A Biblical View of Intimacy in Marriage (and Abstinence)

Intimacy in marriage is not a neglected topic in Scripture. It is discussed a number of times in the Old and New Testaments, and one entire book—Song of Solomon—is dedicated largely to the topic. When God’s Word makes something important, Christians have a responsibility to make it important as well by learning what Scripture teaches on the subject. If Christians don’t do this, they are likely to gain their understanding from secular society, which has a perverse view of sexuality.

1. Intimacy in Marriage Is Blessed by God

Just as the devil has been successful in encouraging intimacy outside of marriage, he has been equally successful in discouraging intimacy within marriage. I once counseled a man in his fifties who was addicted to pornography. I mention his age only because pornography might be more typically considered a struggle for young, single men. In reality it can enslave men—and women as well—of any age, in any season of life.

The man’s actions were absolutely sinful; there is no minimizing the wickedness of his behavior. With that said, after months of counseling it became apparent that one reason for his addiction was a wrong view of intimacy. His mother had convinced him at a young age that sex was filthy, and he had never been able to rid himself of that belief. He told me: “I look at porn, because at least then I am not involving my wife in a dirty activity.” Though I tried to convince him otherwise, it was very difficult for him to shake his mother’s teaching, even though Hebrews 13:4 says, “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.”

I share this story because this man is far from the only person I have met who believes that sex in marriage is somehow immoral. Scripture disagrees! In Hebrews 13:4 the words “the bed” are a euphemism for sexual activity, and within marriage God calls it “undefiled” or pure. It is the same Greek word used earlier in Hebrews 7:26 to describe Jesus, our High Priest, as “holy, harmless, undefiled.” God wants us to know there is absolutely nothing sinful or immoral about sexual activity between a husband and wife.

In the Song of Solomon the couple consummate their relationship in Chapter 4, and it is followed by God’s approval in 5:1: “Eat, O friends! Drink, yes, drink deeply, O beloved ones!” This invitation is meant to encourage husbands and wives in their sexual activity. Not only should intimacy in marriage not be thought of as neutral, amoral, or non-spiritual, it should be thought of as good, spiritual, and blessed by God.

2. Intimacy in Marriage Is for Enjoyment as Much as Procreation

God’s purpose for intimacy goes far beyond simple procreation. Yes, God created sex so couples can fulfill His command in Genesis 1:28 to “be fruitful and multiply,” but He also gave intimacy as a gift for our pleasure. The Song of Solomon is filled with passages describing the way the husband and wife enjoy each other physically. Consider these verses:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
For your love is better than wine (1:2).

A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me,
That lies all night between my breasts (1:13).

Like an apple tree among the trees of the woods,
So is my beloved among the sons.
I sat down in his shade with great delight,
And his fruit was sweet to my taste (2:3).

Your two breasts are like two fawns,
Twins of a gazelle,
Which feed among the lilies (4:5).

The verses are discreet but unmistakable in describing the physical pleasure the husband and wife experience. They truly enjoy discovering each other and opening themselves up to each other. Within the marriage relationship there is a sexual liberty and freedom that God wants couples to enjoy.

3. Intimacy in Marriage Is Commanded

In 1 Corinthians 7:1b–3, the apostle Paul says:

It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband.

The phrase “touch a woman” is another euphemism for sex. Paul commands single people to remain celibate but then adds that it is equally bad for married people to abstain. While we recognize intimacy outside of marriage is wrong, so we should also recognize that withholding intimacy in marriage is equally wrong. Paul instructs married people to “render” to their spouses the “affection” or intimacy that is “due.” The Greek word for “due” is opheilo, which means “to owe, be in debt for.” Here are two places it is used:

  • Matthew 18:28–30—But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed (opheilo) him a hundred denarii; and he . . . threw him into prison till he should pay the debt (opheilo).
  • Luke 7:41—There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed (opheilo) five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.

