3 Keys to Interpreting Paul’s Writings on Sex in Light of Roman Culture

by | Apr 7, 2021 | Uncategorized | 19 comments

Paul's Writings about Sex in 1 Corinthians in Light of Roman Culture

How does understanding Rome’s view of sex impact how we should interpret Paul’s writings in 1 Corinthians?

We’re starting a series in the month of April of views of sex throughout history, and I started yesterday looking at 8 weird things about ancient Rome and sex.

Today I want to use those things to help us look at what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Corinthians 7 with new eyes. I find this so exciting and so liberating, and I hope you will too!

1. Paul insisted that sex isn’t just physical; it’s intimate too.

Yesterday we were looking at how one of the defining features of sex in Roman times was that it was about power. It was a man penetrating someone else; what made him masculine was that he was doing the penetrating. The other person was basically there to be used.

So sex was not a joining of two bodies and souls but more a one-sided taking. Even if the one being taken enjoyed it, it was still about the person taking.

This was also a culture where using prostitutes was considered normal male behavior. Wives were for producing offspring; prostitutes were for sex. When the people of Corinth became Christians, then, they still had some pretty warped views of sex. And into that, Paul wrote some pretty impassioned words about how we were to see this practice of using prostitutes. In the famous “your body is a temple” verses, he writes:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

1 Corinthians 6:15-20

Paul is saying that sex is more than just physical! In a world where sex was basically divorced from intimate relationships, Paul steps in and says that when you’re with a prostitute, you’re “one with her in spirit.”

Now, some weird doctrines have emerged from that verse to say that we have “soul ties” with anyone that we’ve ever had sex with, and I’m not trying to say that here, and I don’t think the passage says that. But Paul is saying that we need to take the act of sex more seriously. He’s reflecting back on what is written in Genesis 4–“Adam KNEW his wife Eve.” Sex was meant to be this deep knowing, this deep intimacy, this deep longing to be connected. It is something sacred, but not in the “temple prostitute” kind of sacred. It’s something beautiful between two people, and it should not be taken lightly.
Paul is restoring intimacy to the idea of sex, a concept that was sadly lacking. And that’s beautiful!

2. Paul thought the body was good, not bad

But to balance with this idea that sex isn’t only about the body, Paul then steps in one chapter later and stresses that the body is actually good.

In this culture where sex was about power and was rather ugly, many people converting to Christianity were also committing to a life of celibacy. The Greek philosophy that the body was bad and the soul was good was still rampant at this time, and had infiltrated the church. It was only natural in a society that saw the body as bad, and that treated sex as ugly, that new Christians would think you could be more godly by giving up on sex altogether.

In fact, when Paul talks about “virgins” in 1 Corinthians 7, he doesn’t mean virginity as the state of one’s hymen, as we often think of it. Many scholars believe instead that he’s referring to people, and especially women, who have pledged themselves to a life of celibacy.
Paul honors those who do want this, saying:

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.
1 Corinthians 7:8

Want to say unmarried? That’s great! The unmarried can dedicate themselves to God wholeheartedly because they don’t need to worry about their family.

But then one verse later he also says this:

But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
1 Corinthians 7:9

We may laugh at the phrasing, but he’s really saying, “hey, if you want to marry, go for it! You don’t need to stay single!”

And that’s really the context for the “do not deprive” verses that are so iconic.

Other than Ephesians 5:22 (“wives, submit to your husbands”), I can’t think of any other verses that have been so weaponized against Christian women as 1 Corinthians 7:3-5. But as we look closer at them today, I hope you’ll see that the weaponization is totally AGAINST what Paul is saying. And actually his message is really freeing!

So let’s see how Paul sets it up:

 

Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.
1 Corinthians 7:1-2

So Paul was being asked by those who wanted to be celibate if this was a good thing to do if they were already married, and he’s saying–No! If you’re married, you should have sex. There is nothing actually bad about sexual relations in their proper place. In fact, they’re a good thing!

And then he goes on to add those verses that we too often have come to hate:

 

The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other 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.
1 Corinthians 7:3-5

In this context of marriage where one spouse may choose to declare themselves celibate in service to God, Paul is saying, “do not deprive each other.” He’s not talking about never refusing sex when you have a headache; he’s saying that intimate, mutual, pleasurable sex the way God intended it should be a part of a marriage relationship, and this is a GOOD thing.


Want to read more about the “Do Not Deprive” Verses?


 

The Great Sex Rescue

Changing the conversation about sex & marriage in the evangelical church.

What if you’re NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the things that you’ve been taught have messed things up–and what if there’s a way to escape these messages?

Welcome to the Great Sex Rescue.

In the middle of a Christian culture that has denigrated sex and seen it as “less than”, Paul firmly says that the body is good and that sex is good within marriage, and we shouldn’t practice celibacy.

