Our Review of Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll

I haven’t mentioned Mark Driscoll or Mars Hill on this blog in the 4 years since I stepped back from leading women’s ministry there. By conviction, I’ve addressed principles, not people here, especially in a negative sense. However, in Real Marriage, Mark and Grace recall personal events as the foundation of the book, and they project their conclusions from these personal events onto those reading it. They have brought these things into the public arena and revealed much about intimate areas of their life that affected many people in their public ministry. In light of this, silence on these issues no longer seems the righteous choice.

So for a single blog post for the purpose of a book review, I am going to mention Mark, Grace, and Mars Hill publicly. There is great tension in knowing how to speak truth lovingly, especially when the truth isn’t pleasant. I’ve wrestled and wrestled over this personally.  My husband and I have discussed it for days.  I’m convicted of two particular characteristics of Biblical love. Love is not rude, and love gives the benefit of the doubt. This is my prayerful attempt to speak hard truth with love for both Mark and Grace as well as those affected by their teaching. My husband didn’t want me to write this without him, and he has read and reviewed this book as well. I’ll start with his insights. While my thoughts are more personal based on my first person experience with Mark and Grace during the story they tell and concern for those it affected, my husband offers a more objective review of the book itself. In an effort to give the benefit of the doubt, I try to deal with what Mark has said at face value, and I use a lot of direct quotes (from the book and other sermons). Andy steps back and offers a more holistic view of the book.  Two reviews make this a very long post, but there didn’t seem a better way.

Andy’s review 

This book can be read two ways.  First, the way it was intended to be read, as a christian marriage counseling book and second, as an unauthorized autobiography.

This book is a middle of the road marriage counseling book.  Our culture is constantly changing and with it how we view relationships and sex.   Mark has a gifted and close personal perspective on this problem since this is the culture in which he grew up.   Seattle’s culture, the culture Mark’s ministry is in, represents a complicated, diverse mix of young people here for work, school, mountain climbing, scuba diving, nightlife, music festivals, drum circles, whale preservation, and naked parades on bicycles, along with a few who don’t really know why they’re here and were kind of hoping you knew.  The common denominator is that they’re young.  Sex and marriage in this culture is a huge and relevant topic.

As a marriage counseling book, this book is frank about sex and intimacy in and out of marriage.  Mark and Grace are personal and vulnerable.  They recount years of working through their relationship and offer many conclusions.  Marriage is a difficult institution because it forces two people to learn to live as one. This book offers many examples of life skills learned through years of experience in marriage and counseling.   Two people learning to live as one is the core of what makes a long term marriage work.  This book plainly articulates the stage of life when the “honeymoon’s over”.  The chapters on friendship, love, communication, and sex are frank and practical.  Not all of the conclusions reached are perfect or without bias, but this book maps the terrain pretty well.

It is a christian marriage book and does draw on Bible concepts throughout the topics in a christian context.  The practical application is more like an outline, though, than anything close to a Bible study.  To put it in perspective, this book is like a field guide for the young people represented by young culture in Seattle, many of whom are like a kite in the wind with marriage and responsibility having not seen it modeled well for them. They need it really spelled out for them like the “big E on the eye chart” to get their lives together.  If you’re looking for a gospel centered teaching guide on marriage, this isn’t it.  If you are looking for a moderately prescriptive christian perspective on marriage and want to hear it from a couple who are in and of their culture, this might hit that target. Mark and Grace are their target demographic.

The second way to read this book is to allow this book to interpret itself. This book is topical in content, and autobiographical in nature. That’s fairly typical within the genre. Yet there is a third literary device in use. This book uses a combination of nonlinear narrative, and finally reverse chronology, to tell a story with the end of the book revealing greater context for circumstances within the book. A commonly known example of this literary technique is the film Memento. This wasn’t clear to me until reaching the last chapter, but the last chapter “The Last Day” really comes first!  The Last Day describes a way of looking at your life from the end to the beginning, which basically sets the stage for this book.  This book is a revealingly intimate autobiography of a man who came to a breaking point and rebooted his life.  This seems counter intuitive, but is actually quite enlightening when interpreting the book “Real Marriage”.

