Why I’m Writing This
If you know me, you know that I take Php 1:15-18 seriously. I strive to rejoice whenever the gospel is preached. If I have concerns about motives or secondary messages, I can still rejoice that they preach the gospel. I want to be defined by what I’m for, rather than what I’m against. I want FBC to be known for truth and grace, rather than identified by what we oppose.
With that frame of mind, I agonized for a time regarding whether to write about ‘Real Marriage.’ In the past, I have heard Mark Driscoll be a strong advocate for the biblical gospel and not back down from core truths about Christ, the atonement and a salvation that radically transforms your life. Additionally, he is a strong complementarian – he passionately, provokingly argues for men and women to fulfill and live out their biblical roles. Even though many amazingly solid, biblical, practical, helpful marriage books have been published, Driscoll often speaks in such a way that challenges how you think about life and truth. He can make a Christian consider something ‘old’ in a completely new way. I don’t always agree with what he says, but I appreciate his passion for Christ to be manifest in men and women.
Though I’m always reading books, I rarely offer a public review of a book. I would not publicly write about Real Marriage if I were not seeing on Facebook and hearing on Sundays about people who are planning to attend the conference from which this book is based. So I am compelled to speak out of pastoral concern for those whom I love.
What I Think About the Book
The book has some real strengths. Its good on roles. Its good on friendship. Its good on abuse and the dangers of pornography. Its pretty good on conflict resolution. Mark and Grace are transparent in a helpful but not dramatic way. But, as Doug Wilson has said, the issues that bring concern are “like finding a caterpillar in your salad. The fact that the overwhelming majority of the salad is still perfectly fine does not serve to allay your concerns. You still have words with the waiter.”
With FBC in mind, here are the main concerns that I have for our flock in regards to this book:
1) Real Marriage is NOT for those who got married with little-to-no sexual background or experiences prior to marriage, and who have remained unaffected by pornography.
The title of the book is, Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship and Life Together. Listing sex first is appropriate. Do not think that you are picking up a marriage book; you are picking up a book that devotes 5 of 11 chapters to sex. The tone and topics are not focused on maintaining romantic love and intimacy over years of marriage. Rather the topics include pornography, sexual abuse, selfishness in sex, and a quite explicit interpretation of the Song of Solomon. Additionally, you will find the Driscoll’s answers to questions about masturbation, what is & isn’t sodomy, sex toys, cybersex, plastic surgery and more. [SPOILER ALERT] In the end, the Driscolls say that most everything is permissible if both of you are willing and not enslaved. They don’t advocate everything, but neither do they have a problem with much.
If the consumption of pornography is not a part of your marriage, then much of what’s written in the second half of the book is not healthy for you. If you and your spouse have a good sex life now, then the counsel and explorations in Real Marriage have great potential to cause problems rather than enhancement. Do you need to explore the paths of sin in order to be wise about sin?
We are to cling to what is pure and holy (1 Pet 1:14-16). Scripture calls us to live different than unbelievers, even in our sexual relations (1 Thess 4:5, 4:7, Eph 4:17). Why would I have couples give extended consideration to plastic surgery, cybersex or sex toys when they do not think on or desire them to begin with? Some of what’s written has great potential to raise discontent and bring impure thoughts. As Christians, we are called to think on what is true, lovely & admirable, taking our thoughts captive and making them obedient to Christ (Php 4:8, 2 Cor 10:5). If pornography or other aspects of your past have caused things like role-playing and sex toys to become an issue in your marriage and sex life, then you should work to address those issues. But why would you invite them into your or your spouse’s heart when the issue didn’t previously exist?!
2) The Driscoll’s story, from the beginning to the eventual restoration of their marriage, is staked on claims of direct revelation from God.
The Driscolls do an admirable job of telling their story and there are many displays of God’s grace and kindness to them. Yet, were it not for ongoing direct revelation from God, there would be no marriage nor would it remain intact. As Mark has shared before, he believes that God spoke directly to him, telling him to marry Grace, preach the Bible, train men and plant churches (8, 12). This was while he and Grace were having premarital sex, which eventually stopped prior to their actual wedding (8-9). After much pain and bitterness, Mark’s heart began to soften when God again spoke directly to him, telling him of his priority and need in Grace’s life (15). Later, God would directly tell Grace what to say to Mark that would break through the hardness that existed in their relationship (25).
If you are a part of FBC, you know that our church is cessationist and are at theological odds with ongoing, direct revelation from God. We believe that God speaks through His Word and that His Spirit leads us. We do not see any evidence that God speaks directly to all Christians at ANY time in biblical history, and especially today as we have the complete faith, once for all revealed in Scripture, in our hands. We understand God’s perfect will for our lives as we study and know the Bible, and as the Spirit enables us to apply those principles to our lives.