Spouses owe affection—or intimacy—to each other. Withholding intimacy out of anger or to be vindictive or manipulative is not only unloving but also sinful.

Your Body Belongs to Your Spouse

In the same passage the apostle Paul continues: “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Corinthians 7:4). Since husbands have authority in the marriage relationship, it is significant to see that regarding intimacy, husbands and wives have equal authority over their spouses’ bodies. This makes sense because when it comes to intimacy, our goal should be to please our spouses willingly. We should count our bodies not as our own but as belonging to our spouses. Two points regarding this truth:

  1. Since your body belongs to your spouse, whatever you do with your body should have the approval of your spouse. For example, if a man wants to have a beard, he should take into consideration whether or not his wife wants him to have one. If a woman wants to wear her hair a certain way, she should take into consideration her husband’s thoughts.
  2. This is a good reason to take care of yourself. You have to keep in mind that your spouse will enjoy your body for the rest of his or her life. You should make reasonable efforts to stay healthy so you can be a blessing to your spouse, be around for a long number of years, and be available to take care of your spouse if he or she becomes sick.

Should You Ever Abstain?

The Old Testament discussed circumstances during which people should abstain from sexual activity:

  • When the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, they were commanded to abstain as part of their preparations to meet God (Exodus 19:10–14).
  • A more ordinary period of abstinence took place after a woman gave birth. She was considered unclean for seven days following the birth of a son and two weeks following the birth of a girl (Leviticus 12:1–5).
  • A similar restriction of seven days occurred when a woman was menstruating (Leviticus 15:19–24, 18:19, 20:18). The original purpose of these verses is found in an understanding of the sacredness of blood in the Old Testament: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul” (Leviticus 17:11). Forbidding contact with a menstruating woman revealed the value placed on blood.

The obvious question is: Should husbands and wives abstain today as a result of these Old Testament commands? Some couples choose to abstain because they believe these commands have an ongoing application. Others feel the ceremonial portions of the Law—under which these commands fall—are no more binding than the commands to offer blood sacrifices. Romans 14:5 provides some latitude for couples as they address these types of questions: “Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.” Couples should agree together regarding the circumstances under which they choose to abstain. Unless both husband and wife agree to abstain, then they should not abstain. This is supported by the apostle Paul’s words as he continues his instruction in 1 Corinthians 7:5–6:

Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment.

New Testament Reasons for Abstinence

Even when the New Testament discusses abstinence, it is for the purposes of “fasting and prayer,” as opposed to observing Old Testament commands. Paul also makes the point that couples do not have to abstain. He was simply saying they can if they choose to for the reasons mentioned. If a husband and wife go their entire marriage without ever abstaining that is perfectly acceptable. If they do abstain, the words “for a time” and “come together again” mean the abstinence should be for a determined, limited season. The words “so that Satan does not tempt you” reveal the reason: There is greater potential for temptation while abstaining. In 1 Corinthians 7:9 Paul wrote:

But if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

First Corinthians 7:5 and 1 Corinthians 7:9 both teach that when people are without physical intimacy their self-control is tested, and for that reason abstinence should be for a limited time.

Husbands and wives must recognize that when they deprive their spouses, they are putting them in a spiritually precarious situation. They are making the spouse feel, once again, like a single person “[burning] with passion.” A man or woman who looks at pornography or commits adultery cannot blame the sin and lack of self-control on the spouse, but it is important to understand that husbands and wives who withhold affection are subjecting their spouses to greater temptation. With that knowledge, combined with the teaching that their bodies belong to their spouses, how committed should they be to satisfying their husbands or wives—not just to obey God’s commands but to help their spouses avoid temptation?

