Book Review: Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll

Whenever Mark Driscoll talks about sex and marriage, ears perk up. Some listen for ammo (and can usually find it). Others listen for something Tweetable. Still others search for something helpful. Is it any wonder, then, that when he first announced his new book would address marriage, many asked which line he would cross this time?

With Driscoll, readers have come to expect controversy. And Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together is sure to be his most controversial book yet—but not for the reasons you might think.

As you can imagine, the Driscolls do speak very frankly about the realities of sex in this book, but they are generally careful about avoiding unnecessarily sensational language. Instead, we find transparent confessions and honest answers to honest questions and concerns about sex, love, and marriage.

Risky Vulnerability

Starting with their own story, the Driscolls share how their marriage was nearly shipwrecked through years of difficulty, a lack of intimacy, poor communication and unresolved sin issues. “We were together, but both very lonely,” they explain.1

Eventually things came to a head after Mark Driscoll burned out his adrenal gland around 2006. “I needed a new life,” Mark writes. “I did not need a new job, but a new plan for that job. I also needed a new marriage, but wanted to have a new marriage with the same spouse. “

The degree of openness they show might come as a surprise to many readers. It is risky to be this vulnerable, but also necessary. It’s risky because it gives critics an opportunity to cry foul (“What gives them the right to write a book on marriage if theirs has been so bad?”). But it’s absolutely necessary for readers whose marriages are in danger of falling apart (or perhaps already have) to know there is hope. A broken marriage can be repaired, by God’s grace.

Marriage, Friendship and Taking out the Trash

So what does it take to make a good marriage? At its most basic level, you can’t have a godly marriage if you don’t have friendship. They writes, “All the talk about spending time and doing life together, making memories, being a good listener, growing old and taking care of each other, being honest, having the long view of things, repenting and forgiving can be summed up in one word—friendship.” This might seem obvious—at least it should be. But, as the authors note, friendship is often ignored in literature on Christian marriage. If spouses can’t be friends, they’ll quickly become enemies.

This becomes most evident as they share the story of John Wesley’s marriage to Molly Vazeille—a loveless ordeal that, according to the authors, some biographers refer to as the “30 years war.” The bitterness felt by Wesley and his wife was so strong that “she was dead and buried a few days before her husband was even notified.”

“The painful story of the Wesleys reminds us that there are no loving marriages apart from repentance and forgiveness,” they write. “Marriage either gets bitter or gets better.”

On a personal level, chapter five, “Taking Out the Trash,” struck me as one of the most important of the book. In my own marriage, we’ve fought hard to keep bitterness out. It’s not always easy. There are times when, frankly, I just want to stew, because I want to be right. My wife’s personality is much the same. It’s what has made us realize that we must take Paul’s admonition to “not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph. 4:26) very seriously. This chapter’s warning from the Wesleys, as well as the explanation of what repentance and forgiveness mean, are a source of encouragement for us to continue to pursue one another when we wrong the one we love. 

Sex and the Question of “Can We __________?”

Part two of Real Marriage deals heavily with sex, first looking at our attitudes toward it, asking if we see it as gross, as a gift from God, or if it functionally is our god. The correct view, the Driscolls contend, is to see sex as a gift—something that promotes pleasure, procreation, oneness, knowledge, comfort, and protection. Our generation tends to worship sex as a god, evidenced by our pornified culture and the epidemic levels of porn use and addiction even within the church. Ultimately, sex, like all things, comes down to worship. The Driscolls write, “Because sex is a gift that God gave, it is his intent that we steward and enjoy that gift, like every gift he gives, in such a way that is glorious to him and good for our marriages.”

No doubt many readers will skip immediately to chapter 10. Here, the Driscolls answer numerous questions on whether or not it’s acceptable for Christian couples to engage in a variety of acts, from self-stimulation to sodomy. On the one hand, I greatly appreciate their desire to give thoughtful answers to serious questions. Generally, they’re successful about providing fairly clinical answers that have been filtered through the parameters of 1 Corinthians 6:12—asking of each act, “Is it lawful, helpful, or potentially enslaving?’ Still, I’m not certain that this method works out quite the way they’d intended.

