1 Corinthians 7 (Abstinence, Celibacy, Cohabitation, and Marriage)

[This article was taken from our book Sex and Scripture: A Biblical Study of Proper Sexual Behavior.]

 

1 Corinthians 7 contains some of the clearest teaching in the Bible concern­ing abstinence before marriage, celibacy, sexual intercourse inside and outside of marriage, and sexual obligations. The people of Corinth were interested in proper sexual behavior and had written to the Apostle Paul about it. By revelation, he answered their questions.

1 Corinthians 7:1
Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.

God says it is good not to marry, and later in the chapter, He gives some reasons why that is so. Marriage brings on an added dimension of responsibilities, concerns, and challenges. [1] It can be determined from reading the context, and the chapter as a whole, that a major truth being communicated in the verse is that it is good if a man or woman can stay unmarried. The theme of staying single runs through the entire chapter. Verse seven says: “I wish that all men were as I am” [i.e., unmarried]. Verse 27 continues the theme (and the NASB does an excellent job of translating the verse): “Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” Verse 28 states, “Those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.” Verses 32-35 point out that the married person has divided interests, taking care of both the Lord and the spouse, while the single person is freer to serve the Lord. The chapter closes with verse 38 saying that a man who does not give his daughter in marriage does better than the man who does (marriages were arranged, and many woman who did not want to marry were pressured and even forced to marry by their family), and with verse 40, the last verse, where Paul says, “In my judgment she [the unmarried woman] is happier if she stays as she is” [single]. Because staying single is a major theme of the entire chapter, and because sexual touch is forbidden only outside marriage, the NIV translators translated verse one as, “It is good for a man not to marry.” In spite of that, however, most people are better off with a godly outlet for their sexual desires, that is, marriage, and that point comes up in Chapter 7. Of course, sexual intercourse is not the only reason to get married, and other sections of Scripture mention other reasons for marriage. [2]

If one reads 1 Corinthians 7:1 in most other versions of the Bible, he encounters quite different translations than what the NIV says, and most are similar to the King James Version:

1 Corinthians 7:1 (KJV)
Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch [aptomai] a woman.

In understanding and properly interpreting Scripture, it is often the case that, although a verse has one dominant truth, there are other truths being com­municated as well. In verse 1, the Greek text does not have the word “marry.” Instead, it has the phrase, “touch a woman,” which explains why the King James Version and many other versions read that way. Although translating literally is usually the best practice, this is a good example of when a word or phrase is misleading if translated that way.

In the above verse it is quite obvious that the word “touch” is being used idiomatically (to touch in a sexual way), because men and women “touch” all the time. The verse is not talking about touch in the normal course of daily activity. The whole context of the chapter is sexual behavior, so it is not unusual that we find a sexual idiom here. The subject of sex is inherently relational, often taboo, and always exciting. Every language abounds in figurative language for sex and sexuality. [3] It is widely known that the word “touch” in this verse refers to sexual touch and sexual intercourse. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, R. C. H. Lenski writes: “‘To touch a woman’ is euphemistic for the sexual contact and intercourse in marriage.” [4] Many other sources could be given to support the fact that “touch” can mean “touch sexually,” but this fact is so well known that anyone wishing to substantiate it will find an abundance of references.

For people not used to the Greek idiom, the verse could be translated, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman in a sexual way.” This would be a closer rendition of the Greek text than the NIV and would be clearer than just “touch.” The problem then is that most people do not realize that a large part of the meaning of the verse is guidance to stay unmarried if possible. It is “good” to touch your spouse in a sexual way when you are married. When this verse is properly understood, it means that it is good to stay unmarried if you are able to do so, and it is always good to avoid sexual touch outside of marriage. By wording the Greek the way it is, God “killed two birds with one stone,” so to speak. He makes the point about not getting married, which the NIV picks up very well, and He refers to the obvious fact that a man should not be touching a woman in a sexual way if he is not married to her. Of course, the same is true for women touching men.

Touch is a very strong stimulant, and once a person gets aroused and stimulated by touch, it can be difficult for him to control his thoughts and actions. Satan has always had plenty of sexual distractions for those men and women trying to live godly lives, and if someone is so distracted by the sexual influences around him that his service to the Lord seems difficult, then that person should marry. The second verse in the chapter addresses that:

1 Corinthians 7:2
But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.

It is interesting that in verse 2 Paul writes about “so much immorality” in the Corinthian world. People often think of modern times as being very immoral, but in many ways the ancient world was even more immoral than our modern world. Corinth was one of the most immoral cities of the Roman world. Savas Kasas writes:

