Can Research and Christian Relationship Advice Go Hand in Hand?

by | May 17, 2021 | Theology of Marriage and Sex | 26 comments

Why Do Christians Stay Away from Research with Relationship Advice?
Orgasm Course

Why is it that so many Christian books steer clear of actual research?

Today’s post is a little self-serving (well, maybe a lot) because we’re about to close our latest survey for women, and we’d love about 1000 more responses today! So if you’re a woman, please take it! (doesn’t matter if you’re married or not, a mom or not, 19 or 69, we’d love your input!).

We’re working on a book for moms of daughters, and we’d like to make it as research-based as possible.

Last year, I was talking to a man who frequently gave a marriage talk at an annual men’s retreat.

In the past, he had always used the book Love & Respect as his starting point, but he had read my critiques of the book, and was disturbed by them. He decided he couldn’t in all good conscience use his past materials, and so he needed something new. He asked if I had another book to recommend, and I told him that John Gottman’s The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work was awesome. It was our control book when we were applying our healthy sexuality rubric to the best-selling evangelical resources, and it scored the best (it tied with The Gift of Sex by the Penners).

Yes, it was a secular book, I said, but even if he just took the information about The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in marriage and gave a talk on that, it would be really interesting.

So he went out and bought Gottman and was blown away. He had never read a book like that, with research, that went deep into topics but was accessible. He asked me, “why aren’t Christian books like this?”

And I didn’t have an answer, except to say that I was trying to change that.

When I checked Twitter on Saturday morning, I was greeted by what I think is one of the nicest things anyone could say about The Great Sex Rescue: He compared us to Gottman.

A licensed marriage counselor, professor, and Ph.D. candidate that I don’t know at all said this:

His whole thread is great, and I’m going to paste it below (with slight editing because I’m not constrained by character count):

Here’s something that needs to be said about Christian self-help books: they need to be well researched.

For instance, Sheila Wray Gregoire’s ‘The Great Sex Rescue’ is stellar qualitative research that is also Biblically informed.

Books can be both.

To be blunt, so much of Christian literature on topics like marriage, sex, abuse, mental health, manhood, recovery is just lazy. Instead of doing the difficult work of researching an idea, many authors trust their experiences as absolute.

“This worked for me, so it will work for you.”

Or even worse,

“This worked for me, and here is some Scripture to support my thesis, so it should work for you because it’s Gods way of doing so”

This is not only lazy, but potentially harmful, and I’d say, dishonoring to God & his church.

Anecdotal ≠ True for the masses

Years ago, when I started working on a book on marriage, a mentor challenged me to make it as well grounded in research as any non-Christian marriage book.

At first, this seemed nearly impossible compared to the Gottman literature that I’m trained in.

But, why not?

Many of us have been conditioned to think research takes away from biblical truths.

But again, that’s just lazy.

We ought to set an even higher bar for ourselves. Excellent research can display the excellency of Christ and we shouldn’t be afraid of it.

So, as a licensed counselor, licensed marriage therapist, PhD student & professor, I want to publicly say:

Thanks Sheila, Rebecca and Joanna for writing a book that took both scripture and research seriously.

It’s been a breath of fresh air.

Branden Henry

Twitter Thread

We are so thrilled at how many counselors and pastors are recommending The Great Sex Rescue!

We heard from another pastor in Texas who created a Bible study for men based on our book, and who is taking his men’s group through it right now. We’re going to have him on the podcast when that group is done to talk about it!

The Great Sex Rescue

Changing the conversation about sex & marriage in the evangelical church.

What if you’re NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the things that you’ve been taught have messed things up–and what if there’s a way to escape these messages?

Welcome to the Great Sex Rescue.

We’re hoping and praying that we can set a new standard in Christian marriage and parenting advice, where it won’t just be someone’s opinion.

Jesus said that we will know them by their fruit. We have to be willing to test things. If something doesn’t work, then we have to say, “Maybe the interpretation of Scripture that this advice is based on is faulty.” But instead, we tend to just give advice that we say is backed up by God without seeing if it ever works.

