Thursday, April 12, 2012

Real Marriage and Natural Sex

WARNING: This post is, at times, sexually explicit.

I can see on the horizon that April is going to be a busy month for me. Seeing a particular week in which I know I won't be able to write anything, I'm setting this post to publish during that week. Ah, the wonder of computers, by which we can appear to be doing something that we actually did long ago!

Of course, the risk is that, although what I'm blogging about is current now, it may be old news by the time this post goes up. I disagree with Mark Driscoll's book Real Marriage in many ways. The controversy over the book has generated a lot of heat in the early reviews. I think it deserves to generate some heat, but I'd also like to try to contribute some light, not only to reviews of this book but also to the subject matter of sexual ethics in general and the human relationship with the created order (nature).

It seems to me that the role of nature in sexual ethics is woefully understated today. The Driscolls' book is a prime example. The Driscolls ask of sexual practices whether they are lawful, helpful, and non-enslaving. They ought further to have asked of each sexual practice under review, is it natural?

The Bible, after all, explicitly includes the question of nature as a key component of sexual ethics:

For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the NATURAL function for that which is UNNATURAL, and in the same way also the men abandoned the NATURAL function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.

Romans 1:26-27

Notice the prominent use of nature in this assessment of homosexuality. Here, by the way, is one of the places where this essay is much more than a critique of Mark Driscoll's latest book. In discussions about homosexuality, too often we allow people to frame the discussion as though the argument against homosexuality is essentially a religious argument or an argument from tradition. Really, the argument against homosexuality is biological, scientific, and natural. Clearly, it is the design of penises and vaginas to function in cooperation with one another. Yes, people have devised all sorts of other things one can do with a penis or a vagina, but the design of the created order—the natural function of penises and vaginas—is indisputable.

The argument against homosexuality is not necessarily religious (for gay marriage has never, before this century, existed in ANY religious, or irreligious, culture or among any people), but is instead anatomical. Certainly, anatomy has spiritual implications, and religious faith is affected by these observations about the created order that God has given us, but one need not be Southern Baptist to look at the design of human beings—of vertebrates!—and conclude that these beings have been designed for heterosexuality (even if you somehow believe that randomness has done the designing).

Nature is not always such a faithful guide—nature will kill you, for example, if you drink "natural" water out of the wrong stream. But when it comes to sexual ethics, for anyone who believes that God is Creator, nature must be among the factors that we include in our thinking.

Which brings us back to the Driscolls and their failure to incorporate this concept.

How would it change Real Marriage if the Driscolls had considered the concept of "natural function" from Romans 1 in their thinking? Are there modern sexual practices that are "against nature" (the literal translation of the words rendered "unnatural" in Romans 1:26)?

Consider, for example, anal sex. The Driscolls conclude that, within marriage, a husband and wife may participate in anal sex with certain conditions in place. Anal sex, according to their analysis, can be lawful, helpful, and non-enslaving. They envision circumstances in which anal sex, done the wrong way, might not be helpful or might be enslaving (for example, if one spouse were uncomfortable with the idea and were being pressured), but they also consider circumstances in which it would not be.

What happens if you meet that case study with the question, "Is it natural?" I think you must conclude that it is not. The natural function of a vagina is (a) to have intercourse with a penis, (b) to serve as a birth canal for babies, and (c) to provide an outlet for the uterus. The natural function of an anus is to provide an outlet for the intestines. To insert a penis into an anus is an act against nature.

In this world of genetic splicing and the like, it is easy for us to conclude that nature is there never as a guide for us to follow but always as a limitation to be overcome and shaped according to our desires. This is, of course, nothing more than our desire that I rather than God should be the creator and that I should have the opportunity to make corrections where I think He got things wrong.

