Given his proclivity for provocative proclamations about oral sex, "real" men, and the reasons (later retracted) for Ted Haggard's infidelities, you might assume Mark Driscoll's new book on marriage, cowritten with wife Grace, would stir the pot to boiling levels. Popular Reformed blogger Tim Challies predicted that Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship, & Life Together (Thomas Nelson) would land Driscoll "all over the news in the new year," especially for a chapter titled "Can We ______?" which discusses specific sexual practices. Everything from submission to pornography to finances and date nights are discussed here, with a candidness that will, says the publisher, "send shock waves throughout the evangelical world," vowing it will be among "the most talked-about Christian marriage releases in years."
But despite Driscoll-addicted buzz, Real Marriage is strikingly conventional, emphasizing the same commonsense ideals that other Christian marriage books do: honesty, mutual respect, forgiveness, and becoming friends with one's spouse. As Mark told CT, "If you have a solid friendship that you're working on, the rest of the marriage is going to come together. The sex is going to get better. You're going to work with your sin. You're going to deal with tragedy in a way that is more hopeful than if you're just business partners doing stuff together." He and Grace, approaching their 20th wedding anniversary, spoke with CT associate editor Katelyn Beaty and Her.meneutics writer Marlena Graves about strong foundations for marriage, as well as the steamier sections of their book, out this week.
There are already plenty of Christian books about sex and marriage on the market. Why should Christians get advice on sexuality and marriage from a pastor writing a book instead of, say, a counselor, friends, or their own pastor?
M: As far as books that address sex go, I actually disagree. I think there are only two that go into much depth on sexuality, and one is quite old, and the other is pretty old. A lot of Christian teaching about sex is answering the questions of a previous generation. Both of the books I can think of were written before the Internet existed. Well, that's a game changer in every way. One of the books goes so far as to basically say that oral sex in marriage is a sin. Today, we have a bunch of teenagers who don't even think oral sex counts as sex. So we've taken what we hope are eternal biblical truths and applied them to the cultural questions of our day. That's why we felt it was necessary.
Also, a lot of people pick up bits and pieces of information about sex in marriage, but they lack a comprehensive biblical understanding of how it all fits together. So the big idea early in the book is friendship. There isn't a Christian book that addresses friendship in the context of marriage. We read all or part of 187 books on marriage and couldn't find anything of substance on friendship. And you ask young people, and they would say, no, marriage is primarily about friendship and sex. Right? I mean it's about friends with benefits. So there is a different cultural conversation that's happening.
Mark, many of your public statements about sexuality have drawn criticism from fellow Christian leaders. Is this book a way to back off from some of your previous comments?
M: No, but it's a way to clarify what I meant. I don't apologize for what I believe. I've never changed it. But I can always communicate it more effectively, more articulately, more humbly, more graciously, and more considerately. Especially in the age of the Internet, something gets ripped out of context, and then it's, "Oh, Mark said blank." It's like, well in the context Mark didn't say blank, or that wasn't exactly what was said. But this [book] allows me to put it into context of the whole framework of marriage and sex, and to do so with my wife. Grace is really brave in the book and adds a woman's perspective. A guy on a stage talking to the universe is not the best context to get to know who a guy is and how he operates in his marriage and what he means by that. Once you get to know his wife and you get to see her perspective and how it plays out in their marriage, it clarifies and provides context.
You mention the notion several times throughout the book that one's spouse is to be the person's "standard of beauty." What do you mean by this?
M: Okay, you got my wife blushing now. I take that idea from Genesis. When God brought Adam and Eve together, he didn't give them a list of potential partners. He gave Adam one woman; he gave Eve one man. And that was their standard of beauty. So we are not to compare our spouse to pornography or advertising or marketing or even, once you've been married for years, with how your spouse looked 10, 20, 30, 40 years prior. It's about being content with your spouse and not comparing your spouse to others. I think that's where a lot of dissatisfaction and bitterness come in.
There's no way a man or woman can compare to, let's say, pornography. You've got hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of different people, body types, ages, shapes. Well, you're going to be discontent with one person if you're expecting them to be everything you've ever seen and any fantasy you've ever had. It's a recipe for failure. And it's incredibly selfish.
This relates to a story you tell about a time Grace had her long hair cut and got a "short, mommish haircut." Mark, you disliked the cut and write that Grace "had put a mom's need for convenience before being a wife." Grace, how do you make sense of your responsibility to be physically attractive for Mark? And Mark, why is that charge not given to husbands as well?
M: She did have "best hair" in high school, so that's an important factor. Her hair was fantastic.
So, Grace, how do you make sense of that in your marriage?
