What Does the Bible Really Say about Sex?

Dean Inserra
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A friend of mine invited me to catch up over lunch. As we looked at the menu, I could tell he was excited to tell me something. “So, I’ve been hanging out with someone,” he said. He went on to tell me that the girl he had been out with a couple times was really great, that they shared similar values, and that he thought there was potential for a long-term relationship. “The sex has been really good too,” he added, as the waiter awkwardly told us he would give us a few more minutes to look at the menu. While I appreciate that my friend can be so matter-of-fact with me knowing my convictions and that I’m a pastor, I gave him a blank stare across the table, hoping he could translate it as “C’mon man, you’re killing me.” Sensing my reaction, he quickly said, “I mean, you want to make sure you’re compatible going forward, right? Imagine having to find out you aren’t sexually compatible when you’re already engaged or married!”

My first thought was wondering what people think “sexually compatible” even means, knowing that my friend was not making this concept up but was feeding off of a very common notion. Today, society’s unwritten pre-marriage checklist includes checking for sexual compatibility. But even aside from the obvious fact that it requires pre-marital sex, sexual compatibility is not something Christians need to worry about. Sex in marriage is something learned together, an experience for the inexperienced, as they strive to keep the instruction of Hebrews 13:4: “Marriage is to be honored by all and the marriage bed kept undefiled.”

As has been a theme in the aftermath of purity culture, well-intentioned oddities in Christian culture have led to overcorrections. There are two major competing pendulum swings: first, from prudence to an all-out exposition of married sex, and second, a trauma-based recoiling from biblical commands on sexual requirements between spouses.

So, what does the Bible really say?

A husband and wife have sexual obligations to one another.

Paul writes that “a husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise a wife to her husband” (1 Cor. 7:3). This duty and responsibility that husbands and wives have toward each other is not bad or oppressive but part of God’s design, where we see that sex was not only created for procreation but also for pleasure. Paul continues, “A wife does not have the right over her own body, but her husband does. In the same way, a husband does not have the right over his own body, but his wife does” (v. 4). This should not be shocking to those who believe that a husband and wife become one flesh, and it is important to note that this bodily belonging to each other in the marriage union is mutual.

Marital obligations should be anchored in Christ’s example.

Husbands have clear commands from God concerning their ultimate responsibility to their wives, and that is that each husband must love his wife as Christ loved the church, giving himself up for her (Eph. 5:25). Elsewhere, in Philippians 2, we get further insight into what Jesus is like. Paul urges believers to “adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5–8).

“A godly marriage exhibits a mutual pursuit of unselfishness for the good of the other.”

One can conclude that a husband loving his wife as Christ loved the church should—at the very least—be unselfish and gentle and never use any type of leadership position for his own personal gain or pleasure. In the context of sex, the wife should never feel as if she is an object or personal porn star. This is serious, as biblical commands have been twisted and used to justify sexual abuse within marriage. It is unthinkable to comprehend how one called to love his wife as Christ loved the church could ever force (or even attempt to force) his wife to engage in something she doesn’t want to do or has refused, but sadly this does take place. Paul’s words about the husband and wife each having rights over each other’s bodies should be heard and interpreted in the context of the rest of Scripture’s portrait of love and marriage, which is characterized by mutual care and oneness.

Married or unmarried, the Christian’s body belongs to God.

First and foremost, the Christian’s understanding of the body should begin with the conviction that “you are not your own, for you were bought at a price. So glorify God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:19–20). The husband and wife’s responsibility over the other’s body remains under the belief that ultimately their bodies don’t belong to them but to God. Sex in marriage should first be to the glory of God, who created marriage, gave couples the gift of sex, and redeemed our bodies through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we remember that our bodies first belong to God, sex is never just about the triumph of our personal needs and desires, especially over our own spouse. However, that also means that we as individual Christians have a responsibility to examine our own hearts when we want to ask for something or refuse something our spouse has suggested in the sexual relationship.

Sometimes obedience means doing things you don’t want to do.

In our hypersensitive evangelical culture, I worry that pastors are no longer even allowed to anchor teaching in Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 7 (that we have a Christian duty regarding sex in marriage) without being regarded as misogynistic or abusive toward women. (As an aside, Paul was not married at the time of his writing to the Corinthian church, so he wasn’t saying this from a selfish perspective.) But Paul states that “a husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise a wife to her husband” (1 Cor. 7:3). Sex in marriage is designed to be a delight, but it is also a duty. There is a role to fulfill and action to take, and it flows from a mutual desire for the other’s good. Part of living an unselfish life in marriage is doing things you sometimes don’t want to do. To suggest that spouses should be willing to give themselves sexually to each other even at times when they might not feel like it is nowhere near the same category as being forced against one’s will to do something cruel or inappropriate. It also needs to be stated that it’s not godly for a person to persist in his or her own desires against his or her spouse’s will. This balance of biological impulses and appetites with biblical commands requires maturity, fellowship with each other, and Spirit-driven kindness. A godly marriage exhibits a mutual pursuit of unselfishness for the good of the other.