Okay, now for the most revolutionary point:

3. Paul set a brand new standard for sex: complete and utter mutuality. Women mattered!

Remember what we learned about sex in Rome yesterday: It was about power. It was mostly about men. Women were secondary.

Now let’s add to it another factor: In Roman times, men actually had full authority over their wives, to the extent that they could murder their wives if they wanted and they wouldn’t be charged with anything. They owned their wives.

This was a society in which men dominated. No one could really picture anything different.

And yet Paul walks in and presents a picture of sex that is completely and utterly mutual. In fact, women’s needs are actually mentioned first! “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife.” Imagine the impact of that! Women had needs and husbands were to fulfill them. Women did not exist to serve men; on the contrary, marriage was to be a mutual relationship where each served the other.

We’re so accustomed to thinking about sex as something men need and women don’t that we gloss right over the mutuality of these passages, as we explain in The Great Sex Rescue:

In fact, the Bible tells us that women should not be deprived. “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband” (1 Cor. 7:3, emphasis ours).

Too often, though, books portray that verse and the surrounding ones as applying only to men. Fred and Brenda Stoeker’s Every Heart Restored even says this: “Sure, men are promised regular sexual release by Scripture. But by the same token, women are promised that their husbands will treat them with honor and tenderness (1 Pet. 3:7).”

Let’s look more closely though. Notice something interesting about that passage they referred to about men’s needs? They forgot to mention that it’s directed at both spouses. If they use that verse to show women they need to give their husbands “sexual release” (i.e., orgasm), then by their own logic, they should have charged men with the same responsibility to bring their wives release too.

The Bible does not assume that one spouse will be perpetually sexually deprived by the other. No, the Bible tells us that both genders need to look out for the other, and it’s expected that women will experience pleasure too. Even “It is better to marry than to burn with passion” is addressed to “the unmarried and to widows” (1 Cor. 7:8–9). Paul assumed that women would have passions! Sex is about both of you. Both of you should give and receive; both of you should feel loved and cherished.

The Great Sex Rescue, pages 50-51

We need to stop talking about 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 as being about a man being promised sexual release, and realize that it’s about both people having their needs met!

And then Paul says something even more extraordinary.

Paul says that a wife has authority over her husband’s body–“the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” Remember, this is a society where men had complete authority over their wives’ bodies, and Paul gives women that same authority. Well, not to kill their husbands–but he says that no one has any authority over the other that the other does not also have over them. 

I truly don’t think we get how big a thing this was. In our modern age, we read these verses and our hearts fall a little bit because we think, “great, so he owns my body and I can’t say no.” But that was not the emphasis that Paul was making! The big revolutionary thing here is that sex is mutual. Sex is for women just as much as it is for men. It is not only about the one penetrating; it is about BOTH people experiencing something intimate together, and both people matter equally.

To take it even further, this is the only place in Scripture where Paul explicitly talks about authority in marriage. And when he does so–he makes it totally mutual and equal.

In other passages he talks about the husband being the head of the wife, but in Greek there are two words that we translate “head” in English. One has a connotation of authority, and one really does not. Paul deliberately chose the one that did not.


Want to read more about what “head” means in Greek?

I’m not really the blog for that, because I’m not a Greek scholar. But I do have some posts that can help, and I’ll point you to some other resources as well!


Paul is walking into unhealthy relationship dynamics that are based on power, and saying, “NO!”

Instead of a power-based marriage, with one person having authority of the other, Paul presents a relationship where both people matter and where mutuality and intimacy reign. That’s the point of 1 Corinthians 7:3-5–not a command for women to submit to one-sided sexual encounters where they feel used (and if that’s you, please listen to our duty sex podcast and pick up The Great Sex Rescue!).

When we try to make marriage into a hierarchy, authority based relationship rather than a mutual, intimate one, we’re perpetuating Roman culture rather than the Bible. And I think that’s a shame, because I think we’ve missed the heart of what Paul was saying here.

So let me leave you with Jesus’ words, that I believe were central to Paul’s understanding of what the Christian life should look like:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Matthew 20:25-28

Exactly. Marriage is not about power or using each other.

Marriage is about a mutual serving in an intimate relationship. That’s what Paul was trying to say, and I hope that helps you to see those verses anew today–and hopefully will stop people from weaponizing them in the future!

Paul's Writings about Sex in 1 Corinthians in Light of Roman Culture

What do you think? Did any of that surprise you? Does any of this context change how you see the verses? How have they been taught to you? 

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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19 Comments

  1. Amber

    This is so fantastic. Going through a life changing theological shift right now, and finding that women matter to God so much than I ever thought. Thank you so much!