This is something Christians especially seem to have trouble with. Two weeks ago I argued that pastors should stop insisting that husbands make the final decision in the marriage, because we know that the vast majority who believe the husband should don’t actually practice it–so they’re preaching what they don’t practice. Most decide things together. But then, if they do actually live it out, very bad things happen.

I was hoping that we could talk about the fact that very bad things do, indeed, happen. But instead almost all the conversation from people disagreeing with me on social media and on the blog revolved around “but the Bible says…” It’s like people wouldn’t even engage with the research if it didn’t say what they wanted it to say.

This is a problem that Christians have. We don’t seem to understand that “the fruit” actually is worth looking at. We’re so wedded to our own interpretations of Scripture and what that says about marriage that we won’t look at the real world implications.

But this stuff does have real world implications, and that should not scare us.

If we know that Jesus is real (which He is), and that He loves us (which He does), and that He is Truth (which He is), then seeking out research doesn’t put any of that in jeopardy. It simply helps us know God and understand God better.

We have so many different ways of looking at parenting and marriage. How do we know what interpretation of Scripture is right? Well, Jesus gave us a clue when He said:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?  Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.

Matthew 7:15-20

Obviously not all research is equal (as I showed in relation to Shaunti Feldhahn’s treatment of date rape in For Young Women Only or in the survey that formed the basis for Love & Respect), but I hope that we can at least be discerning enough to ask tough questions and to at least consider the fruit.

One of the peer-reviewed papers we’re working on for publication right now looks at the quality of research and advice given in the best-selling Christian marriage & sex books, and how that’s influenced counseling. Of the 13 books we surveyed, less than a dozen peer-reviewed papers were cited. That’s not less than a dozen per book; that’s less than a dozen across all 13 books. The vast majority of Christian books make assertions with absolutely no research to back it up. (In my books, I’ve always cited peer-reviewed sources, even before The Great Sex Rescue project).

Seriously, John Gottman’s book is great, and I’m glad others think The Great Sex Rescue fits in that category.

But this should have been what Christians were doing all along.

And so I’m asking you–will you help me do just this? Will you help by filling out our survey (if you haven’t already?). We need to close it in the next few days, so please take it now! 

(And you can share this link with your friends, too:

Are You a Woman? Take Our New Survey!

Help us write a book for moms of daughters by filling out this survey.

And thank you so much for helping us with this survey! We’re seeing some trends that we are so excited to talk about over the next little while. Stay tuned!


UPDATE: I was talking with my daughter Katie on the phone this morning after this was published, and telling her about the Twitter thread that made us all happy this weekend, and about the problem with research. And she reminded me of something I should have mentioned–how even when Christians DO try to bring research in, we often do it wrong!

We did a podcast a few weeks ago on how Emerson Eggerichs has said for almost 20 years now that 85% of men stonewall, when the real stat is that 85% of stonewallers are male.

To understand the difference, the majority of murderers are male, but the majority of men do not murder (thank goodness). There’s a big difference! And that’s a pretty huge logical error to make. But his publisher missed it, and he’s been repeating it on his blog and in his sermons for years. You can take a look at the podcast where we talk about this here!

Why Do Christians Not Use Research for Relationship Books?

Why do you think Christian resources tend to shy away from research? Does it matter? How can we change this (f we should)?

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Andrea

    The problem is even bigger when you consider that the PhD-d Christians don’t do research either. Both Leman and Dobson have PhDs in psychology, but Leman (as I’ve mentioned before) cites from Redbook magazine in his footnotes and Dobson … oh Lord, where do I start … breaking a child’s will, actually physically hurting them, not hugging your boys so they don’t become gay …
    There are plenty of dumb secular books that don’t rely on research and sell millions (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, anyone? probably sold more copies than all of Gottman’s books combined), but in the evangelical world you can’t even trust the PhDs. They use that Dr. in front of their name, which gives them authority, but they’re still just telling us their opinion and trading in gender stereotypes that would never pass peer review.
    I recently learned form watching an interview with Kristin Du Mez that Dobson claims men and women are different “in every cell of their body.” I googled this and found this lovely piece published just this month which mentions that and also attributes rape to men being more visual instead of the power imbalance between the sexes. He goes on to say, “These are not very flattering characteristics of male sexuality, but they are well documented in the professional literature.” Professional literature has been saying that women are just as visual as men are since the 1960s and more recently we have brains studies to prove this. If a secular psychologist publicly attributed rape to men’s visual nature, he would lose his job and license, but we tolerate this toxicity in evangelicalism.

