Gospel Coalition

Evangelicals have been beset by another controversy, and this one’s a doozy.

Jared Wilson was attempting to critique Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that I have no plans to read ever.  But the bit he excerpted from Doug Wilson to make his point was, to put it mildly, not well received.  The main offending part:

A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.

The comments on the post are instructive, as are both Jared and Doug Wilson’s (no relation) replies.  Rachel Held Evans is worth reading too, to get a sense whence the controversy springs.

The disagreement, at first blush, appears to be driven by semantics and the responsibilities that authors have for the unintended consequences of their words.  Jared Wilson’s suggestion that beneath all this is a wariness about authorial intent strikes me as interesting, but not quite complete.  Authorial intent is a helpful guide, but cannot be solely determinative of the meaning of the passage.  To refer to a cup as a “shoe” and then object when readers don’t get it would be an authorial error, and strikes me as just as “postmodern” in its approach to meaning as those dastardly deconstructionists.  We ought not be, I don’t think, semantic voluntarists.

That case study is, of course, more obvious than the one under discussion, the one where all this really counts. Here the question is not one of reference, but rather the range of connotations that the above words have and whether the author is responsible for the whole lot of them, or only those they intended.

As to that, Doug Wilson suggests that it does us no good to use different words and that people looking to find offense invariably will.  Perhaps.  And given the rush to judgment by their critics, I sympathize with that complaint.  The problematic excerpt should have raised a question before it issued forth in condemnation, but the “dismiss first and then move on” culture is one we are all now complicit in.

But I am not convinced we cannot use other words, even if it deprives us of vast portions of our rich linguistic heritage (and as a conservative, trust me, this is hard to say).  The emptying out of our language pool may have good reasons or bad, but in certain cases it is prudent to work to avoid the offense.  And the upside is that redrawing the boundaries may, as Chesterton might have argued, cause us to find a more innovative and expressive stock of images that themselves are more accurate.

In this case, then, it’s very helpful to have the clarification that Doug Wilson thinks conquest is mutual.  I’m not comfortable with the inherent militarization the word implies, but there is a certain sort of irresistibility that I feel when my wife raises her eyebrows.

Yet affirming “conquest’s” mutuality and adding the nuance makes its omission within the original text all the more striking.  (And here I commend Alistair Roberts’s fine comment to you.)  Not that an author affirming one side of an issue need always mention the other.  And as someone pointed out on Twitter last night, Doug Wilson’s book is written to men and their sons, which seems helpful for setting the context.

But as a good rule of thumb, if it is an issue not only where offense is possible, but genuine trauma has occurred, then that is a good time to be overly sensitive—perhaps especially when speaking among the company of men.  Inculcating care begins there, after all, in the older men teaching the younger.  And it does seem to me helpful for men to value and appreciate such mutuality, even when it exists.  I don’t know, but I’m going to guess that Doug Wilson affirms it elsewhere.  But can one drive the point home often enough, particularly during such controversial moments?

Amidst pushing back against the critics, then, I think it would be helpful to hear what (if anything) Doug Wilson might change about the original.  An author’s errata is a worthy genre, though these days ours seem to have to come sooner than we might like.  And the fact that it is critics who are calling for it seems, to me anyway, neither here nor there.  So what if they are not satisfied?  Was the thing right, or is it wrong, in all that it said and all it did not?

So much for semantics, though.  Now for the substance.  And here, I have confess to being flummoxed by a question to which I do not know the answer:  what, if anything, is uniquely distinctive about the male experience of human sexuality that sets it apart from the female?  Or is every difference to be collapsed into an amorphous mash of homogeneous sexual desire?  And what might be the language that is appropriate and acceptable that explains that phenomenon and Scripture’s witness to it (again, if any)?

C.S. Lewis, of course, famously used the language of “possessiveness” and “pride” to try to get at it, and I suspect that causes just as much of an offense these days (and is lurking, for what it’s worth, somewhere in the back of the now infamous excerpt).   But now that the objection to such ways of speaking has been registered, it seems important explore a more excellent way–and, in this case, also the more excellent verbiage.

That path won’t lead, I don’t think, through affirming the substance of conquest within marriage, provided there’s consent—as Evans does in her unfortunate qualification that people should “do what they enjoy.”  That is an amazing admission in this context, really, as the question at hand is which sort of practices that create cultures of violence against women.  Weirdly, Evans’s admission seems to suggest that the language of violence does more harm than the actual practice of violence within the home, even if such violence is itself consensual.  But while reforming a culture’s attitudes toward sex is all sorts of difficult, it seems like beginning at home is a pretty decent start.  Allowing couples to play at domination simply because they both like it strikes me as incommensurate with decrying the practice elsewhere.  Our playing, simply put, matters and we get our ideas for it somewhere.  The bedroom is not so self-contained and isolated from the rest of our lives as Evans seems to imply, and if looking at porn implicates us in a culture of hostility toward women, than certainly playing with sadomasochism must do the same.

(Here I note the paradox: it was Doug Wilson who took the lead on that score against Driscoll’s Real Marriage, a book that Evans was up against as well.  I registered my complaints too, which, like this post, were overly long.)

I might add to all this an exegetical point that I made in my book that I suspect no one disagrees with but needs to be said so people know where I stand:  the language of mutual authority in 1 Corinthians 7 is certainly there.  But Paul deploys it strategically:  because the authority exists, we are to give to one another, rather than demand.  In fact, in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul uses the same language of authority to describe his ability to take the Corinthians’ money, but specifically says that he won’t for the sake of the Gospel.  A different case, of course, but still instructive.  It’s this self-denial in sex, this recognition of the authority and its willingness to lay it down that grounds our pursuit of each other in the self-giving that is love.

What strikes me as tragic in all of this is, well, that Jared’s worthy intention to object to a cultural trend that is doubtlessly present in our churches has been entirely and completely superceded.  There’s an important lesson here for communicators, as when the jot and tittle gets away from us then it’s the substance of our point that loses.  But it’s for those errant words that we’ll someday give an account.

Which is reason enough to quit before I get any further behind.

