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Ask Me Anything (Calvinism, Erotica, Giving, Church Libraries, and Sex Before Marriage)

Ask Me Anything

Ask Me Anything is an opportunity for you to submit questions that are related or unrelated to things I’ve written, and for me to take a shot at answer them. This week’s questions concern Calvinism, a husband who wants his wife to read erotica, pastors who give to their own church, the usefulness of church libraries, and conundrums in dating relationships.

Do you believe that God calls everyone? In other words, that He takes the initiative in drawing all people to Himself, but then lets each individual decide how to respond? The one thing that horrifies me about Calvinism is the idea that God arbitrarily saves some people and allows others to be damned. This version of Calvinism has always made me picture an assembly line with little babies on it and God saying, “Yes, I’ll save that baby and that one, but not that one or that one. Why? No reason.” This idea does not square with my idea of a loving God who died for everyone and, as Peter tells us, is not willing that any should perish. The “assembly line” God is more nightmare than gospel. Calvinism is comforting if you’ve been elected, but heart-wrenching if someone you love hasn’t. Do you have an answer for this?

There are a couple of phrases in your question I’d want to challenge you on. The first is “God arbitrarily saves some people.” Calvinism does not teach that God saves people arbitrarily but, rather, that he saves people purposefully. I, too, would struggle with an arbitrary God who chose people on an assembly line basis. But as we read the Bible, we are faced with a purposeful God who has set his love on his people so that he saves those whom he loves. The other phrase that needs to be challenged is “this idea does not square with my idea of a loving God.” To be frank, your idea of a loving God is far less important than God’s idea of a loving God. Our feelings are untrustworthy but God’s Word is completely trustworthy, so we must turn there. And as we do that, we see God acting purposefully to redeem a people to himself.

The marvel of salvation is not that some are lost, but that any are saved.

The reason Calvinism begins with the doctrine of total depravity is to ensure that we know we are all equally undeserving of God’s love. All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Not a single one of us is deserving of even the smallest measure of God’s love or mercy. The marvel of salvation is not that some are lost, but that any are saved.

I like how John MacArthur briefly describes God’s work in saving people: “In sovereign freedom, solely out of the overflow of his loving-kindness and grace, God set his love on particular individuals, chose them to be saved from sin and death, and purposed that they would be restored to a right relationship with him through the redemptive work of his Son applied by his Spirit.” God set his love on these people not on the basis of what they would do or could do, but simply out of love. This is not a love God owed and distributed arbitrarily but a love God chose to express purposefully.

My husband wants me to read erotica and argues it’s no different from reading the Song of Solomon. He also argues it is different than pornography since it’s merely ink on paper and not real people. I have read these books in the past and know they are a temptation to me. I have tried to explain to him that it causes me to lust, and so it’s wrong for me to read it, but he wants me to read it to help me get in “the mood.” While I agree that it’s an easy way to do that, it feels wrong to read about someone else to get in the mood with my husband. I know it will not actually bring us closer together, because it leaves me with guilt. He then tells me that my conscience is misinformed and that I am going against his authority as my husband by not reading it. He tells me the onus is on me to prove to him from the Bible that reading erotica is wrong, which is hard because the Song of Solomon is pretty sensual and descriptive. Is erotica okay? What if it’s stories of married couples?

I am so sorry that you find yourself in this position. I want you to know that your husband is sinning against you. He is demanding something that is unfair, unbiblical, and unloving. The right thing for your husband to do is to seek God’s forgiveness and your forgiveness.

There are a number of reasons that I can say these things with such confidence. First, it is sinful to read erotica, to read about other people’s sexual experiences in order to somehow enhance or hasten your own. Erotica is different from pornography only in its medium; neither has any place in the life or marriage of Christians. (This article is helpful in that regard.) Second, it is wrong to make this argument from the Song of Solomon since it is clear that the purpose of that book is not erotic. Yes, Solomon uses sexual imagery, but its purpose is not to fire up sexual desire by literary voyeurism. Third, it is sinful to demand that someone violate their conscience in this way. Your husband sins against you when he cajoles and makes demands that go against your conscience. Fourth, what your husband demands reduces sex to a mere act of passion and pragmatically employs whatever means will bring about that end. Yet God intends for sex to build relationship, to foster intimacy, to symbolize the deepest kind of unity. This can’t be done when a wife has been cajoled and her conscience has been violated.