Discussion Questions for Husbands and Wives Regarding Intimacy in Marriage

  1. Are you content with the sexual intimacy in your marriage? Why or why not?
  2. Do you see intimacy in marriage as a gift from God that He wants you to enjoy with your spouse? Why or why not?
  3. Did you recognize intimacy in marriage is not just permitted by God, but commanded? Why or why not?
  4. Regarding sexual intimacy in marriage:
    • Do you withhold from your spouse?
    • Do you feel your spouse withholds from you?
    • If either of you withhold, what implications does this have on your marriage?
  5. Considering your body belongs to your spouse,what choices can you make that that will bless your spouse?
  6. If you do—or do not—practice any abstinence:
    • How do you feel about the current approach you are taking?
    • How does your spouse feel about the current approach?
    • If you are not united in your view of abstinence, what changes need to be made so you can be unified?

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10 thoughts on “A Biblical View of Intimacy in Marriage (and Abstinence)

  1. 1. Intimacy in Marriage Is Blessed by God
    Agreed. Hebrew 13 makes this clear. However, there is a lot of disagreement about who is talking in Song of Solomon 5:1. It is more likely their friends and family, given the circumstances (see below)
    2. Intimacy in Marriage Is for Enjoyment as Much as Procreation
    Not sure we want to use Song of Solomon as an example of a healthy sexual relationship. The two main characters in that set of poems are living in disobedience to God. They worship each other instead of God (Exodus 20:3). The groom has multiple wives and sexual partners (ch 6, v8-9) when kings of Israel were not permitted to do so (Deut. 17:17). Furthermore, the couple is not fulfilling God’s command to procreate (Gen. 1:28). These poems are sexual fantasy from a man who engaged in much sexual experimentation (see Eccl. 2).
    3. Intimacy in Marriage Is Commanded
    You cannot just read 1 Corinthians 7:1b–3. You have to read it in context with the previous chapter and read at least to verse 7, if not the entire chapter. Paul is very clear in verse 6 that this is not a command. Sex is a concession for new believers who lack self-control in the area of sexual immorality. Given Paul’s admonishment to Christians in Thessalonica to pray unceasingly and his letter to Christians in Galatia explaining the fruits of the Spirit, it would seem odd for him to command sex. The goal is self-control and a consistent attitude of prayer.

    When it comes to intimacy, our goal is to know and love our spouse, just as Christ loved the Church. If sex does not meet your spouse’s physical, emotional or spiritual needs, this might mean actually giving up any sexual activity for the sake of your spouse. We need to be careful about placing more burdens on Christian couples, especially when they are unnecessary and unrealistic.

    1. Hello David,
      I copied your post and will respond below your comments…

      1. Intimacy in Marriage Is Blessed by God
      Agreed. Hebrew 13 makes this clear. However, there is a lot of disagreement about who is talking in Song of Solomon 5:1. It is more likely their friends and family, given the circumstances (see below)

      Even if it’s friends or family members saying the words, they still demonstrate God’s thoughts. The words are written in such a way that you can tell they’re expressing approval.

      2. Intimacy in Marriage Is for Enjoyment as Much as Procreation
      Not sure we want to use Song of Solomon as an example of a healthy sexual relationship. The two main characters in that set of poems are living in disobedience to God. They worship each other instead of God (Exodus 20:3). The groom has multiple wives and sexual partners (ch 6, v8-9) when kings of Israel were not permitted to do so (Deut. 17:17).

      We err if we made the entire book prescriptive, but we would equally err if we made the entire book descriptive. Yes, there’s conflict between the two people, but that doesn’t mean the book should be written off as though it doesn’t contain application.

      Furthermore, the couple is not fulfilling God’s command to procreate (Gen. 1:28).

      Exactly! That’s why I quoted this book to support that intimacy is for more than just procreation.

      These poems are sexual fantasy from a man who engaged in much sexual experimentation (see Eccl. 2).

      That could be true, but God has it in His Word for us for what reason? Simply to share the exploits of this man? No. There’s application for couples.

      3. Intimacy in Marriage Is Commanded
      You cannot just read 1 Corinthians 7:1b–3. You have to read it in context with the previous chapter and read at least to verse 7, if not the entire chapter. Paul is very clear in verse 6 that this is not a command.

