God’s Word does not frown on the sexual union of man and woman or view it as a necessary evil merely for the sake of procreation. Instead, Scripture tells us that sex is good and even holy when it takes place in the proper context, the one-flesh relationship of husband and wife. Clearly, we are to infer as much from the account of marriage’s institution in Genesis 2:18–25. Today’s passage also affirms the goodness of the sexual relationship between spouses.
Paul’s teaching on sex within marriage is extraordinary. He says that husband and wife should give one another their conjugal rights (1 Cor. 7:3). Each has a right to enjoy sex and each has an obligation to help the other enjoy sex as well. Both spouses should receive joy and pleasure in a healthy sexual relationship. Husbands and wives should view the marriage bed in such a way that each spouse both gives and receives in the sexual union.
First Corinthians 7:4 grounds this giving in a proper view of one’s body. Because husband and wife become one flesh in marriage, the husband surrenders the rights over his body to his wife and the wife surrenders the rights over her body to her husband. Each has authority over the other’s body (v. 4). Note, however, that Paul does not mean an absolute authority or an absolute surrender. Remember that he is writing to believers who have accepted the false view that sexual relations are inherently and always bad or at least questionable. He is not giving a spouse authority to demand sexual acts that are sinful, painful, or demeaning or saying that a spouse has an obligation to give in to such demands. Paul’s point is that when spouses abstain from sex for illegitimate reasons, they are stealing from one another because their bodies belong to one another.
Paul gives one legitimate reason for spouses to abstain—temporarily—from sexual activity: for a special season of prayer (v. 5). Again, because of the context, we cannot view this as the only legitimate reason for spouses to abstain temporarily from sexual relations. Using biblical wisdom, we recognize that there are other times—such as during illness—that married couples should abstain. The principle is that a husband and wife should treat the other’s body just as each would want to be treated (Matt. 22:39; Eph. 5:28–30), which precludes having sex if it would bring harm. Paul’s overall message is for spouses not to abstain from sex unless there is a legitimate reason.
John Calvin comments, “It is . . . wisdom [for husbands] to have intercourse with their wives when it is seasonable, and to refrain from that intercourse when they are called to be engaged otherwise.” Navigating issues of sexual intimacy in one’s marriage takes wisdom, respect, and love. Each spouse must seek to serve the other and never to pursue sexual relations outside of the marriage relationship.