On the highest summit of the extended top-area of the castle [the fortified plateau in the city of Corinth called the “Acrocorinth”], there stood Aphrodite’s famous Temple in antiquity. During certain periods of antiquity it possessed more than a thousand temple priestesses, who devoted themselves to divine prostitution so that they practice Aphrodite’s cult in the city. Hence the famous Roman proverb: “Non licet omnibus adire Corinthum (it is not permitted to everybody to travel to Corinth).” [5]

In the Roman world, Corinth had such a reputation for sexual excess that a common term for a prostitute was a “Corinthian Girl” or a “Corinthian companion.” Furthermore, the word korinthiazomai (“to Corinthianize”) meant “to practice sexual immorality.” Thus we can easily understand why the believers there wanted to know what God expected concerning sexual purity. His answer is clear: rather than be tempted and fall into sin, it is better to marry.

This brings up another important point: God created us as sexual beings, and sexual intercourse was designed by God to be a wonderful experience that promotes love, communication and intimacy. Augustine and many Christian ascetics promoted the belief that sex is not godly unless one is trying to have children, and unfortunately that belief has persisted in various forms down to this day. There are many married couples whose sexual freedom is inhibited by the belief that sexual intercourse is somehow “dirty” or unholy, and that it is never to be “just for fun.” This is not the case. Jewish rabbis point out that the human female is the only female in any species that can have sexual intercourse while pregnant, a clear indication that God intended sex to be for enjoyment, not just for children. Marital surveys show that of all the ingredients that lead to a happy and healthy marriage, a satisfying sex life is always at or near the top of the list.

Another important truth in verse two is that each person is to have his or her “own” spouse. The wording, “each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband,” is very clear. It is a sin to have more than one wife or more than one husband. This must be taken to heart, especially because it is a change from the laws God gave in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, it was permissible for a man to have more than one wife, and thus “adultery” was defined as having sexual intercourse with a married woman. The revelation to Christians is quite different: each man has “his own wife,” and the wife has “her own husband.” This is to be true in heart as well. Polygamy (more than one wife) and polyandry (more than one husband) are forbidden, and sexual intercourse with anyone but one’s spouse is adultery for both men and women.

The next verses in Chapter 7 discuss the importance of sexual intercourse as a duty in marriage, which makes perfect sense. In the context, the reason for getting married in the first place is to find sexual fulfillment, so it is only logical that providing sexual gratification for each other is part of marital responsibility.

1 Corinthians 7:3-5
(3) The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.
(4) The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.
(5) Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

Even under the Mosaic Law, sexual fulfillment was expected in marriage. For example, a man who bought and married a slave girl would have to let her go if he later married again and then did not fulfill her “marital rights” [sexual intercourse] (Exod. 21:10-11). Sexual intercourse is a very important part of marriage, and God goes so far as to call it a “duty.” The Lord says that the body of the husband does not belong only to him, and the body of the wife does not belong only to her [For further study read “Healthy Submission”]. There is a very real sense in which each spouse is “part owner” of the other. [6] Although God does not set specific parameters for the frequency of sex in marriage, like “three times a week,” He expects the couple to work out their respective needs with love. The following verses augment the teaching on sexual purity:

1 Corinthians 7:7-9
(7) I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
(8) Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am.
(9) But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

In verse 7, Paul writes that he wishes all men were like him (single), and thus could serve the Lord without a spouse and without distraction. Yet he realizes that each person has his or her own “gift” (level of sexual need), and that some will be better off getting married. Verse 8 then continues the point in verse 7 about staying unmarried. The practice of staying single and celibate is not adhered to very well in our modern culture, even by Christians who should know better because of the guidance from the Word of God. The subject of sex is so lauded and glorified by the world that anyone who chooses to do without it is considered a quack of some sort. The ability to remain celibate without burning with desire, which the Bible calls a “gift,” is too often degraded.

Verse 9 speaks loudly about the entire issue of sex outside of marriage. It clearly sets forth the will of God: control yourself sexually or get married. Sex outside marriage to “let off pressure,” “just for pleasure” or even as a “trial marriage” is outside the will of God and is therefore sin. [7] If the temptations around a Christian are causing him or her to burn with sexual passion, then that person should get married. The Greek text is very forceful. It is the aorist imperative, and could better be translated as, “let them marry!” There is another point to note in verse 9. How can a person really tell if he or she is containing himself before God? The Greek of verse 9 is better translated as, “if they are not having self control,” indicating that they were occasionally giving in to sin. God says very clearly that if you are losing control such that you are giving in to sexual sin, then get married.

