My Review of Mark Driscoll’s “Real Marriage”

Mark and Grace Driscoll. Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship & Life Together. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012. 249pp. $22.99 (hardback). [Download PDF version of this review.] I am no connoisseur of marriage manuals, but Mark and Grace Driscoll’s recent contribution to the genre has to be one of the most provocative treatments ever penned for and by evangelicals. In Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship & Life Together, Mark and Grace share candidly about the significant sexual brokenness that afflicted the early years of their own marriage and about how the Lord delivered them from it. They also discuss in graphic detail the questions that couples frequently ask them about the marital bed. The two-hundred plus pages of this book focus on personal testimony and practical teaching so that readers might walk in biblical holiness and avoid the pitfalls experienced by the Driscolls. Real Marriage reads like a marriage seminar that has been put into book form, and there are hints throughout that this is exactly what the book actually is (e.g., p. xiii). Real Marriage has eleven chapters that are divided into three major sections: Part 1, “Marriage”; Part 2, “Sex”; and Part 3, “The Last Day.” Summary Part 1, “Marriage” – Chapter 1 begins with Mark and Grace’s story, in which Mark and Grace appear first as an unmarried, sexually active couple; second as an unhappily married, sexually dysfunctional couple; and third as restored and reconciled husband and wife. Their story is as gut-wrenching as it is honest. Chapter 2, “Friends with Benefits” instructs readers about the necessity of being best friends with one’s spouse. Chapter 3, “Men and Marriage,” is Mark’s effort to exhort men to grow up, take responsibility, and be the godly servant leaders that God has called them to be in their homes. Chapter 4, “The Respectful Wife,” is the corresponding exhortation to women to respect and to submit to their husbands. Chapter 5, “Taking out the Trash,” addresses conflict between spouses and instructs spouses to fight fair and to be quick to forgive and reconcile through disagreements. Part 2, “Sex” – Chapter 6 instructs spouses not to regard sex as “God” (which is idolatry) nor as “gross” (which is prudishness) but as “gift” (which is God’s intention). Chapter 7 narrates Grace’s story as a sexual assault victim and offers some practical guidance to others who bear the scars of sexual abuse. Chapter 8 addresses the pervasive problem of pornography and its devastating impact on both the individuals who produce it and those who consume it. Chapter 9 instructs spouses on how not to be “selfish lovers” but “servant lovers” to their spouses. Chapter 10—which is probably the most controversial in the book—assesses the morality of a variety of sexual activities that spouses might engage in. Part 3, “The Last Day” – The final chapter of the book contemplates concrete steps that couples might take to intentionally plan for successful marriages. It is less of a chapter per se than it is a workbook for a kind of self-directed marriage retreat. Some Areas of Appreciation Even though I have some theological and pastoral disagreements with this book, I am grateful for some significant common ground. First, the book is unashamedly complementarian. Mark’s challenge to men in chapter 3 is one of the strongest exhortations to biblical manhood that I have ever read. Mark is particularly strong in admonishing men who prolong adolescence into their adult years: “There’s nothing wrong with being a boy, so long as you are a boy. But there is a lot wrong with being a boy when you are supposed to be a man” (p. 43). Mark challenges men to grow up, to take responsibility, and to lead their families. He encourages them to be producers not consumers, to be students of scripture, and to be faithful churchmen. Above all, he encourages husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church. This part of the book is countercultural in the best kind of way. Grace’s chapter on “The Respectful Wife” is likewise helpful. She encourages women to respect their husbands with their head, heart, and hands. She also gives practical advice to women about how they can disagree, counsel, encourage, and submit in a respectful way with their husbands. The Driscolls argue that the only way to experience marriage to its fullest is to embrace manhood and womanhood as the Bible defines it and to live out the roles that are prescribed in scripture. This is all to be commended. Second, Real Marriage has a gospel-focus and argues that the gospel gives us the only path toward wholeness in marriage. The Driscolls give healthy counsel when they say that spouses should be best friends (ch. 2). Yet they also acknowledge that sometimes spouses find it difficult to maintain this kind of intimate personal connection (ch. 5). Falling out of love usually means that spouses have fallen out of repentance (p. 90). Yet the gospel helps us to have realistic expectations about marriage. It also gives us the resources to deal with the conflict that inevitably comes when two sinners come into close proximity with one another. The Driscolls present repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation as gospel graces and as a necessity for healthy Christian marriages. Third, the authors open up their own lives in ways that are uncommon. This actually has both negative and positive aspects in my view, but I am grateful to read a testimony that gives evidence of the redeeming grace of God in some difficult years of marriage. Neither Mark nor Grace have pristine sexual histories, and the baggage they brought with them into their marriage caused significant problems for many years. Theirs is a risky story to tell, but you have to appreciate their willingness to share it. Their testimony could encourage other couples to be more honest with