We have explored how infidelity, whether physical or virtual can destroy a marriage, now let us turn our attention to positive ways to build a relationship that can lead to a lifelong happy bond. The Bible doesn’t avoid discussing marriage intimacy and neither should we. From the very beginning God created woman and man to be companions, which is completely contrary to the oft-stated view of evolutionists. Modern evolutionary thought ascribes pleasure in intimate relations between a man and a woman as nature’s way of assuring propagation of the species and leaves the LORD God completely out of the equation. This, in effect, turns a God given design into a mechanical convenience bereft of any spiritual qualities! Romantic love, passion and intimacy are Biblically revealed as a gift from God to be enjoyed and appreciated in the bonds of matrimony. The fact is that the bonding of man and woman into one flesh is a Biblical principle from the very beginning:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife,
and they shall become one flesh
” (Gen 2:24 ESV1).
This principle is repeated four more times in the New Testament to emphasize its importance and to leave no doubt in our minds that this was, and is God’s design. Our Lord Jesus Christ endorses this principle (Matt 19:5, 6 and Mark 10:7, 8) and the Apostle Paul expands upon it by quoting Genesis (Eph 5:31 and 1Cor 6:16) with the latter reference making it clear that such intimacy was to be enjoyed only within the marriage relationship. The spiritual reason for this is made clear earlier in the fifth chapter of Ephesians (v. 22, 23) where the Apostle draws a picture of the relationship between husbands and wives as analogous to that of Christ to his Church. We can hardly imagine that Christ would be anything put faithful, loving, steadfast, kind, gentle and fulfilling in his relationship towards us. These qualities are the beginning of a proper understanding of how to have happy intimate relationships in a marriage. The husband is to love and respect his wife as Christ loves his “Bride” — the church — and in like manner the wife is to love and respect her husband.
Marital love was intended by God to be spiritually passionate and committed. An important component of the bond of love in a marriage is the intimate relationship that husband and wife share together when they become one flesh, to use the direct Biblical phrasing. When husband and wife have difficulties in the bedroom it is invariably a reflection of deeper problems in the marriage, related to many of the stresses that come as part of our human condition. One of the amazing things about the Scriptures is the universality of the messages given for our learning. Marriages in the first century ecclesia had difficulties with maintaining happy intimate relationships too. In many ways the challenges then, in some respects, mimic our own age perhaps even more than we realize and more than believers faced only a generation or two before us.
As the “Truth” spread to Gentile lands the moral and legal climate governing relationships between men and women faced drastically different conditions than what had prevailed in the land of Israel. For the Jews, the Law of Moses should have elevated them to a much higher ethical plain. The problem with the first century Jews, when it came to how husbands treated their wives was not due to God’s intentions, but their own fallibility. Thus Jesus could say to them:
“Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt 19:8 also Mark 10:5).
If a wife was no longer physically pleasing to a Jewish husband he simply divorced her. There was little that could be done to protect her interests and she had to rely principally on her family, or if they were not alive, or capable of sheltering her, she became a beggar.
The Roman Empire
The situation was even worse for a married woman in the extended Roman Empire. The concept of romantic love was not the norm in the New Testament era. Marriages were principally arranged by families and sometimes even before the parties involved were born! Hence, often intimacy in a marriage was hardly one where one expected pleasure, but an act strictly reserved for producing heirs. As compensation for the husband, if the wife’s physical attributes did not please him, he would often get his pleasures from prostitutes or concubines. In theory in ancient Rome monogamy was the law, with such extracurricular moral meandering illegal, and preserving monogamy was especially important in preserving the legal inheritance rights of the patrician families. However, by the time of the New Testament, men could legally keep concubines in the household, and the role of such extramarital relationships was officially recognized. There is ample evidence of the regularized role of such relationships, since the wording on many tombstones of concubines from ancient Rome attest to their accepted position in the household. Divorce was originally frowned upon in ancient Rome, but had become trivially easy, especially for the male by the first century AD — essentially no reasons had to be given by the male other than the wife no longer pleased him. (Today of course most states in the USA have empowered no fault divorce laws and the only difference is that either party, male or female, can walk out on the marriage, citing merely incompatibility as sufficient cause, with little interference from the state and with much profit to divorce lawyers.)
Prostitution was especially rampant in the first century Roman world. Again while theoretically illegal under the Augustine Code, it still was practiced virtually everywhere in the empire and there was no such thing as a vice squad to police the situation. In some places in the Roman Empire local cult religions even dressed up prostitution as a religious experience with services performed after a suitable contribution was made to the local pagan temple priestesses. Corinth was an especially immoral place at the time the Apostle Paul wrote his epistle to the ecclesia in that city. Corinth was a prime transit point for goods and produce being shipped from Asia to the Roman provinces in Italy and the mainland of Europe. It was a bustling seaport city with perhaps a population estimated to be as high as eight hundred thousand2 at the time of the apostle Paul. This city had all the moral accoutrements that usually accompany such a large population accustomed to an open culture.3 It is important to appreciate the background conditions in the first century Roman Empire, and in particular in the city of Corinth, before one can completely appreciate the climate in which the apostle Paul gave his advice on marital relationships to that ecclesia.
In writing to the Corinthians Paul makes it plain that the commonly accepted Roman practice of satisfying intimate pleasures between man and woman outside of marriage is not only a sin against the marital partner, but also a sin against God.4
“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,… you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1Cor 6:19, 20: see the whole passage starting with verse 12 for context).
Paul goes on to answer a question that was obviously posed to him by the Corinthian ecclesia:
“It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1Cor 7:1).