Update:   Rachel Held Evans has clarified her position over at her blog.  The full text:

(Note: I get that some folks enjoy getting “conquered” to some degree in bed. That’s fine. Do what you both enjoy. But this should be a mutual decision, pleasurable to both parties, and it is certainly not required by God-ordained gender roles. Update: By this I simply mean that some couples prefer that one person be more dominant – not necessarily the man, by the way – and I don’t think that should be categorically condemned. But this is not an endorsement of BDSM. )

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. It struck me that, though the point both Wilson’s were trying to make might be accurate – in some ways whether it is or isn’t is neither here nor there – their response is woefully ignorant of the ways that feminist, post-colonial, and otherwise late modern discourse have shaped many, many people’s approaches to language. While I found the responses in the original comment-thread almost mind numbing in their sheer inability to at least say, “Oh, well, I disagree, but at least you and he didn’t mean what I thought was meant.” So far has that discourse reshaped people’s approaches that words often cannot mean anything but the worst thing they could possibly convey. I’m with in that our language is stripped of much of its power by this sad tendency; unfortunately, it’s one we have to live with in our public communications – and these days, nearly all communication is inherently public.

    Wilson’s noted problems on slavery don’t help, because while they are not the issue (as Jared pointed out), his views on colonialism and authority and submission at the least seem like they might be problematic if he has such a view of Southern slavery. This, too, was a point that Jared seemed to struggle to get: we can’t, in the end, separate one part of our beliefs from all the others. While it might not have been on topic in one sense, it certainly was in another. (And it’s high time that those who readily associate with Wilson – whom I very much like most of the time – give him the public reaming he deserves on that issue.)

    All of that is my own too-long way of saying: perhaps there is room for some self-denial in the way we use our words, as well as in the bedroom, and especially when talking about the bedroom in a culture that is absurdly tangled up in knots about the bedroom.


    1. Very good points.


  2. This really needs to be edited. The content is present in the article, but I had to jump mental hurdles to get to it. Thanks!


    1. Can I joke that the problem is in the reader, not the writer? Too soon? : )

      Seriously, I edited it some last night. The reality is that this is tricky water and worth being as careful as possible in. I’d be curious to hear if you have a more specific complaint to help me out, while also recognizing that….it’s just tough sledding, really.



  3. Just a note, Matt: it would be helpful if you could specify which Wilson (a “J.” or “D.” alongside each “Wilson” would go a long way towards making this easier to follow.)


    1. Henry, thanks for that. Just went through and did a quick edit accordingly.

      I really want this all to come out clearly, so let me know if there are other changes you think I need to make.



  4. I agree with Anonymous. What exactly are you trying to say? Are you saying that couples should not play at Dominance and submission in the bedroom? If so, how does this fit with the Biblical admonition that wives should submit to their husbands. I do know some conservative Christians who seem to practice Dom/sub lite in the bedroom and base it on a Biblical interpretation of how male/female relationships should be conducted. If I’m totally misunderstanding your intention, forgive me, it’s lost on me in all those words. Thanks.


    1. Alice,

      Thanks for the comment.

      First, my point is a narrow one within an existing conversation, which I encourage you to read through in order to understand the context.

      Second, I think I pretty clearly state that Christians shouldn’t play at dominance in the bedroom. And I think that using Biblical standards of “submission” to justify it is wrong. I’m not unambiguous there, am I?



  5. [I wrote this on Facebook, but I’m cross-posting it here because I think it’s important. But if double-posting like this is frowned upon, please feel free to delete it Matt! Thanks!]

    Yes, Wilson’s words were controversial and easily susceptible to misunderstanding, and that was the initial catalyst for the controversy.

    But the MUCH LARGER issue that provided critical mass is that Rachel Held Evans doesn’t affirm inerrancy. Is it any surprise that controversy would arise when one person considers Scripture to be the highest authority, and the other person holds a postmodern skeptical worldview?

    Just last month, Evans indicated she doesn’t consider the NT epistles to be inspired or authoritative when she said, “I think Peter and Paul were struggling, perhaps imperfectly, to apply Jesus’ teachings to their contexts” ( http://rachelheldevans.com/mutuality-household-codes#comment-548147621 ) [btw, the comment by “Neal S.” directly underneath RHE’s comment is excellent.]

    Back in 2010, in a post entitled “13 Things that Make Me a Lousy Evangelical” she said, “The word “inerrancy” makes my scalp itch”, “I have issues with authority”, and “As a woman, I’ve been nursing a secret grudge against the Apostle Paul for about eight years”. ( http://rachelheldevans.com/lousy-evangelical ) These sort of statements make my 2 Tim 4:3-4 alarm bells go crazy.

    I’m afraid Evans has been tripped up by postmodern skepticism (as have a great many Christians of our generation). Her “issues with authority” apparently include the authority of Scripture itself. Does she affirm some Scripture? Absolutely. But rather than submit to it in its entirety, she picks and chooses which portions she will abide by, and that is the root of the problem.

    This isn’t unique to her, it’s an issue that plagues many Christians in our society… including a great many “conservative” Christians as well. Rather than submit to God’s word in its entirety, they cherrypick the parts that support their pet issues, whether its environmentalism or libertarianism or feminism or laissez-faire capitalism. At the end of the day, they are their own authority, and when one is their own authority, skepticism is the inevitable and tragic result.


    On a somewhat separate (but related) note, the point you make towards the end is excellent: “Because the authority exists, we are to give to one another, rather than demand.” I think Evans (and many egalitarians) see headship in the Bible as an issue of rights, power and privilege, when in fact, it’s actually one of responsibility, love and service. When a man exercises headship in his home, it must not be to benefit himself, but rather to benefit his wife and glorify God. If he is exercising headship in his home to benefit himself, he is slandering God and the gospel.


    1. Matthew,

      You write ” Rachel Held Evans is worth reading too, to get a sense whence the controversy springs.”.

      In what sense is RHE’s perspective worth reading if she rejects the authority of scripture?

      It would seem to me that if she rejects that authority then no context will be present to reconcile the details.



      1. Jim,

        Don’t you have to in fact read the actual case in question in order to determine whether it in fact rests upon a particular view of Scripture? To dismiss the argument out of hand because of that one disagreement seems like, potentially, a non-sequiter. Whether the doctrine has anything to do with the argument can only be determined after reading–not before.