    Reply
  2. Bek

    I so excited about this series! Keep speaking truth, and casting out lies!!!!

    Reply
  3. Anon

    I love this series! This was amazing! The Bible comes alive in such a different way when you understand the historical background.
    Reading these two posts make me realizes how influenced one is by ones own culture. I have always read 1 Corinthians like Paul saw sex like a necessary evil and mostly for men which has made me feel like God thinks so too. I mean I have read enough on this blog to get that but this passage still has this kind of negative feeling over it.
    But understanding the historical context makes me see this from a totally different perspective. It also makes me see God different. He really want sex to be mutual. Intimacy is important to Him. It’s not just something we want it to say it’s something the Bible really says and it’s still relevant. Specially in a culture that I think reminds of the Roman Empire specially in the way it views sex. In today societies it’s often still about power and about using others (like porn for example) so this message is still so important.
    Looking forward for the next part of history you will talk about( please let it be medieval times and the medieval Catholic Churchrules about sex. They had a really messed up views and rules about sex that I think has affected the church even to this day).

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Will do, Anon! I didn’t plan for medieval stuff because I have so much to say about more modern stuff, but I’ll try to fit it in. I’ll just tell Connor he has to research more!

      Reply
  4. Dorthea

    I’m really enjoying this series and looking forward to more.
    I’ve done some of my own research on these verses and have been following your blog for awhile so I wasn’t too surprised by today’s post but after reading TGSR I’m seeing even more how much emphasis these Christian teachings have placed on power and more importantly the husband having the power. Sadly not much has changed in the last few thousand years. I think if Paul knew how his letters are being mistreated he’d be heartbroken! We are told to love our neighbors as ourselves and that includes the authors of the Bible. When we misinterpret their writings we are not honoring them. We are not loving them.
    And whenever Jesus spoke about power it wasn’t to make sure the right people had it, it was to tell those in power to use it for the good and edification of others. Husbands are to use their authority to raise up those under them to be their equals. It was truly scandalous then and even now! Anyone trying to say Jesus supported these hierarchical, authority based teachings so prevalent in the church culture today isn’t really reading their Bible. Maybe they should go back and read it again in context with humility.
    I get really upset when I hear how badly the church is representing Jesus and the good news. So thank you for speaking out against these toxic teachings and honoring Paul by giving his letters context.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Exactly, Dorthea! I often wonder what Paul would think, too, of how his letters have been used to justify a lot of oppression–especially when Paul was so intrumental in being the pre-eminent one among the apostles to fight for true inclusion in the body of Christ. More than any other apostle, Paul was about inclusion. And yet we have made him about the opposite, and that’s so sad.

      Reply
  5. Katydid

    So, how does this interpret the verses we use to say homosexuality is a sin? Is it? Or are the verses speaking against how Roman culture treated men and young boys? The Bible does speak against using the opposite sex sexually, and it also speaks against the effeminate (which, I assume would be the penetrated men who assumed the “female role”). But, I do know many denominations choose to interpret it as it is ok to be homosexual, just be monogamous with your partner…essentially follow the christian rules of sex and relationship that heterosexuals do.
    I gotta be honest, I get confused here. It seems to be either strict gender roles and “Biblical patriarchy” or it’s the progressive homosexuality is ok, virginity means nothing, chastity is loosely interpreted (monogamous is more important than being married), modesty has nothing to do with clothes, pornographic sex scenes in movies are ok (but porn’s not), etc.

    Reply
    • Lydia Purple

      When you read through the passage in Romans 1 that addresses homosexual relationships it is really clear. Paul says that God handed them over to their passions because they worshipped the creation over the creator. What does that mean? It means that what you feel and think bears more importance then God’s word. Our culture is infested with self worship and self creation (you can be anything you want to be) which is really at the root of it all.
      The whole passage that speaks about how these people are not faithful, haters of God, defying the parents, PROUD, lacking understanding… it all is really fitting for the LGBTQ culture. Sure there are exceptions, but I always feel shocked how accurate this sounds.
      Also regarding the progressive theology… whenever marriage is mentioned in Paul’s writing it is regarding one husband and one wife. I don’t see how they can twist that into meaning homosexual. I read a few of such articles and I found no substance there. In the Old Testament the Language is so clear when it generally condemns homosexuality and the progressive arguments really read stuff into the text that is not there. The Hebrew text is clear as it forbids a man laying with another man like they would with a woman… If I remember right the progressives takes this to mean it forbids a husband to leave his wife for a homosexual relationship but in Hebrew this is not there.

