"Do not deny one another" is a misquoted fragment of a passage in 1 Corinthians 7. Here is the whole passage, from the New American Standard Version, with the words in question in italics:
Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But this I say by way of concession, not of command. Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. 1 Corinthians 7:1-8.
This passage is often used to shame marital partners (and particularly women) for refusing sex to their spouse. He has authority over her body, and though concessions are usually given for her ill health, she is expected to not only consent, but to joyfully desire sex with her husband at all times. Although under this verse the same would apply to the husband, it is usually the wife who is made the primary subject of this teaching.
This Christian website illustrates what I'm talking about.
Paul advocated marriage as a way to avoid sinful sex.The result is to argue that there can be no such thing as spousal rape.
Because this is one motivator for marriage, it becomes ridiculous to enter into marriage and then deny your spouse the very thing that helped drive him or her to marriage. . . Sex is to be exclusively available between a husband and wife to quench their desire for sex. But what sense is it to have a well and then refuse any to drink from it? Hence, Paul stated in I Corinthians 7 that neither the husband or wife have authority over their own bodies. When they married they gave themselves over to each other.
With the arrival of feminism came the idea that a woman has full control over her body. . . If she doesn't want to have sex, then a husband does not have the right to request sex from her. However, these ideas are in direct contradiction to the plain teachings in I Corinthians 7. It views the husband and wife relationship as independant and perhaps advesarial [sic] instead of a union work toward the benefit of both. . . At the root of feminism is drive to separate husband and wives. . .
The act of marriage includes consent to sex. A husband can abuse his relationship by forcing sex on his wife, and such abuse is sinful, but it should not be labeled "rape." By labeling such abuse "rape," a fundamental view of marriage is changed to state that consent to sex is a moment-by-moment decision that can be granted or denied at the whim of the spouse. Yet the biblical view (and the view held by civil law until recently) is that consent is a part of the marriage relationship. It doesn't come and go at either spouse's whim. "Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does" (I Corinthians 7:3-4). A husband or wife claiming to withdraw consent to sex during marriage is violating a term of the marriage covenant and, therefore, in sin.Julie Anne over at Spiritual Sounding Board quotes a similar website:
We believe the teaching on marital rape is a poison in the well of women’s hearts and minds towards their husbands and marriage & does much damage. However, we also do not condone a husband taking his wife against her will and strongly state that a man should not do so. In situations of repeated and enduring refusal, professional help and Matthew 18 need to be worked through & not force to be used.
We also believe that denying a spouse sex is just as much abuse as forcing sex upon a spouse. [Emphasis added.]The sad thing about this is how (in a society where power was concentrated in the hands of the man) Paul's careful wording throughout this chapter makes the husband and the wife passages parallel, of equal weight and balance. Paul said (in a society where marriage was generally required) that followers of Christ were under no obligation to marry. However, if they did marry, each should fulfill their marital duties to one another . It's interesting to note how, in contrast to our current age where the emphasis would have to be placed on not demanding sex, Paul writes in terms of not withholding sex. But the whole emphasis of this passage is mutuality and equal consideration. To use it as a way to bend one spouse to the other's will flies in the face of the teaching as a whole; it is simply opposite to the way it was intended. And to use it to claim that saying "no" is "just as much abuse" as marital rape is harmful in the extreme.
The fact is that this passage cannot be construed as commanding marital sex, because it explicitly says marital sex is granted as "a concession, not a command." Jesus had taught that marriage was not a requirement of God's kingdom, and thus, neither was sex: "[T]here are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it [Matthew 19-12, NIV]." In the 1 Cor. 7 passage, Paul declares himself as one of these when he says "I wish that all men were even as I myself am." According to Robin Lane Fox (Oxford New College, Ancient History) in his book Pagans and Christians, celibacy became a definitive Christian virtue very early in Christianity's history:
From its very beginnings, Christianity . . . considered an orderly sex life to be a clear second best to no sex life at all. It has been the protector of an endangered Western species: people who remain virgins from birth to death. [p. 355]This trend continued until Martin Luther and Protestantism reversed it, extolling the virtues of married life, hearth and home and advocating the destruction of monasteries and convents. But the reason Paul emphasized "do not deprive" rather than "do not force" was probably because the tendency in the early church was to resist having marital sex, rather than trying to get it more often! Fox tells us that by the second century after Christ, this concept had grown to the point where sexless marriages, far from the tragedy they are viewed as today, were held up as the virtuous ideal:
[T]he idea of sexless cohabitation was urged, and practiced, by married Christian couples. p. 356.Though orthodoxy opposed this extreme and eventually defeated it,[Pagans and Christians, p. 358], the celibacy of Christ Himself must have provided a strong incentive for imitation, and this is probably why Paul (himself celibate) had to write in terms of sex as a marital obligation which should not be shirked, rather than as a marital pleasure which should not be demanded or forced.
