Consent and 1 Corinthians 7

There’s an article. I am not going to post a link to it because I don’t want to give it clicks. It went around about a year ago and now it’s going around again, with the approval of Christians. It’s about how in Christian marriages, you don’t have to ask for consent for sex because you (in this article, specifically the author’s wife) already gave your consent at the wedding, in contrast to all the different times people must seek consent when they are engaging in sexual activity outside marriage.

I bet you can imagine what I think about this.

Giving the author the benefit of the doubt, I deeply hope that this guy didn’t mean that really his wife has no room to say no to sex ever again. He was probably talking about the importance of maintaining a sex-positive posture in marriage. But it is important the way he wrote it. Because I have known people who’ve been in marriages where it really was the case that “you said yes at the wedding, so you can’t say no now.” There is still this terrible false teaching alive and present in some churches. It’s also in several of the marriage books I was given to read during my engagement. I went into marriage thinking this is what we were agreeing to. So the horrible way he’s written matters.

There are mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional changes in people and relationships throughout time. There is no person who is ready for sex all of the time. To have sexual contact when someone isn’t ready for it is rape. There are few simple things in life, but this is one of them.

If there’s no way to say no (because, for example, I said yes 7.5 years ago), there’s no way to say yes.

Consent does have to be discussed, even within marriage. There has to be the understanding that at every moment, “no” is possible and holy. During times of various stresses, assuming a yes can be very damaging. This article, as it is written, does not leave room for that constant refreshing of consent that is so necessary. This article hearkens back to the days before marital rape was recognized. It is dangerous. “She only said yes once”…. No. No one can say yes once and have it last for 50 years. There must be a constant renewal of the yes and room for the no. Otherwise there is no consent. And there is no sex without consent. There is only rape.

A dear friend of mine asked what I thought of 1 Corinthians 7:4, in the context of this discussion. He was talking about the verses where Paul says that husbands and wives have authority over each others’ bodies and we should meet each others’ needs. Well, this is what I think.

I think the context is super important. It is not a lonely verse. It’s in a passage, which is in a letter, which was written by a specific man to a group of specific people within a specific culture. So when we look at that verse, we must consider all that context to get a deep understanding of what Paul was saying. We consider context and then see what the message is.

First of all, look at 1 Cor. 7:6 – Paul says that all that he’s just said about having sex is by way of concession not command – he still wishes everyone would be celibate like he is. So that’s important to keep in mind when examining this passage.

Second, this is a passage addressing something that was happening at that time – people were saying that they wanted to become celibate for God. Essentially, married Christians were saying that they wanted to start being like nuns or priests because that was a better way to serve God. And Paul is correcting that practice.

Third, He’s correcting that practice by setting up mutuality. The husband has authority over his wife. You think that was a shock to anyone in that culture? No. But the wife also has authority over her husband. THERE is a shock, in a culture where women were legally no different from property and often treated that way. In a marriage, sexual authority goes both ways. I think that is not contested even by the staunchest complementarians.

Fourth – this is not something to be taken literally for every situation. If you’re taking it literally, the wife could say, I want to have sex, so you have to have sex with me. The man could say, I don’t want to have sex so you can’t have sex with me. Since they both have authority, they could decide different things about if the other must have sex. That doesn’t even make sense. This is not a command, as Paul says, and it is impossible to make it one.

This is about the attitude – spouses, do not deprive each other of sex. Take care of each other. Do not cut your spouse off indefinitely because you think God would prefer that. You have a joy and responsibility in marriage to care for each other (radical thought in that culture) and that includes sexually.

Fifth, and this is important – what are sexual needs? Do I NEED my husband to have sex with me every time I get turned on? Does he NEED to have sex with me every time he does? No, of course not. That is not a need. Do I need him, in general, to desire to have sex with me? Yes, absolutely. That’s what makes our relationship a marriage rather than a really good parenting or housing partnership. So keeping a reasonable definition of the NEED that Paul is discussing is super important.

Sixth – there are many times in marriage that one or both do not want to have sex. Bodies hurt, they get tired, emotions wear down, anger is present, spouses feel distant, children are waking constantly, work runs long, sadness and grief are experienced, the relationship is in a period of painful conflict or growth. Sometimes someone is just not in the mood. Simple as that. That’s OK! That’s a part of being HUMAN. Getting married does not make a person a sex slave who MUST have sex whenever his or her spouse decides it’s time. And THAT is why a constant renewal of consent is SO important. So SO important. I know of a situation where a man withdrew his consent in the middle of things – and that is OK! There must be constant room for consent to be withdrawn or there is no consent.

For those cases where a spouse goes through a time of not wanting sex for an extended period of time – that is almost always an indication that something is wrong. In the person, in his or her mental or emotional health, in the relationship, something. Something somewhere is not as it should be. And forcing sex to still happen is NOT the path forward to healing. No! Rather, the other spouse must continue living and loving and waiting and assisting the healing process in the other spouse and/or in the marriage itself. Because above and around and beneath this verse reminding couples of their mutual authority and mutual responsibility, there is love. Love, which seeks the interest of the other above itself. Always love, which seeks, not selfish fulfillment of desires – but healing, which is the same word as salvation in the Greek. A return to wholeness. Love seeks healing and salvation. Always.

So that’s what I think of that verse. I think it is a gorgeous verse, in a passage filled with beauty and mutuality and love and freedom.

I think we can see the presence of consent in the end of Jesus’ earthly life. His death was terrible and sex is awesome, but I think the concept of consent can be seen. Although Jesus presumably agreed to the plan for his death (and resurrection) before time began, He still had Gethsemane – where He AGAIN gave His consent – Your Will Be Done. Then He told Peter that He could call down a army of angels at any time to rescue him, which indicates that at any moment, Jesus could have withdrawn His consent. Jesus had to choose, at every moment, to continue the path He had taken. He chose at every moment to NOT call down the angels. He constantly renewed his consent. Which made it actual consent.

I look forward to the day when there are no Christians anywhere debating whether or not the Bible says that women and men get to consent to sex within marriage. Someday, I trust, that will be a given. Until that day… let’s keep reminding each other that yes – within marriage just as without, consent is vitally important.

Published by Nikki Holland

I am a Quaker wife, mother, pastor, and writer. I work as the country branch director of a fabulous NGO in Belize City and I recently graduated with an MDiv from Earlham School of Religion. I love my family, and I love my community.

4 thoughts on “Consent and 1 Corinthians 7

  1. “In a marriage, sexual authority goes both ways. I think that is not contested even by the staunchest complementarians.”

    Unfortunately, it very much is contested. Read Piper and some of his ilk. To them, the power hierarchy continues right into the bedroom. 1 Corinthians 7 means to them, in practice, that the wife can never say No to sex and the husband *would* never say No to sex. The worst possible interpretation.


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