The idea that sexual assault can happen within marriage is shocking to some. The way that many have been taught to think about sex, even from within the church, suggests that sex is a right that husbands, particularly, are entitled to whenever they want it. Poor teaching on 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 reiterates this idea, stating that since a wife’s body belongs to her husband he is free to do with it what he wants. God’s design for sex, however, undercuts any notion of sex-on-demand.
Sexual assault within marriage is far more common than many realize. The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence did a major research project which found that 10-14% of married women have been raped by their husbands. The stats are probably low as many women struggle to view forced or coerced sex with their spouse as abusive. In homes where other forms of domestic violence exist (especially verbal or physical) sexual assault increases to 45% in such cases. It’s a startling statistic and the church needs to be highly aware of this reality. If we are not aware and attentive to this dynamic we will likely, if unintentionally, support abusive men in their thinking and entitlement as it relates to sex in marriage.
1 Corinthians 7:2-5 is a key verse on the issue of sexual relations in marriage. Paul is writing here about issues of sex, marriage, and temptation. He notes in particular that because of temptation it is better for a man to marry and fulfill his desires for sex within the proper boundaries. Within marriage, he adds, husbands and wives should not deprive one another of sex. Sex is a “conjugal right” and therefore it should not be used to gain leverage over your spouse or withheld to punish them. There are good and important truths here about sex, temptation, and marital intimacy. 1 Corinthians 7 does not teach us all we need to know about sex from within the Bible, but it does give us some important truths. What tends to happen, however, is we read our own assumptions into the text and we often focus primarily on one side of this relational dynamic. This leads us to a reductionist understanding of “conjugal rights” and a reductionist application of the principle within marriage.
Let’s say a few things here about what Paul isn’t saying before we clarify what he is saying. For starters, Paul is not saying that one spouse is responsible for how another spouse responds to sexual temptation. Abusive spouses will sometimes suggest that if they watch pornography, if they commit adultery, or if they struggle with lust then it is their partner’s fault. “If you gave me more sex I wouldn’t have to do these things,” some spouses will say. Paul does not teach that, nor does the Bible as a whole. Each person is responsible for their own sin (see Luke 6:45; 2 Cor. 5:10; Gal. 6:5). Sin comes from the heart of sinners, not from the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Secondly, this text does not teach that marital responsibility is a one-way street. We often hear this passage taught as though a woman’s body does not belong to her and therefore her husband has rights to do with it what he wants. But the text as a whole paints a much more mutual picture. A husbands body does not belong to him either. If a wife does not want her husband to use his body in a specific way, or at a specific time it is her right to say, “no.” Abusive husbands paint the picture from one vantage point and reduce the teaching of Scripture significantly. Sex-on demand is not a conjugal right. Sex within Biblical marriages involves mutuality.
Sex is about intimacy. God designed sex to reflect relational intimacy, and particularly the relational intimacy that He shares with His bride. So, in that famous passage on marriage, Paul teaches that husbands and wives are to love each other in a way that points to the gospel-love of Christ for the church (Ephesians 5:31-32). Sexual intimacy, then, should support that presentation of self-sacrifical love. Jesus does not force himself on His bride. Jesus does not coerce, manipulate, pressure, badger, or harass his bride. Jesus does not punish His bride, degrade her, or use her. His love is the model for every aspect of our earthly marital love.
The church needs to reevaluate how we teach, and particularly how we apply the principles of 1 Corinthians 7:2-5. There is a great truth in these texts about mutual responsibility to preserve the integrity of sexual intimacy. It is not a text that should ever be used to shame, coerce, or manipulate wives into providing sex in every way a husband wants, and every time a husband wants. Sexual assault can, and does, happen within marriages. The Bible never condones such behavior, and the church shouldn’t, even if unintentionally, do so either.