Marriage and Self-Denial: A Case Study in Sexual Theology

For the last two days, I have been binging Christianity Today’s podcast series The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. There is much to consider in this magnificent piece of long-form journalism, and perhaps we will return at some point to enumerate its many lessons for evangelism, missions, and leadership. But what I want to talk about today is how the sexual theology of a church can go off the rails if it is not rooted in, and subordinated to, a robust understanding of the gospel.

Setting the Stage

Episode 5 of the series is entitled “The Things We Do to Women.” In previous episodes, especially Episode 4, the series analyzes how the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church, Mark Driscoll, called men to a forceful, responsible vision of masculinity. These previous episodes detail how this call created problems for the church but also helped a lot of men find a sense of purpose for their lives. 

“The Things We do to Women,” by contrast, looks at the dark underbelly of that way of construing masculinity. It explores how the culture created by Mark Driscoll and other leaders in the church objectified and marginalized women. It reads the rhetoric and practices of Mars Hill through an undeniably feminist lens, and this fact will, no doubt, be off-putting to some. But it also reads that rhetoric and those practices through the lens of the real-world suffering endured by women at the church. 

Even as a man, I couldn’t listen to this episode without asking myself some uncomfortable questions. What if I were a woman at Mars Hill who was not young, attractive, and confident in her sexuality? What if I were a woman who struggled to see myself as worthy of a man’s desire, or what if I just didn’t get the point of sex if it was really just for pleasing the man and making babies? What if I were a woman who had a history of abuse?”

The Great Contradiction

These are questions feminist critics have hurled at complementarian Christianity for some time now, and one might understand why complementarians might get tired of hearing them. The uncomfortable truth is that men in Christian marriages need their wives to be concerned about their husband’s sexual well-being. We Christians may not agree on much, but almost all of us do affirm that adultery is wrong. And most—though not all—men want to live a sexually vibrant life. And that desire is not a product of the pornographic revolution. It is hard-wired into who we are as men.

And yet, the feminists are right, too. Much of the rhetoric surrounding sexuality in conservative Christian circles has presented women as either threats to a man’s holiness or as the means by which his desires are met. And although I have not dug into the sources to be sure, my educated guess is this is not a new phenomenon within Christianity.

Any sensitive interpreter can spot the problems this way of characterizing women creates. Yes, it may serve the interest of powerful men, protecting them from urges they cannot control—or simply do not want to exert the effort necessary to control. But it shames women for things they cannot control, like the sexual attractiveness of their bodies (or their perceived lack thereof). More to the point, it deprives women of their genuine humanity by ignoring those aspects of their being that are not related to sex, procreation, and the raising of children.

And what about the sexual desires of the woman herself? At best, these are ignored or treated as inconsequential. At worst, they are seen as evidence that the woman is morally bankrupt. So, the woman in question is put into an impossible situation. She is shamed if she longs to be loved bodily by a man, especially if she is not married. But she is also shamed if she does not do exactly what will please her husband, even if doing so would violate her own sense of what is best for her, for her husband, and for her marriage.

The Missing Element

What seems to be missing, both at Mars Hill and in other Christian churches, is any sense that sex is an act of self-giving love. It is the conviction that, even in the bedroom, the Christian’s responsibility is to lay down his or her life for the well-being of the other. And especially for complementarians who want to be consistent with their own theology (and there are many who do), this obligation applies to men first (cf. Ephesians 5:21-33).

I recognize the difficulty of what I am advocating. So much of our biology, to say nothing of our culture, works against such a vision of sexuality. But I have heard the anguished voices of women who are dear to me, women who love sex and who love their husbands but who have also been wounded by the impossible position in which the majority of churches and theologies put them. And, I am absolutely committed to a vision of Christianity which brings all of life under the Lordship of Christ.

Conversations

A blog is probably not the place to talk about how we bring this vision for human sexuality to life. But we do need to talk about it, and we need to talk about it a lot. These conversations need to be done in private, away from the prying eyes of skeptics and the preening of those who want to become the next social media star. They need to be moderated by theologians who are committed to the full participation of women in Christian life and by mental health professionals who are committed to a genuinely Christian sexual ethic. And they need to be long enough, and sensitive enough, to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. 

One final point needs to be made. There are so many entanglements, temptations, wounds, and scars that we must work through. There is so much shame surrounding sex and so much mistrust between the sexes. It will take a miracle for us to work all of this out without wounding one another further. 

Fortunately, we serve a God who is still in the miracle-working business. Whatever misgivings you have about Christianity Today or animosity you hold towards Mars Hill, no matter whether you are a complementarian, an egalitarian, or something in between, no matter what side you have taken in the donnybrooks that have divided America over the past fifty years, let us all come together in asking God to do something amazing in and through us. Let us commit ourselves to the radical ethic of Jesus, and let us trust him—and not our own misguided and short-sighted efforts—to provide us with the abundant life that he has promised (John 10:10).

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