Sexual Consent in Marriage Part 2: A Biblical Perspective

This is the second blog leading on from Part 1: Our Cultural Baggage

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. (1 Cor. 7:3-5 ESV)

It is a sad truth that in some cases, scripture has been grossly mis-used, and even weoponised, in the hands of those who seek to justify the things they do. Consistently, research shows that one of the most prevalent forms of coercion is a husband telling his wife that sex is her duty and obligation. For Christian women, many have been told this by their husband and sadly sometimes their ministers too. The verse from 1 Corinthians shown above, is often one of those passages cited.

Is this what did Paul was actually saying? There are three key terms that are of interest in cracking open this passage:

  • Give
  • Conjugal rights
  • Authority

Give

The first word is apodidotō and can be translated as “give” is really “render”. Paul uses the same word that Jesus had used in Mark 12:17 when he told his followers to give (render) to Caesar what is Caesar’s.[1] There is a sense in this word of giving something that is owed, or the discharging a debt. This already might start to make modern readers feel queasy. But let’s keep going as this is not nearly all. The “giving” is in the context of the other words and their meaning.

What is to be given? What is to be given is marital duty or conjugal rights.

Conjugal rights

This marital or conjugal rights word in the Greek is opheilé which reinforces the meaning of apodidotō. It reflects a debt. This word is usually used to translate a commercial debt and the only place it is used in a non-monetary sense is in Romans 13:8:

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” In this context, this “duty” is love. If this were the debt discussed in 1 Corinthians 7:3, it would make us all feel more comfortable. But because of the immediate context of giving (apodidotō) it would seem to be something more contractual.

That sex is a marital obligation is first echoed in Exodus 21:10 which commands a husband not to withhold from his wife food, clothing or marital rights, and Jewish Rabbis have discussed and debated this. One place where the discussions of the Rabbis are recorded is in the Talmud. In the Babylonian Talmud (finally compiled circa 500AD but including material from earlier) provides a discussion of the Gemara which was a component of the Mishnah which was published around 200 CE:

The Gemara raises another question: Nevertheless, there is the mitzva of the enjoyment of conjugal rights. One of a husband’s marital obligations is to engage in sexual intercourse with his wife at regular intervals (see Exodus 21:10), and this is considered a mitzva….The Gemara asks further: Even so, didn’t Rava say that a man is obligated to please his wife through a mitzva? That is to say, he must engage in sexual intercourse with her when she so desires, even if it is not the time of her conjugal rights.[3]

This gives us some interesting context to the ancient understanding of the marital debt. Here, it talks about marital sex as a mitzva (that is, a good deed done from religious duty). It also notes that it involves enjoyment – although “enjoyment” as a translation can also mean the possession of something that benefits the holder. However, it also says that a man is to please his wife through mitzva. So even though sex is a marital debt that is owed, it is considered a good deed and should be pleasing to his wife.

What is key to note that both in Exodus and here in Corinthians, the payment of this debt is something that is given, not demanded. And this makes all the difference to how this passage has been used (and abused). Here Paul is not speaking of conjugal rights from the viewpoint of demands of the recipient. Rather, the emphasis is on the responsibility of the giver.[4] The obligation is to give love. This passage does not give someone the right to demand it.[5]

Authority

But what about a woman not having authority over her own body? The word is exousiazó (to exercise authority over). It is the same word Paul uses in the previous chapter to describe “I have the right to do anything, you say—but not everything is beneficial. I have the right to do anything—but I will not be mastered (exousiasthēsomai) by anything.” So, the woman is not the master of her own body.

This authority over us grates in an age of post-modern feminism in which bodily autonomy is a key pillar. The critical observation here though, is the mutuality of authority. The husband is not master of his own body either. Husband and wife belong to each other. The wife is accorded the same rights as her husband.[6] This is extremely unusual. The sex and ownership link had long been made in the ancient near east and the Old Testament (Deut. 20:5-7 and 28:30). But the idea that the woman would also have authority over her husband’s body was revolutionary.[7]

Why is this detail important? As John Calvin himself pointed out in his commentary on this passage, if man is the head of the family, why does Paul put them in a position of mutual authority here? Calvin’s commentary reads as genuinely perplexed on this point and he does not answer his own question as to why, in all places and of all things, there is a mutuality of authority in the marital bed. Of course Calvin was a man of his 16th century time and mutuality of consent was not something that his culture really wrangled with. In our culture, this is a concept that is much more thoroughly thought out (although in many ways poorly applied).