The reveal within the book begins in chapter 11 with Mark under a great deal of pressure and fighting his way through it. This chapter completely changes how the book can be interpreted.  In this chapter Mark lays out a blueprint for how he wants to change his life.  In the intimate details that follow, Mark tells a story of mistrust and hurt that culminate in what is basically described as an emotional breakdown.  The story now picks up again in chapter 1 with Mark filling in what was going on behind the scenes throughout the book.   Mark and Grace were both sexually active adolescents as was fairly typical in their culture.  This story now shifts to a young couple doing what young people do, making mistakes along the way.  Over the years as their lives became intertwined, Mark and Grace learned more details about each-other’s past, specifically as it pertains to this autobiography, their sexual past.  Mark describes the emotional toll and cost in trust this caused between him and Grace.

Throughout the book, when talking about intimacy and marriage issues, Grace describes how her actions had hurt Mark and, in hindsight, how she had fallen into this state of low self worth through abuse, reinforced by patterns that were present in her own view of herself and through people in her life.  Mark describes the toll on him and their relationship and the effect this had on his ministry in the church.   What stands out as odd however is that Mark shares equally intimate details of these events, but from a different perspective.  What started in chapter 11 now adds context to the back story.  This book was written as a chronicle of a young pastor struggling to understand his wife and then her response to him.  Chapter 11 is about reverse-engineering your life from the last day forward.  This sounds like a reasonable approach, everyone needs goals to strive for. Wait, what?! Somewhere things got off course.   Are we talking about life goals or a relationship?

What stood out earlier as odd about Mark’s perspective of the past was that Grace was humbly reconciling her past, but HE wasn’t! What at first appears to be a book about their marriage is really a book about Grace’s marriage. We actually know very little about Mark’s.   From the beginning of this book, Mark has made passing references to Grace’s mistakes and abuse that lead to difficulty in their marriage, but what about him?  He had been in previous sexual relationships prior to Grace, and with Grace prior to their marriage. What affect had this had on him and how he would view relationships going forward?  Not much is said about this, in fact Mark barely recognizes his responsibility in this at all.

Grace’s words are in passive voice, and she bears the burden of her actions and consequences.  Mark’s words are active, and based on clarity from chapter 11, it is now clear he has initiated this as a process for reconnecting with his wife.   He fails to take responsibility for his part in their shared emotional baggage however, and ultimately Grace bears most of the burden. How have Mark’s previous relationships shaped his needs during sex with his wife?  He describes the change between he and Grace after marriage as unimpressive. He had experience to base this on.   How had his previous relationships influenced him emotionally?  Had previous partners he’d been with left him with scars too?  Had he been abused himself or witnessed abuse he was unable to prevent?

The role that these factors have in the story is described clearly in how Grace was able to relate to Mark, but how had these factors influenced Mark’s ability to relate to Grace?   Did he enter marriage with realistic and fair expectations on her?  He’s made progress apparently, but there is very little attention given to the emotional baggage Mark carries with him. He seemed oddly silent on these issues in his life and let Grace’s story stand on it’s own.

When viewed as a whole, the end gives context to the beginning and now some pieces fall into place.  This is a story told by the inside voice in Mark’s head about a period in his life when he was a pastor under pressure in a large young church.  He acknowledges the effect his depression and anger had on his relationship with his wife and on the church and then his resolve to attack that problem and take it apart until it was gone. He decided he deserved better and set out a path to achieve that.  He has yet to recognize his own responsibility in much of this, to the point that his wife is publicly apologizing to him for past offenses he participated in himself with seemingly no remorse or consequence on his part. The dichotomy between their viewpoints is striking.


As Andy pointed out, Real Marriage paints an intimate portrait of a couple dealing with the sexual and family baggage of the wife, but not that of the husband. Mark is skilled and precise at diagnosing Grace’s problems and those of his culture, but he lacks insight into himself.

Central to Real Marriage, Mark gives testimony of his decade long bitterness toward Grace. “I had a dream …. I saw in painful detail Grace sinning sexually during a senior trip she took after high school when we had just started dating” (p. 11). “Had I known about this sin, I would not have married her” (p. 12). He says on p. 14, “I grew more chauvinistic. … I started to distrust women in general, including Grace. This affected my tone in preaching for a season, something I will always regret.” He repeats this in the first Real Marriage sermon online as well. I don’t think the root cause of his chauvinism (his own word from the first Real Marriage sermon) is anywhere near that simple, but that actually explains a lot. I remember Mark telling a husband publicly on the church members’ forum during those years that if he didn’t shut his wife up, Mark would do it for him. I hope his regret has caused him to reach out to that family in apology (she was also an abuse victim, sexually exploited by an older youth leader) as they left Mars Hill after that.