each other about the foxes that are ruining the vineyard. Having said all of that, my theological and pastoral concerns with this book are considerable, and I will begin with chapter 10. Before I do that, I should warn you that some of the material you are about to read is of a sexual nature and may be offensive. I have tried to summarize and critique as discreetly as possible, but I think that there are still some things here that might raise eyebrows. Caveat lector. The “Can We _____?” Chapter Chapter 10 of Real Marriage will most certainly prove to be the most controversial chapter of the book. It has the simple title “Can We _____?,” and the Driscolls fill-in the blank of the chapter title with a variety of sexual activities that are sometimes considered taboo. The chapter goes on to describe these activities in explicit detail, and then the authors give an ethical assessment of each activity for Christians. The problems begin at the beginning of the chapter where the Driscolls try to pre-empt critics by saying, If you are older, from a highly conservative religious background, live far away from a major city, do not spend much time on the internet, or do not have cable television, the odds are that you will want to read this chapter while sitting down, with the medics ready on speed dial. If you are one of those people who do not know that the world has changed sexually, read this chapter not to argue or fight, but rather to learn about how to be a good missionary in this sexualized culture, able to answer people’s questions without blushing (p. 177). In my view, these remarks start the whole conversation off on the wrong foot. The authors know that the explicit nature of this chapter will be offensive to some readers. But they address offended readers not by allaying their concerns but by suggesting that anyone uncomfortable with the content must be either a rube or uninterested in reaching the culture for Christ. To those with legitimate concerns, these remarks come across as dismissive at best and patronizing at worst. The bulk of the chapter gives an ethical assessment of a variety of sexual activities. The Driscolls invoke 1 Corinthians 6:12 as the basis for the evaluation, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” From this text, the Driscolls propose a “taxonomy” of questions to assess the different activities: (1) Is it lawful? (2) Is it helpful? (3) Is it enslaving? If one judges a given behavior to be biblically lawful, relationally helpful, and non-addictive, then it is permissible for Christians to participate in that activity. Among the activities that the authors deem permissible within this taxonomy are masturbation, felatio/cunnilingus, sodomy (on both spouses), menstrual sex, role-playing, sex toys, birth control, cosmetic surgery, cybersex, and sexual medication. The Driscolls are careful to stipulate that these are activities spouses may participate in by mutual agreement, but not that they must participate in (p. 180). No spouse should be manipulated into doing anything that violates his or her conscience (p. 178). The only item in the list deemed impermissible in every circumstance is sexual assault. The value of the Driscolls’ taxonomy is only as good as the exegesis that it is based on, but in this case their reading of 1 Corinthians 6:12 is fundamentally flawed. The Driscolls read “all things are lawful” as if the phrase were Paul’s own declaration of Christian freedom, but that is mistaken. Almost every modern translation1 and a near consensus of commentators2 treat “all things are lawful” not as Paul’s words but as a slogan that Corinthian men used to justify their visits to prostitutes (cf. 1 Cor. 6:15). The NIV captures the correct interpretation: “I have the right to do anything,” you say–but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”–but I will not be mastered by anything (1 Cor. 6:12). The Corinthians may have been riffing on themes they had heard from Paul (cf. Rom. 6:14; 7:4, 6). But they had twisted Paul’s law-free gospel into a justification for bad behavior. Thus the phrase “all things are lawful” is not an expression of Christian freedom from the apostle Paul, but rather an expression of antinomianism from fornicators! Paul’s aim in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 is to correct the Corinthians’ misunderstanding. One of the reasons for the Corinthian error was the fact that they viewed the physical body as inconsequential in God’s moral economy (cf. 1 Cor. 6:13b). Yet Paul refutes the Corinthians on this point and gives them an ultimate ethical norm with respect to their bodies: “You have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:20). Driscoll begins his ethical assessment with “Is it lawful?” and he answers the question based on whether or not there is an explicit prohibition of the behavior in scripture. As we have seen, this is a misapplication of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 6. Paul’s question is not “Is it lawful?” but “Does it glorify God with my body?” To miss this is to miss the entire point of the text. Sex exists for the glory of God, and Paul only commends activities that glorify God with the body. In order to answer the question “Does it glorify God?,” one has to have an understanding of the purposes that God has given for sex and whether or not a given activity fits with those purposes (more on this below). This kind of reflection is absent from chapter 10 in Driscoll’s book. To be sure, the Driscolls are not the only persons who have ever misread 1 Corinthians 6:12. Nor are they the only ones to use a taxonomy like this one.3 In fact, the Driscolls’ questions are almost identical to the ones that John and Paul Feinberg use to judge the limits of Christian liberty in their book Ethics for a Brave New World.4 Yet the Driscolls’ use of the questions is reductionistic. Whereas … Continue reading My Review of Mark Driscoll’s “Real Marriage”