Today's first three passages are all about idolatry. The OT passages shows people worshiping false gods, setting up blasphemous altars, and even sacrificing their children in the fire to their demonic lords. But you may ask, Where's the idolatry in 1 Corinthians 7?
Sometimes, idolatry is obvious. Other times, it is more subtle--but that doesn't mean that it's any less real. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul deals with a much more obscure form of idolatry: false worship at the sexual altar.
In verses 1-2, Paul talks about the idolatry of sexual temptation. Within its proper context, sexuality is a God-given, beautiful thing. But people can get carried away with it, and it can lead to a form of idolatry. When a person overemphasizes the importance of sexuality in their lives, this can become idolatrous, and can lead to sin. Marriage is the only way to keep your sexual expressions pure: one man and one woman, committed to each other for life.
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.
Committed marriage is the only way to avoid the kind of sexual idolatry that seeks partners and pleasures wherever they may be found. Yet, even within the context of marriage, sexuality can be idolatrous. In verses 3-5, Paul addresses the idolatry of selfish sexuality within marriage.
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.
These verses have been misunderstood and misused since Paul penned them, so let me clarify what the Bible is not saying, and then let me state what it is saying.
This passage is not saying that a spouse has a biblical right to demand sexual attention anytime they desire. After all, a person always has the right to say "no." In fact, the right to say "no" supercedes any conjugal rights belonging to a marriage partner. God is horrified at Christian spouses who use His Word in order to control or manipulate one another into some sort of sexual performance. When this happens, we set up altars to ourselves, and place our own sexual interests ahead of honoring our spouse. Inappropriate sexual interest, and undue sexual pressure within marriage is a different form of selfish idolatry. Paul gives these verses as a word of encouragement to share yourself in the marriage bed, but not as a mandate to conform to a spouse's inappropriate appetites.
This passage is saying that we are not our own. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
Because we are not our own, we should honor God with our bodies. Because we are not our own, we should honor our spouses by sharing our bodies with them. Yet for some spouses, sexual disinterest is a problem. Paul addresses this, not from the perspective of a clinical therapist, but from the standpoint of a godly counselor.
There are many legitimate reasons for someone to be disinterested in sex. There might be a medical issue due to a physical illness, injury, mental struggle, or other genuine inability to perform sexually. Lack of sexual interest on one person's part may be due to the negative attitude toward sexuality that the other spouse exhibits. Who, after all, would respond well to someone whose approach to marital sex is selfish, over-demanding, demeaning, or disrespectful? Perhaps one spouse has violated the trust of the other, and that breech has made the other one reluctant to share themselves sexually. These reasons don't fall into the category of sexual idolatry that I'm writing about today. Nor do I believe that they fall under the categories of denial that Paul had in mind.
There are those who use sexuality as a means of controlling their marriage partner. They withhold affection in order to bend their spouse to their will in other, unrelated areas of life. This kind of selfish idolatry distorts God's plan for intimacy within marriage. It puts Self on the altar, and removes God's purpose from our relationships. Then there are others who are sexually disinterested--not because they are manipulative, but simply because they have less of an appetite than their spouse. They don't intend to deprive their beloved, but simply are not motivated either to initiate or respond to physical intimacy. It is to these people that Paul writes, as a gentle reminder to be focused on the interests of their marriage partner.
Sometimes, marriages can get so caught up in sexual issues, that people lose sight of God. Sex can become something it was never intended to be. Sex outside of marriage is sinful in any situation, yet even sex within marriage can become idolatrous, if attitudes are wrong. When one or both marriage partners get off-track in their sexual attitudes, a sexual fast may be in order. Paul gives instructions for this as a concession, not as a command (verse 6). Sexual fasts within marriage are not for everyone, but for some people, they may be a helpful way of hitting the 'reset button' and purifying the marriage bed. As Paul states in verse 5, a sexual fast is for the purpose of devoting yourself to prayer and seeking God's will for your sexual expression. It should be for a stated duration, and should end with spouses returning to a restored state of physical intimacy.
In verses 7-9, Paul addresses sexual temptation for unmarried people. He says:
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
For himself, Paul prefers the single state. For him, and for many, singleness and celibacy are gifts from God. But Paul recognizes that not everyone is gifted in the same way. For those whose desires for companionship and physical intimacy are strong, marriage is God's blessing for them. To remain in a state of lonely singleness, unable to share yourself with anyone when that is your great desire, is not God's purpose. That can lead to another form of sexual idolatry--an overdeveloped focus on what you don't have. This can become an obsession, and can lead to sin.
Having given his instructions in verses 7-9, Paul then gives further advice to the unmarried and to widows/widowers in verses 25-40:
Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
The point of all this is just that people need to focus their lives on God, and not on their undue desires. If marriage satisfies a person's desires so that they can then turn their attention to God, then Paul advises the blessing of marriage. This is a great way to avoid the sexual idolatry that can come from trying to find forbidden pleasure outside of marriage. However, if a person can please God through singleness, then that is also a holy and blessed lifestyle.
Many unmarried people who struggle with sexual temptation and sin believe that marriage will eliminate their sexual idolatry. For some, this is true. For many others, it is not. Sexual idolatry remains an issue for many married people. Some seek sexual satisfaction outside of God's will and outside of their marriage, either through in-person infidelity, or through online affairs and pornography. Others selfishly demand their own way in the marriage bed, making their own pleasure the goal instead of being attentive to the needs of their spouse. Some selfishly withhold affection from their marriage partners, using sex as a means of control. Still others don't intend any harm, yet are not mindful of their spouses' needs. All these forms of idolatry can be addressed by prayer, fasting (abstention from illicit or even all forms of sexuality), getting honest with ourselves and with our spouses, and seeking to honor God with our bodies and in our relationships.
When you read about idolatry in the Bible, it's easy to say to yourself, "I'm not bowing down and worshiping a statue." But idolatry is so much more than that! Idolatry is allowing anything to get between us and God. It's entertaining selfish attitudes in the marriage. It's seeking inappropriate outlets for your sexuality, and not following God's design for intimacy. The believer must avoid all kinds of idolatry at all times--the overt kind, and the covert kind. Sexual idolatry is a subtle religion that replaces our true faith with the falsehood of forbidden flesh. God wants us to remain pure, and undefiled by the world. His Word reminds us how to avoid sexual idolatry when it says, "You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body."
*Scriptures taken from the ESV.