I got married four months ago. Marriage has forced me to confront something I’ve been avoiding for awhile – the role of women in Christianity. As a person of faith, I now have to come to terms with what is typically prescribed for a Christian woman and wife. I’ve had to grapple with the fact that sometimes my faith isn’t as female friendly as I’d like to believe. Sometimes (or perhaps a lot of the time) the Bible isn’t as female friendly as I’d like to believe. It’s quite a conundrum because I’m personally a fan of the whole God-so-loved-the-world thing. The submissive wife and women-be-silent-in-church thing? Not so much.
Mark Driscoll is one of the most popular and influential Christian leaders out there. His most recent book, Real Marriage, co-authoured with his wife, Grace, made the Amazon and New York Times Bestseller lists. Thousands, if not many more, have heard him speak about the subject in a live sermon or podcast. He’s not a fringe preacher. I know Mark’s type of theology so well I could preach his sermons myself, or at least write them. The ideas he espouses have been around far longer than he has, but his superstar status has affirmed those ideas in today’s Christian mainstream. And with that comes the aforementioned conundrum-inducing perspectives towards women in Christian culture.
This culture has spent the past decade or so countering accusations of sexual repression. “Now look here, see, we can talk about sex,” said Christian pastors. “Four part series on marriage and sex! Ten part series on the Song of Songs! Did you know that the Bible approves oral sex? Oral sex! Clusters of grapes! Twin fawns! Man, and these non-Christians think we’re repressed.”
Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship & Life Together by Mark and Grace Driscoll is, judging by popularity, the best mainstream evangelical Christianity has to offer on the subject. And it’s not very good.
Granted, the book has its moments: the friendship chapter, open discussion about dealing with sexual abuse and the degradation of women in pornography. Unfortunately, these chapters aren’t quite worth the price of admission. Those interested would be better off finding books on those individual subjects. I would include the Driscoll’s honesty about their own relationship as a highlight, but they blatantly falsify other information in the book that I simply can’t take their accounts at face value, though I want to. Specifically, and this brings me back to my initial conflict, the book’s portrayal of feminism.
The Driscolls aren’t fans of feminism, mainly because they don’t understand it at all. Right away, they set us up with a false definition of a term used throughout the rest of the book: feminism is female chauvinism.
“Curiously, God made the woman from a rib taken out of the man’s side. Perhaps this was because she belongs at his side as an intimate equal and not in front of him as feminism would teach or behind him as chauvinism would teach.” P. 37
It’s actually disturbing how badly feminism is misinterpreted here. Feminism seeks equality, not dominance. For those who are familiar with his preaching, Mark is hyper-aware of his masculinity. He fears “wearing a dress” like a “gay” priest more than hell itself. He fears emasculation and, in his mind, feminism is out to do just that. The Driscoll’s misleading version of feminism appears early in the book which betrays my trust early on. If they’re not willing to properly understand and define such a revolutionary and basic idea, how am I supposed to believe they have anything relevant to say to me about relationships and sexuality?
It’s interesting to note the Driscolls acknowledge the importance of feminist thought and the title of “feminist” only when it suits them. In fact, the chapter on pornography quotes three separate feminist scholars. As I stated earlier, this chapter does a decent job explaining the degradation of woman in pornography. It also shows the Driscolls are willing to quote anyone, even a dreaded feminist, to support their arguments. For all other intents and purposes, feminism is something to avoid because they have defined it as something it is not.
The real definition of feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men. Even if the Driscolls had defined it properly, they would still have issues with it as they strongly advocate traditional gender roles. The concept of egalitarian marriage gets the same treatment as feminism – dismissive and uninformed.
“In past generations, chauvinism was common because some husbands did not respect their wives as equal or value their contributions. In reaction, feminism then came into vogue, seeking to get women out of the home and into the workplace, and to make husbands do half the chores at home. This method has been called an egalitarian marriage.” p. 61.
Oh, and, you know, the right to vote, go to university and run for office. Again, the Driscolls brush past the importance of the feminist movement – its most significant impact is that men are now doing more household chores. Feminism, instead of a revolution for women’s rights, is described as “in vogue,” like some transient hype. Egalitarian marriage is chalked up entirely to chore division not, you know, equal opportunity for both partners to determine marriage roles as they see fit, according to their situation, needs and wants.
While we’re defining things, let’s look up complementarianism, a concept the Driscolls spend a lot of time endorsing: “God has created men and women equal in their essential dignity and human personhood, but different and complementary in function with male headship in the home and in the Church.”
