Does spousal rape constitute fornication, or sexual immorality, thus giving grounds for divorce and remarriage?
Some questions are difficult - not because we cannot clearly state the truth, but because the way the questions are worded cause you to make assumptions that may not be true. A classic example is "Are you still beating your wife?" You have never beaten your wife, but the question assumes it is true and only asks if it is continuing. To properly address the question, you have to tackle what was not said and that makes the answer difficult to accomplish.
The question above is of the same nature. There is an assumption made that all guilt falls on one party, almost always the husband, and one other party, almost always the wife, is completely innocent. Before we can address the point of the question, we must first decide if the assumption is true that guilt can only be ascribed to one party.
Throughout the Scriptures, God has taught husbands and their wives to enjoy sex. In Proverbs 5:15-21 Solomon tells husbands to be exhilarated by their wives' love. Her body is to satisfy him always. The relationship was so important that under the Old Testament Law a newly married man was excused for one year from all obligations that would take him away from his wife (Deuteronomy 24:5). During this time, the husband is to focus on bringing happiness to his wife. Notice that the emphasis was on the husband bringing sexual gratification to the wife and not the other way around.
The sexual act within marriage is honorable. "Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge" (Hebrews 13:4). Sex within marriage is considered something pure and undefiled.
Perhaps Paul's words are strongest in I Corinthians 7:1-5. It is a husband's duty to provide sexual satisfaction to his wife and it is a wife's duty to provide sexual satisfaction to her husband. The importance of this is so great that Paul said a wife does not have authority over her own body and a husband does not have authority over his own body. In other words, neither a wife nor a husband has the right to deny intercourse to their spouse. The reason is the desire for sex is strong in many people. Sex is only allowed in marriage, so people wanting to have a sexual relationship must get married. "But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion" (I Corinthians 7:8-9). If sex is a motivation to get married, then for either the husband or wife to deny their spouse sex is to place the person they claim to love in a difficult, if not unsustainable, position. Marriage is in part to prevent immoral behavior. "Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband" (I Corinthians 7:2). Yet, in some marriages spouses are putting temptation in front of their spouse by denying their physical need.
With the arrival of feminism came the idea that a woman has full control over her body. If she does not wish to have a child, they argue that she has the right to terminate the pregnancy because it is her body being used to nurture the child. 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 independent and perhaps adversarial instead of a union work toward the benefit of both. "And He answered and said to them, "Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matthew 19:4-6). At the root of feminism is a drive to separate husband and wives.
The dictionary defines rape as forced sexual relations without a person's consent. The wording is important. It isn't "against a person's will" because if a person is intoxicated or drugged at the time it could be argued that sex wasn't denied. "Without consent" means the person did not agree to sex in advance. It also becomes the basis of our statutory rape laws; a minor is assumed to be unable to give consent to sex because of their age.
Here then is the problem with using the word "rape" in a marriage. 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.
Please don't misunderstand the position. A husband forcing sex on his wife without her willing participation is sinning because he is abusing his wife.
We have started with a misleading question. The question assumed that consent for sex can be withdrawn from in a marriage and the person withdrawing his consent is innocent. What we've shown is the person is sinning. And the person attempting to force sex anyway is also sinning. The assumption that only one person is in sin is wrong.
But let us move on to address the question: "Does spousal rape constitute fornication or sexual immorality?" Fornication is sexual activity outside the bounds of a sanctified marriage. Two unmarried individuals can commit fornication, a spouse having sex with someone he is not married to can also fall under the category of fornication, but a married couple cannot commit fornication with each other. Sexual activity is supposed to take place within the confines of a marriage. It is a duty owed by the husband to his wife and by the wife to her husband. To call it fornication is to declare that sex within a marriage can be sinful, yet the writer of Hebrews said it is undefiled (Hebrews 13:4). Sexual abuse within a marriage cannot be used as the grounds for a divorce that allows a remarriage because it does not meet the criteria laid down by our Lord.
Does this mean that a husband can force himself on his wife anytime he so desires? Absolutely not! A wife is supposed to satisfy the sexual needs of her husband willingly and freely. A husband is supposed to satisfy the sexual needs of his wife willingly and freely. Nevertheless, the husband cannot forcibly take what his wife has not offered. To illustrate this point consider that Christians are supposed to be hospitable to one other. Does that give me the right to barge into my brother's home anytime I feel like it? Of course not! Christianity is about the giving of ourselves and not the taking from others. The former is noble, while the latter is selfish.
If a wife will not fulfill her duties to her husband, then she needs instruction and counseling (Titus 2:3-5). Most likely there is a series of issues between both the husband and the wife which need addressing. Meanwhile, what is the husband supposed to do? The answer is "wait." If your wife were deathly ill, you would have no problem foregoing sex during her illness. In this case, the wife is spiritually ill and her soul is in jeopardy. The husband must wait for the healing of her spirit. If anything, this should be motivation to straighten out the problems between the husband and wife.
If a husband says he cannot put off his sexual desires, then I must ask what did he do during the years before his marriage? On average most men gain the capacity for sex around the age of 13, yet the average age to marry is 27. If a man can wait 10 years or more for sex, he can wait for his wife to leave her sinful ways. His physical need is not an excuse for abuse or for committing adultery. In the same way, lack of sex from a husband does not give permission to a wife to commit adultery.
Marital problems can be difficult to handle. Emotions run high and cooling tempers is difficult when partners live close to each other. Yet the Lord expects us to solve our problems, not to run away from them or to pretend the problems are irreconcilable. Divorce is too often offered as an easy escape from difficult problems. Few realize, until it is too late, that divorce causes more problems than it supposedly solves.