      Reply
      • Cynthia

        Those comments on LGBTQ culture fails to take societal context into consideration (which is sort of the point of Sheila’s post).
        If people are told that they are sinners, abused, thrown out by parents, rejected by their place of worship, made to feel that they are flawed and hated – well, some would naturally react by hating their parents, their religion and anyone who mistreated them.
        When we look at what happens when there is mainstream acceptance, we see that people tend to be more mainstream themselves. People who are loved and accepted by their parents tend not to go on to hate them. People who are loved and accepted in their place of worship tend not to hate God.

        Reply
  6. Jen

    Loving this series! Understanding the culture and the historical context of the author is key to understanding any piece of writing. And, of course, as the Holy Spirit was inspiring Paul, He knew what His people throughout the ages would need. God is good, and He is bringing His people back to Him. Like wayward sheep, we’ve gone astray on many marriage topics. It’s time to get back on track. Thanks so much for your work!!!

    Reply
  7. Dawn

    We were taught that pleasure for both men and women was important and that sex is the only ministry we can only do for each other. In fact, my pastor emphasized a woman’s pleasure and instructed the husbands to learn what their wives like in bed. I am grateful for good teaching!

    Reply
    • Dawn

      I should mention this was 25+ years ago.

      Reply
  8. Leighann

    This is an excellent explanation! I have so much more hope for raising my kids with a healthy God-honoring view of relationships because of what I’m learning here. My own upbringing wasn’t too off and I have that kind of intimate relationship (its a beautiful thing) but it was tainted a bit by 90s culture. We had to work out some things along the way. I want better for my kids but phrasing it sometimes is hard. I’ve been trying to set the stage while they are young. It was intimidating but I believe God led me to your work because its a huge blessing!

    Reply
    • Leighann

      Also; as someone who studied 4 years of Latin in high school; I really appreciate the cultural background teaching. I have a Cultural Background study Bible that has been helpful. I would say to be careful not to take commentaries as gospel; but they help and can get us started!

      Reply
  9. EOF

    I’m so grateful for your blog! (How many times have I said that??)
    I have to admit that all these bad teachings have led me to struggle in my faith for far too long. Well over a decade. There was a point when I couldn’t even read any of Paul’s letters in the Bible because I was convinced he was a woman-hater, so far removed from the ways that Jesus lifted women up. I didn’t feel much better about Peter.
    And that doesn’t even touch on how my views of God have been tainted horribly. Not understanding why he would despise me so much to want me to be treated so badly. Even though my marriage has improved and my church isn’t vigilantly teaching L&R type things, my experiences have stuck with me. Being told to submit to blatant verbal abuse, being told to learn to like things in bed that I hated, etc. left its mark. This went on for years. And all of this after growing up in a verbally/mentally abusive household, where a youth pastor told me that I was lying about what went on at home because my parents were “so nice”.
    How is a person with a life like that supposed to view God? Anything other than alone and attacked on every front? Maybe someone else could handle it better than me, but that’s how I felt. Is it any wonder I doubt my worth in God’s eyes? Even today, I can’t bring myself to believe the scriptures that talk about how God values his people. My heart says that’s referring to someone else.
    Anyway, back to the topic of your post. I feel hope. Hope! There might be light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe the writers of the Bible weren’t actually woman-haters. Maybe I’m not worthless.
    After reading this post, I pulled out my Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible and read the 1 Corinthians verse and the one in 1 Peter 3 and the one in Ephesians. Reading the commentary was even more eye-opening! More affirming words to women. Wow!
    My eyes are opened to another fact. Today’s church leaders have more in common with the Pharisees and teachers of the law that Jesus rebuked than with Jesus or the apostles. Luke 11:46 “Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.””

    Reply
    • SisterInChrist

      I just want to say, sister, you are not alone. I too have many of the same struggles, but this blog and this book have given me hope and new perspective.

      Reply
  10. Headless Unicorn Guy

    When the people of Corinth became Christians, then, they still had some pretty warped views of sex.

    Corinth wasn’t Roman, but Greek/Hellenistic culture.
    AKA “Women for breeding stock, Men for Love, Boys for Pleasure”.
    With the only female exceptions to this being Hetiarae – professional educated/cultured mistresses, the highest class of prostitutes.
    (If you’re an SF media fan, the “Companions” of Joss Whedon’s Western-in-Space Firefly are Hetiarae in all but name, including profession and social status.)

    Reply
  11. Headless Unicorn Guy

    The Greek philosophy that the body was bad and the soul was good was still rampant at this time, and had infiltrated the church.

    Not “had”, LH&V.
    It’s still there.
    With Fluffy Cloud Heaven instead of Resurrection of the Body.
    With “Full Time Christian Service” (especially Pastor or Missionary) trumping all other lives/professions.
    “Spritual Good! Physical BAAAAAD!””
    Though sexually, a lot of Christian Leaders (More Spiritual Than Thou) seem to be having it both ways with Sex as Power/Forced Dominance Display just like the Romans.

    Reply

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