This post contains a lot of salacious material. It may be difficult for anyone to read all of this and to see past the hot-button issues to the deeper concepts. For that reason, I want to close the post by reiterating explicitly the deeper concept that is the focus of this essay. The design of nature is a factor to consider in many aspects of Christian theology. Sexual ethics is one of those areas in which the role of natural design must play a role. Real Marriage is just one example of an attempted Christian treatment of sexual ethics that has failed, among whatever other reasons, precisely because it has made no effort to include the design of nature into its process of reaching ethical conclusions, but it is hardly alone in this category. If we would be biblical Christians, we must be more careful to consider the design of nature in our future deliberations on the subject matter of human sexuality.


Anonymous said...

I see no one has braved a comment yet, I will tread the waters cautiously.
1 Cor. 7:1-4 mentions that the wife's body belongs to the husband and vice versa. It seems this makes the entire body acceptable for sexual pleasure. Obviously there would be limits to this, as Driscoll points out. Such as it must be mutually agreed upon, etc. This text does not limit the husband or wife from certain parts of the body. Does that allow "unnatural" acts?

Josh Collins said...

I am in general agreement with your take on this, (very similar, though not as verbose, as the arguments Doug Wilson brought up on the topic).

My two questions I am wrestling with in using the nature argument:

1) Would "natural" and "healthy" have an overlap as categories, i.e. if there is proven negative health consequences for particular activities, then we would regard them as "not natural"? (I perused briefly Driscoll's book in B&N and noticed that he did include some health concerns under that section, though I would have pressed him further there.)This question was brought up because of question 2:

2) How far back do we push using the "natural argument"? Augustine used this to argue for allowing only one particular intercourse position, only for the purposes of procreation, and only if you didn't really enjoy it too much (not sure how that last one would be considered natural, but I digress). Most Baptists (and even Catholics) wouldn't go that far back in classifying acts as "natural", but there are things in between Augustine's permissiable line and Driscoll's that the "natural" question seems a lot more difficult on. Maybe this is a followup post or you could point to a good resource that argues these questions out.

Thanks for your writing.

Jerry Corbaley said...

I am no better than anyone else. I am not anybody’s judge. I offer the following only for people’s consideration. Think the thoughts.

This sinful world has a negative effect upon contentment. People, even Christians, crave novelty and excitement and can seek it in ways that deny the need to find contentment through God in what “is”.

Here is how the sexual novelty flows.

A man and woman (generic, married) hear about a different practice and can’t find a specific Biblical prohibition. So they try it and later grow bored because they do not find contentment.

They hear about video recording themselves for novelty and excitement because they can’t find a specific Biblical prohibition. So they try it and later grow bored because they do not find contentment.

They decide to watch porn together for novelty and excitement because they can’t find a specific Biblical prohibition. So they try it and later grow bored because they do not find contentment.

They decide to have sexual relations in public with other like-minded couples (careful to not actually allow penetration between unmarried spouses) because they can’t find a specific Biblical prohibition.

There is no end to rationalizing behavior. You just have to be clever enough to avoid specific Biblical prohibitions.

There is a severe danger in pursuing sensuality instead of spirituality (Ephesians 4:17-21).

Ray said...

Bart, I agree with your method of bringing to the table an argument from Nature. I think, due to its ties with Catholicism, Baptists and other Evangelicals have neglected the role of Natural Theology. Of course the Bible alone is our sole authority, but if we are going to continue to engage culture in the battle concerning a proper sexual ethic, we must develop a sound argument that incorporates elements of Natural Theology as well.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Good post, Bart. Your insistence that nature is an important guide is right on target (certainly in the area of vaginal vs. anal sex). You write, "In discussions about homosexuality, too often we allow people to frame the discussion..." This made me think about a statement by Op-Ed writer Peter Heck in
Why we're losing the 'gay' debate: "A person's natural state is that of male or female. From there, people choose what kind of sexual behavior, if any, to participate in." That goes along with what you say and is another detail in how we let others frame the discussion.

R. L. Vaughn said...

To clarify, I am agreeing with Peter Heck. His broader context is that many "have come to believe in the existence of a group of people whose natural state is 'homosexual'." Sorry for the add on, but I decided my original post might be a tad confusing.

selahV said...