G: As women we need to keep ourselves, and our spouses have preferences for us, whether it's hair or clothing or how we carry ourselves. We need to consider each other in those things. As wives, we don't want our husbands being unkempt, generally. So it goes the same way for a husband. Hair is a big deal for us [Mark and Grace], so when I made that decision without even asking, I wasn't considering Mark. It may not have been a big deal, but because I didn't ask, it felt like disrespect to him. It's not that I have to run every makeup thing by him or every pair of jeans I buy. It's just that I'm considering that he appreciates the way I tend to myself, and I want to ask him if he has opinions. It's another extension of the respect issue.
Mark, if there was a particular desire you had regarding Grace's looks and yet she didn't want to make that change, what would you do? In the marriage, does the husband have the authority to give those kinds of directions to his wife?
M: It goes both ways. Grace and I spent all day Tuesday shopping for clothes for me. I take her along and ask her opinions because if I come home and look like a circus clown and she's really depressed, that's not the best use of money. It's the kind of thing that goes both ways—tending to one's self, keeping oneself, and considering your spouse.
Sometimes spouses go too far. If your spouse is borderline unhealthy with their eating habits and obsession with their appearance, and still you're disappointed, then it definitely can reach a point that's not reasonable. But on the flipside, some people don't go far enough. I know husbands who are mechanics. They don't shower. They don't clean the grease or dirt out from underneath their fingernails. And they want their wives to be intimate with them. It's like, man, you're sweaty, you're covered in grease, you have long fingernails and haven't brushed your teeth since the last presidential election. That's not very considerate of your wife. So there's a ditch in both directions.
In the chapter titled "Can We ____?" you outline several sexual practices that couples have asked you about over the years. Can we do this? Is it appropriate? Is it godly? How would you advise a couple in which one spouse—and usually it is the wife—is uncomfortable with a particular act that her spouse wants? How does mutual respect play out in the bedroom?
M: I'll let Grace answer that. If one spouse says, yeah, I just really don't like sex, well, the Bible talks about sex as part of marriage. So you can't just vote "no" on sex. Now when it gets to particular sexual things that are controversial, that's why we encourage couples to actually talk. Usually what happens is they make demands about it, and to make demands about it in a sexual moment is tense and awkward. It's better to begin a conversation in a moment that's a little less tender emotionally, shall we say. From the guy's perspective, 1 Peter 3 says to be considerate of your wife. And to be considerate of your wife means you're not always going to get what you want, and even if you do get what you want, you may not get it for 10 years. Considerate means a level of love and patience that wants to encourage the wife and not just use the wife.
G: If there's hesitation from either side, that needs to be discussed. Sometimes there are good reasons behind that hesitation, such as previous relationships where abuse has been done. That's an opportunity for those things to be revealed, if they haven't been discussed already, because those issues affect how women respond in the bedroom. It's an opportunity to be considerate of the wife and ask, "Is there something that I can help with and walk through with you? Or is this a fear that we need to pray about and then trust the Lord to get us through?" Sometimes those fears [in general, not just in the bedroom] can grip us and keep us from changing, but God wants us to change, so we need to trust him in that process. It can be an opportunity to work through a fear that the Enemy might use to keep us from deeper marital intimacy.
How would either of you advise a couple where the wife believes a particular sexual act is immoral or makes her feel "dirty"—especially since Mark, in a 2007 sermon on the Song of Solomon, told the women, "Ladies, let me assure you of this. If you think you're being dirty, he's pretty happy"?
M: The Bible says to heed your conscience, in addition to Scripture and governmental law, so we would never encourage anyone to violate their conscience. Any time one person in the marriage, husband or wife, says he or she cannot see that an act honors God, or it makes him or her feel dirty or defiled, then that has to be honored. Sometimes husbands who have a history of sexual sin and pornography suddenly have crazy stuff they want to do, and the wife is not okay with it. He needs to put his wife above his fantasy and honor her and not press that.
If even a Christian man has something he would like to try with his wife, chances are that he has been exposed to pornography at some point in his life and has perhaps struggled with addiction to it. So his sexual imagination has in part been misshaped by the tropes of pornography. Are there specific guidelines beyond Paul's guidelines in 1 Corinthians 6 that you use to distinguish between godly sexual practices and those that are just borrowed straight from pornography?
M: I have been working in missiology for a long time, and at our church we use the language of "receive, reject, redeem." In the world there are things we can just receive. I don't know if a pagan invented the telephone or not, but we can receive it and use it. There are things we have to reject. We have to reject pornography. There's no such thing as Christian pornography. Then there are things that God created good that are defiled through sin but can be redeemed. So there may be certain sexual practices or positions that were introduced to someone in a sinful context, but they're not sinful in and of themselves. They may be able to be redeemed within marriage, if both parties have a clear conscience and are willing.