I actually have absolutely nothing wrong with that statement up until “with male headship in the home and in the Church.” If men and women are so equal in dignity and personhood, it seems arbitrary that men get to lead just because. And trust me, I’ve heard all the arguments. I’ve heard, in an ideal world, submitting to a Godly man would be no probalo because he’d naturally consult his wife anyways and try to make the best possible decisions for the family. This kind of arrangement simply has no place in a flawed world such as ours, especially when men have abused their authority for, oh, you know, thousands of years. Even Mark agrees it would be terrifying to see one of his own daughters marry an ungodly man.
“The thought of walking my daughters down the aisle and handing them to a man and trusting that he will love them and protect them and serve them and care for them and look after them causes me fear and grave concern.” p. 49
The idea of being married to a man who expects me to be the submissive yet somehow equal helper leaves a lot of room for error. It’s a slippery slope. And yes, I have to use that term. Different men interpret “Godliness” differently, and being the “head of the house” gives them an excuse to exact authority based on their interpretations, even if they’re damaging and wrong. I know what happens when men abuse arbitrary “spiritual” authority over you and it’s not pretty. I’d much rather we put men and women on equal ground completely and just call it a day.
While women are called to submit to their husbands, explain the Driscolls, they are not called to submit to men in general (pg 82). This is a huge paradox that makes the authors look completely ignorant. I don’t know how I can proceed to read this book on a rational level. Let’s look at the Driscoll’s prescription for a Godly woman:
Women are sanctified of Original Sin (disobeying God by eating the apple in Eden) by becoming wives and mothers. In the same way, men are sanctified by working a providing for the family. It is “acceptable” for a woman to work before she has children, but the man should be the primary breadwinner (p.52). While birth control itself isn’t necessarily bad, a woman is sinful if she uses it specifically to further “lesser priorities” like a career and delay “higher priorities” like starting a family (p.198). Once a woman has had children, Mark strongly advocates she resign from her career and stay at home.
So if women follow this prescribed “Biblical” life path of babymaking and staying home as submissive wives, who does that leave to fill leadership roles in the private and public spheres? Men. Male politicians, lawmakers, police, doctors, lawyers, teachers, pastors, employers. Women have no choice but to “submit to men in general.” Again, it’s a paradox the Driscoll’s make no effort to explain or even acknowledge.
But wait, there’s more!
Despite all I’ve already discussed, the chapter entitled “The Respectful Wife” is the true root of my distrust. Grace Driscoll twists the Biblical story of Esther so far out of context it’s unbelievable.
“[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… Amazingly, when she had an extremely urgent request, she respectfully waited outside [her husband's] room to be heard. She didn’t barge in and demand that he do what she wanted …She didn’t disregard his need for respect.” (p.65)
Or, you know, she was being extremely tactful so this king she was forced to marry wouldn’t kill her and commit genocide against her people which he was totally planning on doing. The complete abuse of the Esther story, and I’ll use a bit of “Christianese” here, is a huge stumbling block for those who have actually read the book of Esther – and it’s not that hard to do, it’s like four chapters.
How am I supposed to feel when I read Esther’s oppression is actually an inspiring story about respectful submission? It’s the nail in the coffin for downplaying how legitimately oppressed women have been throughout time. Instead, this oppression is whitewashed as idyllic wifely respect. They’re not doing much for their complimentarian cause when they blatantly misrepresent any arguments against it.
Rachel Held Evans, a Christian feminist, summed up the situation perfectly in a blog post, which I recommend you read in its entirety here.
Whether we like to admit it or not, the Bible was written at a time in history when most women were owned by their husbands.
Technically speaking, it is biblical for a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt (Exodus 21:7), biblical for her to be forced to marry her rapist (Exodus 22:16-17), biblical for her to remain silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), biblical for her to cover her head (1 Corinthians 11:6), and biblical for her to be one of many wives (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).
…the reason Esther waited outside her husband’s room was because she would have been executed by Xerxes if she hadn’t! Or that the very act of summoning her husband was an act of defiance, not submission, that could have gotten Esther killed. Or that the dynamic between Esther and Xerxes is decidedly not the picture of a healthy marital relationship, what with the harem and death threats and all.
Driscoll and Patterson’s bizarre interpretations of Vashti, Esther, and Xerxes represent yet another example of how the modern biblical womanhood movement isn’t as concerned with returning to biblical womanhood as it is with returning to 1950s, pre-feminist America.”
Now that we’re properly prepared to raise an eyebrow at almost every other statement in this book, we can move along to the sexy times? That was me raising an eyebrow in syntax.