Bart, from "one" female point of view, may I commend you on writing the OBVIOUS for this critique of a skewed and botched interpretation by Driscoll. I appreciate Corbaley's analysis on one thing leading to another. Part of the problem with all of this is as one (I can't recall who) said on the (Peter Lumpkins' blog comments, that if the act of anal sex as Driscoll sanctifies, becomes a Biblically approved method of sexual practice, then it systematically follows that there is nothing "wrong" with it between to "legally" married males.

This is so repugnant to me to even address. However, it is necessary to address it. The approval of Driscoll-ese is becoming an unbelievable phenomena in the reformed Christian community and beyond. He is being held up as a spokesman for everything from planting churches to, now, having sex. He leaves a trail of problems which no one seems to want to deal with head-on. I sincerely believe that two to five years from now we will not be talking about this man's influence on anything. However, this SEBTS-president-approved and endorsed book is one of the most disheartening things I've come across concerning Driscoll to date.

What are men thinking? Do they not realize how many women are already brutalized, abused and subjected to heinous acts in the name of "submit" yourself to your husbands? Are they so enamored with Driscoll's popularity that they do not see where this kind of endorsement leads? Just look at the "anonymous" statement above and see how this biblical conclusion is being played out from 1 Cor.7:1-4.

My Holy God in Heaven, the eyes of these men and raise up more with holy eyes to see Your ways and not the sadistic, unnatural, ways of deviant, deceitful, and the self-saturated. selahV

Bart Barber said...


"…the wife's body belongs to the husband and vice versa. It seems this makes the entire body acceptable for sexual pleasure."

A few points of disagreement:

1. Actually, the passage does not say that the husband owns the wife's body and that the wife owns the husband's body. Rather, it says that the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does have authority over her body, and likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body but the wife does. The question is not one of ownership, but of authority. I don't own this church but I have some (delegated) authority in it.

2. You say "Obviously there would be limits to this, as Driscoll points out." I certainly hope so. But it is difficult to assert mutual agreement out of the passage that you have cited. The plain meaning of 1 Corinthians 7:1-4 is that people who did not agree were being commanded to consent to make love to their spouses anyway.

3. If there are limits (and I agree that there are), then where do we find them? Can we just make them up out of nowhere, or ought we to consult the Bible? My post asserts nothing more than the idea that the design of the human body has been asserted in the Bible as one of the limits. I think I've made that exegetical case well.

Bart Barber said...


I hadn't seen Wilson's review, but now I have. Having read it, and seeing that he wrote his before I wrote mine, I realize that rather than posting a post, I should merely have posted a link and should have directed the reader to that point in his post.

Now, to your questions.

1. I have barely hinted at this in the post, but I would not press the correspondence between "natural" and "healthy." Certainly, some things that are natural are healthy, and certainly MANY things that are unnatural are correspondingly…even consequently…unhealthy. But a great many things are unhealthy precisely because they are so natural. Death is natural, after all (in this fallen state), yet it is the very definition of unhealthy!

2. Augustine may have shown us more about what is natural by his living than by his writing. ;-)

I agree that there are limits to natural theology. But I would say this much: Orgasm is natural. Pleasure in sex is obviously a part of God's natural design. Pain in sex is now a part of the fallen nature of this world. I'm not opposed to, for example, the use of lubrication to try to minimize pain during intercourse. One might (rightly!) argue that this is unnatural, to introduce a foreign substance into the vagina for the purpose of lubrication, but it is only unnatural (and we know this explicitly from scripture) in that it fights against the curse of something that did not pertain to pristine nature but only to fallen nature.

In contrast, we have no reason to believe that prior to the Fall anuses were entirely different and that the loss of some natural facility for anal intercourse was part of the Fall.

Hope that helps.

Bart Barber said...

Everyone take the time to read Jerry's comment. I didn't make his point, but it is one worthy of being made.

Bart Barber said...


Because the Bible uses natural theology explicitly in this case, if we will have the "Bible alone" as our source of authority, we cannot help but engage in at least SOME natural theology.

Thanks for your helpful comment.

Bart Barber said...

Great point, Bro. Vaughn, about the natural states of gender.

Bart Barber said...


