Sometimes at the beginning of a talk you need a question to get people's attention or a hook to draw people in. I'm going to assume that today is not one of those days. Instead, let me get you back up to speed with where we got to in our 1 Corinthians series this time last year.
Last time AC12 discovered that 'H' a high ranking but corrupt police officer – sorry wrong recap and apologies if you don't watch Line of Duty. Corinth was then the commercial centre of Greece, a crucial trading post within the Roman empire. The church there was planted by the Apostle Paul during his second missionary journey (see Acts 18).
1 Corinthians is a letter penned by Paul, whilst in Ephesus, three years later (so about the same point St Joseph's is now) around AD57. It's written to a church that is in a mess. The Corinthians are:
- Divided – following different leaders
- Arrogant – impressed by lofty speech and wisdom and lording it over those who are weak
- Selfish – asserting their rights above others even suing fellow believers in the courts
- Sexually confused – indulging in temple prostitution and tolerating incest
Paul has written to address these issues concluding at the end of chapter 6 with these words:
"You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So, glorify God in your body."
This truth – that we do not belong to ourselves to do as we please but have been bought back by the precious blood of Jesus to please him, is now applied by Paul to specific areas of life, things that the Corinthians cared deeply about. In verse 1 Paul begins "Now concerning the matters about which you wrote…" what we have here is Paul's side of a back and forth with the Corinthians so what does he say?
1. Protective Sex (v1-5)
Paul begins with a quote:
"It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman"
Before we go on, can you imagine any conversation about relationships today beginning with a statement like that? Maybe it would be good if we lived without sex? This isn't Victorian England, by the way, this is Corinth. This is the Roman Empire, this is a culture that viewed sex like food, a bodily function, an appetite which should be satisfied, when and who with was up to you (at least if you were male) was up to you. Paul is speaking into a culture whose view of sex was not a million miles away from the world we live in.
Two views on this quote:
- This is Paul stating his view – certainly this would fit with his high view of singleness
- This is a view held by some in the church at Corinth. In response to the prostitution, incest and sexual immorality which we saw in chapter 6.
Now, in one sense it doesn't really matter because verses 2 to 5 explain what Paul means here:
1) Sex should be exclusive
It's good to live without sex but verse 2 Paul recognises that sex is powerful and that the temptation to sin sexually is strong and so he prescribes… monogamy. Each man should have one wife and each woman her own husband. Note the radical equality which Paul demands… each woman her own husband the Corinthians could have probably coped with but insisting that men limit themselves sexually to one women? Ridiculous, unworkable.
Perhaps that's how this sounds to you but the Bible never sells sex short, it's open about how good and how powerful and how hurtful sex can be. It doesn't say that sex is bad but that should be respected. Sex is designed for an exclusive, lifelong relationship – marriage, that is where its intimacy can be enjoyed safely and joyfully.
2) Sex is about giving not getting
Verses 1 to 2 tell us that marriage is the context for good sex. Verses 3 to 5 tell us that sex should be a regular part of married life.
Paul doesn't say how regular, that will vary from couple to couple and from season to season and there will be some for whom this is a more sensitive issue than for others.
Paul's point though is this – the body is important, sex is not somehow unclean, or lesser or unspiritual. Sex is a good gift from God to be enjoyed but it's also a gift that is powerful and open to abuse and temptation doesn't disappear the moment someone gets married.
Notice again how careful Paul is to emphasise both the husband and the wife's role here:
"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."
There is no room here for abuse, for one partner forcing themselves upon the other. Neither should sex be stopped entirely unless by agreement and then only for a limited period. Verse 5:
"Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time"
Sex should not be used selfishly it is not a bargaining chip to use or a need to be satisfied. Rather sex is a good gift to be shared, it is about mutual giving not individual rights. But sex is not everything.
3) Sex is important but God is ultimate
Married couples may agree to pause their sexual relationships, temporarily, for one reason – prayer. Sex is important but God is ultimate. Whatever our relationship status is on earth is second to our eternal relationship with God.
So, for those of us that are married the reason that we should choose to hold back on sex is not:
- as a tactic to get what we want from our partner;
- that we have become apathetic or because;
- there are a thousand other things that need our energy and attention
But because prayer is so significant, so necessary that even the good gift of sex must be put to one side. When did you last have sex together might be an awkward question for many couples to answer but perhaps the question when did you last take time to pray together is even more searching.
Sex is important but God is ultimate and that leads us on to what Paul says to those who are not married in verse 6 to 9.
2. A Better Gift (v6-9)
The chapter began with a quote saying that life without sex is good but the last few verses have been all about how sex is good within marriage. Has Paul given up on the idea of living without sex? Not at all. Look at what he says in verse 6:
"Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am."
Paul recognises that sex is powerful and that temptation is real and so he prescribes monogamy but this is a concession. Paul's wish is that everyone could be like him, single.
Is Paul saying that everyone will be single? No!
Is Paul saying that marriage is bad? No!
Is Paul saying that singleness is better than marriage? Yes!
He really is saying that life without marriage and therefore without sex is better than life with it. That's shocking, isn't it? For our culture, not being married – well that's ok but life without sex – that is, well not a full life. And just maybe, our church culture might say, life without sex well that's ok, but life without marriage, without children, without that one person – that is, well not a full life.
How is it that Paul can say with a straight face – I wish all of you were single like me? I think we get a clue in what he says next in verse 7:
"But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another"
Singleness, like marriage is a good gift from God to be enjoyed. There is blessing for those that choose to as Isaiah 56 put it "hold fast to my covenant" - trust in God's promises that he wants the best for us. There is blessing, beyond 'sons and daughters' i.e. beyond what we imagine are the blessings of family or sex.
For Paul, God is the ultimate gift, he is the one that makes life and so the advantage of singleness as we'll go onto see in the rest of this chapter is that it allows him to go full throttle in his pursuit of God.
Athletes often describe themselves as being selfish. Everything they do is organised around their goal. Whether that's winning the London Marathon or the premier league title. They often thank their families for putting up with their training regimes, their travel, their selfishness.
Paul wants God like an athlete wants a gold medal and being single allows him to serve God with no distractions – that's the prize – God himself and God is better and more fulfilling and joyous and satisfying than anything we could hope for or imagine.
The problem is that we don't always choose to believe that. If we are single then we think that the right person will satisfy, fix or fulfil us. If we are married then we think that a different person will fulfil us.
Paul is pragmatic and so he concludes:
If we are 'aflame with passion', if sexual temptation distracts us then we should seek marriage. In the safe intimacy of marriage, we should give ourselves to our spouse unselfishly pausing only to pursue God together in prayer. But if God gives us the gift of life without sex then we should use that freedom to serve and pursue him without distraction and with all our hearts.