        1. Matt,
          I think that doctrine under girds our perspectives and is not disconnected from them. Thus when I read the following about RHE

          1. The word “inerrancy” makes my scalp itch
          8. I have issues with authority
          10. As a woman, I’ve been nursing a secret grudge against the Apostle Paul for about eight years
          I don’t think that what is best for Rachel’s soul is a discussion about Doug Wilson’s view of women and sex.

          I do take comfort (and am sobered by) the fact that we will all give account of our words one fine day. May our words be seasoned with the fullness of the Gospel. Including the parts that make my scalp itch.


    2. I understood the authority Matt was talking about to be the mutual authority that exists in the marital bed which has nothing to do with male “headship” in the home.

      “…the language of mutual authority in 1 Corinthians 7 is certainly there. But Paul deploys it strategically: because the authority exists, we are to give to one another, rather than demand.”

      If headship is not an issue of rights, power, & privilege but of responsibility then I suggest dropping the language of rights, power, & privilege i.e. headship and authority and stick to what the text does say i.e. love, sacrifice, nourish, live with in an understanding way, treat as a joint-hear of the grace, etc.


    3. Astev, I think it is important to separate two concepts that you are mixing. RHE and many others want to assert that the way many use the word inerrancy ‘makes her scalp itch’. But she does not at all reject scripture. She has written many posts on why she thinks scripture is important, from god and essential for Christians.

      Those are very different things than rejecting scripture. You may disagree, but it is very important to this discussion.


  6. The fact that this has even become a controversy makes me lose hope in modern discourse. It’s like “context be damned, the sound-byte is king”. I guess from now on, all books need to be edited to make sure that no 140 character string says anything that could be misconstrued. Please Christians, if you’re in a position of influence, do your Christian brother the decency of reading his book in context.

    And Chris, please be very careful with the slavery issue. Wilson’s position parallels Paul’s handling of the Philemon and Onesimus episode in Philemon 1. Most of the folks I’ve seen comment on this issue #1, have only read articles written and hosted by anonymous bloggers or by folks who are militant adversaries to Wilson because of his Biblical stand against GLBT issues. Many folks would do well to read Wilson in his own words on the subject in his book “Black & Tan”.


    1. I think a lot of people get the slavery thing backwards. They are more informed by enlightenment humanist assumptions which makes them more interested in rights and freedoms, rather than responsibility and authority. While the Bible does absolutely support liberty for the captive, the *greater* emphasis in the Bible is glorifying God even while injustice is being perpetrated against us. Thus, the person in a position of slavery should of course desire and pray for freedom, but their greater desire should be to glorify God by the way they interact with their master. The person living in a country hostile to their faith should of course hope to see that persecution abate, but their greater desire should be to glorify God through their attitude towards the emperor/king/president. And so on.


    2. David, I agree that the issue demands care. The problem I have is with Doug Wilson’s historical revisionism on the issue of how whites treated blacks in the context of slavery, and in particular with the inherent (an din my view unarguably un-Christian) racism that held up the whole institution. It’s one thing to say that many individual relationships may have been kind and (relatively) Christian; it’s another to say that the institution itself was justifiable – especially given the inescapably racial overtones of the whole construct. The two are inextricably linked, which is why Wilson’s position warrants critique. I do think he’s approached the question of slavery in the New Testament with a good deal more careful thought than most; I just think this is a blind spot for him – one tied to his politics. Alas, even the angels get it wrong sometimes.

      In any case, my point is not that Wilson’s views on slavery automatically damn him in all other areas, or even that they’re wrong (obviously I think they are) but rather that they open him up to the very charges laid against him in this context. Whether the charges stick or not is something else, but at the least we have to recognize that the charge would have a bit less potency without that link.


      1. And his so called “historical revisionism” was lauded by award winning scholar of the American South and American slavery Eugene Genovese. Hmmm….

        The fact of the matter is, Wilson says unequivocally in his book that slavery is evil, sinful, and disgusting and that racism is sinful. What more do you want? Sheesh.

        Have you even read ‘Black & Tan’?


        1. No, but I don’t think most folks have, either, and what I’ve read online is nowhere near so clear. (I also make no claim to I was talking offline with a friend yesterday, and we agreed that his biggest problem on the issue is that it’s (a) so easily misunderstood and (b) that he’s not necessarily clear enough when speaking briefly. On that issue in particular, I think overclarification is demanded.

          I’m not familiar with Genovese, but the Wikipedia article suggests his own views on the same topic may have come in for criticism as well. For the moment, however, I’ll defer to you on what Wilson actually writes, while noting that his position is both controversial and, if not extensively clarified, therefore subject to massive misinterpretation.

          Isn’t that something of the same situation we have here?


  7. What are we to give to each other?

    In complementarian writing, his gift to her is his leadership and her gift to him is her submission. For starters, when it comes to physical intimacy in marriage, I don’t like that word choice. Far better, I think, to talk about his initiative and her response. I say that, because the Corinthians text does not tell wives to “never say no”. Rather, it talks about an absence of deprivation. That issue aside, my primary concern with complementarian writing on sex is that the sole focus is on the instrumentality of the male.

    Yes, I am to take pleasure in giving of myself to my husband, but I am also to take pleasure in what I want him to give to me – sensual touch. IMO, too many men are out of touch with the importance of touch. They’re cut off from the strength that comes not from subduing the body, but from aligning with it. When the body – his or hers – is an instrument, it becomes nothing more than something to be mastered. (Didn’t someone recently write a book on just this topic?) When we view our bodies as instruments, we become out of touch with our bodies and we block access to our feelings. Those who are unable to feel their own pain are more likely to inflict pain on others.

    IMO, when complementarians fail to acknowledge this gift that husbands should give to their wives, they teach only part of the truth. Part of the truth is often a half-truth. And, a half-truth is no different than a lie.


  8. Here’s a vague, off the cuff, (blushing) answer to your question about how women engage in conquest in their sexuality.

    In monogamous marriage, there is a pleasure in being desirable enough to overcome a man’s natural sexual promiscuity, to have inflamed his passion for you instead of another woman. Here is a physically strong creature, who could, by biology alone, take what he wants whenever he wants, but instead he has become completely fixated on you. So much so that he cannot “contain” himself. If that’s not conquering him, I don’t know what is.


  9. EMSoliDeoGloria July 19, 2012 at 10:54 am

    @Matt – you’ve written a thoughtful piece that deserves more thoughtful interaction than I have time to give at the moment.

