By Justin D. Barnard

June 26, 2009 – Mark Driscoll, pastor of Seattle-area Mars Hill Church, has continued to draw fire for his frank discussions of sex, both from the pulpit and on his church’s blog. Both John MacArthur and John Piper have criticized his exegesis of Song of Solomon; many have been critical of the “unwholesome talk” that is unbecoming one charged with the proclamation of the word of God. Still, some (including John Piper) defend Driscoll’s ministry for its faithfulness to the Gospel.

Sadly, most of the discussion about Driscoll is reflective of a deeper problem that infects not only evangelicalism writ large, but Driscoll’s views on sex as well. Typical criticisms of Driscoll suggest that his preaching style and methods “go too far.” He’s “coarse” or “vulgar” – or so Driscoll’s detractors allege.

What is striking about this critique is what it assumes about sin and the Gospel. Sin and redemption are, on this view, principally, if not exclusively, matters of the heart or soul. The effect of the Gospel is primarily about having a “clean heart” (not a sanctified, embodied life). Unwholesome talk despoils sanitized hearts. Hence, it is to be avoided in order to maintain the pristine condition of a soul that’s been washed by the blood.

Meanwhile, the life that believers lead in the flesh bears little to no relation to the life they possess in the spirit. Ironically, this is what enables Driscoll’s defenders to argue that his verbal faux pas is excusable since overall, Driscoll’s ministry has reached hundreds of “souls for Christ.” Moreover, by focusing their critical efforts exclusively on his lack of circumspection in speaking about sex (which, for the record, is clearly problematic), Driscoll’s critics disclose their tacit agreement with this dichotomized Gospel that undergirds Driscoll’s very teaching about sex. Specifically, (within marriage, of course) we can do whatever we’d like with our bodies; let’s just not talk about it publicly, since that might corrupt our souls.

Even if he were as circumspect as the most sanctimonious of Puritans in how he spoke of it, the content of Driscoll’s teaching about sex (even within marriage) is inexcusable. Driscoll seems to think that traditional marriage is the gateway to the license of mutual consent. Thus, like the world, he fails to grasp that human sexuality might be ordered toward ends to which even husband and wife might be subject. Rather, just like your garden variety advocate for moral legitimacy of homosexual behavior, Driscoll views sexual activity (of course, within traditional marriage) as subject to nothing other than the mutual desires of the participants.

Driscoll’s teaching reflects an impoverished understanding of the Gospel. For it presupposes that the moral boundaries expressed in Scripture have no internal order. They are, in that respect, effectively arbitrary. Thus, in Driscoll’s view, provided that we remain within the arbitrary boundaries expressed in God’s word, God’s saving grace in Christ gives us license to follow our desires. In practice, this means for Driscoll that a husband and wife may do things in their marriage bed that a gay couple may not since the former, having had their souls saved from the disembodied stains of sin, are doing such things within the essentially arbitrary boundaries that God has given.

Such a view is deeply mistaken. The Gospel does not free us to give license to our desires; it orders our desires aright. In ordering our desires, it guides and governs our behavior – to wit, the very acts of the body. Yet, this aspect of the Gospel is apparently lost not only on Driscoll, but his critics as well. For by and large his evangelical critics fail to call Driscoll to account for the fact that the things of which he speaks publicly should not merely not be said; they should not even be done.

The furor over Driscoll’s teaching about sex within marriage should be an occasion for evangelicals to reflect deeply on their understanding of the Gospel. If the Gospel is nothing more than fire insurance for the soul, then both Driscoll and his critics are right. We can do whatever we’d like (Driscoll), as long as we don’t talk about it in “dirty” ways in public (his critics). But if the Gospel has genuine implications for the conduct of our embodied public lives, then we must one and all repent of the dialectical quagmire that we’re currently in over Driscoll’s pillow talk from the pulpit. For it reflects a Gospel eviscerated of its power to transform human life – body and soul.

Justin Barnard teaches philosophy at Union University, where he also serves as Director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Intellectual Discipleship.