by Rachel Held Evans
Evangelicals expect too much of their pastors.
In addition to demanding they serve as nearly flawless leaders and teachers, many of us demand that our pastors serve as professional counselors and advisors, experts on everything from politics to science to sex to health to money to marriage to relationships.
As a result, some pastors simply crumble beneath the weight of the pressure, “faking it” for years and then burning out. Others develop a heightened sense of self-importance and arrogance, as they slap the word “biblical” in front of each of their opinions, claiming to speak on behalf of God on every given topic. Still others live complete lies, lecturing the congregation on the importance money management on Sunday while struggling to overcome secret credit card debt on Monday. Others project their insecurities and obsessions onto their followers and demand that everyone look just like them. Very few manage to remain humble, honest, and brave in the face of our unrealistic expectations.
And so I believe we all bear some responsibility for creating an environment in which controversial Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll can write a book about sex and marriage that tops the Amazon bestseller list.
Given Driscoll’s alarming preoccupation with sex and “masculinity,” and the immaturity with which he has addressed these subjects in the past, one would think Christians would approach this book the way they would approach a book about nutrition written by a pastor who struggles with obesity...(or a book about overcoming procrastination written by me!) But Pastor Mark continues to grow a devoted and impassioned following, which means thousands of couples around the world will be looking to his new book, Real Marriage, which he co-authored with his wife Grace, for advice.
It’s no secret that I’ve expressed concerns over Driscoll’s teachings and antics in the past, particularly those that encourage the bullying of men who don’t fit into Driscoll’s macho-man mold, but I tried to approach this book with an open in mind, and indeed I found some pleasant surprises in Real Marriage.
The chapter on the importance of nurturing a true friendship in marriage includes some good reminders about kindness and reciprocity. I thought Grace wrote a brave and honest chapter about sexual abuse. In places where Mark has been insensitive in the past, he seems to have softened a bit. For example, rather than insisting that a woman stay attractive for her husband lest he be tempted to cheat on her, Mark suggests that a man make his own wife his standard of beauty (and vice versa). He does a much better job of emphasizing mutuality in sexual relationships than he has in the past, (though I’ve never quite understood why so many complemementarians insist on hierarchal-based relationships in which wives submit to their husbands “in everything,” while simultaneously acknowledging the importance of mutuality when it comes to sex...but that’s a topic for another day).
Books that claim to prescribe “biblical sex” will always be selective. Much of the Bible was written at a time when women were typically sold to their husbands as teenagers, polygamy was the norm, and losing your virginity before marriage...even being raped...could get you stoned. Even in the famous “household codes” of the epistles, instructions for women to submit to their husbands are either preceded or followed by instructions for slaves to obey their masters. And so comparisons between modern marital relationships and those of an ancient near eastern culture should always be approached with caution and with attentiveness to context. (I’ve written more about this in my forthcoming book.)
Grace’s chapter on submission will make egalitarians cringe, but it would take too long to dissect all her arguments here. Let’s just say it drove me crazy to see the biblical character Vashti criticized for not submitting to her husband (by refusing to parade around naked in front of his drunken friends!?) and Esther praised for graciously submitting (by illegally requesting an audience with her husband, who she was forced to marry after he slept with hundreds of other concubines to pick his favorite?!). Grace’s conclusion that “[Esther’s] example illustrates the repeated command across all Scripture that wives respectfully submit to their husbands and removes any excuse we have for disrespecting our husbands,” fails massively to understand the context of that story.
Mark also misses the point when he praises Martin Luther and his wife Katherine because “they set in motion a model for Christian faith and maturity through marriage, sex, and children, rather than through singleness and celibacy,” a position that wholly discounts the apostle Paul’s high praise for celibacy in 1 and 2 Corinthians. I don’t know why Christians keep fighting over which is better—singleness or marriage—when it seems rather obvious, both from Scripture and from Church history, that both can glorify God.
As he has in the past, Mark essentially reduces the Song of Songs to a sex manual, instructing wives to be “visually generous” with their husbands. Believing the poem to be about Solomon himself, Mark has to admit that the impassioned exchanges between the two lovers must have occurred “before the multiple wives and concubines ruined the love and oneness they had together.”
The chapter entitled “Can we...?” which has scandalized so many people with its advice on everything from oral sex, to role playing, to sex toys really isn’t that shocking to me. It seems like common sense that couples should feel free to engage in such activities if both partners enjoy them, so long as they don’t become obsessions. The fact that Christian couples seem to need the approval of a pastor along with some strategically placed Bible verses in order to engage in these activities is a bigger concern to me. It seems that we are once again demanding more from the text and from our pastors than they can and should give.
In short, believers should be wary of overzealous attempts like these to prescribe “biblical sex,” when sex—like beauty and like God—remains shaded with mystery. Paul likens the love between a man and a woman to the mystery of Christ’s love for the Church, the writer of Proverbs to the inscrutable way of an eagle in the sky. When sexuality gets relegated to the realm of religious absolutes and strictly enforced roles, the focus tends to shift from serving one another to servicing one another. And that’s no way to love.