Today, however, 1 Corinthians 7:5 often becomes a weapon to shame a married partner (and especially a wife) for saying "no," and 1 Corinthians 7:4 is used to disclaim the existence of marital rape-- as if having "authority" over one another's bodies didn't include the authority to tell your spouse's body, "Stop!"
It's also interesting the way the word translated "deprive" above often gets changed to "deny" when quoted as a cliche. The Greek word there is "apostereo," which is translated "defraud" in the King James version. Vines Expository Dictionary defines it as "to rob, despoil, defraud" -- which implies permanently taking something away from someone. The Scripture4All online Interlinear translates it as "depriving," as many translations also do. The word certainly does appear to mean something much stronger than "Not tonight, honey."
Sheila at To Love, Honor and Vacuum puts it this way:
Deprive is not the same as refuse. I believe many people interpret this verse to mean refuse. Are women obligated to have sex every time a man wants it? Are we ever allowed to refuse?
Well, let’s look more closely at deprive.
If I were to say to you, “do not deprive your child of good food,” what am I implying? I’m saying that your child should get the food that is commonly recognized for good health: three healthy meals a day, with some snacks. I am not saying that every time your child pulls at your leg and says, “Mommy, can I have a bag of cheetos?” that you have to say yes. You are not depriving your child of good food by refusing a request for Cheetos.
Deprive implies that there is a level of sexual activity that is necessary for a healthy marriage. . .
But it does not mean that it is every single time a person wants sex.
The fact that the preceding verses in 1 Corinthians 7 say that the husband’s body is the wife’s, and the wife’s body is the husband’s, implies that one person cannot and must not force himself or herself onto the other person. And by force I’m not talking about just physical force. There’s emotional blackmail, there’s shutting down, there’s telling someone, “you’re just not good enough”. . .
Let’s assume that it’s the wife with the lower libido for a minute (though it certainly isn’t always) and look at it this way:
If her husband’s body belongs to her, then she has the ability to also say, “I do not want you using your body sexually right now with me.”
If she feels sick, or is really sad, or is exhausted, then her having ownership of his body also means that she can say, “I just can’t right now” without needing to feel guilty–if she is at the same time not depriving him.
I believe that the admonition “do not deprive each other” refers to the relationship as a whole, not to each individual moment.
So if, in the relationship as a whole, you are having regular and frequent sex, then if one of you says, “not tonight”, that is not depriving. That is simply refusing for right now. [Emphases in original.]I would not go so far as this author does, to equate "authority" (Greek word "exousia," meaning, "having rights/power of choice over") with "ownership," but I think the rest of what she says is spot on. It seems to me that to require your spouse to have sex with you any time you want it, regardless of your spouse's feelings on the matter, is the attitude of--let's face it-- a jerk. Only six chapters later, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul sets forth how love is patient, not self-seeking, and how it doesn't dishonor others. Having sex with someone who really doesn't want to have sex with you, but just gives in because she's not supposed to say no, is not only unloving, it's unhealthy. The Love, Honor and Vacuum blog linked above posted a comment by "Kelly" that says it so well, I'd like to close with it here too:
Yep, some of the comments you read by men on these marriage websites are precisely why Christian women are beginning to advise each other not to risk marrying a Christian man! (I’m not kidding). Look, guys, here’s a quick lesson in the blindingly obvious: there’s no quicker way to make sex unappealing to your wife than by demanding it, regardless of how she feels. No better way of making yourself unattractive and frankly repellent than by sexual coercion. No no effective way of losing your wife’s respect – she wants a real man, not some oaf (because if you can enjoy sex knowing the other person isn’t enjoying it, there’s something very wrong with you). And really, no one past the age of 14 should need telling that. Of COURSE, a sexless marriage has problems that need addressing. Of COURSE you should ask if you want more/different sex to be happy. Of COURSE you can explain to her why sexual rejection hurts. But here’s a little clue (again from the ‘stating the obvious’ files): why do I enjoy nothing more than making love with my husband? Why can I not keep my hands off him? Why am I keen to give him pleasure even if I’m occasionally not in the mood or unable to participate myself? Because, while making it obvious he finds me desirable, he also wouldn’t WANT to have sex with me unless I was an enthusiastic participant. Because he can’t stand the idea of it being a one-way experience.So if you're one of those who has been on the receiving end of biblical coercion like this-- I hope you'll find a way to let go of the shame and manipulation, and be free. God never intended the Bible to be used as a set of regulations that turns fun into duty and intimacy into a burden. If you need sexual counseling in your marriage, I hope you go get some. If you're a victim of marital rape or abuse, I hope you'll begin to take steps so you don't have to subject yourself to that.
But if you and/or your spouse are just laboring under a heavy burden of "Don't deny one another," placed on you by religious people who don't know you, your marriage or your spouse-- Christ said His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Lay down that burden and enjoy one another, and the good gifts of God.