    • Bre

      Ugghhh…yuck. Just yuck. I cannot believe that it is 2021 and the Christian church is still buying into the idea that rape is excusable. Fun fact, before I even started digging into Sheila, I read and used a scholarly article that smacked down Dobson’s child rearing principles. I was working on a group presentation on classroom management approaches for one of my college classes and we were doing….I think it was Love and Logic? It started as a teaching philosophy and now has a ton of spin-offs for parents and other family members. But anyway, it was a scholarly comparison of that and the ideas that Dobson promoted and was one of the articles that my group dissected and used in our presentation. It hit me like a freight train; this sort of stuff pushed by many Christian family organizations wouldn’t be considered best practice in the classroom and would even qualify as maltreatment in many cases. These sorts of ideas would be considered ineffective if not outright abusive or neglectful in an educational or childcare setting, and most Christians would likely be horrified if their child’s teacher treated their students like this, yet it’s somehow considered the God-ordained ideal for raising children at home. I have a major distrust of Christian parenting advice now for the same reason. I’m graduating from college with a degree in early childhood and elementary education this winter, and my classes have totally opened my eyes into how bad it is. It’s utterly baffling that these sorts of authoritarian parenting methods are still so respected because literally all the research debunks it. Even in non-abusive cases, a more calm, firm approach is more successful in both the short and long term; it’s common sense, yet everyone seems to run in the opposite direction.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I find it very frustrating, too. But, yes, these things wouldn’t be considered best practice at all. That goes doubly for our counseling practices. Many of the things biblical counselors are taught in biblical counseling programs (not “Christian” counseling, but biblical counseling is a particular school of counseling) actually violate the ethics of licensed counselors who are trained in evidene-based therapies. It’s quite scary.

      • Bre

        Wait…Christian and Biblical counselors are considered two different things? What do you mean that Biblical teaching is it’s own school of counseling? What does it teach/promote? (Almost afraid to even ask) That is very scary…this is why my first reaction when someone tells me to go to a Christian counselor is a hard no…I’ve heard enough on here and other online circles to stay far away from that. It’s like someone said further down; God and his truths will be proven and/or supported by research, so it’s legitimately terrifying how so much of the popular “Christian marriage, parenting, and counseling teachings are actually proven to cause harm out in “the secular world” but we still somehow chose to deny reality and cling stubbornly to our own (mis)understandings.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Yes, there are “biblical counselors” who have certificates and degrees in “biblical counseling.” It used to be called “nouthetic counseling” but changed its name. It really means that the bible is sufficient, and that counseling must be done in a church community (so confidentiality isn’t guaranteed, and your counseling info can be shared with pastors/elders). I’ve got several posts on it, but here’s the first one where I talk about it more.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Exactly, Andrea. It is very problematic.
      The more recent brain scans are quite interesting; we want to devote a podcast to them later actually explaining the science and not just giving sound bites. But basically, men and women are equally visual, but what we count as visual imagery is quite subjective and quite different–and very cultural. We can even see this in the difference between Generation Z women and Generation X women when it comes to visual stuff–younger women, who have grown up talking about guys as “hot”, are far more likely to report that certain imagery is sexually appealing than Generation X women are. It’s not biological; it’s cultural. And we have conditioned women to have artificially low libidos by making them the gatekeepers. It’s interesting because secular women tend to be more visual and have higher libidos than evangelical women (something else we’d love to study at some point!) again pointing to a cultural component rather than a biological one. We certainly found that key beliefs can artificially lower a woman’s libido, which makes sense.