Perhaps because of the rampant immorality of Corinth, which dwarfs anything we can openly imagine today (the emphasis here is on ‘openly’) the Corinthian believers may have thought that the only way to remain pure spiritually was to avoid intimate male/female relationships of any kind. It is perhaps from this type of thinking that the celibacy of the Roman Catholic priests and nuns is derived. But the apostle Paul in writing to Timothy specifically castigates any doctrine that forbids marriage and makes it once again abundantly clear that it is a God given design that our Maker created.
(Speaking of some that will depart from the faith) “… who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1Tim 4:3).
It was furthermore a design that was to be received “with thanksgiving” making it clear that both marriage and food were meant to be an enjoyable experiences.5
Marriage (or not) today
For balance here I want to make a parenthetical comment that one should not also draw the conclusion from this reference that one has to be married in order to be a faithful follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul makes that obvious elsewhere in the same chapter when he told the Corinthians:
“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 be aflame with passion” (1Cor 7:8, 9).
“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” (1Cor 7:28).
Particularly notice the parts I have underlined. There was no doctrine that you had to be married to be a good Christian, and in fact we know from Paul’s own testimony that he was not married during his ministry. Sometimes we treat brethren or sisters that are not married as virtually second class Christadelphians, whether they have made this choice consciously, or by circumstances beyond their control. We forget about them socially and sometimes don’t place much value on their opinions regarding ecclesial issues. This is a situation that we should not find ourselves endorsing. The second underlined passage about Paul sparing unmarried brethren and sisters worldly troubles has sometimes been generalized by Bible commentaries, well beyond what in my opinion is the point that the apostle is trying to make. The whole of this section of the epistle to Corinthians is concerned with marriage relations, and all he is saying is that if one is not married you will be spared the problems related to the marriage! Indeed, anytime one adds complexity to one’s life, additional problems naturally arise. When one is married one cannot selfishly make decisions and raise expectations that simply gratify themselves. One has to be cognizant of the feelings and needs of our partners to be truly happy in a marriage. This leads us to the next point of what the apostle has to say to the Corinthians of how to have happy intimate relations in a marriage.
Critical to good intimate relationships is mutual love, respect and good communication skills. Each partner in a marriage should feel free to discuss with their spouse what they like or dislike about their intimate relationships. Moreover, neither should either feel pressured, or worse, forced into doing something that they feel is repugnant. A married couple should not use sex as a weapon in a battle that started over other issues such as disagreements over finances, childrearing, inattentiveness, in-law disputes and many other issues that are extraneous to having intimate relationships. Settle the external differences first and don’t use intimate relations as a tool for playing games with your partner. The apostle Paul is pretty blunt in making this clear to the Corinthians when he wrote:
“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,” (1Cor 7:3-5).
Aside from proving that nothing really ever changes, because marriage counselors in this day and age have found that when couples ignore this type of advice and use sex as a weapon rather than fulfillment of mutual love and respect — then the marriage is usually in deep trouble. Naturally, if physical difficulties or illness occur that prevent intimacy, the partners need to seek professional medical advice and both may need to resort to exercising great patience until the situation can be resolved.
Thankfully, husbands and wives can be happily content with their intimate relations throughout their whole lives, if they would exercise the kindness, love and consideration that they extended to each other during courtship. It is a good idea for a married couple to date regularly. My wife and I tried every week to have at least one night to ourselves and let someone else watch our children. This was done with a baby-sitting pool that a group of young mothers put together and payment was with 3”x5” index cards: money was never exchanged only services. Everyone in the pool started with 20 cards with each individual card exchanged entitling them to one hour of child monitoring. You paid back by reciprocating and watching some other couples’ children in the baby-sitting pool. The only rule was that you could never go less than zero in the number of cards you possessed. Date night didn’t necessarily involve anything very costly either, sometimes it was just a long walk with just the two of us alone to talk and ponder life. Other times it was just spending a couple of hours with over a friend’s house sharing some coffee and a dessert. Intimacy developed in this fashion keeps a relationship fresh and develops a sense of togetherness that carries over to every aspect in a marriage.
We may not all be great lovers, but we should all be capable of being educated, especially a couple can learn from each other. The Song of Solomon provides some very frank descriptions of how a husband should praise, cherish, and passionately love his wife. Conversely the love and respect that is attributed to Sarah in her feelings for Abraham many a wife would do well to emulate (Gen 18:12).
Finally, this article is not intended to be either definitive, or all-inclusive on the subject at hand; the amount of printed space available and the lack of comprehensive knowledge by the author preclude it. However, we pray that this chapter has pointed a way that may help guide parties interested in having a happy (or happier) marriage can grow to cherish each other more and take pleasure in the God given gift of married love. If your marriage is troubled and lacks satisfying intimacy please seek wider help through such external resources such as those mentioned in the footnote.6
John C. Bilello (Ann Arbor, MI)
1. All references are from the ESV
3. Today the population is reported as approximately 30,000 in some sources and as large as 58,000 in others (depending on how the boundaries of the municipality are defined).
4 . With the Apostle Paul’s thorough knowledge of the Old Testament he probably had in mind the words that Joseph spoke to Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:9) that we examined earlier in this series.
5. Since both “marriage” and “food” are the compound subjects of this verse and they were both created by God it is a reasonable assumption that both are to be accepted with thanksgiving. Indeed we should accept all things that God has created with thanksgiving (Psa. 26:7; Psa. 50:23; Psa. 100:4 and many others).
6. Christadelphian Care Network — http://www.caringnetwork.ca/ Also some ecclesias have ongoing relationships with professional counseling that has been vetted and completely compatible with our beliefs. If you are in an area where this is the case, and in need of help, please take advantage of this possibility. One magazine article cannot possibly do more than open the door to this weighty subject.