The Christian church is often heard, by those on the outside, as having a purely negative message about sex and relationships. It seems there are an awful lot of things the people shouldn’t do. It’s all about “thou shalt not”.
Indeed, we’ve had a bit of that in recent chapters in 1 Corinthians. In chapter 5, a man was sleeping with his stepmother, and Paul rebukes the church for failing to discipline the man.
Then in chapter 6, Paul ran off a whole list of sins. Many in the church used to live in these ways before they became Christians. But if a Christian deliberately chooses to adopt that kind of lifestyle, and if they keep doing so in spite of many challenges to repent and to come back, these are the kinds of sins that disqualify you from a place in heaven. The sins included any sexual activity outside of the context of the marriage of a man and a woman, including between two people of the same sex.
By this point in 1 Corinthians, we’re starting to feel the weight of a long string of prohibitions.
And so we ask: Does the Bible have anything positive to say about sex and relationships?
It’s a good question. Those who are not Christians listen up at this point. If God has nothing positive to say, they don’t want to know. “This is an important area of life, and if the church is only negative about it, that just confirms that the church is not for me.”
Well, you’ll be glad to know that the Bible has a lot to say about all this, and it’s not all negative. Last time’s passage hinted at this, as Paul talked about how the human body is really important. The Bible has lots more to say, and this chapter in 1 Corinthians is a big one. What’s more, the picture God paints here is exceedingly attractive.
A Word to the Singles
But first a word to those among us who are single, for whatever reason.
It would be easy to feel left out when we hit a Bible passage that celebrates marriage. It’s celebrating something that is not yours, not at this season.
Paul actually recognises that not everybody is married. As he says at the end of verse 7: “One has this gift, another has that”. Marriage is a gift from God, but it’s not his only gift, and others have a different gift from him.
More than that, Paul is careful not to say that it’s better to be married than to be single. In fact, if you look closely, he actually says several times that it’s better to be single than to be married. We’ll get to all he has to say about that next time.
Paul’s point for today is that it may be better to be single, but not if you’re married. If you are married, then God’s gift, his calling, to you is to be married, and to be the very best husband or wife that you can.
But this is not at all to leave out those of you who are single. Marriage is under attack today, so we all need to understand where it fits into God’s good purposes.
We all need help to live faithfully for God in the situations God has put us in. We need one another if we are to do that. Those who are married and those who are single face different pressures, and we all need the support of our church family as we face them. Whether you’re married or single, God has placed you in a church family, and this passage is for you as you seek to help and support your Christian brothers and sisters.
In fact, that picture of the church family is a helpful one here. It’s one of the most frequent pictures for the church in the Bible: we’re a family. No matter what kind of family you live in, we’re all in a church family. Which means nobody should feel left out.
Marriage under attack
Before we see how this passage connects to today, we have to understand what was going on in Corinth.
Verse 1: “Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’”
We’re starting a new section of the letter. They’ve written to Paul to ask his opinion on a number of topics. Probably they want him to side with one or other of the groups in the church, to settle their disputes. First topic is marriage, and he quotes what they’d said to him in their letter: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”
“That’s right, isn’t it, Paul? Sex is a bad thing, best avoided.”
We have to guess why exactly they thought that. Given he’s had to defend that the body is important, maybe some Christians were playing down the body. Maybe some felt that a Christian should be all about God’s business, not wasting their time on messy human relations.
We don’t know. We don’t need to know, because their confusion won’t match anything today exactly.
But the result was simple: Marriage in general, and sex in particular, was under attack.
Some married couples in the church were beginning to be swayed by this opinion. And it was gently pulling them apart. Marriages were being strained. So Paul responds robustly. If some of what follows is a little direct, then it’s only because Paul speaks plainly here, and without embarrassment. Paul steps in, with two instructions.
Don’t Deprive Each Other
First, don’t deprive each other. Don’t deprive each other.
So, the Corinthians say: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” There’s a problem with that. Verse 2: “But since sexual immorality is occurring”.
Probably this refers back to chapter 6: Some in the church were using prostitutes.