      • Andrea

        Wow, getting into brain science, I cannot wait! That cultural stuff is so interesting and I wonder why we have such a need to attribute everything to biology. Seems safer, perhaps, more easily measurable, also less your fault if you were born with a certain trait than if you learned it somewhere.
        Regarding the discussion above, why do these people have to use the term “biblical” whenever they want to warp something?! Biblical counseling, biblical womanhood… They’ve ruined a perfectly good adjective, one that should have positive connotations in fact, though that is probably why they used it, right? How can you object if it’s prefaced with “biblical?”

  2. Katydid

    I really started questioning the belief system I grew up in when any scientific, historical, medical, psychological, and good fruit evidence to the contrary was simply and brusquely brushed off as “tricks of the devil.” I was living under so much cognitive dissonance. Nothing I was promised was coming to fruition and there was always some spiritual excuse (usually blaming my husband for some “secret sin.”) And there was always some “prophecy” that I was supposed to believe to fix it.
    I couldn’t be interested in science because science was “anti-God.” I couldn’t trust research because of “secular bias.” I couldn’t enjoy art because art is “humanistic and pornographic.” I could only enjoy uber-patriotic white nationalistic christianized history because European or world history is too “Catholic or those other satanic pagan cultures.” In fact, if I didn’t believe in literal 6 day young earth creationism and American Zionism I was considered unsaved. My politics had to be very conservative or else I was “killing babies and undermining traditional marriage.”
    And this was in a fairly mainstream and usually diverse denomination, but, of course, “those other churches are in deep compromise and satan is getting in.”
    Thank God I snapped out of it. Though, I am churchless and lonely.
    The problem is you are facing a belief system that is sola scripture. This is why I like Catholicism (here I go again) because they look at the evidence, the fruit, the psychology, history, practicality. If you need therapy in Catholicism, you don’t go to a pastor who read a couple of books and took a biased basics course in Bible school. You go to a clinically, University trained licensed therapist who just happens to also be Catholic (though secular sources are ok, too). Catholics embrace science, history, art, medicine, etc as part of God’s good creation and not part of “satan’s fallen world.” Sola scriptura people don’t believe they can look too much beyond scripture so scripture has to be shoe-horned. The Bible itself says there’s more!

    • Bre

      I’m so sorry that you had to live in a church like that and glad that your were able to get free from that sort of mindset/environment. Unfortunately that sort of thing is not uncommon. I currently attend a church from a denomination that respects and ordains women, but Love and Respect and the faulty headship ideas that Sheila has been debunking are somehow also believed in my church…the logical dissonance is astounding. Even within denominations things can be so diverse and crazy; my same denomination (which has been egal. from the beginning)also has very inclusive churches led by women and also super patriarchal churches with crazy, hateful pastors who flat-out claim that they joined the denomination to “take back the church from the fallen and fleshly backsliding Christians who have capitulated to the world” and get it to roll back it’s support for equality…it’s been rather traumatizing to me to realize that, even in places like churches where you think things should be safe and peaceful, things can be so gross. The end of your comment actually reminds me of a podcast that I listen to yesterday; The Bible Binge; Favored or Forsaken; Women in Authority. In the last 4th of the episode, they talked about this sort of history and research fear and how you need to look at history to understand how scripture has been interpreted; they actually bring up the idea of Sola Scriptura and discuss its history. I’ve been struggling with that idea and the fact that the church has gotten things so wrong and been unwilling to fix things that have harmed and that podcast episode was so encouraging and very soothing to my confused and worried mind. Maybe it’s something that you would like…sorry if this is rude of me. But it’s a really good podcast; it’s basically three friends going through Bible stories or Christian cultural ideas/events and dissecting them through church history and theology…it’s actually helped me a lot with my own paranoa of churches spreading faulty ideas and the fact that I’ve been unable to physically get to my own church much this year.