Living together without being married is very common in America now, and it has caused a well-known problem. It is practically a part of American life that single women complain that they cannot get men to commit to marriage. This is not rocket science. Study after study shows that the major reason a man lives together with a woman is the availability of sex. If he can get sex without commitment, then he often will. [8] Shmuley Boteach, Rabbi at the University of Oxford, director of the L’Chaim Society, author and lecturer on sex and marriage, writes:

Sometimes I wonder whether women really understand what their agreement in the sixties to commitment-free sex did for them. It just ensured that men could get sex readily and without strings attached, thus they had no good reason to marry and commit.

If you live together and he gets everything he wants without commitment, why should he agree to sign the contract you’re giving him?

Women have simply forgotten what true love is and what a real compliment is. A guy will tell a girl that he loves her and that he wants to share his life with her, that she is beautiful and that he cannot live without her. She is very impressed and flattered. So she saddles up her stuff and brings it around to his place. But, there is only one compliment that a man can give a woman: “Will you be my wife?”

It is the ultimate compliment, because it comes with a price that he is prepared to pay. All other compliments are just words. When he says those words, he is not just thinking about sex, but about a future of you and him together. By offering marriage, he embraces the choice to give up choice, sacrificing and forswearing the possibilities of romance with another woman for all time to come. [9]

Women have long known that saying “No” until marriage is a powerful motivator for men to get married. A Yiddish proverb encapsulates female wisdom for ages past: “No chupa, no shtupa” (“No wedding, no bedding.” The chupa is the canopy that the wedding couple stands under during the ceremony). It is important to point out that marriage is now, and always has been, an accepted and recognized institution in society. God instituted marriage, and Adam and Eve are called husband and wife even before they were driven out of Eden (Gen. 2:25; 3:6,8,16,17). [10] Some people try to make the case that since Adam and Eve had no “marriage ceremony,” none is needed today, and that people who like each other should just start living together. This tactic misses the mark in several ways. Of course Adam and Eve had no formal ceremony—who would be the minister and the witnesses? The situation has changed since then. Furthermore, the Bible shows that marriage customs were formalized very early. In Genesis 29, Jacob married Rachel and Leah, and there was a dowry, a feast and customs that were followed. Also, the Law of Moses made it clear that there is a big difference between a married and unmarried couple. In the Law, if a man had sexual intercourse with an unmarried woman, he was to marry her and pay the dowry the father would normally receive (Exod. 22:16). Note that the Law does not say that when you “sleep together” you are married, but rather that, if you do, you are to get married.

Another reason Christians should not live together before marriage is that we are commanded to live as examples for others, and that means in the sexual area too: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” (Eph. 5:3). Living together before marriage paints a picture of selfishness and lack of self-control. It is hard to see how two people living together before marriage is a good example in any way. Yes, lots of people are living together before marriage, but the Bible warns us, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this age” (Rom. 12:2), and Peterson does a good job in his version, The Message, by saying that we are not to be conformed to the “culture.”

Romans 12:2 (The Message)
Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

There are commitments and covenants made in the marriage ceremony that are designed to pro­vide for the success of the marriage. Statistics clearly show that the “break up” rate for people who just live together is very high, and they also show that the divorce rate for people who lived together before marriage is higher than for couples who did not live together before they were married. Marriage is difficult enough with all of God’s blessings, so why behave in ways proven to decrease your chances for a happy marriage? Scripture is clear: if a man and woman are “burning” sexually and want to have intercourse, they are to get married.

Endnotes

[1] This is well known and is why so many people will jump at the chance to live together, but will not get married. For men especially, it is sexual fulfillment without all the “bothersome commitments,” and thus it is generally the less emotionally mature and stable men (and women too) who will not make the commitment to marry. Thus, it is no wonder that if and when they do get married, they carry that same lack of maturity into the marriage and have a much higher divorce rate than couples that did not live together before marriage.
[2] One of these is Malachi 2:15, which says that one reason God made the man and woman “one” in marriage is “because He was seeking godly offspring.” More and more evidence is surfacing that shows that children are much better off in a two-parent home. Having only a male or female parent in the home is not God’s design.
[3] For a list of some of the sexual idioms in the Bible, see Appendix A.
[4] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of 1 and 2 Corinthians, (Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, MN, 1937), p. 273.
[5] Aphrodite was the Roman goddess of love. Savas Kasas, Corinth, and its Environs is Antiquity (Filmographik Co., Athens, 1974), p. 68.
[6] This paper is about sexual fulfillment, and that is also the primary focus of 1 Corinthians 7. However, the concept of the husband and wife not having “authority” (literal Greek) over their own bodies goes much further than sex. Women have a “right” to communication and romance in a marriage even if the man “isn’t romantic.” He can learn. Similarly, the woman can learn to give in ways that will bless the man. Love is about giving, and Christianity is about becoming more like Jesus Christ.
[7] Living together before marriage is widely practiced today, and is a dismal failure. Cohabitation before marriage has been openly practiced in America for some 30 years now, and it has been studied and surveyed in every conceivable way. The exact figures vary somewhat, which is expected due to the different demographics of the studies. The overall results, however, are the same: most studies show that only 20-25 percent of those who cohabit go on to marry the one they are with at the time. If they do marry, they are almost twice as likely to divorce. Not surprisingly, studies show that when couples living together were interviewed apart, the women usually said they were in love and were going to get married, while the men said they were not. The number one reason men surveyed said they were living with a woman was the availability of sex. Studies done on marital happiness showed that couples who lived together before marriage were less fulfilled in their marriages than couples who did not, so it is not surprising that studies also show that people who cohabited before marriage are more likely to commit adultery after they are married. Women who engaged in sex before marriage are more than twice as likely to commit adultery than those who did not.

