Posted by: Alex | February 7, 2012

Controversy Over Gender and Sexuality in Evangelicalism

Two back to back controversies around a similar set of issues have caught my eye lately.  The first had to do with Mark and Grace Driscoll and their new book Real Marriage.  The book was immediately controversial for the way that it handles issues of sexuality, drawing criticism from both more conservative and more progressive wings of evangelicalism.  In particular, I address you to two reviews of the book:

The first review, which you can read here, is written by Tim Challies and represents a much more conservative approach to the book.  To give you an idea of how conservative a perspective Challies takes in this review, he states in one place that he would be afraid to let his wife read this book (I guess because of the impure ideas it might put in her head) and in another place criticizes Mark and Grace for claiming that divorce because of spousal abuse is justifiable (I gather Challies would say the abused spouse must stay in the relationship).  His primary criticism of the Driscolls seems to be that they are too frank, open, and perhaps even liberal in their treatment of issues of sexuality.

The second review comes from Relevant Magazine’s website, you can read it here.  The perspective taken here is very different from Challies approach.  JR Forastaros, the author of the review, actually praises the Driscolls for their openness and frankness in dealing with issues of sexuality, noting that such issues are being discussed in the wider culture and that it is a shortcoming of the church to not discuss them more openly.  Where he takes issue with Real Marriage is on its portrayal of gender roles.  In particular, he notes that Mark Driscoll emphasizes (as he has done many times in the past) a traditional notion of “masculinity” as the norm for men in general and for leadership in marriage in particular.  Mark goes so far, Forastaros claims, as to denigrate men who remain single, apparently ignoring the singleness of Jesus and Paul in the New Testament (we should note that in other places Mark has written that his motivation for his view of masculinity is largely a reaction to what he perceived as the weakness of celibate Catholic priests when he was younger).  Forastaros also notes the way in which Grace Driscoll treats the Esther story, chastising Vashti for “disrespecting” her husband by refusing to “do a strip-tease for him and all his drunken friends.”  I personally agree with Forastaros that such an argument by the Driscolls is “cringe-worthy” at best.

Just as the controversy over the Driscoll’s portrayal of a marriage dominated by Mark’s ideal of masculinity was beginning to move to the back-page, as it were, John Piper gave some comments at a pastor’s conference the other day in which he declared that God has given Christianity a “masculine feel.”  Not unexpectedly, that set off a firestorm of responses.  What might have been unexpected was how those responses materialized.  Prominent progressive evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans, instead of writing a full response herself, asked for men to write responses to Piper on her behalf.  A week later over 150 responses came in.  You can read a synopsis of some of Rachel’s favorites here.

While not all of the responses might measure up to whatever preferred standard of “robust theological argumentation” we might hold to, on a whole I was impressed with the quality of the responses given to Piper.  At least on this issue the idea that progressive evangelicals are activists without a strong theology has been soundly shown to be a myth.  Others may argue with what these writers have to say, disagree with their exegesis, raise problems for their theologies, etc, but I don’t think it can be doubted that a serious effort to ground their beliefs in theology and biblical exegesis is being exhibited here.

I have not read all of the posts written, but one interesting angle to the question that I did not see mentioned in the ones that I have read has to do with the gospel writer’s portrayal of the disciples and various women who appear in the narratives.  Almost without exception in the gospels women are portrayed as having great understanding beyond what the disciples possess.  They are always quick to sit at Jesus feet and learn form him.  They are often praised for their great faith (on account of which Jesus does many miracles).  They are the brave ones who refuse to abandon Jesus at the hour of his death and are the first to discover the empty tomb on the morning of his resurrection.  In contrast, the disciples, and other male figures (think Nicodemus) are frequently portrayed as bumbling fools who just don’t understand what is going on.  Think of how many times Peter is rebuked for speaking without thinking.  How many times are the disciples criticized for their lack of faith?  And who is first to abandon and denounce Jesus when he is arrested?  I think this consistent characterization might have something to say about the adequacy of “gender norms.”  But maybe that’s just me…

I find it extremely interesting that both of these controversies have emerged at about the same time.  I think the reaction to both, and the level of controversy demonstrated, is at least some evidence that the tide is changing in how evangelicalism approaches issues of gender and sexuality.  Which, at least from my point of view, is a good thing.  If Piper’s “masculine Christianity” looks anything like Mark Driscoll’s “masculine Christianity” then I think its high time we left them both behind.

I know other contributors on this blog (and probably some readers of it) will strongly disagree with me, however.  I look forward to your thoughts!

Finally, as a shameless plug, the campus ministry I work for is hosting a theological coffeehouse discussion this Thursday on the question of “Religion and Sexuality.”  We will have Dale Martin, author of Sex and the Single Savior and professor of religious studies here at Yale as our guest speaker.  If you are in the New Haven area this week, come out and join us.

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  1. [...] recently wrote a post on the controversy over gender roles and sexuality happening in evangelicalism.  Then two weeks ago I saw a very thought provoking documentary called [...]


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