      • Katydid

        Bre, the denomination I grew up in allows for female pastors, but my church was more along the lines of, “well, women can be pastors, but not senior pastors.” But, there were a lot of fundamentalists in the ranks, too.
        Thanks for sharing about that podcast. I listened to it and found it very interesting and thought-provoking.
        @E, thanks for clarifying the difference between sola scriptura and biblicism. Yes, my former circle/church and my family are the latter, but they call it the former. I am neither sola scriptura nor a biblicist.

      • Sarah

        I love the Bible Binge! It’s so good!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, Katydid, many religious communities have vilified science, and it is a big problem. I do think we need to reconsider sola scriptura.

      • E

        I think you’re mixing up Sola Scriptura and biblicism. Sola Scriptura is the idea that the Bible contains all the truth we need for our spiritual life. It does not claim to hold all the truth ever on all the topics in the world. It does not deny truth on other topics the Bible is silent on. A belief in Sola Scriptura also would not deny that a proper understanding of cultural and historical context is key for biblical interpretation. Biblicism, on the other hand, is the belief that all you need is the Bible and yourself. Outside sources are not beneficial in this view. Please, please understand what Sola Scriptura really means before you throw out or change the foremost essential principle of the Reformation.

    • Elsie

      Sorry to hear about your terrible church experience! I grew up in the United Methodist church and they teach that our beliefs come from scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Although many churches claim to base their beliefs on the Bible alone, in reality, those other aspects like tradition etc shape how we understand and interpret the Bible.
      I find it frustrating when people don’t acknowledge that and insist that their interpretation is correct because they interpret the Bible “literally.” Some Christians seem very afraid of acknowledging any nuance or differences in interpretation in reading the Bible. I guess they think there has to be one clear easy interpretation for every part of the Bible in order for Christianity to be trustworthy but that just isn’t true. Some beliefs are core beliefs (like apostles creed) but other beliefs are less clear and there is room for different perspectives among people who love and follow Jesus

  3. Boone

    I think that the big reason that evangelical/fundy culture never accepts never accepts new ideas is that if they do they have to admit that they made a mistake. That can never happen. If you admit a mistake then the great unwashed masses will begin to wonder well, if he was wrong about that then what else was he wrong about? Let that happen and then the whole structure will come crashing down.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, this is likely true, and it’s partly because we’ve tied all sorts of things to the belief in the “inerrancy of Scripture.” We’ve elevated so many things to key doctrines that are not key doctrines, and if those blocks start to fall, we’re in trouble.

    • Wild Honey

      And imagine all the lawsuits that would happen if Emerson Eggerichs were to be held accountable to start paying for counseling for all the marriages his faulty teachings have damaged.
      (Disclaimer – I’m totally not a lawyer, just speculating.)

      • Boone

        I am. $$$$$

  4. Kya

    I happened upon a free copy of Love & Respect recently, so my husband and I decided to read it and see for ourselves what is in there. We are only 2 chapters in at this point, but my husband (who majored in philososphy) said it best: “I was docked on so many of my college papers for exactly what he is doing here. I would come up with a thesis, and then apply it to EVERYTHING I could think of, even if it wasn’t something that actually made the most sense in a given scenario.”
    My favorite part so far is from page 32: “But what it underlines is that men and women are very different. For example, Peter notes that difference when he instructs husbands to treat wives in a very specific way ‘since she is a woman’ (1 Peter 3:7).” I wanted to know more about how men and women are different, so I looked up the verse: “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the…” Wait, what was that? Husbands treating wives with respect? Well, butter me up and call me a biscuit! No wonder Eggerichs didn’t quote the whole verse!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, exactly! Peter actually says that women should receive respect as well. It’s just so slanted.