    I will mention my disappointment that J Wilson & D Wilson have seemed more interested in criticizing those who primarily expressed their disappointment over, anger about or traumatized reaction to D Wilson’s word choices. They have not demonstrated much interest in interacting with Scripture based critique of D Wilson’s overall philosophy of human sexuality (which led to his word choices) from those who have read much more of his writing than a few paragraphs or 140 characters.

    As for sexual ethics in marriage – I believe they exist and that mere consent is not the only standard for ethical behavior. But I don’t believe D Wilson has biblical ground for drawing them where he does or demanding that others do so (and I draw my apprehension of his views on that from places other than the quote which sparked the present controversey).

    @Marilyn – what about a woman’s initiative and a man’s response?


  10. Thanks so much for weighing in on this, Matt. I agree with the basis of your negotiation through this controversy. Also thought Alistair Robert’s comment was the best in that thread.

    My general impression of RHE is that she sees clearly the problems against which she speaks, but uses the wrong language to do so. She is fighting a spiritual battle with cultural concepts and language, and it’s too bad. But then…I fear that perhaps Wilson(s) is also.

    I love this question that you ask: “What, if anything, is uniquely distinctive about the male experience of human sexuality that sets it apart from the female?” Excellent, excellent question! What is so problematic with complementarian characterizations/prescriptions, even D. Wilson’s, and Jared’s attempt to explain them, is that not only are they polarizing in the way you mention, but they polarize the sexes. This is one of my biggest complaints against complementarian teaching (and I don’t get C. S. Lewis’ polarization of everything along male-female lines either). I think that if Paul knew how his words were being used today, his bones would clatter right out of whatever ossuary(ies) in which they lie. The sexes are not polar opposites. They are both human. They are both equally saved in Christ. I would like to see more arguments that lay out the many, many, many ways in which the sexes are the same without falling into the error of so many egalitarian arguments which fail to acknowledge the differences (which I have also done in the past and of which I repent), including the area of sexuality. The main problem with D. Wilson’s statement about conquest, colonization, etc. is that it unnecessarily, and inaccurately, polarizes the sexes.

    This, I think, is the main of what set off so many against both Wilsons’ statements. A person might rightly question, for example, where the notion of penetration as “a feature of intercourse” (D. Wilson) comes from to begin with, given that word’s connotations. Also, D. Wilson never suggests that there might be a problem with a guy thinking of sex in terms of conquest; guys, he says, “get it”, but women get “huffy” and “militaristic” in response. Well, what if women are responding that way because they recognize the problem with guys thinking of sex in terms of conquest? Where is this idea of sexual conquest treated favorably in Scripture? Or that the male only gives, and the female only receives?


    1. Bonnie, I wish I’d read your comment before I’d made mine – I could have skipped what I said altogether and just “amen”‘d at yours!


    2. Bonnie,

      Always lovely to hear from you and thanks so much for the thoughtful comment (as always).

      I had a professor once joke that there were two types of people in the world: uniters and dividers. Intellectually, there’s those who tend to see sameness and those who tend to see difference. The whole fun of romance, if we can grant Chesterton’s definition for the moment, is that we start off in this sort of mysterious enchantment of difference and eventually see how much we are the same. We arrive in what we think of as New South Wales only to later realize that we have been in Old South Wales all along.

      I wonder, honestly, whether a similar sort of phenomenology could be employed to speak of the sexes. The sameness is there all along and we should point to it: but it has to be learned in particular ways in order to be properly appreciated *as* sameness, and if not learned in those ways then the whole mystery and drama gets lost.

      I don’t know. This is simply ad hoc and I’m thinking out loud, so feel free to rain down opprobrium. But I do wonder whether simply approaching the same/different question as though those are *static* categories within our experience is itself a bit too restrictive.



      1. EMSoliDeoGloria July 20, 2012 at 9:50 am

        I can certainly agree that as individuals we may have natural tendencies toward seeing sameness or difference that may play into how we perceive this issue. But the wise man or woman will not try to universalize their own tendency to the negation of others, but will try to rightly appreciate the perspective of the other.

        I think Bonnie gets at something very important here: to describe the marital union without unity is to miss its fundamental nature. Even the Eph 5 use of body and head are not about the diversity of the parts but the unity of the whole. Marriage – and marital relations – are not about what one party does to the other or allows the other to do, but about coming together in a way that creates for both what neither can achieve separately. It is beauty and mystery and joy and pleasure and good and safe with variety and adventure. No two experiences need be exactly alike and every union can strengthen the one flesh relationship of the married couple.

        That’s the puzzling thing with this particular controversy. D Wilson declares that men and women are different in precisely such sexual ways. But when difference of opinion surfaces over his assertion, he declares anyone who differs with him to be reading comprehension deficient. I think people such as myself and Alistair and iMonk understand him quite well. Some of us just flat out disagree with him. Instead of valuing and appreciating and discussing that difference in light of Scripture, insults are flying around the internet. There is a better way. Matt’s tone is helpful in beginning a discussion on the merits.


      2. Bonnie and Matt,

        I appreciate your conversation. Thanks for sharing it here.

        Perhaps the path from the differentness of the other to sameness and unity comes as we give each other different gifts, but learn to value the giving as much as we value the receiving.


  11. A clarification:

    When I said that “I get that some folks enjoy getting ‘conquered’ to some degree in bed” and that “this should be a mutual decision, pleasurable to both parties, and it is certainly not required by God-ordained gender roles,” I certainly did not mean I’m fine with sexual violence. That seems like quite a stretch to me, especially given the context of my post. I simply meant that some couples prefer one person to be more dominant than the other (not necessarily the guy, by the way), and that if this suits them both, I don’t see any reason why it should be condemned. What is problematic about the Wilsons’ argument is that they say that men MUST dominate by “conquering and colonizing” and that women MUST submit by “receiving” and “surrendering” because God has ordained those roles.


    1. If I may, Mrs. Evans, I have yet to see a viable argument from you or others *against* the idea that God has ordained those roles. Just a thought, not an attack.


      1. 1 Corinthians 7 and Song of Songs – I discuss this in my original post.


        1. Song of Songs, gives examples of female initiative in sexuality, but it’s a misunderstanding of complementarianism to assume that complementarians forbid female initiative.

