Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

A wife has no authority of her own body? (1 Cor. 7:4)

A wife has no authority of her own body? (1 Corinthians 7:4)

The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband; and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife (1 Corinthians 7:4 KJV).

Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:4 sounds harsh in most English translations, and it is frequently misunderstood. Sometimes this verse is even used to coerce and “guilt” a reluctant spouse into having sex, but this was never Paul’s intention.[1]

It is noteworthy that Paul’s instructions throughout chapter 7 are framed by the concept of mutuality and equity: wives and husbands, women and men, have identical instructions and are to live by the same standards. There are no double standards here, or a gender hierarchy. Power plays have no part in Christian marriage.

So what did Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 7:4?

The Word for “Have Authority” in 1 Corinthians 7:4

One impediment to understanding this verse is having a limited understanding of the verb meaning “have power/authority” (Greek: exousiazō). This verb occurs only four times in the New Testament.[2] The related noun exousia is a more common word and occurs over 100 times in the NT, 10 times in First Corinthians. So we have a good idea of it’s range of meanings.

Exousia is usually translated as “right” or “authority”, but also as “freedom” or “liberty”. I liken the meaning of exousia to having a driver’s licence. When you have a driver’s licence you have the authority, right, and freedom to drive a vehicle on public roads. The context of 1 Corinthians 7:4 is not about driving a car, however; it is about something deeply personal, sex in marriage.

The Contexts of Celibacy and Fidelity in 1 Corinthians 7:4

The overall context of the first seven verses of 1 Corinthians chapter 7 is a concern about the unwise practice of celibacy within some marriages of members in the Corinthian church; as well as a concern for maintaining sexual fidelity in a society where sexual immorality was rife. We must understand Paul’s concern here in order to understand his instructions.

The Word “Over” is Absent in 1 Corinthians 7:4

Another impediment to understanding Paul’s meaning and intention in 1 Corinthians 7:4 is the unnecessary inclusion of the word “over” in most English translations of this verse. There is no word for “over” in the Greek text. I chose to use the very literal KJV translation at the top of this post because it does not include the word “over”. We need to get rid of the words “over” and “under” (which indicate a hierarchy) when talking about healthy relationships in marriage and in the church.

An Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:4

So, pulling all these bits of information together, how are we to understand 1 Corinthians 7:4?

My understanding of Paul’s teaching here is that a wife or husband cannot make a vow of celibacy and permanently withhold sex. Conversely, a wife or husband cannot have sex with whoever they want, because their spouse has an exclusive right of having sexual relations with them.

Here is my expanded paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 7:4:

A wife does not “have the freedom or right or licence” (exousiazō) to choose to become celibate, or have sex with someone other than her spouse, because her husband has an exclusive right to have sex with her. Likewise, a husband also does not “have the freedom or right or licence” (exousiazō) to choose to become celibate, or have sex with someone other than his spouse, because his wife has an exclusive right to have sex with him.

A husband and wife should give themselves, their bodies, to each other, and only to each other, in an exclusive relationship (cf. 1 Cor. 7:2, 3). However, some Christian wives and husbands in Corinth were making vows of celibacy as a demonstration of ascetic piety; some were making this vow without the mutual consent of their spouse (cf. 1 Cor. 7:5-7).[3]

On the other hand, other Corinthian Christians were promiscuous. Like many other port cities of the ancient world, the city of Corinth was known for its sexual immorality, and immorality was also a problem within the Corinthian congregation (e.g. 1 Cor. 5:1-2, 9-10; 6:12-20; 7:2).

Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 7:1-6 to address the situation that some Corinthians were choosing to become celibate. His concern was that this choice could not be sustained and would lead to sexual immorality.[4]

Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 7:4 is not a command, and should not be used as such. He states that his instructions in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 are a concession (1  Cor. 7:6). Paul’s intention, and the original context, must be kept in mind when interpreting and applying 1 Corinthians 7:4.

Additional Notes

[1] 1 Corinthians 7:4 cannot be used legitimately to bully or guilt a spouse into having sex, as love is the ultimate law (Rom. 13:8, 10). Love is the yardstick for interpreting all biblical instructions. If a spouse is unwilling to have sex, there is a reason. People who use this verse to bully or guilt their spouse may be unwilling to accept or work through the reason.

[2] The verb exousiazō occurs only four times in the New Testament: Luke 22:25, 1 Corinthians 6:12, and twice in 1 Corinthians 7:4.

[3] Margaret MacDonald writes that some women in the church at Corinth were leaving their marriages and divorcing their husbands in order to pursue religious purity. Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion: The Power of the Hysterical Woman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 137. Asceticism became popular at an early stage of Christianity. (More on early Christian asceticism here.)

[4] 1 Corinthians 7:4 is at the centre of a chiasm made up of verses 1-7. The following is taken from the NIV except that I’ve edited verse 4 to reflect the Greek more literally (cf. 1 Cor. 7:4 KJV).

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. 

 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.

The wife does not have authority [of] over her own body but . . . her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority [of] over his own body but . . . 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.

I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 (NIV)

Image Credit: © Josh Elliott Photography, Lightstock #61899

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The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
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1 Corinthians 14:34-35, in a Nutshell
Gender Bias in the NLT
Chastity, Salvation, and 1 Timothy 2:15
New Testament Church Culture: Sexual Licentiousness

Posted January 7th, 2015 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Marriage, The "Difficult" Passages, , , , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

6 comments on “A wife has no authority of her own body? (1 Cor. 7:4)

  1. […] I take this verse to mean that the wife and the husband cannot have sex with whoever they want as their spouse has the exclusive right (exousia) of having sexual relations with them.  The Greek word exousia can be translated as right, authority, freedom, etc.  More on this here. […]

  2. keijo leppioja says:

    God is amazing God whe he gave us marriage in blessing joy and to upfild others inlife together with love and into feel more blessing and rich in to use the word of God into obey living God in Jesus name thanks and bless and be happy in marriage daily with salty touch some time,keijo sweden

  3. […] Many Christians erroneously believe that the word kephalē conveys the meaning of authority, and they interpret Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3 to mean that husbands have authority over their wives.  Some elaborate on their interpretation and understanding of kephalē even further and claim that husbands and fathers are the spiritual authorities in the home, and that wives and mothers do not have spiritual authority of their own.  Paul never hints at such a doctrine.  The only time the word for authority (exousia) is used in the New Testament in the context of marriage is in 1 Corinthians 7:4 where it says, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but his wife.” In the following verse Paul adds, “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time . . .”  (I take 1 Corinthians 7:4 to mean that a married man or woman cannot choose to become celibate without their partner’s permission, or have sex with whoever they want, as their spouse has the exclusive right – exousia – of a sexual relationship with his or her own spouse. More on this here.) […]

  4. […] What did Paul mean by “A woman has no authority over her own body?” […]

  5. […] [11] “It has been said by some that Eve was provided to help her husband, but not vice versa . . . this goes against everything we know from New Testament teaching on human relationships (e.g. Eph 5:28-29). Despite having no Scripture that explicitly says that Adam was also to help his wife, we can safely assume that Adam and Eve were to be of mutual benefit to each other [while fulfilling God’s command to care for the earth].” (A Suitable Helper)  Moreover, the Hebrew word for helper, used in Genesis 2:18 and 20, is always and only used in the Old Testament in the context of vital and powerful assistance. [A short article on 1 Corinthians 7:4 is here.] […]

  6. […] A wife has no authority of her own body? (1 Cor. 7:4) […]

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