Paul commands married couples to “not deprive one another— except when you agree for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer” (1 Cor. 7:5). I have joked when preaching on this verse that whatever kind of prayer Paul is alluding to must have been the fastest prayer in the history of praying! The fact is that part of being a faithful spouse is engaging willingly in regular sexual activity. Are there factors that some couples must work through and overcome both emotionally and physically? Certainly, but there does not need to be a disclaimer given to appease every objection from a social media chorus that is held psychologically hostage to the world’s understanding of self-autonomy and individualism. In other words, if you object to married couples being taught that they’re supposed to have sex with each other, your opposition is with the Bible, not a particular preacher.

As I often say, marriage is significantly more than sex, but it is definitely not less. God created men and women biologically complementary to one another (in a literal, physical sense and in other ways), instituted marriage, and defined what it means to be one flesh. This same God has instructed husbands and wives not to deprive each other, as the man is to “love his wife as himself, and the wife is to respect her husband” (Eph. 5:33). Rosie Moore has a word for married couples regarding sex: “Sex may require effort, forethought and a fierce spiritual battle, but Christian marriages must reclaim this delightful gift from God for our own good and for his glory. To reject, neglect, or grumble against God’s gift, is to reject the Lord himself.”11 In a Christian marriage, each of the two individuals, who are now one flesh, should commit to unselfishly meet their spouse’s sexual needs. An important exception would be anything that goes against God’s design and the covenant of marriage (such as a polygamous encounter) or anything that sincerely violates one’s conscience. (There’s a difference between something that might simply require courage for one spouse and something that he or she earnestly believes is not God-honoring.)

Sex is supposed to be enjoyable.

As we saw earlier, perhaps the most explicit positive sexual content in the Bible is found in Song of Songs, which has historically had mixed understandings as either completely allegorical to spiritual realities or primarily a celebration of physical human love. Recent interpretations argue that it’s both. In an essay in digital theology journal Themelios on the Song of Songs, a writer asserts,

So the Song asks the Christian husband and wife, “How’s your love life? Is your wedding bed dead or alive? Is it as cold as a frozen pond in February or as hot as the Florida sand in August?” . . . This Song is God’s provision to sustain loving marriages and renew loveless ones. It is his provision for increased intimacy that reflects the intimacy of Christ’s love for the church, an intimacy that makes the world turn its head to view our marriages and say, “So, that’s the gospel. What must I do to be made wise unto salvation?”

One might ask if this commentary reads too much into the Song of Songs. Kyle Dillon states that if “the New Testament authors understood and applied the themes of the Song in a Christological direction, then it’s right for us to do so as well.” But Dillon does argue that the Song can be properly interpreted as both allegorical and literal, because marriage itself is allegorical and literal.

Marriage is a metaphor for God’s relationship to the people He has redeemed. Dillon remarks that this theme runs throughout the Scriptures: “Israel is . . . described as God’s ‘beloved’ (Jer. 11:15; 12:7), with whom he enters into a marriage covenant (Ezek. 16:8).” He adds that “when a Christian husband faithfully fulfills his role to lead and love his wife, and when a Christian wife fulfills her role to honor and respect her husband, it puts the gospel on display in a way that no other human institution can. Therefore, we’re justified in saying that the Song of Songs is an allegory of Christ and the church, because marriage itself is designed as an allegory of Christ and the church.” This comes directly from Ephesians 5.

Sex in marriage is more than pleasure and fulfillment. It is about the glory of God. The goal of sex is not some worldly ideal of sexual compatibility that one must search for until found, but rather the glory of God in acting out what He has designed. Sex involves care for one’s spouse and a servant-hearted approach of mutual unselfishness for the other’s benefit. Churches must talk about sex in marriage, and not as a marketing ploy to shock and entertain the masses with a forbidden topic. Rather, by teaching the Scriptures in light of the broader story of the Bible, churches can guide us to see how God designed sex for His glory and our good. His authority reaches into the most private corners of our lives, and even our obedience there brings Him honor.

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by Dean Inserra

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