          Likewise, 1 Cor 7 affirms the one-ness of the marital unit, something no complementarian would deny. But it doesn’t address G’s question of whether or not God has ordained male servant-leadership as representative of Christ’s servant-leadership of the church.

          Your discussion on this subject over the past couple years seems to always come back to, “Who holds the reins of power? Who is more privileged?” which strikes me as a rather worldly way of thinking.

          I think a more applicable line of questioning is, “Does the marriage relationship convey any truths at all about Christ and his church? If so, what truths about Christ and his church are conveyed by a complementary view of the marriage relationship? Likewise, what truths about Christ and his church are conveyed by an egalitarian view of the marriage relationship?”


          1. Go back and read Eph 5 with no assumptions about what “head of the church” means except what the Bible itself says that Christ as “head of the church” does. You will find that they are all serving functions, with nary a leadership function to be found. So a husband is called to “servant servantship” of his wife and NOT some bogus idea of servant leadership.

          2. Don… Christ does not lead the church? The church does not submit to Christ? Is he Lord? Or just Partner?

          3. A marriage of mutual self-sacrificing and mutual love gives both spouses the opportunity to tell through their lives the redemptive story of Christ’s love and self-sacrificial work for the church. A marriage of mutuality tells the truth that Christ and the Church are one.

            As to your questions for Don, I’ll take a stab.

            Christ is *one* with the Church. The Church *is* his body. Christ is Lord, but you don’t find that in Eph 5 as that is not the point, you have to go elsewhere.

    2. Rachel,

      Quite ironic that you’re complaining about someone taking you out of context.


      1. We shall accept her clarification when she accepts Wilson’s – how does that sound?


      2. I take full responsibility for not making that point more clearly. I’ve updated the post to include a clarification.


    3. “I certainly did not mean I’m fine with sexual violence. I think it’s quite a stretch to me, especially given the context of my post.”

      I think it’s quite a stretch to imply that D.Wilson is ok with sexual violence, especially given the context of his book. And by imply, I mean by your use of the term “highly unlikely” in your response to Jared Wilson’s wife “I want to be clear that I never said Jared (or, for that matter, Doug) condones rape or violence against women. That seems highly unlikely.”

      “Highly unlikely” still implies that there is some likelihood…and I find that quite a stretch.


    4. I, for one, read it the same way as Matt did and I didn’t think it was a stretch to interpret it that way. It seemed like a blanket statement that all that matters is consent between two people and anything else is up to them.


      1. I’ve updated the post to include the clarification.

        And I take full responsibility for the miscommunication.


    5. Thanks, Rachel, for coming over and chiming in. I’ve been away most of the day (real job, blah blah blah) but I’ve updated the post with the text of your clarification.

      I would be curious to hear, though, at some point what your reasons are for rejecting BDSM as a *form* of conquest within marriage, provided that both couples consent and agree. Maybe file it away for a future post or, if we ever meet, an interesting conversation to someday have in person!




  12. Here’s the link to that post: http://rachelheldevans.com/gospel-coalition-douglas-wilson-sex

    For more on biblical support for egalitarianism in general, see my Week of Mutuality posts:


  13. Rachel writes: “I simply meant that some couples prefer one person to be more dominant than the other (not necessarily the guy, by the way), and that if this suits them both, I don’t see any reason why it should be condemned.”

    So, if we discover that the Matthew Shepherd had consented to have been tortured and that his torturers were his lovers, knowing full well that it could lead to his death and not resisting that possibility, you would be fine with that?

    Once you say that the purpose of human sexuality is imposed by our wills rather than suggesting that our wills should be conformed to its telos, there are no limits except mutual consent. Other than being popular with the cool kids, I don’t see why anyone would want to think that is true.


    1. EMSoliDeoGloria July 20, 2012 at 12:48 pm

      I respect Mr. Beckwith a great deal, which is why this example surprises me. Rachel didn’t say anything like that.

      I’m not sure how she would answer you, but I know I would give an unqualifed ,i> “no, I would not be fine with that, nor would the Lord who created Matthew Shepherd.”

      Now you are coming at the subject from an RC perspective and I from an evangelical one, but I think we are both guided by Scripture.

      And for as much as has been written about it by various Christian believers, Scripture does not have a lot of step-by-step instruction about what married sex is supposed to be like. The opinions and experiences of others may be helpful but they are not authoritative.

      From Scripture, we know the following explicitly, sex is to be:
      *Faithful (no adultery or bringing outsiders to the marriage bed, this includes pornography)
      *Regular (don’t deprive each other except by agreement for a little while to avoid temptation)
      *Singular (one man-one woman was God’s creation ideal)
      *Joyous (“intoxicating” and celebratory)
      *Intimate (personal and “knowing”)
      *Unifying (“one flesh”)

      Am I missing anything?

      Some would include “possibly procreative” in this list. I believe this is a strong inference from Scripture and an important consideration for ethical sex but I don’t know chapter / verse that can be cited for it. “Possibly procreative,” by the way, does not mean that sex is reserved for baby-making but that one should not aim at enjoying sex selfishly / in a way that rejects any possibility of children during the season of life that both partners are capable of reproducing. This belief that is held to varying degrees by Catholics and many evangelical Protestants. The inference from this principle is that sexual behaviors other than intercourse should not completely replace intercourse (some Catholics go further). Because it is not explicit in Scripture, I cannot include it in this list.

      Other Scriptures are helpful for a married couple to remember. These provide implicit guidelines for mutually fulfilling “Christian sex.”
      * Honoring: let the wife see that she respect her husband (Eph 5:33); show honor to the wife (I Peter 3:7)
      * Loving: husbands love your wives (Eph 5:25); train the younger women to love their husbands (Titus 2:4)
      * Sacrificial: do nothing from selfish ambition… honor one another above yourselves (Phil 2:3, Rom 12:10)
      * Safe: do unto others (Matt 7:12); one flesh (Gen 2:24 / Eph 5:28-29)

      From these general principles for relating to other believers and spouses, I think we can conclude that sexual activity between a man and woman who are married to each other should be:
      1 – fully consensual.
      2 – exclusive and personal (between just the two of them and never objectifying the other)
      3 – not degrade or humiliate either person.
      4 – not physically damage or harm either person.

