To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Our Bodies Are Not Our Own

1 Corinthians 7:1-12
Preached Sunday morning, September 10, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

In chapters 5 and 6 of 1 Corinthians we saw some of the problems the Corinthian Christians had with sexual immorality. The Apostle Paul taught the Corinthians and us that in sexual union, two become one flesh. We were reminded that the church is the Body of Christ and that there is no place for sexual immorality there. We saw that immorality, even of a personal or private nature, pollutes the whole body.

In chapter 7 we encounter the other side of sexuality--that is, we see that there is a place for its proper expression. Paul is correcting misunderstanding among the Corinthians here. Just as some thought that any sexual activity was permissible, others seem to have gone to the other extreme and thought that celibacy, even in marriage, was the way to go. It's understandable that people would go to such extremes in Corinth, a city where sexual immorality was considered worship by pagan religions. Some Christians apparently wanted to do away with sex altogether.

But, like other bodily functions, sex has its place. In explaining this idea to the Corinthians, Paul once again answers theologically, with Christ in mind. And once again, his teaching is supremely practical. It's ironic that these worldly Corinthians are receiving advice on sex and marriage from a single man, but Paul writes with wisdom and with the Word of the Lord. It's also ironic today that many people think preachers are somehow out of touch when we try to help people look at sexual issues from a biblical perspective. Let me tell you, preachers who have been ministering much time at all have heard just about every kind of sexual problem from members. And if a preacher is worth much at all, then like Paul he'll help Christians to look at sexuality and sin through the light of the Word of God.

So Paul's answer to the Corinthians' problem is both theological and practical. Sex in marriage is good, he says. And, as we'll study later in this letter, marriage is an image and symbol of Christ and the church.

The Corinthians were drawn to extremes when it came to sexuality: some believed visiting prostitutes was acceptable while others thought they ought not to visit even their own wives. Perhaps these attitudes were part of the factionalism we read about in earlier chapters. In any case, the Apostle sets them straight very simply. He' already reminded them of Gen. 2:24: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." So both sexuality and marriage go back to creation in the Garden of Eden. Sex was created by God and is not necessarily shameful or wrong. As we just saw in chapters 5 and 6, it can be shameful if done outside the bounds God created for its expression. Within those bounds, however, it's good.

We're given those bounds in 1 Cor. 7:2: "each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband." This is simply restating what Paul has already told the Corinthians and what God said in Gen. 2:24: one man and one woman in marriage. During certain periods of Old Testament history God permitted men to marry more than one woman. But the ideal has remained the same since the beginning: one man and one woman. It's a shame, really, that our culture today is so morally sick and confused that some persons would challenge that definition of marriage. For the lost and disobedient the matter is open to debate. But for Christians the matter should be resolved and the matter clear. A marriage consists of one man and one woman for the very simple reason that God created human beings to live that way.

So marriage is the proper place for sexual intimacy. In fact, it is the only proper place. Christians are not ignorant or naive for upholding and defending this standard. Many Christians know first-hand the damage and hurt that comes from disobeying God on this matter. Others know the joy of spending all their lives faithfully committed to one husband or one wife. The church has a fully mature view of marriage and sexuality. Paul does a lot to explain that view in this chapter. And here's his next point: sex is not only acceptable; sometimes it's necessary.

First, however, let's be clear that Paul prefers celibacy for Christians. Notice 1 Cor. 7:6-8. Paul would rather that all Christian could prosper as he did in singleness. As we'll see when we study verses 32-34, marriage and families take up our time and attention and complicate our discipleship. Could you imagine Paul trying to travel around the empire preaching with a wife and children? Preachers with families know something about that struggle: how much are we willing to allow our families to suffer for the work we've committed to do? So as Paul reminds us, some tasks in the church are better done by a single person.

Isn't it ironic that even though Paul wrote of the value of Christian singleness, there is a bias in some of our churches against the unmarried? Some congregations will not allow an unmarried man to preach, and many Christians are at least suspicious of those who remain unmarried throughout life. Yet both the Apostle Paul and Jesus himself were unmarried--and look at the ministries they had! So singleness is good. But the Bible is clear that singleness is by no means for everyone.

Why? Because sexual deprivation opens the door to Satan. Paul explains this principle in two circumstances: spouses depriving one another sexually, and singles burning with lust.

First, married couples are not to deprive one another of sex. Look at what the Apostle writes in verse 4 and the beginning of 5: "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. Do not deprive one another." Did you catch that? In a marriage each partner does not have authority over his or her own body. As we'll see in chapter 11, in one sense the husband is head of the wife. But in matters of sexuality what we see is mutual submission: the husband considers his wife's needs and vice-versa. In other words, it works both ways!

Mutual submission--it's simple in principle but hard to put into practice. For example, I once knew a young man who confided in me that he had only slept with his wife once in the past twelve months. Not long afterwards, he had an affair with a woman at work. Looking in from the outside, we might be quick to judge this young man (and of course he was wrong in what he did). We could say that, because he committed adultery, his wife was the innocent party in their breakup. But in the months before their breakup, that wife's behavior toward her husband had been anything but innocent.

