Chapter 6: Immorality and Marriage
Immorality and Marriage
Up to this point, the Form for the Solemnization of Marriage has dealt with three points, namely, an introduction to Marriage, God’s institution of Marriage, and the permanence of Marriage. In very brief terms the Form next touches on Immorality and Marriage, and does so with reference to 1 Corinthians 7:2, as follows:
“As the Lord forbids immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband, so that our bodies may be preserved as temples of the Holy Spirit and we may glorify God in our bodies.”
Beside its reference to 1 Corinthians 7:2 at this point, the Form also mentions in the margin 1 Corinthians 6:19,20.
The brevity with which the Form refers to immorality and marriage ought not to prompt the conclusion that immorality has but little bearing on marriage. On the contrary, there is ample Biblical evidence that immorality is devastating to marriage. Solomon impresses upon his sons to stay away from the “immoral woman” with this warning: “Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes, for the prostitute reduces you to a loaf of bread, and the adulteress preys upon your very life” (Proverbs 6:24-26; see also Proverbs 5:8-10). Experience confirms how devastating immorality is upon marriage, be it one’s own marriage or one’s partner’s (or victim’s) marriage. Before one enters the married state, one does well to repent before God and fiancé(e) of one’s sins. It’s to this topic that the Form now draws our attention.
1 Corinthians 7:1-7
The passage itself reads as follows:
1 Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman.
2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.
3 The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.
4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
6 But this I say by way of concession, not of command.
7 Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that.1
1 Several of the modern translations of 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 is questionable. Of the major contemporary English translations available, the NASB is closest to the original Greek.
At first read, verse 2 seems to teach that God would have people to marry as way to limit immorality. On this understanding, the text would recognize that we have a sex drive, and that marriage is the place to satisfy this drive. The inherent implication is that within marriage anything goes. This understanding does not do justice to what Paul writes, and does not conform to what the Bible teaches elsewhere.
The city of Corinth in Paul’s day was internationally known for its rampant sexuality. So well known was Corinth for its sexuality that a new verb was coined to describe fornication: to ‘corinthize’. When Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 writes about the backgrounds of some of the Christians of town, he mentions that some were sexually immoral, some were adulterers, some were male prostitutes and some were homosexuals (vs 9).
To this city with its perversions the Lord God sent His servant Paul to preach the gospel of redemption. By God’s grace, several Corinthians came to faith. Some of these were already married, while others presumably were not. The conversion of these Corinthians understandably had a major impact on their marriage, including their thoughts in relation to sexuality. Paul answered many of their questions in the 18 months that he labored in Corinth (Acts 18:11), while other questions came to Paul via letter after his departure. Paul’s answer to one of their written questions is caught in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7.
The kernel of the section is caught in the command of vs 5a: “stop depriving one another.” As is clear from the context, the reference is to sexual activity between husband and wife in marriage. From this apostolic command it’s also obvious that some of the Christian husbands and wives in Corinth were in fact refusing to give themselves to the spouse sexually. In all likelihood, they reacted to the sexism of Corinthian society and considered that the Christian should rise above something so earthly as sex. The reaction of the spouse is predictable: if he (or she) were unbelieving, his disappointment in the home could lead him to the prostitutes of town (see 1 Corinthians 6:16f), and blame the Christian spouse for driving him to this extreme. If he were a Christian too, his frustration could leave him open to Satan’s temptation, as Paul recognizes in vs 5b. In the face of this struggle, the Corinthian church had asked Paul via letter about the propriety or lack thereof for a man to touch a woman (vs 1).
In his reply, the apostle grants that indeed “it is good for a man not to touch a woman.” Sex, after all, is not what life is all about. So, if the Lord has given you grace to remain unmarried, good and well; “it is good for them to stay unmarried” (see vs 8,9). To the married, however, the apostle has a much different instruction. God in the beginning created the human race with the mandate to “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Genesis 1:26) – and that includes that the human race was to rule over ones own hormones. The Lord God gave Adam and Eve the gift of marriage, and with marriage the gift of sexual relations (Genesis 2:24), and that first married couple was fully able to control all their feelings and activities so that their relations together conformed fully to God’s will for them.