Your husband can demand nothing of you but what God demands of you.

Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, this is an abuse of leadership. Your husband can demand nothing of you but what God demands of you. For him to demand you read erotica is to imply that God demands you read erotica. For him to demand that you violate your conscience is to imply that God demands you violate your conscience. This is an egregious misuse of leadership and the authority that comes with it. Authority is given not to serve self but to love and lead others. The authority of a husband is a shepherding authority in which he is called to gently lead and lovingly guide.

There is no doubt that husbands can grow weary in wooing their wives. We’ve all heard that microwave/crockpot metaphor which is used to explain that it typically takes longer for a wife to be sexually prepared than her husband. Furthermore, a wife is typically satisfied with less sex than her husband. This can cause husbands to look for shortcuts to sexual satisfaction—even nagging his wife into reading erotica. But this is lazy, this is sinful, this is missing the point. As husbands we have to understand that God made our wives different and to rejoice in this. To borrow technological terminology, the difference in sexuality between a husband and a wife is a feature, not a bug.

So what can you do? How can you rightly respond to your husband in this? God gives us instruction in Matthew 18:15-20. You have every right to appeal to your husband and to call on him to repent of this sin. If he fails to do so, please speak to someone about this and have that person approach him with you. This might be a mutual (male) friend, a pastor, or someone he admires. If he fails to heed even that person, make it known to the elders so they can intervene. Please know that it is never a violation of complementarian principles to follow God’s Word or to appeal to the church for help. I understand that this course of action may seem difficult, but please take confidence in God’s means of grace by following his Word and appealing to his church.

I have recently finished 10 years of overseas missionary service, and have just started my first full-time paid church ministry position. My wife and I have been considering the issue of our personal giving in this new situation. We firmly believe Christian ministers—paid or otherwise—are called to generosity, like all believers, so our question is where to give, not whether to give. In your Ask Me Anything on March 24, you say, about a church leader who does not give: “Perhaps he has committed to give to other churches or ministries in place of his local church (a practice I’d consider unwise).” My questions are: (1) Why do you consider it unwise? (2) Does that “unwise” apply to paid leaders in the church, as well as volunteers? I ask because one dilemma for me is that, while I want to give to the local church where I serve, I know that some of that money will return to me. So it could also be seen as self-serving! My giving to under-resourced gospel ministries outside my local church goes fully to others.

I see no dilemma here. A pastor is in the position of setting an example to the church, of leading the way in Christian doctrine and practice. If he expects that his congregation will make a practice of prioritizing the local church in financial giving, he himself ought to prioritize the local church in his giving. To give elsewhere is unwise because it is setting a poor example, it is displaying a misplaced priority.

As I see it, the fact that a portion of these funds will return to you is beside the point. Perhaps the best way to look at it is that you give to your local church so that the people you love have a pastor who can be set aside and freed up to lead them, to care for them, and to preach to them. The fact that you are this person is secondary to the fact that you are helping provide a pastor for that church.

(By way of analogy, we expect our politicians to pay taxes. And we don’t expect American politicians to pay Canadian taxes to ensure they are not benefiting themselves. The reason we expect our politicians to have financial transparency is to ensure they are not calling us to a higher standard than they themselves adhere to.)

I’m wondering what your thoughts are on church libraries. Many churches I’ve attended have them, but they haven’t been a priority. The one I attend now does not have one at all. How would you suggest starting one/running one?

I am a fan of church libraries, though I do have a few concerns with them. First, church libraries tend to be full of cast-offs. People drop off boxes of old books and they rarely get stocked up with new and good ones. Second, church libraries tend to be poorly-overseen so that they have more bad books than good ones. Third, church libraries can be difficult to implement for churches that do not have their own building.