Our conviction of how we learn and apply God’s will today is completely contrary to the Driscoll’s story. The landmarks of change in their marriage are marked by occasions of direct revelation. If true, what they ultimately required, and what each marriage will sometimes require, is for God to speak directly to the husband and wife, telling them what they need to do. This is at odds with the authority and sufficiency of the Word of God. Hasn’t He already granted to us everything necessary for life and godliness? (2 Pet 1:3)
Even more concerning to me is the dream that Mark had in which “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 that it was like watching a film—something I cannot really explain but the kind of revelation I sometimes receive.” Mark does not explicitly say that this dream was from God, though he implies it in context and by the assertion that these revelations are ongoing during his pastoral ministry.
Throughout biblical history, Abimelech, Jacob, Laban, Joseph, Solomon, Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel and Joseph (husband of Mary) are on record as receiving dreams from God. In the dreams of Abimilech, Laban, Solomon and Joseph, they saw and heard from God or the Angel of the Lord directly. So that leaves us with four men in Scripture who had dream-like dreams from God. The receiving of dreams and their interpretation are not listed as gifts in 1 Cor 12, Rom 12 or Eph 4.
To be clear, NO dream (or vision) from God that’s recorded in Scripture is so lurid and full of sin as Mark’s. Is it possible that these dreams were from God? Not likely. Hebrews 1:1-2 further closes the door on that possibility. “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things.”
3) Real Marriage offers an inadequate grid for evaluating issues that aren’t explicitly addressed by God’s Word.
When considering things that the Bible doesn’t explicitly address, we must examine it in light of what we do know from the Word. In chapter 10, in fielding questions about sex, Driscoll employs a problematic three-part grid to analyze the issue. He asks (1) is it lawful?, (2) is it helpful?, and (3) is it enslaving?
As Denny Burk argues, the context of 1 Cor 6:12 is violated when used in this manner. Paul is not advocating the belief that all things are lawful unless explicitly condemned. In fact, 1 Corinthians 8-10 argues that our liberties in Christ are to be subjugated for the spiritual welfare of others. Doug Wilson adds that Driscoll’s three questions are reductionistic in a way that creates other problems. As an example:
Many Christians are against breast implants, because, the reasoning goes, we shouldn’t be playing God. But a lot of these same Christians have no trouble “playing God” by getting braces for teeth of those same daughters in question. They are messing around with what God gave them there as well, right? So that can’t be the principle — don’t play God with breast size, but straightening the teeth are fine. Or, if it is the principle, we are all on way to becoming black bumper Mennonites. But the fact that (as stated) the principle is insufficient does not mean that there are no principles that apply. But it does mean that we have to gird up the loins of our minds.
The two key failures of this “Can We ____?” chapter are that (a) the heart issue, and (b) the glory of God, are almost completely neglected in the conversation. To follow through with the above example of breast implants and teeth straightening, the key question is, “why?” Why do you need to feel more attractive? What is driving your heart’s desire to be physically altered? Similarly, will your decision for larger breasts or straighter teeth (or cybersex and sex toys, for that matter) promote the glory of God in your relationship? Will it cause you to draw closer to God? Or is this something you want to do for selfish reasons, to promote your own glory? Will it help others know God more intimately? Will it lead your spouse, your friends and/or your own heart to more strongly worship and enjoy God? Or are you falling more in love with creation rather than the Creator?
When evaluating questions like these, we have to grapple with our heart motivation for why we want to do them. Have we truly embraced 1 Cor 10:31? “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
4) Stats and sociology receive greater attention than the Bible and the Gospel.
Throughout the book, and especially when dealing with sex, statistics are used to strengthen and weight argumentation. Psychological research, polling studies, and sociological work are the primary tools used to argue for the failure of men and women in their roles and their marriages. (Assuming Susan Bauer did her homework, the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox is footnoted more often than any other source.) Scripture passages are typically footnotes, providing the support for the counsel being provided. For example, in a sixteen page chapter on pornography, six pages speak about Scripture, while at least ten have reference to psychology and sociology. Simply based on volume, Scripture is given lighter treatment and less relied upon.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Scripture and the Gospel both receive ongoing and regular reference in Real Marriage. But there is not any in-depth explanation of the Gospel and its place in friendship, conflict, or sex. Likewise, foundational passages from Genesis (i.e., 1:27, 2:18, and 2:24) receive little-to-no treatment. Ephesians 5 is said to be “perhaps the clearest section of the Bible on the role of husbands to lead their families and wives to respectfully submit to them” (64). Yet in the chapters on men’s and women’s roles, there is only a single paragraph in each that considers its import and significance.
Real Marriage has some wise and practical counsel that is rooted in Scripture, but it is often explained and justified on the basis of experience and sociology. If we believe that God changes people by means of the Word of God, then the connection between biblical truth and life application should be more explicit. In his book on doctrine, Driscoll argues for the sufficiency and authority of the Word, but Real Marriage does not strongly convey that belief.