The fall into sin damaged so very much, including the ability to use the gift of sexuality perfectly and so to be for the other what God wanted a bride and groom to be. In a fallen world, depriving each other is a reality, and so is selfishness and lack of self-control – all of which can lead to immorality. So Paul gives the instruction of vs 2: “but because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.” The verb ‘have’ in this sentence does not mean that each man is to ‘obtain’ his own wife (and vice versa), as is evident from the fact that those whom Paul is addressing here were already married. Instead, in this sentence the verb ‘have’ refers to embracing, to sexual relations. As the apostle explains in vs 3: “the husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.”
The phrase translated as ‘fulfill his duty’ is striking. The Lord Jesus Christ used the same phrase in His parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), when the one servant demanded of the other, “Pay back what you owe me!” (vs 28). Husband and wife are also to ‘pay’ each other what they ‘owe’ to each other. Yet whereas in Jesus’ parable the demand was for a onetime and immediate payment of the debt, Paul speaks of an ongoing and repeated payment of the debt in marriage. What is this debt? And how is it paid?
The Lord in the beginning instituted marriage as a result of His divine determination that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). He fashioned a helper for the man not from dust, nor from an animal, but from a rib He took from the man. The man in turn exalted, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man” (Genesis 2:23). The Holy Spirit added, “for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The fact that they “become one flesh” is not a reference to sexuality first of all, but a description of God’s ordinance concerning the married; as Eve was Adam’s flesh (quite literally), so all married couples are “one flesh”. Though in one sense they remain two persons (and the eye very much sees it that way), yet in another sense they become one person, with each taken up in the other, each understanding the other, each living for the other, each being an extension of the other, each being more of the other. Being the ‘more’, being the ‘extension’, being ‘taken up in the other’ is the debt that each married person ‘owes’ the spouse.
In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul draws out something of what this oneness looks like, and hence what paying the debt looks like. Paul recalled the words of the Holy Spirit in Genesis 2:24, and in that context writes, “Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:28-31). When Paul speaks here of ones “own body,” he’s referring not to the self but to the spouse. God has made husband and wife one in marriage, and so the husband needs to care for his wife as for his own body – because she is his; the two are one. That’s the debt he owes her; he must care for her, empty himself for her benefit, seek her good, ensure that she thrive through his devotion.
Paul’s instruction to the married of Corinth was this: “the husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:3). The God-given debt husband owes wife and wife owes husband is that they be one, that they live for the other, that they care for the other as they care for themselves. This is what Christ did for His bride when He “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28; see also Ephesians 5:25-27).
In the thoroughly sexualized city of Corinth, some Christians considered sexual relations beneath their regenerated dignity and so declined to give themselves to the spouse. Paul condemns the attitude. He grants that sex is not what life (or marriage) is all about. But he insists that marriage is all about serving the other, and denying the self in the process. Yet refusing to give oneself in sexual intimacy is insisting on one’s own way, and does not take into account the needs of the other. Hence Paul’s instruction: keep paying the debt you owe to each other, keep being sensitive to each other’s needs, keep serving the other and looking after the other – and in the circumstances that means that these Corinthians need to “stop depriving one another”.
To underline his message to the Corinthians, the apostle inserts also the words of vs 4: “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” That statement follows directly from the Lord’s instruction in Genesis 2 that husband and wife are one flesh. In a Christian marriage, neither party owns the self. In a Christian marriage, both parties belong to the other, live for the other, empty the self for the benefit of the other.
The question Paul had to answer in 1 Corinthians 7 centered on a refusal to give oneself in sexual intimacy with the spouse. Paul demonstrated the wrong of that refusal by reaching deeply into the heart of what God’s gift of marriage is really all about. The principle of denying the self for the benefit of the other, of course, cuts two ways, and applies equally to those who insist selfishly on sexual gratification. In Christian marriage there is no place for take or demand; there is only place for give and hence receive. That is why it’s so wrong to think that once one is married one can do what you will to satisfy your sex drive. Immorality is very much possible within marriage – and it happens when the one demands the other, takes the other.
That in turn is why this short paragraph about immorality and marriage is so very fitting in the Marriage Form, located as it is before the marriage is solemnized. It is good that those who marry understand well that when God gives the gift of marriage He does not at the same time give the couple permission to satisfy every craving they may have. On the contrary, in marriage every part of their being is to be directed to the spouse’s edification.
This obviously requires a measure of self-control and of self-denial. These are disciplines we do well to cultivate in ourselves and in our children from childhood.
