Dr. Heath Lambert is a pastor at First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, FL, Executive Director for the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, husband to Lauren and dad to three wonderful children. This post is adapted from a transcript of the ACBC Truth in Love podcast.
Are there any regulations in sexual behavior in marriage? This is a question a lot of people have, but often don’t know how to ask it. As Christians, we are very pro-sex in marriage. While we do need to say no to things that are sinful, God himself made sex, commands sex in the context of marriage. We, therefore, ought to be grateful for sex. All the fruit in the garden of sexual delight is open to married couples. This language grows out of Song of Solomon 2:1-6:
I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the young women. Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my beloved among the young men. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste. Let him lead me to the banquet hall, and let his banner over me be love. Strengthen me with raisins; refresh me with apples, for I am faint with love. His left arm is under my head, and his right arm embraces me.
As you might know, the Song of Solomon is a poem that celebrates the love that exists between a man and his wife. In these verses we read about a couple enjoying the delights of their marriage. Raisin cakes and apples are fruits associated with fertility in the ancient world. When you’re married, all of the fruit in that garden of sexual delight is open and available to you, and you should be free and happy to partake of that entire blessing. This text is instruction to us that as married people, we should enjoy all of the benefits of the sexual relationship that God has given us within marriage.
The question about regulations for sexual behavior in marriage, if we aren’t careful in answering it, will lose sight of one key principle, which is, sex is a good gift in marriage and is to be received with thanksgiving and joy. Yet as true as that is, in a sinful world we probably need to talk about a few qualifiers to that general principle. While in general, the banquet is open, there are three qualifications that married couples need to remember that regulate it.
1. You may not include other people. This might seem obvious to some of you, but in our world today there is nothing that should go without saying. As a matter fact, God made the marriage bed to be enjoyed by one man and one woman until they are parted by death. In Genesis 2:24-25, it says for this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife and they shall become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed . . . just the two of them. They left their parents to be joined together to hold fast to one another and they become one flesh.
The sexual union in marriage is an exclusive union; it’s not open to admission by other people. This would include arrangements like an open marriage where couples agree that they can have sex with other people. This would also include pornography. When you view pornography, alone or as a couple, you’re introducing other people into the marriage bed and that’s not allowed. One regulation on enjoying the delights of sex within marriage is that you may not include other people.
2. You may not harm one another. The sexual union is a loving union. It’s a tender union that requires care for one another. In Ephesians 5:28-29, the apostle Paul writes about husbands to their wives. It says husbands are to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself. No one ever hated his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it just as Christ does the church. The idea of marriage is that we care for one another. You should view this union as one of nurturing and tender care. Couples ought not to bring harm to each other even when in some situations one spouse would like it and would request it. There are some sexual practices that people request, but they do bring physical harm. As Christians, we should say we are not going to do anything that is going to bring harm to anyone, even if asked to. One sexual reality that is off limits is anything that will bring harm to the other person.
3. You may not insist on your own way. In 1 Corinthians 13:5, the Bible says that love does not insist on its own way. In years of pastoral ministry and counseling, I’ve talked to many couples debating this or that sexual practice; a special request that one spouse would like to try and the other feels uncomfortable about. One spouse wants to try this option based on research and says it's okay to try it. The biblical response to that in line with 1 Corinthians 13:5 is that you may not insist on your own way.
Even though the garden of sexual delights is open to married couples, other couples might enjoy this option, and the option isn’t forbidden in the text of scripture, if you’re asking your spouse to do something beyond normal sexual relations that makes him or her uncomfortable, then you are insisting on your own way and you are in sin. You need to forget about this sexual pursuit. Drop it and repent of the hatred of insisting on your own way. You should instead pursue the love that lets your preferences go and seeks to serve your spouse.
In marriage, we are to enjoy the sexual relationship that God has created but it doesn’t mean anything goes. You may not include other people, you may not harm one another, and you may not insist on your on your own way.