So certain sexual practices from pornography are degrading or defiled in that particular form, but can be extracted and redeemed for godly marital sex?
M: Yeah, the Bible doesn't say "do this" or "don't do that." The Bible seems to be more concerned about who you're with than what you're doing. The Bible doesn't give a checklist to put on the nightstand: "make sure you don't check these bad boxes." So two people who are dating, two people who are in a pornographic movie, or two people who are committing adultery could be doing something that if it were in the context of marriage would be no problem at all.
For example, I once counseled two married couples where one husband and the other wife were committing emotional adultery. The husband from one couple and the wife from the other couple would meet at the grocery store and hold hands while they were shopping. If they were married, that would be wonderful. That would be beautiful. There's a husband and wife holding hands going grocery shopping. But the fact that they're married to somebody else made it horrendous. So what they were doing was not bad; who they were doing it with was the real problem.
God gives us freedom. It's porn that took that freedom and enslaved us. We're receiving what God originally gave us and asking what those freedoms are for in our marriage, and not allowing any of that to enslave us as the porn industry wants to do.
Is there tension in teaching sexual purity before marriage while encouraging frequent and wonderful sex within marriage?
M: No, and for us, we sinned, quite frankly. We were virgins when we met and were sleeping together as high-school boyfriend and girlfriend. Then Grace came back to Christ, and I came to Christ in college, so we had to stop sinning sexually. I'd say if we both could go back and rewrite history and change one thing, that would probably be the thing we would change. But we did repent and met with our pastor. And then we did get married, between our junior and senior years of college.
Part of the issue today is extended male adolescence: guys are just not growing up, they're not taking responsibility and not acting maturely. These are guys who are post-college, making money for years with no wife, and then all of a sudden they are sexually active but not really thinking about marriage. I call them boys who can shave. They're highly irresponsible, and it leads to a culture in which there is a proclivity toward sex outside of marriage.
So you can't just say, "Hey, no sex outside of marriage." You have to go to the underlying issue, asking: Why aren't you growing up? Why are you not taking responsibility? Why are you not pursuing marriage? Why do you think Zach Galifianakis and Adam Sandler are funny? Why do you think that the whole bromance comedy thing is not just offensive? Why are you trying to live out that lifestyle when it's antithetical to being a real responsible man who loves Jesus and wants to get married and be faithful to his wife?
Mark, you write that Grace serves as your functional pastor. Grace, as Mark's functional pastor, what kind of counsel have you given Mark after he's gotten into hot water over public comments he's made? How does that play out in your relationship?
G: I've had to learn from doing things wrong. At first I used to criticize; whether the comments were right or wrong, I would criticize and not come alongside Mark to work through it with him, so it felt adversarial. I've learned that even if there is something he wishes he had said differently, I can still encourage him, and we can pray through that and trust that the Lord is going to work in us. For me it's praying for Mark's protection and conviction from the Lord. We allow outside criticism to be a friendship builder instead of jumping on board with people who don't understand the context of our ministry and don't understand the people we're trying to help.
Is there a specific example where you felt like you'd been able to come alongside Mark rather than joining the critical voices?
G: A lot of criticism came with the Peasant Princess series through Song of Solomon we did a few years ago. Mark's elders had prayed through and approved that he preach through that book of the Bible. But there was constant attack during that season. We knew that he was supposed to do this and that God was okay with it. Mark had a clear conscience. But each time Mark preached, we needed to pray through that. So I would pray with him and go out on stage [at Mars Hill] and answer questions, too. Then we would talk after the sermons and talk about future potential questions. So really just working together—I think for him that was encouraging, that I'm next to him as a friend wanting to consider him.
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Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship, & Life Together is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Previous stories related to Mark Driscoll include:
The Story Behind the Mars Hill Trademark Dispute | Sacramento church will keep name, change logo. Seattle church says demand letter was a mistake. (October 27, 2011)
Multi-Site Churches Go Interstate | Megachurches expand across state lines. (June 27, 2011)
Pastor Provocateur | Love him or hate him, Mark Driscoll is helping people meet Jesus in one of America's least-churched cities. (September 21, 2007)
Previous stories on marriage and sex include:
Why 'All the Single Ladies' Shouldn't Give Up on Marriage | Frustrations with men and the institution are real, but shouldn't obscure our hope in what God is doing. (November 21, 2011)
Q & A: Tim Keller on 'The Meaning of Marriage' | Why the pastor says gender roles are changing and how the church can be more effective in promoting marriage. (November 1, 2011)
Should Pastors Perform Marriages for Cohabitating Couples? | Observers weigh in. (September 26, 2011)
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