In the interest of time last Sunday, I didn’t discuss the context of Paul’s words about marriage and sex in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7. Paul begins chapter 7 with these words: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.’” This means that Paul is responding directly to a concern that some members of the Corinthian church raised in an earlier letter. Paul is either summarizing their argument or quoting them directly. (“Touch” is a euphemism for sexual intercourse.)
Paul agrees in principle that, indeed, being celibate (and single) is a perfectly fine way for Christians to live. Paul has chosen that path—as he says in v. 7, God gave him the gift of self-control such that he isn’t tempted to porneia (broadly translated as “sexual immorality.” Our modern word “pornography” shares this root.).
Nevertheless, these Corinthians are applying this principle to married couples: now that they’re Christians, even married couples should have nothing to do with sex. Their overreaction is understandable: the predominant pagan culture was every bit as sex-saturated as ours (if not more so). In fact, sexual immorality was part of pagan religious ritual. Prostitution as part of temple worship was common. If sensitive Christians thought sex was dirty and immoral, who could blame them?
Besides many well-regarded Greek philosophers taught that celibacy was the path to spiritual enlightenment. This point of view was in the air; both Paul and the Corinthians would have heard of it.
Paul rejects this viewpoint in no uncertain terms. Paul, though himself single and celibate (we don’t know if he was ever married), isn’t squeamish about sex at all, nor is he a prude. Paul’s perspective, which I communicated in my sermon, is that sex is a necessary and fulfilling part of a married couple’s relationship. Or it ought to be.
If it isn’t, Paul writes, Satan stands ready to tempt us—then as now.