It is not an option for a Christian wife--or husband--to bargain with her body. Your bodies are not your own. In marriage, a Christian is required to put the needs and desires of the other spouse before one's own. Again, that works both ways. But by keeping each other satisfied sexually, you resist the devil.

A similar principle applies to single Christians--although not while they're still single. Let's look at verses 8 and 9: "To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self‑control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn." It's better to marry than to be consumed by lust. That's a pretty frank and realistic acknowledgment of human sexuality, don't you think? All of us need to pay attention to those instructions.

Singleness and lust is an especially critical topic in our North American culture today. In fact, it may be one of the most important moral issues facing our society. Here's why. In the past hundred and fifty years, nutrition has caused each generation to reach sexual maturity earlier and earlier. For example, in mid-nineteenth century America, girls on average reached sexual maturity at age seventeen. Today, the average age is pre-teen. Yet the age at which young people marry has not dropped correspondingly. In fact, young people are marrying later and later. What is the result? A wide gap between sexual maturity and marriage for most young people, and increasingly long years of sexual temptation.

In this situation of prolonged sexual temptation, two groups of Christians need to pay careful attention to Paul's words. First is our youth. The temptation our teenagers are under is enormous. In a million subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the world around urges our youth to give in to their sexual urges. Yet as Paul reminds us, marriage and marriage alone is the proper place for sex.

The other group who needs to hear this message are older Christians who try to help our youth uphold the biblical instructions to "flee immorality." It's good that we encourage our children and grandchildren not to engage in sex outside marriage. But in the process of saying, "Just wait," are we asking for more self-control out of our teenagers and young adults than we have ever shown in our own lives? The Apostle reminds us that "it's better to marry than to burn." That leaves older, married Christians no room to look down on the strong urges of young, single brothers and sisters. When we give young people advice on waiting to get married--finish school, settle down, pay off your car, get your finances in order--we seem to forget the power of sex in these decisions. The fact is, as we see in 1 Corinthians, sex is a valid reason for Christians to marry--provided we keep one very important fact squarely in mind.

That fact is this: Marriage is for life. Let's look at verses 10 and 11: "To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife." Pretty clear, isn't it? For Christians, the husband or wife we have is ours for life. Even if we separate, we are not free to remarry. This applies to both man and woman: we may not divorce our spouse. How could we, really? As we've seen already, our bodies are not our own; if we divorce, we would be losing our own bodies! That's the circumstances we enter into in marriage: we become one flesh, one body. Christians do not divorce one another.

As we'll see later in this letter, the husband and wife are an image and symbol of Christ and the church. Christ will never abandon his church. In fact, he gave his own perfect, sinless life to pay for the sins of the church. His own lifeblood washes us clean and opens the way for the church to be admitted to the heavenly banquet. Because Christ has purified the church, those of us who belong to Christ may enter heaven pure and spotless. Without our Lord and Redeemer Jesus Christ, the church would no longer be the church. Christian marriage proclaims this union of Christ and the church, which is why divorce among Christians is shameful and profoundly sad.

So that is the basic rule: Christian marriage is for life. As we'll see later in this chapter, there are circumstances and exceptions. But marriage as God created it is always one man, one woman, one lifetime.

If Christians really believe that truth going into a marriage, it becomes the pillar of a strong, happy lifetime together. When we became engaged as Christian teenagers, Carolyn and I knew what we were committing to: becoming one flesh, one body for life. We have spent the past twenty-five years building up that body. I suppose we have built up our individual bodies a little too much, but our commitment to the permanence of our marriage has made us take it seriously. Knowing that you're in for the long haul helps a couple to prosper. Not only are you forced to be more forgiving, but you're also less likely to give offense in the first place.

I once worked with a young man in his mid-twenties who simply couldn't see himself staying with one woman all his life. "Even if I wait till I'm thirty-five or forty to marry, that's still thirty-five or forty years with the same woman," he said doubtfully. I wanted to tell him I look forward to the prospect. There is a couple in the church where I used to minister who were grade-school sweethearts in Alabama. After more than seventy years together, they're both approaching the end of their earthly journey. I'm not sure I've ever met two people more in love. Oh, what a blessing when a man and woman marry--and live--as Christians.

One more point worth noting. You don't see anything in Paul's writing about waiting for The Right One. Somehow we've developed a romantic notion that there's One Right One out there somewhere and that if I only find him or her, my life will be complete. There's an appeal to that idea, but it's certainly not a biblical notion. In fact, the search for The Right One has probably led to more divorces than happy marriages. If we really believe God's Word, we can be blessed in our marriages if we choose well--not necessarily perfectly.

There's much more to say on this topic, but that's enough for this week. As we close, let's remember a couple of things. First, sexuality, like a river, is good as long as it stays within its bounds. Second, Marriage is an image of Jesus Christ and his church. As Paul reminded the Ephesian Christians:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph. 5:25-27)

That's an image not only of happiness in this life, but of heaven.


(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley


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