      This will necessarily exclude certain activities. But within these parameters, there is an ocean of diverse ways couples can enjoy each other. Within marriage, if you do what you enjoy together, within the boundaries God has set for your protection, it is RIGHT.

      Sexual ethics for a Christian are a sensitive area where there is both liberty and constraint. How do you think the foregoing principles might serve to guide ethical sexual expression between male and female believers who are married to each other (basic biblical parameters)?

      Perhaps my comment approaches Matthew Anderson’s question somewhat too. Is there something “uniquely distinctive about the male experience of human sexuality that sets it apart from the female?” I don’t think the alternative is collapsing all difference “into an amorphous mash of homogeneous sexual desire.”

      I expect there are some general differences in male and female sexual experience, physiologically driven but nonetheless impacting the psyche, but the moment we try to pin them down and define them, especially in the narrow way Wilson does, we will lose the heart of what married sexual expression was created to be: a union – a joining of the different in mutual pleasure, appreciation, love and beauty (not conquest, by the way, that’s the perversion, not the ideal).


      1. My comments on Shepherd–which are similar to those I published 7 years ago Philosophical Christi–have absolutely nothing to do with Catholicism. (When I originally procured this example, I was an Evangelical). You can read the full article here: https://bearspace.baylor.edu/Francis_Beckwith/www/Sites/neutrality.pdf ).

        My example was meant to accentuate the problem of Ms. Evans’ appeal to consent as a means by which to assess the licitness of sexual acts between consenting adults. Consent is only moral when one is giving permission to engage in an act that is good. On matters sexual, the appeal to “consent” is way to avoid, rather than to engage, the moral issues percolating beneath these sorts of debates.

        So, I find it odd that you would spend so much time amassing a case for a position on procreative sex that was not even the focus of my example.

        But since you brought it up, the Catholic view is that reproductive powers are reproductive, just as our powers of nutrition are nutritional. We, of course, may eat with others out of friendship and enjoy the taste of the food and admire its preparation. But unless we are perverse, we don’t intentionally engage in these activities merely for friendship and taste and later thwart the nutritional act’s nutritional end. So, if I were to devour such a meal and fifteen minutes later after completing eat force myself to throw it up, I would be doing something contrary to the proper end of my nutritional act. It would not matter if I intentionally took a pill or wore a culinary condom attached to my stomach to either dissipate or capture the food and throw it away later. If my justification were that eating is not just about nutrition, but about friendship and taste, you would, rightfully, point out that I have perverse understanding of the natural end of my nutritional powers and how my parts and properties work in concert for the good of the whole.

        You are indeed correct that the Scripture tells us how to act and behave in relation to one another and to do all in love, which, of course, would seem to preclude mutual torture or defecation, even if both parties consented to it and enjoyed it. (“Whatever floats your boat” is not a biblical principle, though I have not consulted the Living Bible or Mark Driscoll recently). Love is self-giving, self-sacrificing, and requires willing the good of the other. How can I will the good of the other if I request to my beloved that she and I employ our sexual powers in a way contrary to their intrinsic good? If, for example, I were to take my wife out to dinner at a nice restaurant and we enjoy our time together and the way the food was prepared, but later we puke it up later, are we willing each others’ good?

        This understanding of our sexual powers is quite ancient. So much so that Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox knew of no other view until the Anglican Church in the 1930s changed its minds. I think you would agree with me that compared to Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Newman, Wojtyla, and Ratzinger, our knowledge of Scripture does not compare. They had the same Bible from which you quote. Why were they so woefully mistaken on a matter that seems so obvious to you now? Perhaps it is because your soul, like all our souls, has been marinating in a culture of death for quite some time. We’ve been shaped and formed by understandings of human nature that are not only foreign, but hostile, to Christian faith. It took me decades to begin to realize this, and I am still learning how to overcome it, with fear and trembling (as the Scriptures teach).


        1. EMSoliDeoGloria July 21, 2012 at 3:36 pm

          Mr. Beckwith, thank you for your thoughtful reply.

          Your Matthew Shepherd example vis a vis RHE’s comment seemed similar to me to those who were accusing D Wilson and J Wilson of advocating rape and such.

          I say “seemed” because your reply helps me understand that you had employed what might be seen as a “shock” example to critique the point of view that the only limit on human sexual expression is consent.

          In that, I agree with you and I’m glad that the law does too. Generally speaking, the law does not allow us to be whipped until we bleed or beaten until we are bruised or to consent to our own murder (assisted suicide) – and that’s a good thing.

          Your comment was sort of a jumping off point for trying to engage regarding sexual ethics more broadly. So, I can see where my talking about sexual ethics in relation to procreation could seem odd – I didn’t mean it to be, but was noting that this is a point of general agreement between some Catholics and Protestants but also a point of departure for some protestants. The way you have explained the Catholic position (with the food analogy) is exactly how my theologically informed Catholic friends have explained it and it is a strong argument.

          I expect we mostly agree. We certainly agree that there are things that ought not be done even if both parties agree to them and profess to enjoy them (your two examples among them). Even if there are some things that I might consider permissible that you would not, I fully agree with you that I cannot “will the good of the other if I request to my beloved that (s)he and I employ our sexual powers in a way contrary to their intrinsic good.”

          You could be correct that there are things I believe because I am too much immersed in the culture I live in. I expect that’s probable, though I don’t know what those areas are. But maybe some believers today understand certain truths that were unclear in the past – I’m pretty confident that each of the theologians you mention were wrong about some things, though they knew Scripture far better than I. And I’m confident there are things I’m wrong about too – perhaps things those fathers and luminaries understood. Every age gets things wrong. Ours is terribly out of whack. Weren’t others too?

          I look forward to reading the 2005 paper of yours linked above.

          Blessings! and thanks again for your reply…


          1. EMSoliDeoGloria July 22, 2012 at 5:21 pm

            @Francis Beckwith – I read and appreciated that Philosophi Christi paper of yours. The example you used regarding Loving v. Virginia was especially poignant given the false equation sometimes made between that case and Lawrence v. Texas.

  14. Hmm. My first response is that Evans mistook poetic language for literal language and so took offense. I could be wrong about that, though.

    Then again, if you go hyper-literal, there’s a difference (how do you say this without blushing?) between going in and being gone into. Most people, I think, find that difference erotic. (Isn’t the difference between the sexes the basis of eros? Or the difference juxtaposed against the also-very-present unity?) And all of this would be much, much less blush-inducing in a good poem or song than it is in prose.

