Sermon 05-31-15: “Sex and Marriage”

June 18, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

One slander against the apostle Paul, often repeated even by Christians, is that Paul was anti-women, anti-sex, and even—except as a concession to the weakness of human nature—anti-marriage. Today’s scripture is one of the main texts used to make that case, unfortunately. In this sermon, I argue that Paul is none of those things. He affirms marriage, mutuality between man and woman, and frequent sex as an indispensible component of healthy marriage. 

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 7:1-7

[To listen to this sermon on the go, right-click here to download an MP3 version of it.]

All right, who here can spell the word “scherenschnitte”? How about “nunatak”? Those were, of course, the two winning words in this year’s Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, which ended in a tie last week, for the second straight year. My son Townshend, who hardly needs an excuse to watch more ESPN, kept me up to date on the action as it unfolded.


Now I say this as someone who takes pride in being a good speller, but… how useful is it to spend hours upon hours every day, as these contestants do, learning how to spell obscure words? Especially when we have auto-correct… and spell-check… and when Google is always a click or two away?

Why devote so much time to something that isn’t much of a problem anymore? Yet in today’s scripture we have something that presents a daily challenge to all of us—that can be a huge potential problem for all of us—that is incredibly important to all of us. Yet we mostly never talk about it—or I should say, we don’t talk about it in appropriate ways. We let our popular culture talk about it. We let our movies talk about it—our TV shows, our music, our books, our favorite websites talk about it.

I’m referring to S-E-X—sex, sexuality, being sexually faithful in marriage, being sexually faithful in singleness.

Up to this point in the letter, Paul has been addressing issues that have been reported to him by “Chloe’s people,” as he says in Chapter 1, and probably other members of the church: he has heard that the church is dividing into factions over different leaders, that people are turning away from the gospel that Paul taught them, that a man in the church is in an incestuous relationship, that members of the church are suing one another in a secular court, and that some church members think it is morally O.K. to sleep with prostitutes.

So Paul has dealt with all those issues that he’s heard about second-hand, and in chapter 7, he begins addressing specific questions and concerns that the Corinthians themselves have written to him about in a previous letter—asking for his guidance.

And the first issue has to do with marriage—more specifically, sex in marriage. It turns out that some members of the church had gotten the idea that in order to be super-spiritual, to be really Christ-like, to be really holy, they needed to, well, abstain from physical intimacy—even if they’re married. Likewise, some other members of the church who were single, or were widowed, believed that they shouldn’t get married or remarried because, they believed, well… sex was unspiritual, worldly, demeaning; that it belonged to their “lower” nature—that it wasn’t something that truly devoted followers of Christ should have anything to do with.

Where did they get this idea? Possibly, they misunderstood Paul himself, who says in verse 7, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” He’s not saying you ought not to get married and enjoy physical intimacy. He knows that unlike him, most people don’t share his gift for celibacy and self-control. He’s only acknowledging the obvious truth that being married puts constraints on our time that we might otherwise devote to Christian ministry.

Paul isn’t exactly giving away any secrets, I hope, later in this chapter, in verse 33, when he writes: “But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.”

Let me ask the married people out there: Are you ever anxious about worldly things? Are your interests ever divided? Of course they are! 

That doesn’t mean that marriage and family aren’t awesome, amazing, wonderful things! But marriage and family are, to put it mildly, just about the most difficult adventure you can embark upon! Also one of the most rewarding… But difficult. Let’s be honest! Paul understands that.

Just for the past few days, after all, Lisa and two of my kids got a head start on me and headed down to Walt Disney World. Townshend and I will join them tomorrow morning. But, just not having three of them around the past few days has made life a lot easier! Townshend and I have been “bach-in’ it” the past few days. I’m not sure that I’ve served the Lord any more than usual, but… I’ve had more time time to myself. I can listen to music whenever I want. I can eat whenever I want. I can watch what I want to watch on TV. The point is, I had more time and more freedom than I normally have!

So some of the Corinthians have heard Paul say things like this about marriage and singleness and thought that Paul was, if not anti-marriage, at least anti-sex. And there were a couple of Greek philosophies that taught them that sex was something that the super-spiritual shouldn’t be involved in. It may be a necessary evil in order to have kids, but it was mostly bad, worldly, dirty. And I guess there are some Christians to this day—from very conservative Christian churches who’ve misunderstood Paul’s point in today’s scripture—and who have a negative attitude toward sex even today.

