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Sex and Marriage

August 4, 2019, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (1 Corinthians 7:1-7) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: 1 Corinthians
Preached at a Mandarin (Sunday) service

Tags: 1 Corinthians 哥林多前书

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Title: Sex and Marriage
Date: 4th Aug 2019
Preacher: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee

The message for my sermon today is that in a marriage, husbands and wives should have sex with one another. Honestly, is this even something debatable? If this is something everybody agrees with, and I’m pretty sure I also have the strong backing of the Singapore government, I can already end my sermon right here. But unfortunately, my sermon cannot be too short, so I need to continue talking about sex, until each and every one of you cannot take it any more. Haha.

First and foremost, the reason why I even need to talk about the necessity for sex in a marriage is because some Corinthians Christians apparently arrived at a very different conclusion. They thought that sex was bad. I’m not making this up. They wrote to Apostle Paul: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” And it was not just the men; some women were thinking the same. There were husbands and wives in the Corinthian Church denying sex to one another because they genuinely thought it was not good. You might be thinking, well, if they didn’t like sex, they must have been doing it wrongly. Or perhaps they were tired or they were quarreling or something. None of these reasons. They enjoyed sex, but they thought it was not good for their spirituality. This might all sound very alien to us, but it actually belonged to a very common school of thought called Asceticism: a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from sensual pleasures, often for the purpose of pursuing spiritual goals. Think of it like fasting. Today, there can be many varieties of fasting: fasting from food, fasting from material possessions, fasting from social media and popular culture, and in the case of today’s passage, fasting from sex. It is essentially a form of self-denial, blocking your desires, and most religions have some forms of it as a spiritual discipline. Buddhism places great emphasis on it, while Judaism has much less of it, and Christianity is probably somewhere in between. The Catholic monks and priests have vows of celibacy and poverty, and the early desert fathers had vows of silence and solitude. Yet, last week, Rev Tan mentioned that the Bible does not explicitly forbid desires, and it is true. [1] Any practice of asceticism is a personal choice, not a biblical command.

However, I understand why there are those that practice Asceticism as a form of spiritual self-discipline. There are two main reasons for this. One, it allows you to focus on religious activities, such as more time for prayer, or more resources and energy to help the needy. Two, more importantly, it is a form of cleansing from your dependence on such pleasures. When you are fasting from food, sex, social media, or even human interactions, you are trying “to find a proper authority over ourselves. Today we have a thousand ways of making ourselves feel good: I know, I’ll eat something nice, or have a drink, or surf the internet, or check whether a friend has texted me, or turn on the TV, or listen to my iPod, or go clothes shopping, or buy something from Amazon, or play a computer game. All of these things can be good, but if we continually use them to make ourselves feel better, we can become slaves to the things we enjoy. When we don’t have them, we crave them. When we lack them, we feel depressed. When we realise we shouldn’t overdo it, we can’t help ourselves. (But when we practice asceticism,) when we give stuff up, we exercise authority over it, instead of letting it control us. We try to unchain ourselves. We try to become free.” [2]

This may be in line with what Paul wrote earlier in 1 Corinthians 6: 12 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. The key word is “master”, which is to control your desires against immorality, instead of letting your desires control you. Paul continues, 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. Paul was saying that you might have a right to your body, but now you belong to God. Asceticism is a spiritual discipline to control your desires for honorable use.