To our sinful minds and with our disappointed experiences, Paul’s instruction may seem like an impossible ideal. Well does the Form then mention in this context the outpouring of the Holy Spirit! With reference to 1 Corinthians 6:19,20, the Form reminds those who marry in the Lord that our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit.” For fallen sinners to be made homes for the Holy Spirit is certainly a privilege beyond compare, and under no circumstance should one unite oneself in marriage to another who is not a home for the Spirit. Still, the challenge for those who marry is that they act in a fashion consistent with their noble identity. Paul insists that God’s people must “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18), and instead must “honor God with your body” (vs 20).
From Paul’s words to the Galatians we receive clearer indication of what fitting conduct in marriage looks like. The child of God is to “live by the Spirit,” and in so doing “you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Galatians 5:16). The “acts of the sinful nature” that you won’t gratify “are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; …hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions…” (vss 19f). The common denominator in Paul’s list of vices is selfishness. Conversely, “the fruit of the Spirit” whose temple you are “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (vss 22f). Where a husband and wife take seriously their identity as temples of the Holy Spirit, their sexual intimacy will look very different from a couple who do not take their identity seriously.
Again, in his letter to the Thessalonians Paul lays the matter out clearly for his readers. “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God…. He who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you His Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8). Given that we have received Christ’s Holy Spirit, we are called and are made able to control our urges so that we use the gift of sexual intimacy for the encouragement of the other instead of demanding satisfaction for the self.
The brief reference to immorality in the Marriage Form gives occasion to consider two other matters that pertain to immorality. The one concerns being a victim of another’s immoral behavior, and the other concerns being guilty of immoral behavior. These two should be mentioned at this point, for both have a bearing on one’s ability to serve the spouse with one’s whole being.
Victim of Immoral Behavior
The Lord God created the gift of sex as a wonderful means of communicating love within holy wedlock. Too often, however, persons have been subjected to sexual stimulation before marriage – and that can do (and in many cases has done) incalculable damage. It’s as if through premature sexual stimulation wires are pulled from their connectors and plugged in elsewhere, so that you don’t know anymore what buttons to push to make the appliance work. What God made so beautiful is broken. That leads to all sorts of frustrations within marriage, both for the abused person and the spouse. Specifically, it makes carrying out 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 exceedingly difficult – and leaves oneself and the spouse open to Satan’s temptations.
It is imperative that one is open and honest with one’s fiancé(e) before one gets married. The damage caused by sexual invasions in ones youth will invariably come to the surface sooner or later. If it occurs some months or years into one marriage, you will need at that time to deal with the damage done years ago, and the spouse will too. More, at that time the spouse will also have to come to grips with the pain that comes with your not having been open with him (or her) before – and that pain will definitely be acute. To head off bigger struggles down the road, it is necessary to be fully upfront on experiences and expectations before getting married.
Speaking about the abuse before getting married will not automatically fix what’s broken. Then again, sex is not what marriage is ultimately about. One who is physically handicapped (a paraplegic, for example) can be happily married and the spouse be happy too – though they daily need to contend with life’s brokenness. The same can be true for those who have been abused, or whom God has joined in marriage to a person once broken through abuse.
Conversing about the abuse must cover, at a minimum, the following three points. In the first place, Paul’s word of comfort in Romans 8 needs to remain foremost in the minds of those struggling with the scars of abuse. The apostle speaks to people who have fallen with Adam into sin and so are all, in a manner of speaking, already wrongly wired; depraved, to say it in confessional language. Yet the Lord God gave His only Son to reconcile broken sinners to God, and this Son today intercedes still with God for the benefit of God’s own. In that context, Paul raises this rhetorical question: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or sword?” (8:35). Note especially the reference to ‘nakedness’. Paul is empathic: even the abuse we’ve experienced, with all its resulting pain and frustration, cannot in itself stop Christ from loving us. That is a promise we may embrace in faith.