While the Driscolls shine when discussing an issue like birth control (which is a summary of the chapter on the same issue in Religion Saves), their answers come across as a bit too simplistic on an issue like sodomy. While they steer the answer toward “not helpful,” and adequately present the health risks, they are hesitant to say, “You know what, that’s just a bad idea.” This is where the lawful-helpful-enslaving grid falls flat. By separating the answers into distinct categories, they risk a reductionistic approach to what the Bible says. The authors too often say, “Does the Bible directly say no to [insert your issue here]?” And if no clear prohibition is found, then the act must be acceptable on some level, placing conscience and preference in the place of authority.

The most obvious example appears where the Driscolls write, “Legally and biblically anal sex is permissible for a married couple as Scripture does not forbid it.” This is soon followed by the caveat that “unless both of you have a clear conscience about the matter, it is unwise to engage in this act.” The problem here is that our consciences often deceive us. We might feel okay with doing something that is inappropriate.

This approach means the Driscolls inadequately address the question of motivation throughout the chapter. That is a huge error. If someone is asking, “Can we do XYZ?” we need to get to the issue of why. To be sure, I see the Driscolls trying to do this, if tangentially. Continuing with the previous example, they explain that many people are curious because of the prevalence of pornography in our culture. Now, that is certainly true, but the response just skims the surface—it doesn’t dig into the heart of the matter. Why we want to do something matters perhaps even more than the act itself. This is where discussing these issues with your own pastor is so important. Your pastor can help you look at your heart motivations, engage you in discussion, and challenge you on assumptions in a way that Real Marriage simply cannot. The Driscolls might be able to offer some interesting perspective and some helpful facts, but they cannot shepherd you through understanding the complexities of your desire to engage in a particular sexual expression. Running the question through the lawful-helpful-enslaving filter might be good start, but it’s not enough.

The saddest thing about this chapter, aside from it being the weakest in the book, is that it’s guaranteed to get the most attention. Yet, in my reading, it’s not remotely the most controversial aspect of Real Marriage.

Real Controversy

So if that’s not the most controversial portion of this book, what is? Believe it or not, it’s chapter four, “The Respectful Wife.” Today, the idea of respecting a husband seems more like a mythical tale than something that’s ever really practiced. And if you look at the shifts in our culture of the last 50 years, what have we seen? Once fathers were portrayed as respectable, caring men (think The Andy Griffith Show). Today, they’re generally portrayed as utter buffoons—boys who can shave, rather than men who love and lead their homes with integrity (think Everybody Loves Raymond).

Are you a wife who criticizes, contradicts, or sneers at your husband? Do you do this in front of other people? Do you “joke” about his lack of abilities or his way of doing things? Do you cut him down in front of the kids? . . . Do you think nagging or slipping into “mom mode” and lecturing him like a child is at all encouraging? What about backhanded compliments? Aren’t they partially encouraging? Everything, for a man, is viewed as respect or disrespect.

Recently I sat in an awkward meet-and-greet staff meeting where one of my new coworkers was asked about her greatest accomplishment. Her answer: “Raising my husband up to be the godly man he is today.” One side of the room, mostly filled with ladies, giggled away. All the men in the room (and some of the women, too) were embarrassed and uncomfortable.

Why is this acceptable? Why do we—men and women alike—tolerate this nonsense? Grace Driscoll’s decision to address this issue in this chapter is bold. She offers careful, insightful questions and commentary that cut to the heart of a problem that exists in far too many of our marriages. I pray that all of us who read these words will take them seriously.

Is it Helpful…?

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.


Title: Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together
Authors: Mark and Grace Driscoll
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (2012)

An advanced copy of this book was provided for review purposes by the publisher.

Also posted at The Gospel Coalition (12/28/2011)

Show 1 footnote

  1. Note, I’ve left out page numbers throughout this review it is based on an advanced copy. Final page numbers may differ.