The Paul who wrote about marriage to the Corinthians also wrote Ephesians 5, where he gives a really beautiful description of marriage. There he states that God ordained marriage in order to illustrate the most sublime of all spiritual truths, namely, the way the Lord Jesus Christ is the bridegroom and faithful husband of the Church, and how we, the Church, are his bride. Paul is not saying something utterly different here in 1 Corinthians. He says that marriage is good. But notice, he is not saying marriage is the only good.
There is a problem when we take a position on either of the extremes. One edge of the spectrum in our society says, “The celibate life is the best way to live and anybody who marries is a second-rate Christian.” Then there is the other side of the spectrum that is heavily influenced with the input and the pressures of our society that says, “Marriage is the best way to live. You must have a sexual relationship. If you don’t, you’re a second-rate person and you can’t possibly be fulfilled.” Paul challenges either extreme. He says, “Marriage is good, but it is not the only good. And the single life is good if God calls you to that, but it is not the only good.” The question he wants to raise and which he places before every Christian is simply this: “What is the calling to which God has called you?”
I suspect that there was a division in the church between a Jewish mentality and what we would call a “super spiritual” Greek mentality. In the Jewish culture it was very important for people to marry, because it was the only thing that really allowed one to be a full person. The Greek culture was not quite that way. The Greeks had a division in their philosophy between spirit and matter. In the Greek culture, “spirit,” or the world of the mind and ideas, was good, and anything having to do with the body and matter was bad. They recognized that there was a certain necessity for marriage. But anybody who really wanted to be a philosopher (the highest level a person could attain by secular Greek standards), or someone in the Christian community who really wanted to be a spiritual person, should abstain from anything physical because that was considered bad. Paul answers that by pointing out that God has created the body as well as the spirit, and that God has called some to marriage and others to the celibate life, and, therefore, neither the extreme of the Jew nor the extreme of the Greek was right. Rather, marriage was good, though not the only good.
It is in the context of talking about the goodness of marriage that he talks about the goodness of sex. He is very explicit. This is the sort of thing that Christian teachers do not always talk about today. Yet Paul is not shy at this point. He says that in marriage a man and a wife are to have a sexual relationship. The reason is that in marriage God has made two individuals one flesh. So, the wife’s body is no longer just her body. And the husband’s body is no longer just his body. But rather, each belongs to the other. A wife must not say, “I don’t want to have a sexual relationship, because if we abstain maybe we’ll be more spiritual.” A husband may not say, “Well, I don’t want to have a sexual relationship and, therefore, I’ll hold myself back from my wife.” Paul says that is wrong.
Within marriage there must be a spiritual union. That is a good thing. But the sexual union is a good thing too. Furthermore, if you do not come together sexually, you leave yourself open to all kinds of temptations and problems. It is hard to realize that that sort of mentality would be a problem in our time because our culture is so much on the other side. It talks about sex, sex, sex and sometimes nothing but sex. But this kind of problem does sometimes happen in Christian relationships.