In second place, the Lord our God sovereignly leads our lives along courses of His choosing in order to make us the person He wants us to be. So Paul can say earlier in the same passage, “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). At first reading the emotional abuse Joseph experienced from his brothers when they sold him (Genesis 37) and the sexual abuse he experienced from Mrs Potipher (Genesis 39) both seem so senseless. Yet Joseph by God’s grace trusted God’s goodness as he traveled through these deep valleys, and so could reassure his brothers many years later that “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Genesis 45:7). After their father’s death, Joseph could be more pointed still to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). This trust in God’s sovereignty and goodness allowed Joseph to accept in peace the difficult circumstances of his life, and still bear rich fruit for God’s glory. As the bride and groom digest together what God in His wisdom has put on their path, this is a confession they together do well to make their own before they marry. And after they have entered the married state, this is a confession they will need to continue to hold before each other as they keep contending with the pain of the damage once done.
Thirdly, it is so tempting in the midst of frustration and hurt to feel anger against the wrongdoer of yesteryear. Through an emotional jump, that anger can become directed to the spouse. Yet the Lord God would not have us harbor anger. David in Psalm 35 describes the God-pleasing model, “They repay me evil for good and leave my soul forlorn. Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting…. I bowed my head in grief as though weeping for my mother” (vss 12-14). Though they had hurt David, David’s response was one of love for the wrongdoer and prayer on his behalf. This follows the model the Lord God Himself set for us in giving His only Son for our sins. Though we were unworthy of His love, He nevertheless gave His most precious possession for our salvation. Hence the instruction of Paul: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:12,13). The forgiving the apostle speaks of in this passage is not a once off forgiving, but can be an ongoing and repeated thing as memories and pain resurface again and again. Here too the young couple will need to speak much with each other about their feeling and frustrations, understand each other and encourage each other in the way the Lord wants them to go.
Ultimately, all those who marry, irrespective of personal history, shall need to confess daily the rich promises of God as captured in Lord’s Day 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism,
I am not my own, but belong with body (!) and soul, both in life and death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things (!) must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
Guilty of Immoral Behavior
The Lord created the gift of sex as a means for husband and wife to communicate love within marriage. By God’s providence, however, sexual appetite regularly awakens in our culture some years before one gets married. Though Solomon told his sons (and all young people in Israel and around the world) to avoid the immoral woman and control oneself (eg, Proverbs 5, 6, 7), countless young people throughout the ages have given in to their urges in one way or another – be it with pornography, nightclubbing, fornication, homosexual activity, etc. The question arises whether the marrying couple should tell each other of their past improprieties.
The temptation not to speak of it is great. There’s something embarrassing about sharing these sins of youth. And should the past not be the past? Has God not forgiven?
Yet it is imperative that here too the couple should be open with each other, and keep no secrets. One’s body is not for oneself, but for the spouse God may one day give. Sexual sins of youth, then, are then not simply one’s personal business, but also the business of the spouse God gives some years after the event. Though you did not yet know the bride (or groom) God would give, sexual sin was already sin against her (or him). That becomes the more evident when we realize that dirt has a way of sitting in the back of your mind and becoming a vivid memory in an intimate moment – and suddenly in your mind there’s a third party in the bedroom. Honesty demands that this be no secret between the two who by God’s ordinance become one flesh, one being.
Furthermore, dirty laundry has a nasty way of cropping up in awkward times. When they do, the wrongdoer will still need to confront his ghost. More, the spouse will have a double whammy to digest, for he (or she) will have to come to grips with the smut on your record plus your lack of truthfulness on the topic. The latter will be seen as a form of betrayal, and make for very difficult and tense days. To head off that possibility, it is essential that the couple be open with each other of past immoral behavior.
Yet more is needed than openness concerning past sins. Repentance is the mark of a Christian, and the freedom that comes with repentance is something one delights to share with those one loves. Repentance involves acknowledging sin before God, seeking His forgiveness, and being assured that God has washed that sin away – and so one exalts in God’s goodness. It involves also making amends to the person you hurt, and taking full responsibility for the wrong you did, including perhaps an offer of compensation. This too cannot remain hidden from your fiancé(e).
Marriage is a gracious gift of God to man and woman, and within the sphere of this gift God has added the privilege of sexual intimacy. It is His will that husband and wife enjoy this gift deeply. Through our fall into sin we have done incalculable damage to the gift of intimacy, so that it has become difficult to control one’s drive and use it fully for the benefit of the other. God in great mercy has given His Son to pay for sins, including are transgressions with His gift of sexuality. More, our Lord Jesus Christ has given His Holy Spirit so that we may be renewed and enabled to use His good gifts as He intended. How abundant is His goodness! And with what gratitude shall we use His gift for the purpose He intended!