This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 1 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Resolving to give up anything that comes between God and ourselves stretches as far as the hallowed mystery of sexual intimacy — one of the greatest gifts God has given humankind. Sexual intimacy is as profound as it is mysterious. Intercourse consummates marriage as a multifaceted mystery in which two people are forged together as one flesh. In mysterious union, a man and a woman procreate children fashioned in the image and likeness of their Creator. Sexual union, however, is even more profound than procreation and paradisiacal pleasure. It is a mysterious parable of Christ and His church — the union of two people as a poignant portrait of the unity of Christ and His bride.
The parable has its roots in Genesis and bears ultimate fruit in Revelation. Human history rooted in the union of Adam and Eve, yielding its fruit in the wedding supper of the Lamb. The full complement of God’s people “prepared as a bride beautifully adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2).1 This mystery we are to ponder and preserve, a divine metanarrative transcending our individual marriage narratives.
In the mystery of marriage, the husband is the image of Christ; the wife the image of the church. Thus, as Christ is sufficient to our every need, a husband is commanded to fulfill the needs of his wife. The biblical language is arresting: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:25–27).
A husband is thus called to fulfill his wife. To understand her needs and to fill them. To esteem her satisfaction as greater than his own. To love his wife as his own body. “After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church” (Eph. 5:29).
A wife, likewise, is to fulfill the needs of her husband — and this in every way, including physical union. Thus, according to Scripture, “the husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise, the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife” (1 Cor. 7:3–4).
As Thomas Aquinas explains, “The man should give to his wife her conjugal rights, namely, with his own body through carnal union, and likewise the wife to her husband, because in this matter they are judged equal. Hence the woman was not formed from the feet of the man as a servant, nor from the head as lording it over her husband, but from the side as a companion.” To fail to do so is called fraud, “because one is taking away what belongs to another.”2
Yet in full view of the mystery of marriage — replete with its parabolic profundity in Christ and the church; its potential for procreating children in the image and likeness of God; and its promise of psychophysical pleasure — there is an exception. “Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Cor. 7:5, emphasis added).
First, as Paul emphasizes, sexual abstinence must be by “mutual consent.” Neither husband nor wife may make a unilateral decision. Both must agree, for there is no more beautiful expression of Christ and the church than that of husbands and wives dwelling together in harmony, peace, and mutual fulfillment.
Furthermore, sexual abstinence is to be practiced only “for a time.” That is, only for an agreed-upon specific season. In the words of King Solomon, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” That includes “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” (Eccl. 3:1, 5 NIV 2011).
Finally, sexual abstinence is to be done for a suitable purpose. Most specifically, to “devote yourselves to prayer.” Aquinas, in concert with the early church fathers, quite naturally expands the meaning of prayer to “spiritual acts, for which continence renders one more suitable.”3 This self-evidently includes all the spiritual disciplines by which we are fashioned in the image and likeness of God through His grace or divine energies. —Hank Hanegraaff
Hank Hanegraaff is president of the Christian Research Institute and host of the Bible Answer Man daily broadcast and the Hank Unplugged podcast. Hank has authored more than twenty books, including The Complete Bible Answer Book — Collector’s Edition, revised and updated (Thomas Nelson, 2016), and the forthcoming Truth Matters, Life Matters More (Thomas Nelson, 2019), from which this article is adapted.
- Unless noted otherwise, Scripture quotations are taken from NIV 1984.
- Saint Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 321, 323, trans. Fabian Larcher, Priory of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies, dhspriory.org/thomas/SS1Cor.htm#71.
- Aquinas, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 324.