I have recently observed or participated in several discussions about Christian marriage in the blog/Facebook world, that have troubled me mightily. On one hand, I see (mostly male) Christians holding forth the position that sex is so important to marriage that any wife who denies her husband his “rights” or “needs” in that regard, is sinning and violating Paul’s commands in 1 Cor. 7:1-5. Some have gone so far as to state that repeated or long-term sexual denial is grounds for divorce (citing Martin Luther among other sources). Among commenters on that particular thread, I have even seen several (males again) state that sex is the only thing that differentiates spouses from roommates, or that sex is the principal (or a principal) reason for marriage.
On the flip side, I have seen women reacting in egalitarian outrage, blasting the men for failing to recognize the wounds inflicted upon them by the “purity culture” of churches that, in order to teach girls to be sexually abstinent, use shaming terms like “slut” and “whore” to refer to any unmarried girl who explores her sexuality. With some legitimate grounds, they point out that the shame toward sex projected on girls before marriage, is then revised to the shame of not being sexual goddesses after marriage.
I’m not going to solve this issue…as if anything I say ever could. I know there’s a lot of hurting people out there, some of whom feel sexually starved, others of whom feel inadequate or afraid or unloved or wounded. I’m also not claiming to be an expert: I’ve been happily married to my first wife for 24 years and love her more today than I did on our wedding day, but we have often observed that this fact has more to do with some combination of insane luck and undeserved blessing, than it is owing to any skill or wisdom on either of our parts. But I can’t escape the nagging feeling that too much of the argument from both sides has been about each person’s individual needs, desires, fears, wounds, etc., and virtually none has been about each spouse loving and caring for the other. And when giving and loving has been mentioned, it’s all been of the form “if he/she loved me, he/she’d do this for me.” Not once have I seen “if I loved him/her, I’d do (or sacrifice) this for him/her.” Not from the men, and not from the women. Not from the sexually frustrated, and not from the sexually wounded.
Ladies and gentlemen, if the first things you think about marriage have “I” or “me” in the subject, you’re probably talking about a doomed marriage.
Since the apostle Paul has been appealed to already in this storm (I do not call it a debate), perhaps we’d do well to look at a few of the other things Paul said relative to marriage. Things like how submission of wives to husbands (Eph. 5:22) must be in the context of mutual submission “to one another” (Eph. 5:21), and in the context of husbands loving their wives “as Christ loved the church, giving himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25) and even loving them “as their own bodies” (Eph. 5:28). And let’s not forget how Paul described love in 1 Cor. 13:4-7, in which we learn that love does not insist on its own way (v. 5) and keeps no record of wrongs (v. 6). Furthermore, right on down in 1 Cor 7:10-11 Paul repeats the prohibition on divorce, which makes the notion of using verses 1-5 as grounds for divorce doubly ludicrous.
I really think all this argument about sex is really a proxy for a much deeper question, which is whether anyone or anything, including our spouses or our faith, is important enough to be worth sacrificing what we need or expect or desire. We’re Americans dammit, and if there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s standing up for our “rights.” It doesn’t really matter whether the “right” in question is our “right” to be sexually satisfied, or our “right” to space to deal with our sexual wounds … in both cases the focus is on me as an individual, and that focus is fundamentally toxic to marriage. To give oneself to another in marriage is, in a very important sense, to suborn our “rights” to the privilege and duty to serve and love that person who becomes our spouse. The two “becoming one flesh” (Gen. 2:24, Mark 10:8, Eph. 5:31) is so much more than the physical joining of two bodies; it’s about loving another person so much that their good becomes our greatest wish.
There’s one final point I wish to highlight. All those biblical commands about submission, love, and the rest are commands given to us as the “submitter” and as the “lover.” Never can the words of Jesus (or those of Paul) be used legitimately to tell anyone “you should submit to me” or “you should love me.” Paul said “husbands love your wives; he did not say “wives, your husbands ought to love you.” That difference is not an insignificant one. To any of you who are a husband or wife, your biblical call is to love and submit to your own spouse, not to remind him/her of the duty to submit to or love you. It is my job to love my wife, not to analyze or critique whether she’s loving me appropriately (she is, by the way). The moment I start pointing out how my wife ought to treat me if she really loved me, or how she ought to behave if she’s a true Christian wife, I have lost focus on how I ought to conduct myself as a Christian husband.
I’m not saying it’s easy. Self-giving never is. I’m not saying it’s always rewarding or that such love will always be reciprocated. This side of the resurrection, very little is promised in Scripture. But the way of Christ is the way of giving up, not demanding, our due (Phil. 2:5-7). This applies to marriage too.