      David, you misunderstood verse 6. Paul isn’t referring to sex in that verse. He’s referring to abstinence. So in other words, he said, “I’m not commanding you to abstain.” You can see that if you read it in context. Paul did command them to render the intimacy due to spouses (1 Corinthians 7:3).

      Sex is a concession for new believers who lack self-control in the area of sexual immorality.

      I’m sorry David, but again you misinterpreted the verse. Paul’s concession was that couples can abstain…not a concession that they don’t have to render intimacy.

      Given Paul’s admonishment to Christians in Thessalonica to pray unceasingly and his letter to Christians in Galatia explaining the fruits of the Spirit, it would seem odd for him to command sex.

      Regardless of whether it seems odd or not to you (and by the way it makes logical sense to me), it’s what he commanded of married people. As much as the devil wants to promote sex outside of marriage, he equally wants to forbid it in marriage.

      The goal is self-control and a consistent attitude of prayer.
      When it comes to intimacy, our goal is to know and love our spouse, just as Christ loved the Church. If sex does not meet your spouse’s physical, emotional or spiritual needs, this might mean actually giving up any sexual activity for the sake of your spouse.

      I would strongly disagree with this. Paul actually warned against what you’re saying: “Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Withholding from spouses subjects them to unnecessary temptation. Your approach of giving it up completely goes beyond even what Paul warned against to an extreme that would undoubtedly have terrible consequences. “Knowing and loving your spouse” as you said means obeying Paul’s words and rendering the affection that’s due.

      We need to be careful about placing more burdens on Christian couples, especially when they are unnecessary and unrealistic.

      I completely agree and withholding from a spouse does exactly what you’re warning against: placing more burdens on those being forced to abstain because of a selfish spouse.

    2. So Paul’s admonition to new Christians living in Corinth, an over-sexualized environment, to Christians who lacked self-control, to Christians who were engaged in immortality, Paul’s admonition was more sex not more self-control? I find your take on this epistle troubling.
      As for the purpose of Song of Solomon, when read in context with Ecclesiastes and 1 Kings, it is not difficult to see it as a case study on what happens when one pursues pleasures rather than obedience.

    3. Hello David,
      Again, I responded below your comments:

      So Paul’s admonition to new Christians living in Corinth, an over-sexualized environment, to Christians who lacked self-control, to Christians who were engaged in immortality, Paul’s admonition was more sex not more self-control?

      For married couples, yes, the admonition is sexual activity with their spouse. The Catholic Church has paid a terrible price for discouraging sexual activity, and so have others who have had the view that it should be limited within marriage.

      The place for self-control is with unmarried people. To say I’m discouraging self-control even with married couples wouldn’t even be correct, because plenty of self-control is still needed even when married. We must control our thoughts, hearts, and rip our eyes away from from immodesty and impurity.

      I find your take on this epistle troubling.

      David, I wonder why you would find it troubling that I promote sexual activity within marriage between and husband and wife? In years of pastoral ministry, the failure of men and women to think of their spouse and what their spouse wants has caused considerable problems. I’m surprised you’d further recommend that selfishness.

      As for the purpose of Song of Solomon, when read in context with Ecclesiastes and 1 Kings, it is not difficult to see it as a case study on what happens when one pursues pleasures rather than obedience.

      We clearly have a different view of Song of Solomon. You seem to see it as a “warning.” I see it as God’s guidebook to healthy, sexual intimacy. Also, while I haven’t read lots of commentaries, I will say I have never seen another person with your view of the book. When people ask if God has a book discussing sexual intimacy in marriage, Song of Solomon is the book to recommend, not prohibit.

    4. My apologies. I do want to give the impression that I am discouraging sexual activity between husband and wife. I just don’t think that is the point of Paul’s letter to Corinth.
      Thank you for the back and forth.

    5. Hi David,
      Thank you for your humility. While I don’t think an apology is necessary, I do appreciate the clarification. The discussion with you has been a blessing to me too.

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