In 1 Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul is addressing practical questions related to marriage raised by the believers in Corinth. He instructs husbands and wives not to deprive one another of sexual intimacy “except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (verse 5). Paul uses the term mutual consent to indicate that both parties—both husband and wife—must agree to the decision and the terms of their temporary period of sexual abstinence.
It seems that certain members of the church in Corinth were claiming that it was “good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Corinthians 7:1). This blanket statement made without any conditions implies that the best option for every person in every situation is to abstain from sex. But Paul corrects this misconception, explaining that married believers should continue in their sexual relationship with one another: “But because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs” (1 Corinthians 7:2–3, NLT).
Two opposing extremes were occurring in the church in Corinth. Some members were excusing flagrant sexual immorality, incest (1 Corinthians 5:1), and prostitution (1 Corinthians 6:15–16), while others were advocating for total abstinence, even between married couples. Paul links the two problems, suggesting that forced abstinence between husbands and wives may be encouraging sexually immoral behavior in the church. Paul maintains that married people should fulfill their spouse’s sexual needs.
The Bible affirms that sexual intimacy in marriage is a blessing from God and a privilege designed to be nurtured and enjoyed: “Let your wife be a fountain of blessing for you. Rejoice in the wife of your youth. She is a loving deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts satisfy you always. May you always be captivated by her love” (Proverbs 5:18–19, NLT; see also Song of Solomon 4:9–16).
Married couples have a responsibility and an obligation not to hold back sexual intimacy without good reason (Exodus 21:10). Paul points out that neither party has the right to deprive the other: “The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:4, NLT). Paul’s statement here strengthens the idea that sexual intimacy is designed to be equally agreeable and mutually satisfying to the husband and the wife.
In 1 Corinthians 7:5, Paul unambiguously asserts that, if a married couple decides to abstain from sex, it must be by mutual consent for a spiritual purpose (to seek God in focused prayer), and only for a determined amount of time. Mutual consent means that both the husband and the wife agree to the temporary period of abstinence. The custom of refraining from sexual relations during special times of religious devotion, such as for prayer and fasting, has its foundation in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 21:4–5). Paul likely had this practice in mind as he taught the Corinthians.
The Bible is clear that married couples are not to deprive one another of sexual gratification, except by mutual agreement and only for a specific timeframe and purpose. Once the devoted time has ended, the couple ought to resume physical relations so that Satan cannot tempt them into sexual misconduct.