    I don’t know . . . I read Evans’ blog yesterday, and I just got the feeling that she and Wilson were talking about two entirely different things. He seemed to be speaking about eros within a happy marriage – where the couple already trust each other and mean each other’s good – and she’s talking about everything that can go wrong when you have a couple who are willing to hurt each other.

    I guess I just came away thinking that their contexts were so different that they weren’t going to be able to talk to each other. Wilson tends towards the poetic, and Evans towards the realistic, and the twain *should* meet, but . . .


    1. commenting to add: I just read Bonnie’s comment above, and would like to go on record as saying that I think she identified the problem much better than I did.


      1. Jessica, I think your comment is quite excellent!

        “there’s a difference (how do you say this without blushing?) between going in and being gone into. Most people, I think, find that difference erotic”

        I have never thought about it that way, but I agree 100%! I also really like the way you put this:

        “I read Evans’ blog yesterday, and I just got the feeling that she and Wilson were talking about two entirely different things. He seemed to be speaking about eros within a happy marriage – where the couple already trust each other and mean each other’s good – and she’s talking about everything that can go wrong when you have a couple who are willing to hurt each other.
        I guess I just came away thinking that their contexts were so different that they weren’t going to be able to talk to each other. Wilson tends towards the poetic, and Evans towards the realistic, and the twain *should* meet, but…”


    2. but….Rachel makes her living by “being offended” by things taken out of context. Doug’s daughter sums it up well here: http://www.feminagirls.com/2012/07/19/splashing-into-it-again/


    3. I agree with Astev. The comment is a worthy one and helpful on its own. Thanks, Jessica.

      Your musings about the “difference between the sexes” being the “basis of eros” deserves a *ton* more exploration and thought, honestly. It’s that precise sort of thing that I think Wilson is trying to get to, however hamfistedly. And it’s really that question that stands beneath my own question about the uniqueness of male sexuality, if there is one.

      So, let me simply file that one away for a lot more thought. Because there’s a lot of good work to do there.



  15. Matt:

    The following remarks are made playfully.

    First, for a man who dissuaded me from using the word “ethnocentric” because it is academic jargon, this post is littered with rarefied words like “deconstructionists,” “semantic voluntarists,” “errata,” and “exegetical.” Second, for a man who disavows being a movement evangelical, you are once again weighing in “another controversy” besetting the movement.

    The following remark is made earnestly.

    One of the important lessons for communicators in this controversy is the autonomy of the text. This postmodern insight about interpretation makes objectivists anxious because they (wrongly) assume that “the text will be dissolved or dispersed at the cost of its identity. It will mean everything and therefore nothing.” Revoking authorial privilege, however, does not necessarily entail a different-strokes-for-different-folks hermeneutics. As philosopher Merold Westphal writes, “Only someone who failed Logic 101 can think that to deny that the author is the sole source of meaning in a text is to present the text as ‘totally cut off from’ the author.” He continues:

    “Here we encounter the radical either/or… Either the author alone determines meaning or the reader alone determines meaning. In the first case, objectivity and universal validity are possible in principle; in the second case we have an ‘anything goes’ relativism in which there is no terra firma. The vertigo of relativity is a response to the vortex of radical perspectivism, a plurality and particularity without principle. But are these the only two options? Might not the meaning(s) of a text be coproduced by author and reader, the product of their interaction? Might not each contribute to the determinacy of meaning without requiring that it be absolutely determinate? If the author has a legitimate role, without needing to be an autocrat, then the text cannot mean just anything that the reader takes it to mean. There will be boundaries… But if the reader also plays a role, these boundaries will be sufficiently generous to allow that a given text might legitimately mean somewhat different things to different people in different circumstances. Moreover, this way of viewing understanding would help us to make sense of the obvious fact that differences of interpretation are the rule rather than the exception in literature, law, and theology.”

    In short, why should anyone be surprised that Douglas Wilson’s text has an afterlife? Interpretation can tell us as much about the interpreter (Rachel Held Evans or Matthew Lee Anderson) as the text. In this controversy, each interpreter reveals his theological horizon (complementarian or egalitarian).


  16. Your comments about being overly sensitive in cases like this is exactly what I was thinking and was my biggest issue with Jared’s initial post. When women started coming forward saying they weren’t comfortable with the language for whatever reason, the appropriate response was not to clarify what he attempted to say but rather to make right what he did say.


  17. Sad to be super late to the comment party so haven’t more to add than:

    1. A chuckling “No kidding!” on Christopher Benson’s playful comment. Hate to think what Frank Turk might say if he reads this. Although, on a related note, I do think that this is the one topic where purple prose and euphemisms are a blessed help. Can I say with others how difficult it is to interact thoughtfully about the, um, specifics of this subject, and how those specifics might make arguments either way, in way that doesn’t make a comment thread sound perilously like the Penthouse Letters to the Editor??!! Yeesh.

    2. I’m fascinated by the now multiple clarifications and provisos sprinkled over the posts at both D Wilsons’ and R Evans’ places. Very kind of them both to help us out with all of our inability to understand what they both so obviously clearly stated.

    3. Matt, your last paragraph was very close to spot on. I think Jared was trying to to a good thing in writing thoughtfully and Christianly about a current cultural phenomenon. He was doing another good thing in going to another writer who attempted to do the same. He just may not have done another good thing (and a recent thing because of the Interweb) – done the differential analysis on whether the combination of his thoughts and Doug’s, when encountering a incredibly diverse and unknown audience, would all respond to their collective thoughts the same way. IOW, he may have thought more about what he was trying to say, that who would really be reading.


    1. This third point is, I think, the hardest for those of us regularly engaged in writing for the internet. For example: my own personal blog(s) have a readership ranging from about 2 to about 75. However, they’re public. This is a weird thing, because I can expect that the vast majority of what I write will be read by a very specific set of people, and I might therefore be tempted to write to that audience. (By and large, that’s a good thing. It means I don’t have to rehash my presuppositions every single time I say anything.) But they’re public, which means that someone can stumble on them, and if my words – however uncontroversial in my own circle – come across differently to someone else, then we’re off to the races.

