If there’s one thing most people agree on, it’s that human beings have an unqualified right to do what they want with their own bodies.
There are, of course, a few exceptions, most of which are mired in debate. For example, should a minor be able to get a tattoo or piercing without parental consent? Even in such cases, however, the notion of absolute, individual autonomy is rarely questioned (in the example I just gave, the question is whether parental rights over their children outweigh the child’s autonomy, not autonomy itself).
As with most things in the Christian worldview, here also we find our deepest cultural assumptions challenged. The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, writes:
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, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again…
Within the context of marriage, Paul actually asserts that the spouse has authority over one’s body. A wife has the right to her husband’s body, and vice versa.
This passage could be twisted by the wicked into a pretext for rape, but that is clearly not what Paul means. Such authority does not turn one’s spouse into a plaything. Rather, Paul is arguing that within certain contexts we do not have the unqualified right to do whatever we please.
In this case, he is focused on the sin of sexual immorality. Though we are free in Christ to do many things, including expressing our sexuality, we are not free to do so in any way we see fit. In marriage, we belong to another person. Crass expressions like referring to one’s wife as “the old ball and chain” are a twisted reflection of this truth. When you have a husband or a wife, you are no longer free to say, “It’s my body, and I will use it as I see fit.” Your body belongs to another.
Ultimately, of course, your body does not belong to your spouse (especially for those who aren’t married!), but to God Himself. And He has a deeper claim on how you ought to use your body than a spouse could ever have. Literally everything done on any given day should be accomplished, first and foremost, with the glory of God in mind. That’s a big task, and it doesn’t leave much time for thinking about your own rights.
Freedom from any sort of enslavement is a good thing, or else God’s own Son would not have died to set us free from our bondage to sin. I’m glad we live in a libertarian society where I won’t be fined or put in jail for refusing to give my spouse her conjugal rights.
But this passage ought to reorient our thinking generally away from a “me-and-my-rights” mentality. In human sexuality, I ought to be thinking first about how best to love my wife, not how to satisfy myself. I would call this simply obligation or duty, but that would fail to fully capture what Paul is teaching here. As the Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 1, puts it:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own,
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. ‘