  5. Anon

    I think the big problem among many Christian is that science has been seen as an enemy. Because when talking to the world they always put science vs faith. So that sadly has lead to many Christians to think that anything that is based on science is against the Word of God in one way or the other.
    Without getting political just look on how many evangelical Christians who deny certain things that are proved scientifically just because it’s based on science. Not going to name those things but sadly Christians deny that those things are trustworthy just because it’s based on science. It’s sad. I grew up learning that therapy and pshycology was bad because it’s based on science and not God.
    It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I finally met a therapist. How my life could have changed if I had gotten that help before but because it was based on science all I got to learn was to use the Word. Nothing against Gods word I know it can help to heal but sometimes we do need science.

  6. Jane Eyre

    It infuriating precisely because research will conform to Biblical truth; after all, God is our Creator and the Bible tells us how we are made. The fear, I think, is that the research will not conform to a particular, narrow or extreme interpretation of a particular Biblical passage.
    We are at a point wherein fifty or sixty years of changes to marriage and sex have shown that the Bible is right: waiting for marriage and staying married provides the best outcomes for adults and children (absent abuse or very narrow reasons for leaving the marriage). That seems to conform remarkably well to Biblical teaching on sex, family formation, and divorce.
    So what is everyone afraid of? Well done, honest research will shed light on the truth about the world we live in, and the Bible is Truth. If astronomy, astrophysics, and theoretical physics all show that the universe did actually start off with “let there be light,” I’m pretty sure that a dive into sex research will more or less conform to Biblical teaching.

  7. Elissa

    I feel like the Christian relationship with science hasn’t always been this complicated- even for most of church history. Historically, many of the most brilliant scientists have been Christians who were driven to explore their world by a desire to understand and know God better. So how did we switch to this stereotype where “Christians can’t do science”? It may have started in the church, I haven’t looked into the history, but it also could be something that the church was told by the scientific community as it became more atheistic (I.e. your scientific opinions are childish and invalid because you believe in an unseen god), and instead of disproving that myth, we’ve embraced it. But, yeah, just a reminder that for much of the Church’s existence many Christians have actually been very pro-science, and the underlying worldviews found in Christianity have fueled countless scientific discoveries.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Exactly! It was actually the belief that God was rational and knowable that led to science–that God wasn’t just random, and so the world wasn’t random. That meant that we could discover things about the world.

  8. Melissa

    In doing some thinking over my own journey of learning how to read data and what “research” really means (hint: it’s not just reading a few articles on the internet, true research is incredibly time intensive and can take years), I see for myself a link between distrusting science and data to the Christian fear of kids being taught evolution in school, that it could lead them away from their faith. Well-meaning parents possibly went overboard in keeping evolution teachings away from their kids and created a stigma around science and data in general. But science isn’t bad!!! We can see the intricacies of God’s design through science and it’s AMAZING. For example, Husband and I have a deep and abiding love of nature documentaries, starting when “Planet Earth” came out in 2006/07. They talk about evolution in the documentaries and in the 1990’s that would have been enough for many Christian parents to put it on a “banned” list. But as adults, we watch these amazing animals and plants being examined in depth and we don’t see evolution, we see “Whoa, isn’t God AMAZING???” We don’t want our kids to have that same fear of science. Data is a good thing. Without thorough research and data we wouldn’t have a path forward to solutions for so many problems.
    Reading data and quoting it accurately is something I think everyone should have a basic knowledge of. We’re fortunate to have made friends with a research scientist through the industry we’re in, and she taught us SO MUCH. Big huge professional studies might present the public with a neat and tidy percentage at the end of them, but there are a million details that go into trying to get as accurate a conclusion as possible. We the public don’t really get to see that. We don’t see the people who dedicate years of their careers to tracking and studying and observing and note taking and number crunching and bending over microscopes and squinting at computer screens. We just see a percentage number. And then we misquote it. There are probably scientists and researchers face-palming in their offices and labs as we speak!
    So in conclusion. Perhaps one of the reasons Christians shy away from data is because we have been conditioned to fear it due to the evolution panic perpetuated by Christian parents. We are afraid of having our minds changed. But not all change is bad. If the change is from perpetuating harmful teachings about marriage to teaching good and healthy principles to men and women, that’s a change I can get behind.


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