Conservatives love to mock liberals for despising God’s word. Whether it’s the parts of the Bible that say Christ is the singular Way to salvation or the parts that condemn homosexuality or anything else that doesn’t mesh with liberal sensibilities, we are quick to wag our fingers and shake our heads at such godless heathens.
But if you want to find the parts of the Bible that are truly hated by our culture, then you have to go to the verses that are despised by conservatives and liberals alike—and yes, there are a lot more of these than conservatives would like to believe. As I’ve said before, “Wives, submit to your own husbands as unto the Lord” is probably the most hated Bible verse in America. Following close on its heels, however, is Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 7 that husbands and wives owe sex to one another—that we have no right to deny it except by mutual agreement for a short time.
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
There isn’t a whole lot of ambiguity to that text (unless we bring it there ourselves.) In other words, when we use old-timey phrases like marital duties, we are simply speaking in alignment with God’s word.
And a whole lot of people—conservatives and liberals alike—hate that. Upon reading it, the self-righteous who either do withhold intimacy from their spouses or would simply like to reserve the option of doing so immediately go into damage-control mode. They try and figure out a rationale for why this instruction can be kept safely sequestered from their lives and requires no reformation of the way they treat the one promised to have and hold in all circumstances until death. Most often, this word from the Lord is warded off with the intuition that sex shouldn’t be a duty.
It really is a compelling objection—particularly today when romantic feelings are held up above so many other aspects of human life. When we hear “duty,” we think “chore,” and neither spouse really wants their sexual intimacy to be toil and drudgery bereft of passion. More than that, who wants yet another chore in their already busy schedule? If there’s a way out of doing chores, most people take the opportunity, and our modern sexual ethic of dehumanized consent (i.e. sex is morally right when I feel like it and morally wrong when I do not feel like it) provides a ready excuse to decline. And indeed, when Christians spouses (usually but not always wives, for we live in a feminist culture) hear that they owe their bodies to their partner, they are quick to call this divine instruction a selfish demand, abuse, or even rape when they are exhorted to conform themselves to Christ’s teachings on the matter.
But here’s the “problem”: God loves us (and isn’t that just the worst thing ever?) God loves us, and so if God tells us that sex is a duty, then sex should actually be a duty. God’s Word cannot be broken, and so it is our objection that must be flawed. And really, it only takes a subtle adjustment to properly bring this natural intuition about sex under the authority of God’s instruction—but the difference makes a huge difference. The problem isn’t really that sex shouldn’t be a duty; the problem is that sex should be more than a duty.
As Christians necessarily keep pointing out, we live in a fallen world. Things are not operating according to their original design, and sex is no exception. There’s a reason that sex is so closely associated with romance, passion, intimacy, and pleasure—sex is a wonderful gift created by God for his beloved children to encompass all those things and more. There’s also a reason that sex is only closely associated with romance, passion, intimacy, and pleasure—we have taken God’s wonderful gifts and abused them until they are less than what they once were. We can have gorgeous sunlight that burns us, wondrously made bodies that break down, and sex that’s pretty “meh.” We cannot always have the full package deal no matter how much we may want it. But we still want it because sex was designed be all those things and more—not merely a duty.
“Ah-HA” replies the frigid and loveless spouse seeking to justify herself. “Even you admit that sex should be more than a duty, so I will continue to guiltlessly withhold it until such time as I feel like it becomes more than a duty like its supposed to be.”
Not so fast.
What we have in this world is not perfect, but that does not authorize us to destroy it even more. One cannot make sex more than a duty by making it less than a duty. When a spouse is withholding sexual intimacy, they are making it less than a duty and blatantly disobeying God’s command to them. It’s part of the problem, not part of the solution. And if we take the trouble to look outside of ourselves, we find that this matches a different moral intuition. After all, when someone gets married, they are promising to be with that person and only that person for the rest of their lives. Their sexual needs can only be fulfilled by their spouse. That is why virtually no one would get married at all if there were no expectation of sex. That is why it’s right there in the marriage vows. It is a great cruelty to put yourself in the position of being a person’s exclusive sexual partner for their entire lives and then refuse them sex.
And it is a double cruelty among Christians (in contrast to the broader culture,) for we should know that it is marriage rather than romance that legitimizes sex. Fornication and sexual impurity are constantly warned against in Scripture, and out in the world, our temptations to these things are just as constant. Guarding against these temptations is precisely the reason Paul gives for commanding spouses to serve one another in this fashion. Christian spouses are not simply partners in love and family but are partners against evil and temptation as well. Those who have not been given the relatively rare gift of singleness have needs that only their spouse can help them with. And if you’re tempted to label that kind of reasoning as too cynical for someone like you who believes in “true” love, then check your self-righteousness and stop trying to be holier than God has asked you to be—especially when your supposedly lofty standards require you to deny things God tells you. It is a great tragedy that we hold moments of passion as greater than loving kindness, family, and resisting evil in service to God.
And yet we do. As C.S. Lewis observed in The Screwtape Letters, “Yes, [humans] think that. They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life as something lower than a storm of emotion.” And this mindset is not exclusive to spouses who withhold sex, but is also found among the spouses from whom it is withheld. It is only natural to want to please one’s spouse and provoke that kind of passion, but that is difficult in circumstances when sex is no more than a duty. In pride, some will avoid seeking the mutual help and preservation of chastity promised in their marriage vows because it does not afford them the opportunity to rock their partner’s world. And efforts to humble oneself and ask for what was promised at the altar are often further sabotaged by the scorn of the world (and worldly Christians) who will mock those who would “stoop” to accepting duty sex.
But as great as God’s gifts of passion and romance are, they become toxic when bereft of loving kindness, chastity, and family. For proof of this, one need only look at the bleak sexual landscape of the modern world in which few are satisfied, and fewer still are satisfied for any length of time. Such gifts are not ends in themselves.
But when both husband and wife humble themselves and accept the good works that God has called them to do for one another in marriage, it can create a fertile field of genuine love out of which passion and romance can one day grow. Indeed, this is far more likely to happen in a dutiful marriage in than in marriages in which spouses violate their vows, disregard their partner’s needs, and pridefully reject the command of God. It is not wrong for husbands and wives to want passion and romance in their proper context. But while duty sex may not be an ending point that anyone wishes for, sometimes it’s the only starting point we have.