This isn’t the last time this happened in church history. I can think of other examples when the church has attempted to forbid certain people to marry. As a result, those sexual desires were unleashed in ways that were totally inappropriate.
And so it was happening in Corinth. So here’s Paul’s solution, verse 2: “each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.”
Verses 3 and 4 say the same thing, but using different language. Verse 3 speaks of duty. Verse 4 speaks of not having authority over your own body. The result is an act of self-giving.
This language, of duty, of someone else having authority over your body, it makes some people feel uncomfortable. So we need to notice the emphasis that Paul has.
He does not say that the husband should demand that the wife fulfils her marital duty, and the wife demand the same of her husband. He says that the husband should fulfil his duty, likewise the wife to her husband.
Similarly with authority. He does not say that the wife does not have authority over her own body, so the husband should take what is rightfully his. He says that the wife does not have authority, so yields her body. And the same for the husband: He does not have authority over his own body, so he yields it.
The emphasis is not on rights, but on responsibilities. The emphasis is not on taking, but on giving.
And notice how everything here is beautifully symmetrical. The ancient world was a world in which men had many more rights than women. Things were desperately unfair on the women. But Paul almost trips over himself repeating every sentence the other way around. “The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”
Paul’s being totally counter-cultural as he does that. This really is not about either party getting what they desire or think they’re entitled to. This is about a selfless act of giving.
That is the Bible’s view of sex: It is about one person giving themselves totally to the other. It’s one reason why it only belongs within the commitment of marriage. The trust required to give yourself alike that so totally is massive. It properly belongs within the security of two people who have committed themselves to each other, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.
Paul does have one exception to what he says. By mutual agreement, for a defined period of time, a married couple may want to carve out some time to pray. But then straight back together again, and even this exception is more of a concession. It’s certainly not the ideal.
There’s a reason why these instructions from Paul are so important, and it’s to do with the devil. Verse 5: “Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
We Christians have an ancient enemy. He’s called the Devil, or Satan. He hates God, he hates Jesus Christ, and he hates his church. He loves it when Christians fall back into sin, because it soils the church’s reputation, and may even lead to some Christians abandoning their faith.
And he has all manner of tricks up his sleeve. He’s not afraid to play dirty. So the husband and wife who deprive each other is playing straight into his hand.
Clearly, there are all kinds of complications in life, when things are not as simple as what Paul says here. Illness, old-age, frailty, travel for work, people in the armed forces, and so on. But you don’t plan for most of those, and some of them leave the Christian in a dangerous place and in the need to be well aware of the temptations they face.
Paul’s overall point is clear. The Corinthians suggest: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” Paul doesn’t agree at all. For those who are married: “But since sexual immorality is occurring each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.”
We still use the old 1662 Prayer Book at some of our services here. I’m very fond of it. In the marriage service, there is a preface that contains three causes for which God ordained the gift of marriage. The language is a little quaint, but the middle one is what we’re talking about here: “First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name. Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body. Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.”
Don’t deprive each other.
But that was only one way that married couples in Corinth were beginning to draw apart. There’s a second, which Paul addresses next:
Don’t Divorce Each Other
Don’t divorce each other. Don’t divorce each other.
For those who were being swayed that marriage is not ideal for Christians, this is an even more dramatic step to take.
Paul addresses two kind of couples. In verses 10 and 11 he speaks to the married couples on the congregation. They must not separate or divorce.
He underlines how serious this is by stressing that this command comes from “not I, but the Lord”. We’ve thought a few times in this letter about the authority Paul had as an apostle. Whatever he says goes. Whatever he says is to be treated as seriously as if Jesus himself said it.
But here he goes one step further. These are not just instructions to be treated as if Jesus said them. These are instructions that Jesus actually gave.
You can find them in Matthew 19:1-12. The Pharisees asked Jesus is it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason whatever. Jesus replies by quoting Genesis chapter 2. Marriage is God’s gift to the human race. He made us male and female so that a man would leave his parental home and set up a new one with his wife. God joins the two together as one flesh. Then here is Jesus’ punchline: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Marriage is permanent, “till death us do part”, because this is the way God made it.