According to the book, Mark’s bitterness and stress culminated in 2007. He recounts on p. 16, “… my adrenal glands and thyroid fatigued, and I finally came to the end of myself …. So we cleaned up the church” and “lost around one thousand people due to changes amid intense criticism.” The intense criticism he mentions came because he fired two older elders while engineering the rewriting of the church by-laws at the high point of this season of bitterness and anger with his wife. A few years earlier, Mark had taught the mutual accountability of a plurality of elders using Alexander Strauch’s Biblical Eldership, and it was embraced by the church. The accountability of this system is much less effective when you can fire your elders at will and put the ones who remain through the “wood chipper” as Mark called it at an Acts 29 bootcamp at that time.

I recently put (a Mars Hill executive elder who remains at the church) in the wood chipper in my church. … He was the guy, he had to nitpick at everything; he had to resist everything, he had to look at the other side. … you’d ask him why, he’d be like, well, I just wanted to make sure we’ve looked at everything, and everybody is considering all the angles. … I’ll tell you what, when you despise your elders, at that point you have no safe place in the world from which to do ministry. … there’s always one guy there who’s just like a fart in an elevator, and I’m just counting the minutes till I can get away from this guy. You can pray for me. You may say, “It seems like he’s dealing with this right now.” Yes, I am. I’m thinking of certain people. If it weren’t for Jesus I would be violent.” (Mark Driscoll, “The Man,” Acts 29 Bootcamp, Raleigh, NC, September 20, 2007)

In Real Marriage, Mark acknowledges a past problem with pride, but he remains blind to his self-centered view of the church, the extent of his disqualifying anger problem, the true root causes of both in his life, and the long term effects that both have on those around him. When you can flippantly write off 1000 members in your church, including elders, deacons, and community group leaders, because (as he explains it) you’re burnt out based on long standing bitterness and sexual frustration with your wife stemming from a sexual encounter when she was a teenager 19 years before—well, wow, I’m at a loss for exactly how to address that.

Mark’s account of his mindset reminds me of the value of sabbaticals—not powering through ministry because you think it will fall apart without you, but stepping back until your heart is ready to reengage with people in love and humility. What any of us say publicly is inevitably impacted by what our heart feels privately, and you can’t be angry and bitter in ministry without it affecting those to whom you are called to minister. Mt. 12:34 “… out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.”

If you don’t know the history of Mars Hill from first hand experience, there are other issues with Real Marriage that may or may not be problems depending on what you are looking for in a Christian book on marriage. First, there is little exposition of Scripture in the book. It mentions Scripture in passing and footnotes the references at the bottom. When they do discuss Scripture, such as Esther’s relationship with the king from p. 65, they sometimes come to troubling conclusions that are not consistent with a careful examination of Scripture. As Andy said, if you’re looking for a gospel-centered Bible study on marriage, this isn’t it.

The other issue with this book is the centrality of sex, although I should be clear that I think it is healthy to talk about sex from a Christian perspective. When I was first married, it was taboo among Christians to hear honest sexual talk from a Christian foundation. That was unhelpful to many Christian marriages, and believers need some place that isn’t pornographic to discuss it in frank terms. But Mark and Grace’s story centers completely around the role sex has played in hurting and helping their relationship, before and after marriage. Mark said in the same Acts 29 Bootcamp message referenced earlier that the pastor’s wife has the “most important job” in a new church — “having sex with the church planter.” I wonder what the Driscoll’s story would be if Grace became incapacitated long term. If that became the case, the majority of their marriage book would be useless to them.