However, even though asceticism might have its benefits, it also has its potential pitfalls. This was very likely the problem in the Corinthian Church. This is because when asceticism is practiced wrongly, it can become excessive, it can become dualistic, and it can become superficial. Let me break down these 3 factors one by one. When asceticism is excessive, it means the husband or wife is practicing their sexual abstinence beyond a reasonable amount. It was so bad that sexual immorality was already happening. Probably, some of the husbands were visiting prostitutes for sex to fulfil their sexual needs. Secondly, asceticism becoming dualistic means that you think materials things are bad or lowly, and only spiritual things are good. This is a theological fallacy. In fact, the Bible has a very positive view of sex, as well as other things that arouse human desires and pleasure, such as material possessions and human relationships. Our God is the Creator God, and the material world is God’s creation to be enjoyed. “We believe that in Jesus Christ, God became flesh and so sanctified the human body. We believe that, on the last day, the body as well as the soul will be taken up into Christ’s resurrection. There is no place within our faith, then, for a rejection of the body and the material world as impure.” [3] In short, material things and spiritual things are not opposites, and they can both be honorable for divine purposes. Lastly, asceticism can become superficial when it becomes a form of self-achievement or self-promotion about your level of spirituality. The Corinthian husband or wife might have thought that their sexual abstinence made them a holier Christian. They might have borrowed such ideas from Greek dualism where virginity was prized as a holy virtue. So they might be denying sex to their spouses or even divorcing them to promote their superior spirituality.

To correct the Corinthian church’s excessive, dualistic and superficial practice of sexual asceticism, Paul pointed them towards the biblical understanding of the theology of marriage. The word “master” in 1 Corinthians 6:12 is repeated again in our passage today as the word “authority”. 1 Corinthians 7: 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Theology of marriage is based on Genesis 2: 24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Husband and wife is now one body in the eyes of God. Asceticism cannot be excessive because husbands and wives need to be mindful of the sexual needs of each other. It cannot be dualistic because sex is the spiritual union of a divine covenantal relationship. Prayer, worship, scripture reading and acts of kindness may be spiritual work. So is sex between husband and wife in the eyes of God. It is an act of loving one another. Asceticism cannot become superficial because spirituality is not a competition. In terms of mastery, control or authority, husband and wife both need to be good stewards of their one body. How can you possibly boast about your personal self-control if you are not managing this control as one body? This is why Paul advised, 1 Corinthians 7: 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps 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. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. So because both husband and wives have co-ownership of the one body, they need to have consensus on both sides if they wish to practice any form of sexual fasting. But Paul clarified that this is only if the couple both really wanted to, and it is not a command. Furthermore, it should be practiced in moderation.

After understanding today’s passage, how do we apply it to today’s world? I will first talk specifically about sex and marriage, and then I will talk in general about sensual pleasures. For those who are married, bring love and passion back into your marriage. The yearning for one another must always be in your heart and mutual admiration must continue long after your wedding night. We need to get rid of this myth that is pervading our society, that it is the forbidden fruit that tastes the best. Passionate love for your wife is possible and sex with her can be better than the sweet young thing who doesn’t know the real you. Yearning and desire for your domesticated husband is possible, and he can be as attractive as the playboys who disrespect the sanctity of marriage. Sex is an activity respected in the Bible, and not only is it an important element in marriage, it is to be enjoyed by the couple. It strengthens the bond that the couple has for each other and it is a shield against temptations outside of the covenant.

What should be the right and balanced perspective towards sensual pleasures? Even though the Bible does not promote asceticism, it does talk about evil desires of the flesh. Galatians 5: 13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. (See also Romans 8:5; 13:14; Ephesians 2:3; 2 Peter 2:10,18)
The use of the word flesh is intentionally different from the use of the word body. So this is not a dualism of material versus spiritual things. In fact, it is about how you use your body, mind and soul. Do you use it to serve one another, or for personal gratification? The next few verses will make this clear.

Galatians 5: 19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
There is nothing wrong with sensual pleasures because God created the world to be enjoyed and well-lived. But I also believe that this enjoyment is meant to be for all. At the very least, it cannot be at the cost of another person’s pain or suffering. Even the non-believers know that. But for Christians, we are called to bear spiritual fruits. So in our enjoyment of life’s pleasures, we should be well aware of the community’s needs, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20:35)

1 Corinthians 7:1–7 (Listen)

7:1 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 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, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.

(ESV)