Thanks for giving us not only wise thinking but also wise application. I have treated this academically. Let us not forget that people's bodies and emotions and the health of their relationships are at stake.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Bro. Bart, I strongly agree with you on taking the time to read Jerry's comment. When he says, "because they can’t find a specific Biblical prohibition...There is no end to rationalizing behavior" he exposes a serious defect that is running rampant in Baptist churches.

KWS said...

Bart, don't you know my mother reads your blog:0

Jason said...

I agree with your assessment with anal sex being wrong because it is against nature.

I'm surprised that you or anyone else has not brought up the 1000 pound elephant this still leaves in the room. Oral sex.

If men left what was natural to have anal sex with men, then didn't women do the same thing by having oral sex with women? If so then wouldn't the exact same argument make oral sex wrong?

The idea of anal sex in a Godly marriage is thoroughly repugnant to me. However I could not say the same thing about oral sex. Is that bad? Does that reflect a male bias?

Bart Barber said...

Good morning, Jason! Please forgive my absence. April has been a busy month, and I knew that it would be quite some time before I could really give this my attention.

You've asked a good question, or rather, a good SET of questions. Here are my responses, as best I know how to give them…

1. "didn't women [leave what was natural] by having oral sex with women?" I think that Romans 1 answers this question for us. I believe that "the women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural" is referring to the same "degrading passion" as that of the men in the next sentence: Homosexual sex.

2. "Wouldn't the exact same argument make oral sex wrong?" I see similarities and differences in the topics. Any sexual interaction between same-sex partners is unnatural, for human beings are heterozygous and dioecious. Thus, romantic KISSING between two women is unnatural, although kissing is not unnatural per se.

And yet, the example of kissing demonstrates that the mouth is…both by natural design and by biblical approbation…an organ involved in displays of affection and in romance. In other words, kissing is natural. I do not know that kissing must be confined to the cheek or the mouth or the hand. I think we have to allow at least the possibility or oral interaction with genitalia. I would probably limit kinds of kissing that, by natural design, are necessarily unhealthy…even dangerous (e.g., mouth-to-anus activity). Otherwise, because of kissing, I think that one cannot apply to the mouth the same kind of argument that one can apply to the anus.

I would add a caveat. It seems to me that the natural design of romantic affection is movement toward sexual release as a part of penile-vaginal intercourse. There may be some difference in oral pleasuring versus oral sex—foreplay versus the main event. But we're getting to the point where we're building quite a lengthy scaffold beyond the solid foundation of the biblical text.

3. "Does [your rejection of anal sex and not oral sex] reflect a male bias?" I don't see how. It would seem more likely to me that a FEMALE bias would reject anal sex and not oral sex, since oral sex is far more likely to deliver pleasure to a woman than is anal sex. But I guess there are a thousand things you might have meant by that. If we bring biases to this, among them are likely cultural biases or biases related to our own past experiences. If you have a bias here, it seems to me more likely that the bias is along these lines.

Jason said...

Hi Bart,

Thanks for interacting with my question. I'm in agreement with you on your conclusions, but I'm trying to think through your arguments to see how these would be countered by a homosexual activist, and then what response could be given to their counter. In your original blog post you seem to lean toward the argument that anal sex is wrong because it is unnatural, and you highlight the natural function of the penis and vagina. However in your latest response to me you seem to be leaning toward arriving at what is right and wrong by looking at who is participating. I say this because your answer to my question uses the logic that what makes oral sex wrong in a homosexual relationship is based on who the participants are and not on what is natural which is the reverse argument you make with regards to anal sex. Please understand that I'm not trying to be argumentative, but I'm just thinking through what you would encounter in a debate with the other side on these questions.

So looking at your original blog post and then looking at your answer to my questions one might ask, which is it? Is anal sex wrong because it is unnatural or is it wrong because it is between two men? I hear what you are saying with regards to the mouth being an object of expression and receiving affection, and I agree with you on this distinction. But the other side could counter that with respect to the penis if it is naturally meant for the vagina then to say it is wrong to place it in an anus would require from the same logic that it would be wrong to place it in a mouth.

