One flesh (part 1)

Photo by Lillian NelsonWhen talking with couples about their weddings, I usually ask if there are particular verses of Scripture they want me to include in the ceremony.  The most common response is Paul’s rich description of love in 1 Corinthians 13.  But the second is Genesis 2:24–“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (NRSV).

I’ve sometimes wondered what couples actually make of this verse.  Reading Paul, I suspect that the unity it describes may be more radical than we’re willing to admit.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul begins answering questions they’ve raised in a letter which we unfortunately do not possess, forcing us to read between the lines.  Following New Testament scholar Gordon Fee, I think a reasonable reconstruction of the situation is this: some of the female converts in Corinth had adopted a hyper-spiritual view of marriage, perhaps even citing Paul’s own celibacy as an example.  For spiritual reasons, they were abstaining from having sexual relations with their husbands.  Some may even have argued that they should divorce their non-Christian husbands: after all, hasn’t Paul himself encouraged them to separate themselves from immoral people?

Here’s the beginning of Paul’s response:

Now, about what you wrote: “It’s good for a man not to have sex with a woman.”  Each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband because of sexual immorality.  The husband should meet his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should do the same for her husband.  The wife doesn’t have authority over her own body, but the husband does.  Likewise, the husband doesn’t have authority over his own body, but the wife does.  Don’t refuse to meet each other’s needs unless you both agree for a short period of time to devote yourselves to prayer.  Then come back together again so that Satan might not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.  (1 Cor 7:1-5, CEB)

He quotes back to them what appears to be another of their bumper-sticker slogans, one that suggests that real Christians avoid sex altogether.  Unfortunately, the net result may be that the men have been visiting prostitutes instead (cf. 1 Cor 6:15-16).  “Each man/woman should have his/her own wife/husband” does not mean that everyone should be married; he’s refuting their slogan, saying that it’s right for each person to have sexual relations with his or her own spouse, and with him/her alone.

That word “authority,” however, might make us nervous: it’s easy to imagine how such a statement could be misused in an abusive marriage.  Having worked for a time in a domestic violence program, I know that for many people, it’s not imagination but harsh reality.

Here we have to walk a careful line, acknowledging the sinful and self-serving ways a text can be distorted, while giving Paul his proper due.  Against the background of the social situation into which Paul was speaking, there is, I think, a positive lesson for Christian marriage.  More on that in the next post.