My biggest concern about Real Marriage, though, is the abundance of references to Jesus, forgiveness, and repentance without a corresponding understanding of the gospel grace that Jesus Himself teaches. I say it often, and this is a clear example – using gospel language and understanding gospel grace are two different things. The best articulations of the gospel in Real Marriage are those given by Grace on p. 126-127 and p. 137-138 as she recounts dealing with her past sexual issues in the light. But there is little corresponding from Mark about facing the wealth of his own sin and deep need. What Mark actually says in the book reveals a poor understanding of Biblical grace, particularly as Jesus describes it in Matthew 18.

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’

Mark felt betrayed by Grace for her sexual sin, but it’s stretching it to call Grace’s sexual encounter with another guy when she and Mark first started dating primarily a sin against Mark. A sin? Yes. Against Mark? Not so much. According to how they describe it, they had only just started dating when this incident occurred. She was a sexually active teenager in a new relationship with another sexually active teenager (Mark) who was not a Christian. There was nothing remotely resembling covenantal commitment between them at that point. Even though Mark seems to understand parts of the problem in his response to her, there remains much about Mark’s “forgiveness” of her for this sexual sin but nothing about Mark asking Grace’s forgiveness for how he exploited her sexually during that same season.

According to Real Marriage, both Mark and Grace were sexually active with other partners before dating each other. Grace went through Redemption Groups at Mars Hill and dealt with her sexual history, but Mark never did (the elder leading the early version of redemption groups in which Grace first found her voice on the issue of past sexual abuse was one of the older elders fired in 2007). Grace deals with her parents and issues stemming from her upbringing in a pastor’s home. But Mark only makes a passing reference to his and doesn’t deal with baggage from his upbringing AT ALL. Does he have NO baggage he brought to marriage from his women-beating, alcoholic, redneck family (his description)? 

The heaviness of Mark’s reaction to Grace and his subsequent misogyny in sermons and interactions with individual church members seems well out of proportion to whatever happened between him and Grace early on. In the book, Grace bears the weight for not telling him her sexual secret before they got married. The tangible reactionary thing they insist in the book and Mars Hill’s own premarital program is that couples admit every sexual encounter to each other before they get married. But Mark states several times that he wouldn’t have married Grace if he had known and never recants. It’s disturbing all he projected onto Grace those years (and what she projects on herself in the book–“Mark had righteous anger and felt totally betrayed” p. 12). It might be beneficial for Mark to preach through Hosea for the first time in his ministry before he goes through his Song of Solomon sex talk for the 3rd time in the next weeks. Though if Mark does teach through Hosea consistent with his Nehemiah sermon series of 2007 and his portrait of himself in this current book, he will cast himself as the hero of Hosea and Gomer’s story, not recognizing that he himself is Gomer to Jesus’ Hosea as much, if not more, than his wife. “(God) said that He … had chosen me for the important mission of rescuing, protecting, and loving His daughter. This felt like a noble divine assignment and began to change my motivation for pursuing Grace …” (Real Marriage, p. 15).

Mark’s last chapter on reverse-engineering your life describes a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps way of writing your life story from the end to the beginning, which basically sets the stage for the autobiographical portions of the book which Andy addressed.   The Driscolls do seem to have genuinely repaired their broken relationship. I am glad they seem at peace with each other personally, though I’m concerned that Grace has excused Mark’s unrighteous anger against her by calling it righteous.  While I’m concerned for Grace, I am more concerned for specific individuals to whom Mark directed angry, cutting words over those years of bitterness and anger toward his wife.  The story he recounts in this book was not lived in a vacuum.  Mark bears the responsibility for that, not Grace. Giving a general apology (as he did in the first Real Marriage sermon) to a church no longer filled with the specific people to whom he directed those words is inadequate (no one in our family, by the way).

Matthew 5:23-24 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

I hope Mars Hill’s current elders will encourage Mark to stop and repair with those he has specifically directed his anger and misogyny over the years and to seek counsel for his past issues he hasn’t addressed, because the past verbal violence he directed toward individuals was verbal violence toward the Savior. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to Me” (Mt. 25:40).  And the issues he hasn’t yet addressed in his own heart will resurface again.  In every instance in which Mark’s accountability structure (whatever that is now) is aware of his verbal sins without holding him accountable and is aware of baggage from his upbringing without pointing him to gospel counsel, the name of Jesus and the good parts of doctrine Mark teaches will be undermined right along with him, as is now the case in many secular news stories.

Comments are closed.

Comments are closed.