One thing I'd say in support of your thesis would be to look at the nature of foreplay and for instance the use of the hand. Both men and women in a godly sexual encounter would use their hands to interact with the genitalia of the other. So while you could say that the penis is made for the vagina, no one would argue that it would be wrong for a woman to interact with the penis with her hand. This would not be considered unnatural. You could then take this further and say that for either the man or the woman to interact with the other with their mouth would naturally follow this same reasoning and be ok.

In the end though I'm sure that both the Driscolls and homosexuals would ask why do you draw the line at anal sex. I think Mark Driscoll would say that you can't use the natural argument to rebuff anal sex and then make an exception for oral sex since neither fits your explicit definition of the natural use of the penis being made for the vagina.

Let me conclude by saying again that I completely agree with your conclusions on this matter, but I'm trying to think through the logic to see if there is a better way to make the case. Then again there may not be, and it may be something that just comes down to how you define "natural."

Bart Barber said...

Anal sex is "against nature" BOTH because of the body parts involved AND because it transpires between two men.

Human beings are dioecious. It is the design of human beings to interact sexually across the genders. Therefore, sexual activity as if we were monoecious is against our nature.

I see your area of concern, and I know whence the "inconsistencies" in my argument arise: I'm not proceeding STRICTLY from general revelation. I'm taking special revelation as a key to the understanding of the finer nuances of general revelation. And so, I'm constrained to acknowledge oral affection (kissing, et al) as "natural" because kissing is all over the Bible and because certain portions of the Song of Solomon, interpreted certain ways, may be giving some indication of oral involvement in sexual foreplay.

For these reasons, being a biblical Christian, I MUST refrain from ruling that oral pleasuring is "against nature."

So, that's where I come from. However, I believe that there IS a pathway by which one might try to defend this conclusion from general revelation alone. It is only partially anatomical and relies upon social sciences somewhat.

The anatomical part: Anal sex is not merely naturally indifferent. The anus goes beyond being the "wrong" place to put a penis to being a harmful place to put the penis. The anus is laden with harmful bacteria. The anus is not lubricated for anything to go into it. It is designed for things to come out of it. Both vaginas and mouths have lubrication to facilitate the insertion of things into them. Every reliable source acknowledges anal sex as the most epidemiologically risky kind of sexual activity. Oral pleasuring simply does not face those sorts of biological impediments.

Sociologically, kissing is as universal a human practice as one can imagine. Anal sex is indisputably ancient, but is nowhere near as universal as kissing and, even in most cultures where we find evidence of its existence, it is regarded as a minority practice and achieves more toleration than approbation. And so, to set aside oral involvement in romantic interaction is to suggest that something is unnatural that is practiced by virtually all human beings who have ever lived. That's too far to go. The same cannot be said of considering the anus to be a sex organ.

Jason said...

Good thoughts Bart. As I've said I'm in 100% agreement with your conclusions. Here is what I think a homosexual activist would say in regard to your points. I believe they might counter by saying "Ok, let's take your argument that anal sex is unnatural and oral sex is natural. Then if oral sex is practiced among two men then you cannot say it is unnatural."

I think your points are spot on with regards to what is natural and unnatural, but if I were in a debate with a homosexual activist I think I would strictly stay with the fact that the Bible calls sexual interaction among the same sex as wrong and not try to make too much on the point of what is natural. Lesbians could easily counter that there is nothing unnatural about their oral interactions, but they can't get around the plain teaching that those interactions between two men are prohibited in God's Word.

I know it's tough to glean motives from typed text, but I'm not at all trying to be critical. I'm just trying to take the arguments as presented and extend them out to their logical ends.

Jason said...

Correction in the above post:

Where it says:

Lesbians could easily counter that there is nothing unnatural about their oral interactions, but they can't get around the plain teaching that those interactions between two men are prohibited in God's Word.

It should read:

Lesbians could easily counter that there is nothing unnatural about their oral interactions, but they can't get around the plain teaching that those interactions between two WOMEN are prohibited in God's Word.