In the midst of a passage about marriage, Christ, the Church, headship and submission, the apostle Paul alludes to the love command: “love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18):

In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Ephesians 5:28)

However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Ephesians 5:33)

The imaginative ethical reciprocity built into the love command appears to also be in the background of Paul’s discussion of marriage and singleness in 1 Corinthians 7. The whole chapter is striking for the way it restates so many of its teachings, first from the man’s point of view, then from the woman’s. Whatever asymmetry there is in the biblical view of marriage, there is also a fundamental symmetry: your marriage partner is one of your neighbours—made in the image of God, bone of your bones, flesh of your flesh—and should be loved as any other neighbour, as we love ourselves. And so in making love, or abstaining, there is mutuality, even mutual consent:

[E]ach man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 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. 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. (verses 2–5)

As Christopher Ash emphasises in his Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, marriage is a consensual union. This is reflected in the biblical Song of Songs, with the back-and-forth of praise, invitation, pursuit between the two lovers; or Ruth’s initiative-taking with Boaz. I would argue that this mutual, symmetrical aspect of marriage extends well beyond simply the decision to abstain from making love for a time.

The love command is, according to Jesus, the second-greatest commandment, upon which all the Law and the Prophets hang (Matthew 22:39–40), and in addition to the other teachings in Scripture about marriage, the love commanded must be lived out in the context of the marriage relationship, too.