It may have been counter-cultural for Paul too. It seems to have been important for Paul to stress the importance of sex as part of the marriage union, and the mutuality of it. What Paul is emphasizing in this passage is the kind of marriage and the kind of intimacy that we see in Genesis. “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh…  Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Gen. 2:23-25). It is in this context the marriage covenant is completely mutual and completely beautiful.[9]

And this, really, underpins Paul’s words. The marriage relationship that Paul envisions is one that reflects and glorifies God. Where there is trust and love and communication. The relationship he is talking about does not reflect the types of broken intimacy that might trouble some as they approach this passage. We might view this passage as raggedly misogynistic with Paul forcing women to be, essentially bonnaire and buxom and sexually available on demand, which I talked about in Part 1. Certainly, history has reinforced that thinking. But as we can see, this is not what Paul was saying.

A quick summary

The wife and her husband owe love as expressed in sexual intimacy, to each other. As an expression of love, the emphasis of Paul’s words are on the responsibility of giver, not the demands of the recipient.

What this means is not that the weight of burden is on the giver to just give without consent, it is on their ability to freely and willing yield. If the love owed is demanded, it is not freely given. The mutuality of authority underpins this willing yielding. As such, this passage cannot be used to demand sex. In fact, using it to demand or pressure someone into sex goes against the very grain of Paul’s words – and against the sexual ethics exemplified in Adam and Eve as the image of God’s created goodness.

The effect

This product of wickedness can make women feel as though the marriage bed is a place of fear and suspicion, rather than something beautiful.

It can also make them feel as though the Bible is not a safe space for them.

And this is a problem on both fronts.

Where to from here?

We need to recognise the depth of the Bible and take the deep dive into its theological richness and ultimately, we need to teach the sexual ethics that Paul envisioned which is linked directly to God’s creation and his intentions for the married relationship. We need to be open and honest about how biblical passages have been used and talk clearly about why that is wrong.

Generally speaking however, most people think that they are good and don’t have an issue with this. The statistics tell us something else though. So, we need to be honest with ourselves about how we communicate in the bedroom – what is our language of intimacy? Does it create an atmosphere in which the wife feels she can freely yield without fear of demand? Some cues are not communicated verbally – are we listening and alert to our partners verbal and silent cues? If we need help, are we able to have a conversation about how we can read each other?

We need brothers to support each other, and be accountable to and vulnerable with each other. We need to critically assess a biblical theology of marital sex that recognizes how things can, and do, go wrong. We need pastors to openly talk about the dark side of marriage and bring it into the light so the clarity of God’s truth can be seen. We need this to be talked about in marriage prep so that naïve assumptions don’t lay the foundations for a whole language of intimacy that is destined to bring brokenness to the marriage.

Mark Thompson stated in relation to 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 in the Sydney Diocese Domestic Abuse Policy:

“Sex is a gift your spouse gives to you. You do not take it from them. It is their free gift. It is a normal part of married life. It helps to avoid temptation. When you are free to give sex, then you should give sex, unless you both agree to stop for some time, so you can pray (verse 5). But your spouse is not always free to give and receive sex. They may be sick, or in pain, or tired, or sad, or bearing a child, or having sexual problems. The bodies of husbands and wives belong to each other (verse 4). This means you must care for each other’s bodies. You should wait until they are ready to give and receive sex. You must not pressure them. A gift that you demand is not a true gift, and a gift you force upon someone is not a true gift. You must be patient and kind with each other.”[10]

While this might seem obvious and logical, lack of consent in marriage is a statistically significant factor. So it seems we need to find a shared language and discuss – lovingly and gracefully – how we, as men and women of God together, make God’s vision for intimacy a reality for all.


[1] Paul Barnett, 1 Corinthians, p110

[2] Paul Gardner, 1 Corinthians, p299

[3] Pesachim 72b, https://www.sefaria.org/Pesachim.72b.19?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[4] Paul Barnett, p110

[5] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, p280

[6] David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians, p116

[7] Ciampa and Rosner, p281

[8] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p308

[9] Paul Gardner, p306

[10] Mark D Thompson Appendix 14 Doctrine Commission on the Use and Misuse of Scripture with Regard to Domestic Abuse in Responding to Domestic Abuse: Policy and Good Practice Guidelines (Anglican Diocese of Sydney) https://safeministry.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Responding-to-Domestic-Abuse-Policy-Guidelines-and-Resources.pdf

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