some time to pray and deepen their relationship with Christ. But even then, Paul warns, don’t take a break unless you both want a break and if you do take a break don’t take too long a break.
You see, Paul understood that sex in marriage not only has the power to unite two people but also has the power to keep two people united. I have heard sex in marriage compared to oil in an engine. Without it, the friction between all the moving parts will burn out the engine. And while I don’t completely understand how all this works, I trust the truth of it because God’s Word spells it out so clearly.
Now, of course, those of us who have been married for some time know that this is easier said than done. As time marches on life gets in the way. Children, busyness, age, illness, lack of energy, and a host of other things in life make intimacy a challenge.
Maybe you heard about the elderly couple sitting together watching television one evening. During a commercial break the husband asked his wife, “Honey, whatever happened to our sexual relations?” Well, after a long thoughtful silence and during the next commercial, the wife finally replied, “You know, dear, I don’t know. I don’t even think we got a Christmas card from them this year.” For all sorts of reasons, sexual intimacy in marriage can slip totally off the radar.
On top of that, because men and women are hard wired so differently, husbands and wives are generally going to approach physical intimacy differently. A man, for instance, can find himself attracted to his wife when she is vacuuming simply because she happens to be vacuuming in the same room. Now a woman may also suddenly find herself attracted to her husband if she sees him vacuuming, but simply being in the same room with a few minutes to spare isn’t what does it for her. Instead, it’s the fact that she is watching her husband do a chore she knows he doesn’t like to do simply because he knows it will make her day a whole lot easier. Suddenly, she’s attracted to him. (I’m interested to see how many husbands volunteer to do the vacuuming this week!)
While it’s not universally true, many men are stimulated through their eyes while many women are stimulated through their hearts. And the point is that while sometimes sexual intimacy in marriage is easy, often times it’s not. It takes time, intentionality, sensitivity to the needs of the other, and self-sacrifice. But again, once husbands and wives remember that the greatest pleasure can come from giving pleasure, and also remember that when sex is frequent and reciprocal the marriage is strengthened, then couples will be encouraged to keep from neglecting this central part of their marriage relationship.
If we had the time there is so much more to talk about here, and so many ways to work through these things. For now let me offer another word of encouragement to husband to take your wives out once again this week and spend some time talking about some of this together. We have questions for you again which might help to get the conversation going, though I should warn you that considering the topic this week the questions might generate more response over candlelight and a glass of wine rather than a cup of coffee and a day-old scone.
Before I end, let me say it one more time. God’s design for a husband and wife to mutually give themselves fully to one another sexually points to and even completes the mutual self-donation that is marriage itself. This self-donation husbands and wives see and experience in marriage with one another then ultimately points to the self-donation we all can see and experience with God in Christ. As I’ve said before, sexuality and spirituality are deeply connected and if we mess with the connections or ignore them altogether we do so at our own peril.
The great beauty and truth of marriage in general, and sex in marriage in particular, is that it is in giving yourself fully away to another that you truly find that for which you have always longed, a deep joy that life was meant to hold for us all. Along those lines, we serve a God who, in Christ, gave himself fully to us. By far, the greatest act of self-donation the world has ever seen, or will ever see, was the incarnation, the suffering, and the death of the Son of God. When Christ not only became one of us but then gave his life for us he held nothing back. And in doing God was seeking after what was and is His greatest joy, the restoration of his children and the world in which we live.
If we then offer ourselves fully and wholly to God in Christ we, in turn, find that for which we have most deeply longed, friendship and life with the One who made us, and loves us, and saves us, and waits for us, and has in store for us joy, and peace, and life, and grace in greater portion than we can ever imagine. Paraphrasing what Jesus himself once said, “Those who seek to hold on to their life for their own sake will lose their life while those who seek to lose their life for the sake of another will find it.” This is true in sex. This is true in marriage. This is ultimately true in faith.
As I have said before, never underestimate the beautiful and mysterious gift of marriage and all that it was meant to point us to.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read I Corinthians 7:1-6 again. What is the main thing Paul is trying to communicate here?
Which view of sex do you think is more prominent in our culture?
“Animal” view – Sex is just a natural appetite which must be fulfilled.
“Angel” view – Though necessary for childbirth, sex is “dirty” and degrading.
The Bible consistently extols the beauty and wonder of sex but also sets marriage as the boundary for sex. How do you feel about the Bible’s teaching on sex?
The bonding power of sex is so powerful that the Bible teaches us that when a couple has sex they are married in God’s eyes and that a couple is not fully married in God’s eyes until they have had sex. Is this a new idea for you?
Paul writes in verse 4, “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his body, but the wife does.” What do you make of this?
Why do you think Paul encourages married couples to have lots of sex? (Verse 5)
What do you think of the idea of sex as “mutual self-donation” (i.e. each person completely giving their body for the sake of the other)? What do you think of the idea of marriage itself as “mutual self-donation”?
After hearing this message, what connections do you see between sexuality and spirituality, between marriage and faith?
Suggested Scriptures for the Week: Taken from the Seeking God’s Face resource our church is using daily.
Monday: Psalm 86 ~ John 10:1-6
Tuesday: Psalm 87 ~ John 10:7-13
Wednesday: Psalm 83 ~ John 10:14-18
Thursday: Psalm 89 ~ John 10:24-30
Friday: Psalm 90 ~ I Peter 2:19-25
Saturday : Psalm 91 ~ Revelation 7:9-12
Sunday: Psalm 92 ~ Ezekiel 34:11-16
 Gordon Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 2.
 Rob Bell, Sex God, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), chapter 3.
 In the Greek language the term “to touch a woman” referred specifically to sexual intercourse.
 Rob Bell was helpful here in Sex God. See chapter 7, “Under the Chuppah”.
 Dale Bruner writes, “Physical union brings metaphysical communion. Sexual intercourse delivers a spiritual interconnection so deep that it should be entered only where there are thestrong undergirding foundations of spiritual faith and biblical marriage.” Matthew: A Commentary, Volume 2, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 253.
 See Exodus 22:16 and Deuteronomy 22:28-29.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Glasgow: Collins, 1942).
 Cited by Tim & Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, (New York: Dutton, 2011), p. 277-278. See some of these myths at http://bjstockman.wordpress.com/2011/04/29/ten-myths-about-sex-and-relationships-among-emerging-adults/
 I’m stealing language here from Tim & Kathy Keller, p. 233.
 Keller, p. 235.
 Paraphrase from Luke 9:24.