Furthermore, surveys indicate that if a couple had sex before marriage, they were 29-47 percent less likely to enjoy sex after marriage than people who abstained until they were married. Studies show that monogamous married women are more orgasmic than single women or married women with multiple partners. This is logical because monogamous married women generally feel safer, and thus more relaxed in sexual intercourse. A University of Chicago study of more than 3,000 people found monogamous married couples reported the highest sexual satisfaction. Rates of domestic violence are double for couples living together without being married, with, of course, the woman being the one hurt most of the time. Also, studies show that women end up paying 70% of the expenses when the couple is not married. Women usually spend their money on the relationship, while men spend their money on themselves and things they want. One sociologist who figured the percentages concluded that three couples out of 100 who cohabitate have a successful marriage. Not good odds. One does not need to have the Bible say that living together before marriage is a bad idea—the statistics are quite clear. Studies and statistical information is readily available in textbooks and professional journals, and on websites such as the one posted by Roland H. Johnson, III, (http://personalwebs.myriad.net/Roland).
[8] Our modern society is not the only one that has discovered that when men can get sex without commitment, they often will. Prostitution and the use of slaves for sexual purposes made it unnecessary for Greek and Roman men to marry for sexual fulfillment. Women who gave in to men’s advances found out then, as they do now, that men do not feel responsible to marry a woman just because she will have sexual intercourse with them. In the writing of the Greek poet Theocritus (3rd century BC), the woman Simaitha complains: “He made me his victim instead of his wife—dishonored, deflowered.” Peter Bing and Rip Cohen, Games of Venus (Routledge, New York, 1991), p. 151.
[9] Shmuley Boteach, Kosher Sex (Main Street Books, New York, NY, 1999), pp. 152-154.
[10] Some people say that marriage is only for Christians because it is in the Bible. That is not the case. We are created by God as male and female, and God brought Adam and Eve together, not as believers, but as human beings. Thus marriage is a creation ordinance, not a Church ordinance. That is why when unbelieving couples get married and follow the commands concerning the sanctity of marriage, they also can have meaningful marriages. Marriage is an institution binding on the human race.

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12 comments

  1. pls define to us what is marriage, is it ceremony, certificate, witnesses etc.what will join them together? is it pastor. or anything, what will make them bcom one flesh and joined by God.refer u to Exd.22:16 if a man lure a virgin that is not betrothed and lie wit her,he shall surely be his wife.17;if her father bruterly refuses to give her,he shall surely giv money according to dowry of a virgin.so what is marriage here? another question is.is dowry sud be paid for all lady including d disvirgin.or men sud wait for virgin to marry n pay dowry bcoz scripture say dowry for virgin?

    1. Marriage is a covenant, binding promise, that a man and woman enter between the two of the,. Nowadays it can be solemnized by a minister, and licensed by the state under its governmental rights, but these are man made regulations.

  2. I really enjoyed this.

  3. Can you answer this question please: what do I say to my son who believes he and his girlfriend can live together and remain celibate?

    1. I say that is foolishness.

  4. Pls what is d way out when sex as occur between the two parties before marriage and the lady is ready to change and the guy is not

    1. The woman is in charge of and responsible for her own body. No one is “making” you have sex. it is a choice, so make the choice to stop. It is a sin and when you decide to do it you are making an intentional choice to sin, which is really wrong in the eyes of God. Pray for God to help you because He is always seeking to help us to do His will.

  5. This was very helpful. What about masturbation? Is that a sin, say for anyone, married or single, widowers. Or divorced people. Christian? Your thoughts

  6. I appreciate, among other points made, your showing that marriage is designed for all in every society, not just for believers.
    A minor correction about something that you certainly know better than I:
    [5] Aphrodite was the Roman goddess of love.
    Venus was the Roman goddess of love, Aphrodite was Greek. Almost identical as the Romans adopted the Greek religion.

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