As the Driscolls answer the common “Can We ________?” questions, they apply a grid they have drawn from 1 Corinthians. The city of Corinth was a city known for its debauchery and sexual excess, and even the Christians there were indulging in all manner of sexual sin. They had apparently written to Paul with some of their questions, and what we call the book of 1 Corinthians is his letter of response.
The Driscolls 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.
Before they get to questions and answers they make it clear that “we are explaining what a married couple may do, not what they must do. The Bible often gives more freedom than our consciences can accept, and we then choose not to use all our freedoms.” While I appreciate that they seek to allow conscience to play a determinative role, for many of us there can be a kind of pressure that comes from an authoritative source saying, “This act is good.” I believe many of these questions are best addressed in the context of marriage instead of coming from an outside authority. That relieves the pressure of thinking, “Maybe I need to ignore my conscience or change my conscience because this person says this act is acceptable and good.” We need to be very careful anytime we determine what is lawful and acceptable for other people. Our freedom can apply unfair pressure to them which has the potential to cause great difficulties for marriages in which one spouse is scandalized by certain activities and the other one is not.
Some of the things the Driscolls pass through the grid are more controversial than others. Some are more obviously related to our time and our culture (cybersex being a clear example since no generation before our own has ever had to consider it). It is worth pointing out that in the end the only acts they deem unworthy of Christians are those that are explicitly forbidden by the Bible (abortive birth control and sexual assault). Everything they put through the grid, except the two that are clearly forbidden in the Bible, are found to be acceptable. That includes a range of acts from some most Christians would consider acceptable to ones that many or most Christians would find repugnant.
Obviously there is value in using a biblical grid to evaluate issues like this one. My concern is that this particular grid has at least two fundamental flaws: (1) it does not adequately account for heart motives, and (2) it reflects a serious exegetical misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 6:12. In what follows, I want to focus on the first flaw (related to motives), and next time I will return to the exegetical issue.
How the Grid Works in Actual Practice
Let’s use their example of cosmetic surgery, since it clearly displays the shortcomings of the grid and because it relieves some of the tension we would feel with the more controversial acts. Here is how they evaluate cosmetic surgery:
Is it lawful? The Driscolls say, “It is legal to have cosmetic surgery. Furthermore, it is not forbidden in Scripture, because it is a more recent medical invention.” They go on to provide some statistics showing who tends to have the most cosmetic surgery and which procedures are most popular.
It is helpful? They say, “There are many reasons cosmetic surgery may be beneficial. It can make us more attractive to our spouses. And if our appearance is improved, we feel more comfortable being seen naked by our spouses, which can increase our freedom in lovemaking.” They also point to four negatives: (1) the danger of death or disfigurement, (2) cost factors, (3) the desire to attract sexual attention from someone other than your spouse or (4) the desire to have your spouse change his or her appearance in order to look like someone else.
Is it enslaving? Here they point to the danger of being obsessed with achieving some kind of elusive perfect appearance and the danger of Body Dismorphic Disorder in which you can become dangerously enslaved by body image.
Thus cosmetic surgery passes through this grid. But did you notice what was never addressed? Heart motivation. This may be the motivation of the wife who wants to have her breasts enlarged—she may feel that she will only ever be attractive if she goes up a cup size or two. It may be the motivation of the husband who believes that his wife will be far more appealing to him if her breasts are a bit larger or her tummy a bit flatter.
This is not the time to head to the surgeon; it is the time to evaluate the heart. Why is it that you want to undergo plastic surgery? What is it that you believe it will accomplish? What is it about this procedure that will give you greater sexual freedom? Why is it that in your current condition you cannot be “naked and unashamed?” Is this surgery addressing a genuine issue or is it actually exposing idolatry? And what of the gospel? How can we send a person to the surgeon without first making sure that he or she knows the source of identity and acceptance, who he or she is in Christ?
There will always be motives—heart motives—behind that desire to have surgery. There are times those motives may be good; there are times those motives may be bad. When it comes to cosmetic surgery, it is quite likely the motives will be poor or a mixture of good and poor. At the very least, motive merits serious, prayerful consideration. If you have the surgery based on idolatrous motives, it will never—it can never—deliver the results you are hoping for.
I am not saying that cosmetic surgery is inherently sinful or that it is always wrong. But at the very least we have to see that it very often is sinful. It often—if not always—arises from sinful desires rather than good ones. It is often meant to feed sinful lusts and desires. This grid the Driscolls provide does nothing to address the heart issues. Without looking first to the heart, that breast augmentation will simply be the feeding of idols. And that may also be true of any other sexual act.
What is true of cosmetic surgery will also be true of anything else related to sex and sexuality—there are motives at play. Those motives may be good, and they may be bad. They may be self-centered, and they may be spouse-centered. And this is what any grid needs to include. Why do I want to do this act? What do I think this act will accomplish? What kind of fulfillment will it bring me? Is this first and foremost an act of love? Does this reflect that relationship of Christ to the church that my marriage is meant to image?
The problem with the grid—quite apart from the exegesis (which we’ll look at next time)—is that it allows virtually anything that Scripture does not explicitly and expressly forbid. In fact, it is difficult to imagine any act or desire, except those clearly forbidden in Scripture, that wouldn’t make it through this grid. In practical use, the only acts it filters out are the ones overruled by the first question.