Did Paul Get Sex Wrong?
I don’t understand all men. I understand few women. (OK, maybe none.) My understanding of psychologists? “And I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.”
Recently I came across a Christian psychologist’s Blog addressing the question: “Do men need sex?” My response to the question was, “Du-u-h!” But the psychologist disagrees. The full title of his Blog post is: “Do men need sex? Wants vs. needs and the making of weak men”.
To be fair to our psychologist he wrote out of concern about some of the Duggar craziness that urges wives to be sexually available to their husbands pretty much any time the husband expresses interest. Men need sex really bad. Women have a duty to meet meet the need.
He believes that the “Duggar view” has a wrong assumption:
That advice, in my opinion, makes men out to need sex to such a degree that the lack of it will lead to bad things like porn and adultery. Sex is treated as the glue that holds fragile men in the marriage and the lack of it kills the marriage because men can’t function without it.
With the Duggars and others of their ilk as a foil the psychologist labors to establish the thesis that sex is not a need but a want. He seems to confine the category of need to things you will die without - like water. So…
It seems that some have bought into this little formula: SEXUAL DESIRE = NEED. UNMET NEED = DANGER that will lead to temptation, straying, or some such pathology.
What is the root of this wrong understanding of sex?
I think our troubles begin this way: We often baptize desires as needs, expect needs to be fulfilled, are angry when they are not, make demands of others to fulfill our wants and excuse ourselves when we use illicit means to get what we want (either by outright force, manipulation, or secrecy).
What alternative does he propose?
Consider for a minute how we might respond to these two different equations:
- Sex as basic need + unmet need = ???
- Sex as powerful want + unmet want = ???
How would you conclude these two equations? The first is more likely to focus on ensuring the spouse is not selfishly withholding such a basic need. The second is more likely to be concluded by addressing the one who has the want and how they plan to address that want.
Eventually he appeals to spiritual reasons:
Maybe this is a more accurate equation: Sex as a powerful want + partially unmet wants + brokenness (bodies, relationships, desires) = grief over losses + opportunity to rely on Holy Spirit + pursuit of loving our spouses more than ourselves. This equation better acknowledges wants, sadness the happens when wants are not met, the reality of broken wants and broken bodies but also points to a better goal of reliance on God and the focus of love more than getting something.
The conclusion of the matter:
It is painful to have unmet wants/desires. Those desires do not have to be wrong (though we are never fully right either). But our wants are always given to God and made secondary to our command to love the other well. Yes, part of loving the other may be talking about desires and hurts. But surely let us get rid of the idea that failing to have sex leaves men or women in some greater danger than those who have sex as much as they want.
The psychologist’s concern about the Duggars is well-founded. He is right that marriage and sex within marriage does not inoculate people against sexual sins. Those, especially men, who think lust will be destroyed by having a marriage partner are in for disillusionment. He is right to point out the priority of love and concern for the other which will require self-discipline. But his attempt to distinguish desire from need seems forced and, as we will see, his view is in conflict with St. Paul.
It is surprising that his treatment of the subject appeals to some general “spiritual” considerations and fails to address the Scriptures, in particular 1 Corinthians 7. The Apostle Paul had received a letter from the Corinthian church in which they asked Paul about several matters, one of which was sex and marriage. He introduces his response with a quotation from their letter.
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with (literally, “to touch”) a woman.”
There were teachers of asceticism who taught something along these lines: “This is the age of the Spirit, and Christians are called to live in the Spirit and minimize life in the body. Those who are not married should remain single and lead spiritual lives. Those who already married should have spiritual marriages which exclude sex.”
Paul, who was not married and who had the “gift” to remain unmarried and to devote the whole of his life to the ministry of the Gospel in ways married persons cannot, rejected their view and practice on practical grounds squarely facing the reality of “weakness” :
But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.
Whether “have” means to have a marriage partner or to have sexually (more likely), Paul sees marriage and sex within marriage as of value in dealing with temptation. The psychologist appears not to take this teaching of the Apostle into account and rather denies it.
Paul goes on to urge generosity between a married couple based on mutual “rights” of conjugal relations and mutual “authority” over the other’s body. What is remarkable is the reciprocity of the relationship. The rights and authority of women in relation to sex in marriage are fully equal to those of men. Whatever the relative levels of sexual need of the persons in a particular marriage (and no doubt there are significant differences among persons and among marriages), they are called to be generous in giving their bodies to one another. They are not to withhold sex from the other:
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…
While this is the ordinary life for a married couple, Paul does grant “a concession” which will allow for a “sexual fast”:
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. Now as a concession, not a command, I say this.
Couples who engage in sexual fasting must: (1) mutually agree (no unilateral imposition of a fast); (2) observe the fast for a limited time (no extensive abstinence); and (3) engage in the fast for a spiritual purpose (to devote themselves to prayer). Again Paul, the realist who understands the way it is with most even though not with himself, acknowledges weakness and appeals to the practical reason for such restrictions on sexual fasting. “Come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Once again the psychologist seems to be swimming upstream against Paul.
Paul is single and lives a sexually continent life. He might wish that all shared in this gift. But he knows all don’t, and those who don’t have the gift should marry:
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.
It is “better to marry than to burn.” Some may think that the Apostle means that it is better to marry than to live a sexually immoral life and burn in hell. But the ESV is certainly right about the sense of the passage. Marriage is the alternative to burning with passion. Perhaps the psychologist will still contend that struggling with exercising self-control and experiencing burning with passion refer to a desire or want. But how could the Apostle more strongly describe sex as a need than to refer to it as burning with passion?
The Westminster Confession of Faith following the Apostle includes the prevention of sin as a reason for marrying:
Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue, and of the Church with an holy seed, and for preventing of uncleanness.
The marriage service of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer urges couples to consider three purposes for which God ordained marriage, one of which is that it is a “remedy against sin.”
...It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body.
Paul teaches that those who are not married and who have sexual needs must exercise self-control and refrain from fornication. But he knows this is hard, very hard, and so urges those who burn to marry. There may come times in marriage when a couple by mutual consent will observe a short sexual fast to devote themselves to prayer. This will require self-discipline, but it should not be pushed to its limit. There may be times when physical or mental issues make sex either impossible or inadvisable, and in such times there is no choice but self-control. But what is normal in marriage? Sex.
Is sex a need? The psychologist says, “No.” Paul says, “Yes.”