Much hullabaloo has been raised over the “explicitness” of the chapter entitled “Can We____?” (Side note: I definitely need to use the word hullabaloo more often). Conversely, much has been said about the chapter’s banality. I fall into the latter camp. It’s such a typical and sterile discussion of sexuality I can barely understand why anyone would be alarmed at its content.
However, I will make a small concession. The Driscolls note nearly every translation of Song of Solomon 7:2 is incorrect. The popular translation reads: “Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine.”
They quote a scholar who says,
“’The problem is with the word ‘navel’… the word almost certainly is a reference to the innermost sexual parts of the woman, her vagina (vulva).’ …the image evokes a comparison that is based on taste. The description of the woman’s aperture as containing wine implies the man’s desire to drink from the sensual bowl.”
So why “navel?” The Driscoll’s excuse the mistranslation of vulva as a “subtle and tasteful allusion.” Implying that “vagina” or “vulva” is vulgar? To me it just screams the translators just got skittish about the word vagina, a skittishness not at all uncommon. I have actually heard a middle aged man refer to “vagina” as “the v-word.”
Anyways, the Driscolls almost got points with me for that one. Moving on.
In determining whether a sexual act is acceptable or not, Mark asks three questions: Is it lawful? Is it helpful? Is it enslaving? Early in the chapter, he explains that something is enslaving when it becomes obsessive, addictive and compulsive. He then goes through various acts: masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, sex toys and role playing, giving the thumbs up to most of them provided they never take precedence over good ol’ vaginal intercourse. If something else becomes primary, it risks becoming enslaving. Never forget, vaginal intercourse is the Ultimate Sexual Act. He never explains why but I assume it’s because it’s completely heterosexual and makes babies. Given the trajectory of this book, it makes sense. And yet I am assuming where I shouldn’t have to assume. I am completely taking his word that if a couple has oral sex, or anything else, more often than “regular” vaginal intercourse, there might be something wrong with them. And, given the history of misleading information in this book, coupled with the fact that Driscoll is not actually a sex therapist, I am not inclined to take him at his word.
Let’s take a look at what an actual sex therapist with a Ph.D has to say about vaginal intercourse:
“My initial forays into oral sex were a crutch, a way of compensating for my sexual inadequacies, and they were approached with the assumption that cunnilingus was a poor man’s second to the joys and splendors of “real sex” – like many, I took it for granted that intercourse was “the right way” for couples to experience orgasms….I quickly learned that oral sex is real sex…”
That’s Ian Kerner in the popular book She Comes First published in 2004. He never once warns that oral sex should be secondary to intercourse lest it becomes ‘enslaving.’ So why does Driscoll?
“So long as it [oral sex] is part of a couple’s life and not the primary sexual act, it is being stewarded well.” (p. 187)
He has no sources, no back up, no clarification; he just says it and expects us to believe it. Why Driscoll is doling out sex advice when so many others are far more helpful and qualified is beyond me. Oh, wait, it’s because “most sexual teaching outside the church is perverted.” (p.xiv.)
That statement essentially sums up what is wrong with the sexuality portrayed in this book. It’s so open about its closed-mindedness. Rarely willing to reference any actual sex therapists or experts, the Driscolls claim authority by quoting ample surveys and statistics. The numbers are fine, but the assertions made based on those numbers often seem arbitrary and confusing. I’m not saying Driscoll doesn’t ever have good points or statements that might truly help some people, but it’s mixed in with head-scratching assumptions and banal observations that undermine his credibility.
I’m afraid there’s not much more to say about how incredibly confusing and unhelpful this book is in every way. Christian sexuality, though a popular sermon topic, is still repressed as ever. By refusing to acknowledge modern concepts or even define them correctly, the Driscolls have proven that a great many evangelicals are still willingly ignorant of the world around them, choosing to remain in an isolated ideological bubble.
As for me, I haven’t gained any satisfactory answers about my role as a Christian woman and wife. By wanting to pursue a career first instead of a family, I am selfish and sinful. By identifying as a feminist and favoring egalitarian marriage, I am emasculating my husband by making him do household chores. By not considering him the “head of the house,” I am disrespectful. Essentially, I am in need of repentance for being a sorry excuse for a woman and wife.
Thanks, but no thanks, Mark and Grace. I don’t want my marriage to fail, but I don’t want it to look like yours either. You’ve shown me I’ll have to search elsewhere for relevant advice and factual information about marriage and sex. You’ve shown me you are disinterested in the plight of the modern Christian woman who seeks to reconcile feminism and marriage equality with her faith.