This post is a part of the series comparing the teaching on various gender passages in the Bible. Read more about the series here.
1 Corinthians 7:3-6 says,
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.
Summary of Different Opinions:
Most agree this verse should be interpreted to mean that Paul applauds sex in marriage, and stresses the importance of both spouses taking an active and agreeable role in sex. Most agree that sex should meet each other’s desires and is an obligation that if not met should be because both spouses have agreed to withhold for a reason, and for a determined time. Both spouses seek the Lord’s will through prayer.
The only disagreement that arises between Egals and Comps is a matter of scope. Does this passage provide a pattern for the marriage relationship in general? Or does this mutuality only apply in the bedroom?
Egalitarians believe this verse teaches mutual authority and mutual consent in marriage. They believe the emphasis on mutuality concurs with the creation mandate for marriage (“… a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24) , with the mutuality found in Ephesians 5:21 (“Submit yourselves to each other”), and with the emphasis on loving your spouse’s body as your own in Ephesians 5:28-30.
On the hot topic of authority, Egals believe it is significant that out of all the problem passages, this is the only one that links the word exousia-authority (means to have power over; to be a master) to marriage. Exousia is not given to the husband alone, but equally to both spouses. The wife has authority over her husband’s body. The husband has authority over his wife’s body. Both should submit to each other’s authority.
What if the spouses don’t agree? Egals believe it is significant that this passage, which is instruction for one of the most important aspects of marriage, does not single the husband out as the decision maker. The husband is not given extra exousia to override his wife’s will in this matter. The decision to abstain must be mutual. Their will must be in symphony (consent; agreement), or unified. Husband and wife seek to find the Lord’s will together.
This passage encompasses the Egalitarian understanding of marriage. It stresses mutuality and unity.
Complementarians don’t have a lot to say about these verses. They conclude it means that our bodies are not our own, belonging ultimately to God. They compartmentalize the mutual authority found in verse 4 as only dealing with sex in marriage, and believe it does not apply to the marriage relationship as a whole. They believe Ephesians 5:23 makes it clear the wife is to submit to the husband, which implies the husband carries the weight of authority. The wife’s authority is limited between the sheets.
Wayne Grudem says,
…1 Corinthians 7:3-5 shows that there are areas of mutual obligation between husband and wife, and that we can extrapolate from that and say that the husband’s leadership in the marriage should not be a selfish leadership that fails to listen to the concerns of his wife. But in that very context, and in dozens of places throughout the rest of the book [Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood] we argue that the husband has an authoritative leadership role in the marriage that the wife does not have. (Grudem, Wayne. Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth. p. 212)
You’ll have to scroll down to find the paragraph on 1 Corinthians 7. Like I said, there aren’t too many articles written by comps on this passage. http://www.cbmw.org/Resources/Book-Reviews/The-Nature-of-Authority-in-the-New-Testament-by-Walter-L-Liefeld-from-Discovering-Biblical-Equality
1 Corinthians 7:3-6
|Egals Believe…||Comps Believe…|
||…power; to be master; to hold another subject to one’s will||…power; to be master; to hold another subject to one’s will|
||…mutual. The husband is his wife’s authority, and the wife is her husband’s authority.||…limited in the wife’s case. The wife’s authority over her husband does not extend outside the bed.|
||…to limit sex is a perfect example of how decisions are made in all arenas of marriage. Couples should seek the Lord’s will and find harmonious agreement before proceeding.||…limits the husband’s authority. Because the wife is allowed a say in sexual matters, the husband should seek her opinion in other areas. But, he is responsible for making decisions.|