Exposition of 1 Corinthians 7:1-16, Sexual relations within marriage

1 Corinthians 7:1-16

1Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”

2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 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. 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. 7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. 12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

The seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians has been the subject of considerable debate within the church over the centuries. Before we dive into the details, a few general ideas will help us. First, Paul does not use this chapter to give a complete theology of marriage. Instead, he is trying to resolve a dangerous idea that is wrecking marriages and tempting men to use prostitutes.

What is that idea? You find it in the quotation recorded in 1 Cor. 7:1 (“It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman”). Gordon Fee explains: “There has been considerable pressure within the church to dissolve or abstain from marriage. Paul’s response [to believers in various circumstances] is the same: Stay as you are.”[1] Another important theme advanced by Paul is explained by David Garland: “Throughout the chapter, Paul goes out of his way to underscore that women have the same obligations and rights as their male counterparts.”[2] That concept was revolutionary in first-century societies.

Why did this problem exist in the Corinthian church? First, the powerful influence of sexual attraction is a constant in all cultures. Making that influence more volatile was a raging debate among Greek philosophers about the importance of marriage in society; Roman society dominant in Corinth doted on Greek religion and philosophy. The Corinthian believers were not doing well in figuring out how all of that mixed with their new faith in Christ. Garland says, “An ascetic [self-denying] attitude toward sexuality was as much part of the intellectual landscape as was licentiousness [self-indulgence], and it was attractive to many for a variety of reasons.”[3]

In a setting where sexual immorality was common and where men were commonly accorded a greater license to roam sexually, Paul commands marital sex on an even-handed basis: Each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband (1 Cor. 7:2). The verbal forms are present imperatives, and Greek grammar expert Daniel Wallace reminds us that when an action is commanded, the force of the present imperative will usually be iterative [i.e., do it again and again].[4] When we consider the similarity of our own culture to that of Corinth, these commands could solve a lot of problems.

Interpretation in this chapter always applies a principle expressed by Garland: “Scripture does not use a verb that means to have sexual intercourse but employs euphemistic [figurative] language instead.”[5] The NIV has applied that principle in translating 1 Cor. 7:1-2, but in older translations, such as the King James Version, the meaning is less obvious.

It helps to understand that, in the Greco-Roman world, the purpose of marriage was the procreation of legitimate heirs who would inherit and continue the name, property and sacred rites of the family.[6] Paul does not even mention procreation and instead urges that sexual desire finds its proper place within marriage.

Verses 34 look on sexual intimacy between marriage partners as a mutual obligation. Fee makes the outstanding observation that “Paul’s emphasis . . . is not on you owe me but on I owe you.”[7] These verses are the heart of this section and exemplify Christian love.

The literary structure of 1 Cor. 7:1-5 dictates that verse 5 is parallel to verse 2. That being so, the necessity of a Christian husband and wife having regular sexual relations directly relates to temptation inspired by Satan, who tries to exploit any lack of self-control.

The main problem in verse 6 lies in determining how much of the previous text the word this refers to. The best solution is to apply it only to the second half of verse 5. Paul is not commanding a brief lull in sexual relations for the purpose of prayer, but he concedes that the marriage partners may agree to such a plan.

The meaning of verses 7-16 is relatively easy compared to the section we have covered above. Further information about issues of divorce and remarriage in 1 Cor. 7:7-16 may be found at the following link on the Christ Fellowship website:Unveiled: Divorce & Remarriage (See Week 3 starting on page 28 for the material on divorce and remarriage from 1 Cor. 7:10-16.).

Copyright 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 269.

[2] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 250.

[3] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 251.

[4] Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 722.

[5] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 254.

[6] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 494, citing R.B. Ward.

[7] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 280.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!