In the last post, we read these potentially inflammatory words from Paul: “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” (1 Cor 7:4, CEB). In our day and age, such language can understandably spark fears of abuse–all the more reason to try to understand Paul’s words in context.
As suggested earlier, the reason for Paul’s teaching may be that some of the Corinthian women had stopped having sexual relations with their husbands, believing that spiritual maturity required abstinence. Paul counters that marital sexuality is a legitimate conjugal expectation. In verse 3, he uses language that suggests a debt that must be paid; in verse 5, he tells spouses not to “refuse” (CEB) or “deprive” (NIV, NRSV) each other, using a verb that he used earlier to describe being “defrauded” (6:7, NRSV) or “cheated” (NIV, CEB).
But–and this is critical–he approaches the matter in a balanced, egalitarian fashion. He does not censure the wives, but points instead to the mutual responsibilities of marriage. Indeed, note that in verse 3, he begins by insisting that the husband “should meet his wife’s sexual needs” (CEB; this is the “debt” mentioned above), before saying the same for wives. Culturally, one might have expected him to say it the other way around. Then, in the following verse, he speaks of the husband’s authority over his wife’s body and the wife’s corresponding authority using exactly parallel language for each. Whatever one might make of the exercise of such authority, it should be clear that Paul is describing a mutual relationship.
I submit that we should think of this in terms of the one-flesh unity of marriage. Paul does, in fact, quote Genesis 2:24 earlier in the letter. In 1 Corinthians 6, he tells the Corinthians to flee sexual immorality; specifically, the men must stop visiting prostitutes. As part of his argument, he cites the Genesis passage: “Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh'” (vs. 16, NRSV). In other words, in this passage, Paul uses the idea of a one-flesh union negatively, as a reason to “shun fornication” (vs. 18, NRSV).
It makes sense to suppose that in chapter 7 he still has the one-flesh idea in mind, particularly if one reason men were visiting prostitutes in the first place was because their wives were abstaining from sex for mistaken theological reasons. But this time, the idea is a positive one: the one-flesh union means that your needs are to be treated like my needs.
Paul’s words will be the most difficult to hear for women who have suffered emotionally and physically abusive relationships. It can be frightening to hear that the Bible gives authority over her body to her husband. But the problem is neither with Paul nor the Bible: the problem is with husbands who will not give equal regard to the fact that his wife has authority over his body. Here, Paul gives us a picture of marriage in which sexuality is an expression of mutual care and respect. That’s a lesson not only for the church in Corinth, but for us, here and now.