I don’t think that reading Real Marriage will send you to hell. I think that there are some good principles in it. But, as stated before, finding a caterpillar in your salad tends to taint the whole thing. I recognize that there will be some marriages that are helped by some of what the Driscolls have written. But I will not be recommending this book to others. I would not prompt young but spiritually healthy couples to consider topics such as sex toys, breast implants, cybersex, etc. It invites the opportunity for discontentment and impure thoughts in areas that were not previously a struggle.
I will recommend other solid marriage books that prompt you to evaluate issues through a biblical grid. There are better books available that will prompt life change based on conviction and applications from Scripture, rather than by direct revelation from God and muddy decision-making.
Should You Attend the Conference?
If you were to ask me this, I’d respond with “Why do you want to go?” If you read the above, you know the major issues with the book. So why do you want to go? What’s your goal in going?
- You say, I like Driscoll and want to hear him live.
» Watch YouTube.
- You say, I want help with our marriage.
» I would plead with you to reconsider if this book is where you want to seek counsel. If you already bought tickets & can get a refund, use the money to buy a solid marriage book (some suggestions below) and then spend the conference day on a long date, reading and talking together.
- You say, one/both of us has a lot of questions about sex and what’s permissible.
» Then get CJ Mahaney’s book listed below. Read and apply it. Past abuse? Get the Holcomb’s book and read through that together. Fighting porn? Get Tim Challies’ book.
- You say, I don’t care what you think we’re going anyway?!
» Why are you still reading then? Could it be that you are simply looking for someone to approve your choice? At least read the book before you head to the conference.
Consider that Christ desires you to be cleansed “by the washing of the water with the Word,” appearing before him “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that (you) might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:26-27).
Better Marriage Books
Here’s some marriage books I’d recommend instead:
Sex, Romance and the Glory of God « CJ Mahaney (sex & friendship)
Rid of My Disgrace « Justin Holcomb (sexual assault/abuse)
The Peacemaker « Ken Sande (conflict resolution)
Your Family, God’s Way « Wayne Mack (communication)
The Complete Husband « Lou Priolo (role of husband)
Feminine Appeal « Carolyn Mahaney (role of wife)
The Treasure Principle « Randy Alcorn (money)
What Others Have Said
There is a general consensus that the book is a mix of good and bad. The diversity mainly exists on whether the good outweighs the bad. Most reviewers seem to express similar concerns, even when coming from pretty different camps.
Tim Challies (Canadian pastor) » “Would I want to read it with my wife or would I encourage her to read it on her own? Would I recommend it to the people in my church? In both cases the answer is no. This is not to say that the book is entirely without merit; Real Marriage does have things to commend it. But in my assessment the negatives far outweigh the positives. Its disjointed nature, the way it is unhinged from the gospel, the way it evaluates sexual acts through an improper grid—in all these ways and more it inadvertently lowers marriage rather than elevates it. With so many good books on marriage available to us, I see no reason to recommend this one.”
Denny Burk (Boyce College) » “At the end of the day however, the shortcomings I have identified above keep me from giving Real Marriage an unqualified endorsement. Indeed the theological and pastoral errors of chapter 10 alone are weighty, and they are the primary reason that I would not recommend this book for marriage counseling. There are other books that have many of the strengths of Real Marriage without all the weaknesses.”
Aaron Armstrong (Gospel Coalition) » “For some readers, Real Marriage will be a challenge, either because of the frank talk about sex or the Driscolls’ traditional view of marriage. Every reader is going to take away something different—I know many who will be deeply offended by the questions of what is acceptable sexual practice, and I know others who will welcome their approach. One can always choose to ignore chapter 10 (and perhaps many should), but you would be wrong to write off the entire book. The objective good far outweighs the questionable content. Read the book carefully and with discernment.”
Eliza Jane Huie (Sovereign Grace, NANC counselor) » “As a woman there were times I felt the delivery of some of the content was bordering on crude. As a wife I am not going to pass this one on to my husband although I read many parts to him to get his thoughts. They raised similar concerns in him. As a mother of teen children (who read this blog) I will not be leaving this book around on the coffee table. As a Christian I greatly appreciate the Driscolls’ integrity to the gospel and I respect their willingness to be so honest with their struggle. I have misgivings about some of their interpretation of Scripture as well as the use of their influence to speak so unashamedly to things that just might fall under things too “shameful even to mention”.”
Doug Wilson (Reformed) » Wilson’s articles lucidly describe some of the danger with the Driscolls’ evaluative grid. Of particular note are the last three, each of which is worth reading in full.
- Some Preliminary Thoughts on Real Marriage
- Preliminary Thoughts on Real Marriage, part dos
- Sexual Dirt and a Gospel Backhoe
- Dinner for Two at Angelos
- Sexual Obedience Outside Scripture
Other Reviewers » Yes, I know there are more reviews out there. I debated on including them. I decided that the above was a sufficient representative sampling.