1 Corinthians 7:1-6
1Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2But because of the temptation to 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 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. 6Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 7I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
One of the clichés upon which I was raised was “all thing in moderation” which was first expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson and then edited by Oscar Wilde to say, “everything in moderation, including moderation.” (If you know about Wilde’s licentious life, you will totally understand his take on the idea.) It’s really not a bad way to see life, because the extremes tend to get us into trouble – and being a person of extremes, I can verify that stance! Paul now rides the pendulum of thought in Corinth from the licentious lifestyle of the sexually permissive to the monastic life of the celibate. While Paul has been accused of many extreme philosophies based on these verses, that opinion simply doesn’t hold up when you examine all of his writing about sexuality and marriage. He would have joined Emerson in the “all things in moderation” viewpoint, for that is ultimately where he lands.
Paul has expressed the fact that the Christian lives a life of freedom; from sin, the opinions of others, and the rules others try to impose upon us that have nothing to do with God’s ways. Whether a Christian is celibate or married is entirely a matter of Christian freedom. Celibacy is a gift, empowered by the Holy Spirit and is most certainly not given to all (or even many). If everyone had the gift of celibacy, well, you and I wouldn’t be here and God’s command to go forth and be fruitful, populating the earth would go unanswered.
Paul is not shy about stating the details of his lifestyle. He is unmarried and celibate and remains so until the end of his days. And he holds that up as the gift that it is. I think one of the phrases in this passage that doesn’t get enough attention is “so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control”. While the ability to be celibate is a gift of the Holy Spirit, self-control is available to all as a fruit of the Spirit. (See Galatians 5:22) We don’t have to live a life of sexual immorality – we choose it. Each Christian is indeed able to control themselves if the Holy Spirit is the driving force in their lives. But we can all be guilty of silencing the Spirit and doing whatever we want. That’s called sin.
These seven verses deal with the topic of mutuality in marriage. God gave us marriage and God gave us sexual expression within marriage. Both are gifts from Him and both benefit us and society. In this passage we don’t see Paul coming down on the side of either male or female. This is an exercise in equality. Husbands make sure their wives have a satisfying sex life, and wives return the favor. Should they decide to be celibate for the purposes of spiritual development, that time needs to be brief so that they don’t become a stumbling block to one another. That’s pretty straight forward. What we find here is that Paul’s all for sexual expression within marriage; in fact he’s a champion of such. At the same time if you are able to remain happily unmarried, thus setting aside sexual expression, great. That’s a gift too. The pendulum lands in the middle. Licentiousness is out and celibacy isn’t for everyone. All things in moderation.