Just a few years ago, a prominent pastor from one of these very conservative churches made headlines by challenging his married church members to have sex every day for a month! Yeah, that’s something I’m never going to do, I promise!

But the point is, unchurched people, along with many Christians, think that we church people are prudes; that we’re anti-sex! That the Bible is anti-sex! And that when you settle down and get married, that’s when the fun ends. You better have all the fun you can before you get married, and not listen to what the church and what the Bible says about premarital sex, because, well… the fun eventually comes to an end. This is often the joke in sit-coms on TV. Stand-up comedians often joke about it.

If this is your attitude toward Christians and sex and marriage, then I’m about to say something shocking: If you are married, and you want to be faithful to the Lord, if you want to be faithful to the word of God, then physical intimacy is not an optional extra feature of marriage. It’s not something you manage to work in just every once in a while when the mood is exactly right—when every condition is met, when all the circumstances are perfect. This is not a part of your life that’s only supposed to be really important in the early days of marriage—you know, when you’re young, before all the kids, before careers get really busy, before you have all these adult responsibilities, before you have the mortgage and all the bills to pay. It should remain a top priority throughout your marriage!

There was a great episode of Everybody Loves Raymond in which Debra is talking to Marie, her mother-in-law, and Marie happens to mention that she and her husband Frank aren’t intimate very often. In fact, Marie indicates that it’s only about once a year! And Debra is shocked, and she tells her husband Raymond about it. And Debra’s worried: She asks Ray, “What if we become just like your parents? After all,” she says, “we’re not as active in that area as we used to be. These days with the kids and the hectic schedule it’s, you know, it’s every once in a while.”

At the end of the episode, however, both Debra and Ray are shocked when it’s revealed that Marie was lying… because she was embarrassed. It was revealed that she and Frank were actually being intimate multiple times a week. And Frank goes on to say that when Raymond and his brother Robert were kids, it was much less frequent. He said, “You kids were holding us back!” Sadly, I think many of us married couples can relate—kids, careers, responsibilities, hectic schedules… these things hold us back.

Maybe in Paul’s day these Corinthian Christians neglected their sex lives for a different reason than we do, but Paul’s response would be exactly the same: Don’t do it! There’s too much at stake! “The husband,” Paul writes, “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.”

Some people have this mistaken belief that Paul didn’t like women—which is an outrageous slander for a lot reasons, not least of which the important work to which he entrusted women in his own ministry. But notice how radical Paul’s words are: the wife has a right to have a satisfying sex life, just as the husband does! There’s a mutuality here… a mutual submission here. “Do not deprive one another,” Paul says, “except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer.” Paul isn’t giving an inch of ground to the Corinthians who are anti-sex. Even if, in order to devote extra time to spiritual discipline of prayer, meditation, and Bible study, you take a break from intimacy, it should be strictly for a short period of time.” But then he says in verse 6 that he’s not even commanding couples to take a break from intimacy! But if they do, it should only be for a short time. Why? “So that,” as Paul says, “Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

Couples need to have an active, frequent, healthy sex life for a couple of reasons. First because we remember what Paul said about sex last week: the “two shall become one flesh.” God intends for sex to be a kind of glue that unites people together in every way—emotionally, spiritually, physically. It’s as if, though physical intimacy, our bodies say, “I belong to you forever. You belong to me forever.” God made sex that way! We go against God’s design when we have sex before marriage—and it’s why sex in a dating relationship complicates everything.

But if we nurture this part of our life in marriage, it will continue to strengthen our marriage.

A psychologist friend of mine, and fellow Methodist, says that sex alone can’t make a healthy marriage, but without it, it can make every other part of the relationship not function as well. Financial problems are worse without a healthy sex life; childrearing problems are worse; work-related problems are worse.

If you’re married, please… nurture this part of your life. Don’t neglect it. And that also means nurturing all the things that make a healthy sex life possible—like talking to each other; being thoughtful and considerate; working on friendship, working on kindness, working on companionship. Perhaps some of you men out there have heard that the biggest aphrodisiac out there is a man with a vacuum cleaner!