Do you know what I like instead of libraries or in addition to libraries? Giving away books. I sometimes think the budget for the church library might be better spent buying books and giving them to people strategically. Buy three copies of The Discipline of Grace and find three people who will read it together. Buy four copies of When Sinners Say “I Do” and have two couples read it together. Buy whole boxes of books when they are on sale at Westminster Books and give them away liberally. There is a lot of benefit in resourcing your church with good books and libraries are not the only way to do this.

I want to ask about the issue of physical intimacy and dating. I am 22 years old, and currently just entered a relationship with a godly girl from my church. She is a recent convert (a year ago) and I have never seen a woman so eager to learn and grow in Christ. This is what drew me to her. However, she does have a past of sexual promiscuity prior to coming to faith. On our first date, she ended up being very touchy and physical and I was taken by surprise. Afterwards, I talked with her about it and determined that we should be very careful with how physical we are, even if its “just” cuddling. I read your review of “Sex, Dating and Relationships,” and I can cognitively assent to the fact that that view of relationships is biblical. However, I am having a terrible struggle with implementing that thinking for a few reasons: 1) My own flesh. I enjoy cuddling. I struggle to determine whether or not it is sinful. 2) I don’t want her to think I don’t care about her. I realize that this might require me talking through with her expectations for the relationship, but I keep struggling with what I know and what I desire. Even as I write this, I know that holiness is the top priority (as she would agree), but patterns that are easily deemed as acceptable even in Christian circles make it hard to not want to cuddle or show physical affection. I want to honor God, but I also want to love and care for her and protect our purity. I want her to know I truly care about her and grow in intimacy as we progress towards marriage, but I don’t want to jeopardize our holiness. Any advice would be appreciated.

When you begin a new relationship, you gain a future with another person, but also gain a past. As you move forward together, you need to look back to see what you are each bringing to the relationship. Inevitably, both of you are bringing sin in various forms.

You said that your girlfriend has been involved in sexual relationships in the past and that she has just recently come to know the Lord. For these reasons you should not be surprised that she may have “picked up where she left off” in previous relationships. We are, after all, people who behave in well-established patterns. When we have trained ourselves to be physical or sexual, it is normal to continue being physical and sexual. We have to train ourselves in new patterns of holiness.

We should never be shocked when unbelievers act like unbelievers or even when new believers still act like unbelievers.

It sounds like you have begun dating a young woman who is a believer and zealous for the Lord, but who is following old ways. This should not be a surprise as this is probably an area where she has not yet put off those old patterns of sin and put on new patterns of holiness. After all, it has been only a year and sanctification is a long process. We should never be shocked when unbelievers act like unbelievers or even when new believers still act like unbelievers. What is important is that we help new Christians address those patterns quickly and biblically.

I want to pause to address one concern I’d have for you. You do not say whether or not you’ve been involved in sexual relationships in the past, but will assume you have not. When there is “uneven” sexual experience between a boyfriend and girlfriend, there can be a temptation in the person with less experience to want to catch up, to prove himself, to think that he needs to experience all that other guys may have experienced with this girl (or, of course, to experience what other girls may have experienced with this guy). That is an ugly temptation that must not be acted on. Please do not succumb to it. God blesses obedience, not disobedience. Remember: It is God’s will for your relationship that you abstain from sex before marriage and then freely enjoy the pleasures of sex within marriage. It is Satan’s will for your relationship that you freely engage in plenty of sex before marriage and then abstain from sex within marriage.

It seems to me that it would be wise for the two of you to have a good discussion about your desire for purity and to think about appropriate measures to put in place. At the same time, I’d encourage you to approach a church leader or perhaps an older couple you admire, and to ask them for counsel and accountability. You will benefit immensely from knowing that from time to time someone is going to look you in the eye and ask, “How are you doing? How are you really doing?”

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