Jesus did give one exception to this. The marriage bond can be broken if there’s been sexual immorality within the marriage, which I take to mean that there’s been unfaithfulness. They don’t need to divorce if that happens. There can be forgiveness and restoration after unfaithfulness. But Jesus does make an exception, and say that divorce is also an option, and if that happens, they’re free to marry again.
Paul takes this and delivers it to Corinth. On Jesus’ say-so, they mustn’t divorce. And once again, he’s symmetrical. He applies this equally to the husband and to the wife.
Then he speaks to the other kind of couple, that he simply calls “the rest” in verse 12: “To the rest, I say this…”. These are couples where only one of them is a Christian.
If at times, Christian couples begin to wonder if divorce is the way forwards, the pressure is even greater where only one of them is not a Christian. Things can be more difficult. They don’t share the same priorities in life. Perhaps some of the Christians wondered if their faithfulness to Christ was compromised somehow by their unbelieving spouse.
Paul is quite clear: They mustn’t divorce either. As long as the unbelieving party is willing to continue with the marriage.
“To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.”
Why not? Verse 14: “For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.”
I think that means that the unbelieving husband, the unbelieving wife, the children are under the sound of the gospel. They share their home with a Christian, with someone who knows and loves the Lord Jesus. Which increases the chances that, one day, they’ll come to know and love him for themselves.
There’s no guarantee this is how the story will end. That’s verse 16: “How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” You don’t. But it may well happen. Which gives an extra reason to keep that marriage going.
Isn’t this a huge encouragement? Like most churches, we have plenty of people here where only one of the two of you comes along. That can be really hard, and here’s an encouragement to keep going. For the time being, your husband, your wife, your children – they’re in a marriage where they can hear about Jesus, and see him lived out. And it just may be that this leads to them being saved.
What if the unbelieving party doesn’t want to continue? What if living with a Christian is just too hard for them? Well, then let them go. Here’s another exception, to add to the case that Jesus added. They’re free to go, which in the ancient world meant free to marry again.
Again, this is such a contrast to the prevailing culture. One estimate says that 42% of marriages in the UK end in divorce, half of those in the first ten years. Increasingly, celebrities are our role models, and many of them have been married and divorced several times.
You may remember 4 years ago when one celebrity couple got divorced. The media made a great fuss about the fact that they’d said they weren’t separating, they were consciously uncoupling.
I once heard of a couple who were going through a divorce who were being interviewed on TV. They were in their 90s. The interviewer asked why they were divorcing now, having been together so long, and so nearly at the finishing line. They explained that they’d wanted to stay together until all their grandchildren had died.
This is the world we live in, and it’s a painful one. The pain runs far beyond the two people concerned, and touches children, parents, friends and neighbours.
Every marriage experiences difficulties in the relationships. It’s inevitable, if you’re married to someone who is only slightly less sinful than you are.
This is urging us to work those tensions through. If necessary, draw in others to help, friends you trust, others within the church family, professional counsellors if that’s what works for you. Pray, and get others to pray for you.
Divorce is always extremely painful. Sometimes, it’s the result of abuse or other difficulties which means it was sadly the right way for things to go, but if anything it’s all the more painful for it. Those who have been through it need our love and support not our judgement and our criticism.
This passage, and Jesus in Matthew 19, say that there are exceptions when divorce is the right thing. But those exceptions are so few that it’s risky to list them. In the normal course of things, we do all in our power to avoid going down that road.
As the Corinthians were being led to play down the value of marriage, Paul says to them, and he says to us: Don’t divorce each other.
We live in a world that’s gone mad.
It’s a world marked by constantly churning partners, and where relationships are assessed by whether we get what we want out of them. To be sure, it’s not all dark. There are a great many very loving relationships in the world.
We all fall short of God’s ideals. But God responded by loving us so much that the Lord Jesus laid down his life for us. He loved us and gave himself for us. By doing that, he created a new humanity, his church. This is a place where we can grow in our likeness to the Lord Jesus. Where we, too, can live lives that are marked by commitment, and by giving ourselves to each other.