And I understand that age, infirmity, physical problems—psychological problems—can present challenges and obstacles in this area of your life, but every couple can still find some way to be physically intimate. If you need help, help is available; I know people and resources I can point you to.

Listen: When a Christian man and woman stand at an altar and make a promise to be faithful to one another for all their lives, none of them has a doubt in the world about their ability to keep their promise. None of them is thinking, “I hope I don’t have an affair some day.” They’re confident they won’t. One way to fire-proof your marriage, as Paul well knows, is to maintain a happy healthy life of physical intimacy. You have to work on it.

This is one lie the devil tells us, by the way, about having an affair—when someone has an affair, the love comes so easily; the intimacy is so easy; it’s just no work at all. Unlike marriage, which is hard work at times! And we think, “If only I’d married this other person, I’d be so much happier!” Well, yes… It’s understandable that we’d be fooled into thinking this because sharing a bed is easy; sharing a life—with anyone, including the man or woman of your dreams—is hard.

Do you know why it’s hard to share a life with someone, even with the man or woman of your dreams?

It’s hard because following Jesus is hard; because denying yourself is hard; because taking up your cross is hard; because loving your neighbor is hard; because sacrificing your own needs and interests to the needs and interests of anyone else, including your spouse, is hard. Hear what Paul says: The wife isn’t in charge of her body; her husband is. And the husband isn’t in charge of his body; the wife is. Both parties, in other words, sacrifice themselves for the other. That’s what Paul says. That’s what Jesus says. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” “A servant is not greater than his master.” “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”

For as long as I’ve been a Christian, I’ve understood that Jesus wants us to love our “neighbor”—out there—with the costliest kind of self-sacrificial love—as the parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates. I get that. I get that many of us are sacrificing a lot, for example, to go to the Dominican Republic with our youth group this summer. I get that we set aside our own comfort and security and material possessions, at least for a little while, in order to serve our neighbor. It’s a costly, self-sacrificial kind of love.

But when we get married, guess what happens? We now have a neighbor who lives under the same roof as us. We now have a neighbor who sleeps beside us. We now have a neighbor who manages the household with us, and manages our finances with us, and coordinates our schedules with us, raises our  kids with us, and makes a life with us.

What makes us think that we owe our spouse less love than we owe the homeless beggar who accosts us on the street, or that child living in third-world poverty, or that victim of the earthquake or tsunami or tornado?

The greatest challenge and the greatest blessing of marriage is that it allows us to practice daily, hourly, moment-by-moment, self-sacrificial, cross-carrying Christ-like love. And if we just stick with it, and remain faithful, and keep on working at it, God will transform us into a better man, a better woman, and a better disciple of Jesus Christ.

Despite what you might have heard, the Bible has a very high and exalted view of sex. In Ephesians 5, Paul spends time talking about marriage and sex. He writes, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.”

I am applying it to Christ and the church. In other words, physical intimacy in marriage is a signpost pointing us to our future in heaven. Sexual love, as great as it is, is merely a foretaste of the kind of love that all of us will experience in heaven for all eternity.

In fact, as Paul indicates here, the gospel of Jesus Christ is nothing less than the greatest love story ever told: Just as a man will leave his father and mother and his home and be joined to his wife and the two become one flesh, so God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, left his Father and his heavenly home in order to joined to his bride, the church—you and me—in order to unite with us, to become one flesh with us. And he’s going to love us for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health—and nothing will separate us from that love. Amen?

One Response to “Sermon 05-31-15: “Sex and Marriage””

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    Excellent sermon!

    Two phrases are so important:

    1) “a healthy sex life”. Sex has been diminished and made cheap in much of our culture. Young people are experiencing the act, without having the maturity to see the sacred beauty of how a sexual relationship was to be sanctified by marriage.

    2) “the Bible has a high and exalted view of sex”. Again, our culture throws sex into everything; beer commercials, movies, books, tv, and just about everything else. The kinkier the better, too. It’s taking a toll on our culture that’s hard to quantify, but you can really see it, if you broaden the time span. Compare 50 years ago to now. Then wonder what it will be like 50 years from now.

    Thanks Brent. This is really important and needs to be front and center in the church.

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