What is the meaning of 1 Corinthians 7:4?

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1 Corinthians 7:4 reads as follows:

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.

In the Biblical books verifiably known to have been written by the apostle Paul, such as 1 Corinthians, equality in Christ is an important concept. Paul here alludes to the idea that when two people get married they become one flesh. As Paul puts it, they each give their body to the other person. They are in a physically equal relationship.

In the context of the Roman society in which Paul lived, this was quite a radical idea. Roman society was organized around the idea of the paterfamilias. This "father of the family" was the central male figure in an extended family unit that included wives, children, stepchildren, assorted relatives, and slaves. In Roman thought and law, the paterfamilias had total ownership of all the bodies in his family.

Paul's concept of marriage turns this inequality on its head, at least as far as spouses are concerned, in saying that a husband and a wife are equals. We need not wonder why women were attracted to this faith.

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While this verse is about sexuality, it is also much more powerfully about the idea of the equality of the sexes.  This seems somewhat surprising to us in modern times.  In this verse, Paul is very clearly telling us that, in some ways at least, a marriage is a union of equal partners.  Here, he is not telling wives to submit to their husbands.  Here, he is saying that men do not have any more authority over their bodies than their wives do over theirs.  Each partner in the marriage has equal control over the body of the other.  So, while this verse is about the idea that sex within marriage is good, it is also about the idea that both husband and wife have equal duties toward the other and that neither spouse is superior to the other.

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