So often, Christians overwhelmed by sexual sin are practically shoved down the aisle by their church communities. Pastors may tell couples that once they’re bound within a biblically legitimate marriage relationship, sexual activity has Scripture’s seal of approval, and they can work together on whatever besetting sexual sins they bring to their union.
But as the newlyweds soon discover, marriage tends to amplify, not alleviate, besetting sin. It doesn’t cure unhealthy relationships; it codifies them. Suddenly, a relationship formed to honor God has all the makings of a human tragedy.
But doesn’t the apostle Paul tell Christians that if they can’t control their sexual desires, it’s “better to marry than to burn” (1 Cor. 7:9)? Isn’t marriage, then, God’s prescription for dealing with sexual sin? Though this rehab view of marriage is pervasive, it distorts 1 Corinthians 7 and creates an unsafe situation for spouses.
Passion or Sinful Lust?
In urging marriage as a biblical means of combating lust, the rehab view fails to distinguish between godly desires and sin’s parasitic perversion of them.
In the New Testament, the Greek word sometimes translated “lust” can indicate holy passion (Luke 22:15) as well as degrading desires (1 Thess. 4:5). Consider a congregant confessing to his pastor, “I’m consumed by lust.” If he means “I’m consumed by sinful desire and sexual greed,” a minister should never reply, “Well, then you should get married.” God forbid! Counseling someone consumed by sexual greed to get married is like encouraging a man who regularly shoots his neighbors with an airsoft gun to register for a firearm. It’s giving license to a reckless disregard for others.
So often, Christians overwhelmed by sexual sin are practically shoved down the aisle by their church communities.
We’d never recommend marriage to a compulsive liar as a way of remedying his dishonesty. Given the promises made to love and honor one’s spouse, lying within marriage is especially diabolical. So too sexual greed, which often sources pornography for inspiration. It’s dehumanizing for the spouse who’s used as catharsis for the other’s sexual uncleanness.
Through Paul, the Holy Spirit forbids making any provision for sinful desires (Rom. 13:14). They must be starved, and we can’t starve them by feeding them the blessings that belong to faithfulness.
Yet the rehab view does exactly that. It rewards a sinful lack of self-control with the sexual benefits of holy matrimony. It wrongly uses a justification for divorce (Matt. 19:8–10) to justify marriage. This bad practical fruit suggests a rotten interpretational root.
Spouses and Singles
In addition to failing to distinguish between holy and unholy sexual desires, the rehab view also fails to recognize Paul’s two distinct audiences in 1 Corinthians 7.
First, Paul addresses spouses. To prevent temptation toward sexually greedy behavior, spouses should exercise their relationship’s sexual prerogatives generously, frequently, and exclusively (1 Cor. 7:2–3). Otherwise, Satan could take advantage of their passion and turn it into an opportunity for sexual greed. Here marital relations help prevent temptation; they aren’t commanded as the consequence of yielding to temptation.
Next, Paul addresses unmarried people who “cannot exercise self-control.” He says they should marry rather than burn with passion (v. 9). But contrary to the rehab reading, this burning isn’t sexual greed, and that’s because the lack of self-control isn’t lawlessness.
“Self-control” here refers to the discipline required to live a life like Paul’s in service to the Lord. Though Paul can wish this life for all, he plainly admits it isn’t for everyone (vv. 6–9). Paul sees the great advantages of singleness in serving the Lord (vv. 32–35), but he’s careful not to require it of every Christian. His point is that all believers should serve the Lord according to the gifts God has given or not given (v. 7). A strong desire for sex, guided by the more fundamental desire to love and give oneself wholly and only to another, looks with biblical warrant toward marriage.
Help and Hope
One of marriage’s most beautiful blessings is the mutual help spouses are for one another’s sanctification. The sexual privileges exclusive to marriage can indeed help spouses grow in holiness. But whatever our circumstances or marital status, the Lord himself is the One who sanctifies (Eph. 5:26). Neither marriage nor its benefits are necessary for this work (1 Cor. 7:32), much less are they mandated because of our sin.
The rehab view rewards a sinful lack of self-control with the sexual benefits of holy matrimony. It wrongly uses a justification for divorce to justify marriage.
Rejecting the rehab view doesn’t mean rejecting marriage for people who struggle with sexual sin. Every marriage is beset by ongoing struggles with sin. In our hyper-sexualized culture, sexual sin has affected us all. Moreover, no sinner is beyond the gospel’s transformative power (1 Cor. 6:9–11), but marriage is not a right. Pastors must never treat it as the foregone conclusion in premarital counseling. When a rehab view rushes couples toward the altar, this runs contrary to what Paul lists as love’s first attribute: patience (1 Cor. 13). Biblical preparation for marriage requires identifying and confronting sexual sin. It looks for patterns of obedience that flourish into the fruit of the Spirit, the crown of which is self-control (Gal. 5:23–24).
Marriage must not be motivated by besetting sin but by a couple’s will to love, honor, and obey the Savior whose sanctifying love marriage so beautifully represents.
Rutledge Etheridge III