      I think that’s at least part of what happened here. Jared Wilson was writing to his normal audience. There might have been some push back from that audience, but the moment everything went crazy (as opposed to just a little more engaged than usual) was when RHE tweeted it, as near as I can tell. (To Rachel Evans: that’s no insult, by the way. While we often disagree, I appreciate your passion and your desire for better Christianity. I’m glad that you actually write with passion, not hiding behind a façade of “tolerance” when you think something is just flat wrong. We need more of that, not less.) At which point, the normal audience, which likely would have understood Jared and also given him a bit more slack, was suddenly overwhelmed by a flood of people who (a) don’t know Jared’s writing, (b) are therefore not inclined to cut him slack, and most importantly (c) are coming from a position predisposed to see the words amiss.

      Writing in public – especially writing these short pieces we call blog posts in public – has these sorts of unique challenges in spades. My readership may be 10 on most days; but some days the founder of AVEN shows up on my post on asexuality and we’re off to the races. Which takes us back to Matt’s point: it may behoove us to use extra care in the words we choose, recognizing that we write in public (even if it’s easy to forget just how public our words are when we’re used to our own regular audience).


    2. Rachael,

      I understand your Penthouse comment, and yet . . .

      For over a quarter of a century (i.e., since the 1986 publication of His Needs, Her Needs), evangelical pulpits and family living classes have emphasized the importance of wives giving of themselves in the bedroom. There has been very little balance (i.e., mutuality) in the teaching.

      I think the problem isn’t so much Harley’s understanding of human sexuality as it his “you meet my needs and I’ll meet yours” framework combined with the gap between what he taught about sexuality and what many evangelical pastors caught.

      Here I’m with Rachel Held Evans. We need to talk about female sexuality with the same degree of specificity that we talk about male sexuality. IMO, a failure to do so results in a teaching that is inconsistent with mutuality.

      Finally, on the topic of what each is to give to the other, my favorite discussion is found in Dr. Stanley Grenz’ Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective.


  18. Thanks for this post, Matthew: it is helpful. Thanks also for the reference to my comment in the original thread.

    I have since written the first part of a series of blog posts on the subject, if you or any of your readers would be interested in taking a look. Blessings!


  19. Matthew and friends,

    My wife just wrote a post that explains the Catholic understanding of how we are made, male and female. The language is important to get right; namely, we make sincere gifts of ourselves to each other. Man is the initiator of the gift; woman receives the gift and in turn gives of herself as well, such that it is a mutual donation: http://itsfuntobeagirl.com/the-better-way/

    God bless,


  20. Well, count me in as another who was offended and troubled by Wilson’s words. As a man, you can not possibly understand what the words ‘colonize and conquer’ sound like to female ears when used in a sexual context. They are aggressive words used in reference to the most tender part of a woman’s anatomy. You are aware that rape has been a conquering tool for millenia, both by conquering armies and abusive husbands. You do not understand the fear that lies in every woman, the fear of rape.

    Wilson is surprised at the furor these terms have created. I am glad that he tried to clarify, but more grace and less dismissiveness of others’ concern would have been the more Christ-like approach. As for his daughter Bekah’s response, it was the most unChristlike and snarky thing I have ever read. And by saying that ‘Rachel makes her living by being offended’, well, that’s an ad ominem attack. Oldest trick in the book when it comes to debate.

    I don’t agree with a lot of Rachel’s conclusions, but I do give her this: she has a gracious attitude towards those she disagrees with. *I don’t think behaving like a jerk is ever justified*. Rachel has the 1Cor. 13:1 thing covered. The question is, does Wilson and his daughter?


    1. Sorry, my previous comment was meant for David.

      @Devin: thanks for your comment. I have seen your comments on Evans’ blog and always appreciate them. Your comment here is no exception. What a lovely description of physical intimacy–if Wilson had described it in such terms, there would be no controversy and no hurt! I will check out your wife’s blog.


  21. It appears that at least two of my comment directly to Jared Wilson under his supposed “apology” blog was deleted, which doesn’t suggest to me a willingness to deal with the root of the problem. So I’ll put my comment here with hopes that it won’t be censored. I reminded Mr. Wilson of his rash, uncaring and inaccurate comment to me of June 8, 2012, in response to his article encouraging rural ministry. In essence, he dismissed my cautions as simply those of an compulsive pessimist and basically told me to stop commenting. Since then, I’ve steered clear of Mr. Wilson’s articles but then I wasn’t surprised to see him get caught up in some kind of controversy with rash, insensitive comments. Frankly, I believe he lacks the maturity to be a columnist for a blog as reputable as the Gospel Coalition.


    1. John,

      I’m not gonna take your comment down, but I don’t at all see what it has to do with the actual substance of my post or the discussion. And frankly, if you’ve a personal issue like that with Jared I’d commend you to take it up with him directly, rather than leaving remarks in comment sections that he does not read.




  22. I don’t see why Christians are disturbed by this. There is absolutely nothing unbiblical about rape, so long as it takes place in a context approved by God. If you are a Bible-believing Christian, you have to accept the whole Bible, not only parts of it. You can’t cherry pick. God approves, and even requires, rape under the appropriate circumstances. If you doubt me, ask any Midianite virgin female. Hopefully, the faux intellectual, faux Christians at Mere Orthodoxy will stop trying to “reform” God’s word and will embrace it in all its glory.


  23. […] par excellance, has stepped in “it” by writing about sex in a way offensive or objectionable to some. Since the point here is that silence about sex might do Christians some good, I am not […]


  24. […] current hullabaloo, please allow me to offer the Catholic understanding of what one blogger called “the male experience of sexuality that sets it apart from the female”, as well as God’s plan for marital relations revealed in Sacred Scripture.  Okay, […]


  25. Well if we are sticking to the merely *physical* phenomena of pleasure to indicate hierarchy, mutuality, leadership, submission, equality, complementarity, etc – it seems to me that D Wilson is overlooking something profound: when a woman is in the throes of true pleasure, she is FAR from the one-dimensional acceptance submission reception he describes.
    A woman in the throes of her pleasure is *not* physically passive, not even close.
    Which makes a skeptic wonder whether the man has been so busy ‘conquering’ that he has never in fact been conquered by his wife’s full response. Just saying.Viva the Song of Solomon! God in designing sex has far more imagination & largesse than any left-brained mortal can fathom!


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