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Can We ______? & the 1 Corinthians 6:12 Grid

I am hoping that this will be my final article on the Driscolls and Real Marriage, at least for the time being. I do not want this subject to dominate my web site, but I do have one more thing to say. Before I say it, I want to review a few things I haven’t said. I have seen several things in the comments and out in the blogosphere attributed to me that I haven’t actually said, so let me take a moment to refocus the conversation.
  1. I have not said that any particular sex act is wrong. The purpose of writing this little series is not to point to any single act and say, “That is wrong.”
  2. I have not said that Real Marriage is all about sex or sex acts or sexual deviancy or that the book has no value. There are several parts of the book that are actually quite helpful; I will cover these in a review closer to the release date.
  3. I don’t hate Mark Driscoll.

The reason I am writing these articles is to (hopefully) show that the grid the Driscolls use to evaluate sex acts that are right or wrong is faulty and that introducing that grid to a marriage could be very harmful. In my last article I showed that the grid does not do an adequate job of evaluating heart motives. Today I want to show that the Driscolls seem to have misunderstood the very passage they use to construct their grid.

By way of review, here is the method they teach to evaluate which sex acts are right and which are wrong. Speaking of 1 Corinthians, they write:

Paul answered their questions, but he also went further. In addition to teaching them what to think, he taught them how to think. In 1 Corinthians 6:12, amid his teaching on sex, Paul said, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.”

This simple taxonomy is brilliantly helpful because it is simultaneously simple enough to remember and broad enough to apply to every sexual question.

From this taxonomy they draw three questions which they apply to a list of specific sexual acts. Is it lawful? seeks to ascertain whether an act violates the laws of government or the laws of God; Is it helpful? seeks to ascertain whether that act draws a couple together as one or pushes them apart as two; and Is it enslaving? seeks to ascertain whether that act could become obsessive, out of control, or addictive.

1 Corinthians 6:12

The Driscolls are seeking to help pastor people through difficult issues—issues too difficult to take to your own pastor. Yet it seems that they miss the point of the passage. They look at Paul’s statement “All things are lawful for me” as a foundational understanding of Christian freedom. But most commentators—all of the ones I looked at—disagree that this is what Paul is driving at. Gordon Fee says, “‘Everything is permissible for me’ is almost certainly a Corinthian theological slogan. This is confirmed by the way Paul cites it again in 10:23; in both cases he qualifies it so sharply as to negate it—at least as a theological absolute.” The Corinthians may have made up this phrase or they may have taken something Paul once said in a narrow context and turned it into an absolute slogan. “If so, their error would lie in making absolute what for Paul would always been been qualified by his ‘in Christ’ perspective.” In other words, Paul is not teaching, “All things are lawful.” He is either directly contradicting that statement or qualifying it so strongly that it ceases to have any real value. Leon Morris agrees, as do Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner along with David Prior. All of these commentators agree that “all things are lawful” is not the point of what Paul is teaching.

This then impacts the first question the Driscolls ask: Is it forbidden by the Bible or the laws of the land? This was not what Paul wanted the Corinthians to take away from “All things are lawful.” He did not mean for them to understand that anything not strictly forbidden may be acceptable. Instead, Paul teaches that “truly Christian conduct is not predicated on whether I have the right to do something, but whether my conduct is helpful to those around me.” Paul’s first thought is not, “Am I forbidden from doing this?” but “Is this how I can best express love?” He was saying, “All things are lawful…but who cares! It doesn’t matter that there isn’t a strict command forbidding it; the important considerations are whether this is profitable and whether it is enslaving.”

Within the context of marriage, we know that our love is to reflect the love Christ has for the church. Our marriage, including the sexual relationship, is meant to flow from and point to Christ’s love for his people. How did Christ love? He laid aside his own desires—what we might even call needs; he considered his own comfort and desires far less important than doing the will of his Father and serving the people he loved; he died to self; he laid down his life. This kind of love needs to inform and motivate us. It needs to be in our hearts and minds as we consider what we think is a need; it needs to be in our hearts and minds as we consider asking any of the “Can We ________?” questions.

Here’s the thing: Christian freedom is not just the freedom to do, but the freedom not to do. You don’t understand freedom until you willingly and joyfully deny yourself what is technically lawful (or not expressly forbidden in the Bible) but contextually unwise or inappropriate. Commentator David Prior says it well: “In chapters 8-10 we shall see Paul arguing passionately and persuasively that the essential Christian freedom is the freedom not to be free, i.e. a deliberate choice to restrain my freedom for the sake of the gospel. The man who has to express his freedom is actually in bondage to the need to show he is a free man. The genuinely free man has nothing to prove.” He has nothing to prove and understands that even though he has technical freedom in some areas, those things do not promote love and true intimacy. The Christians at Corinth were glorying in their rights and freedom and using this to express themselves sexually. Never mind love! They had freedom—freedom to gratify their desires. But freedom, if not properly understood and applied, can be used to express allegiance to idols just as easily as it can be used to pursue noble ends. It turns out that there is a counterfeit kind of freedom that is actually slavery. 

What the Driscolls miss, at least in their teaching on this passage, is the wider gospel context. This grid is not meant to be taken on its own and it is not given as a grid we are use to evaluate what is acceptable or forbidden within marriage. The freedom to have is not the point; rather, it is the freedom to love by not having. You need to read more than this one verse to see this. We are not meant to read this verse and walk away with a list of ways a spouse might have his own sexual needs met. If anything spouse should read this and walk away with the determination to seek only the how he might serve his spouse. And this is where the gospel is truly lived out, not in celebrating the freedom to enjoy this or that sexual act, but in the freedom to deny yourself, trusting that not every desire or “need” actually needs to be met in order to be beautifully satisfied and fulfilled.

All of which is to say, this grid, drawn from 1 Corinthians 6, is just too simplistic, it is inadequate. It does not call you to examine and even doubt your motives and it does not call you to ensure that your actions are a display of a life that has been radically transformed by the gospel. It does not call you to the deepest kind of Christian freedom—the freedom not to do.


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