As others have noted, the book focuses so much on sex that it can create the impression that it’s the most important element of marriage. Also, as I’ve noticed before, Mark has the tendency to project. Because his wife was abused in the past, he believes that the majority of women were abused in the past. Because he and Grace struggled with their sexual relationship, he believes that most couples struggle with their sexual relationship. Because he likes sports and hunting, he assumes that “real men” like sports and hunting. Because his marriage is based on a hierarchal pattern of submission, he believes that “real marriage” is based on a hierarchal pattern of submission.
In addition, Pastor Mark provides us with a few of his classic face-palm-inducing quotes:
“The previous church I had attended was Catholic, with a priest who seemed to be a gay alcoholic. He was the last person on earth I wanted to be like. To a young man, a life of poverty, celibacy, living at church, and wearing a dress was more frightful than going to hell, so I stopped somewhere around junior high. But this pastor was different. He had been in the military, had earned a few advanced degrees, and was smart. He was humble. He bow hunted. He had sex with his wife.” - p. 9
“We did have mediocre sex that eventually resulted in five children and one miscarriage.” - p. 15
But by far the most disturbing part of the book is the first chapter, in which Mark and Grace go into extraordinary detail about their troubled sexual relationship. In this section, Grace is often cast as the damaged and sinful wife who withholds sex from her deserving husband, Mark the hero who is justified in leaving his wife but instead comes along to rescue her. The amount of guilt and shame that pervades this part of the book makes me so sad.
The review over at Friendly Atheist explores this section in more detail, but here’s an excerpt:
My previously free and fun girlfriend was suddenly my frigid and fearful wife. She did not undress in front of me, required the lights to be off on the rare occasions we were intimate, checked out during sex, and experienced a lot of physical discomfort because she was tense...One night, as we approached the birth of our first child, Ashley, and the launch of our church, I had a dream in which I saw some things that shook me to my core. I saw in painful detail Grace sinning sexually during a senior trip she took after high school when we had just started dating. It was so clear it was like watching a film — something I cannot really explain but the kind of revelation I sometimes receive. I awoke, threw up, and spent the rest of the night sitting on our couch, praying, hoping it was untrue, and waiting for her to wake up so I could ask her. I asked her if it was true, fearing the answer. Yes, she confessed, it was. Grace started weeping and trying to apologize for lying to me, but I honestly don’t remember the details of the conversation, as I was shell-shocked. Had I known about this sin, I would not have married her.” (p. 6, 11-12)
What’s perhaps most interesting about all of this is that Mark admits that this was how he felt about his wife and his marriage while he was confidently preaching through his first Song of Solomon series at his growing church!
“In the second year of the church we had a lot of single people getting married," he writes, "so I decided to preach through the Song of Songs on the joys of marital intimacy and sex. The church grew quickly, lots of people got married, many women became pregnant, and my counseling load exploded. I started spending dozens of hours every week dealing with every kind of sexual issue imaginable...Although I loved our people and my wife, this only added to my bitterness. I had a church filled with young women who were asking how they could stop being sexually ravenous and wait for a Christian husband, then I’d go home to a wife whom I was not sexually enjoying.” (p. 15)
He also notes: “I grew more chauvinistic. I had never cheated on a girlfriend, but I never had a girlfriend who did not cheat on me. And now I knew that included my own wife. So I started to distrust women in general, including Grace. This affected my tone in preaching for a season, something I will always regret.” (p. 14)
While I appreciate Mark and Grace’s honesty in admitting that they don’t “have it all together,” and while I would never expect a pastor to preach only on subjects which he or she has mastered, the fact that Mark was not only making some of his most famous (and controversial ) comments about women and sex during this difficult time in his marriage, but also providing counseling to couples, says something disturbing about the degree to which he can live in dishonesty and denial...and, perhaps, the degree to which we allow (even expect!) our pastors to do so.
It will also inevitably raise questions in the reader’s mind about how much of the content of Real Marriagecan be trusted. (I personally find that whole bit about Mark’s “vision” a little strange.)
By his own admission, Driscoll’s troubled sex life affected his teaching of Scripture, so it will not do for Christians to continue to insist that pastors who teach the “timeless truths of Scripture,” cannot be wrong.
Which brings me back to my original point: Just because someone is a pastor does not mean that he or she is an expert on sex...or money or relationships or marriage. Christian couples struggling in their marriage should seek professional counseling, and not rely exclusively on a single pastor (or his or her interpretation of Scripture) for help.
Meanwhile, evangelicals in particular need to do something about our celebrity-pastor culture. Mark Driscoll is simply not qualified to serve as a sex therapist—most pastors aren’t!
True maturity is marked not by how much a person knows but by the wisdom he or she shows in discerning when to speak with authority and when to hold back. And when it comes to maturity, I’m afraid that Pastor Mark still has a long way to go.
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