You know something is amiss when the woman who has a doctorate in singleness is concerned that we’re not valuing marriage highly enough. And yet, here we are.
Yes. This post is about *that* article. If you don’t know what article I’m referring to, then:
Blessed are you amongst people
Feel free to just skip this entire post
But if you want to read on then, take a deep breath and forge ahead…
The Gospel Coalition (US) recently published an article on sex. The article was an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Joshua Butler (called Beautiful Union), one of their authors and a fellow of the new Keller Center. The article proved very contentious and Christian Twitter basically went into meltdown. Christians from across the theological and denomination spectrum were united in their, shall we say, “disappointment” with the article. Though not always for the same reasons.
TGC (US) removed the article but provided a free link so readers could download the intro and first chapter of the book (which contained the original article’s content plus more). It seems they thought providing more context to the excerpt might alleviate people’s disappointment. It did not. Instead, it only exacerbated it.
Questions then also began to be asked about how and why certain key people (including senior TGC editorial staff) had given Butler’s book such glowing endorsements. At this point a couple of these endorsers (non-TGC editorial staff) made public statements saying they were withdrawing their endorsement. They explained that they had not read the book in full before endorsing it, something they now regretted.
Then TGC (US) removed the chapter download and made a statement in which they announced that Joshua Butler had resigned from his position as a Keller Center fellow. In doing so, they didn’t address the substance of any of the critiques of the article/book, per se. This led to another portion of Christian twitter (who had until this point been curiously and unusually silent about the whole thing) suddenly beginning to criticise TGC (US) for “cancelling” Butler and throwing him under the busy by capitulating to the “woke mob”. This all despite the fact Butler had resigned rather than been cancelled, and that the original critique had come from left and right, conservative and progressive, complementarian and egalitarian alike.
If you really want to follow the breadcrumb trail of this whole saga then you could use the Wayback machine to locate archived versions of the link at which all of this happened.
Ok. So that’s the short story.
The long story is that a lot of different people had a lot of different and very strong reactions to a) the article; b) the book; c) Joshua Butler himself; d) TGC’s apology; e) the book’s endorsers; f) the Christian publishing industry broadly; g) Butler’s resignation; h) TGC’s acceptance of his resignation; i) the other Keller Center fellows and j) basically anybody who made any comment on any part of this mess. The other part of the long story is that there have been a lot of people hurt by how all of this has unfolded—I would imagine not the least, our brother Joshua Butler himself.
If you’ve been reading this substack long enough you won’t be surprised to know that I have thoughts about all of this. A lot of thoughts. I’m considering writing a second post sometime soon that engages with all the different responses that were made, and explains why I’ve been left feeling disillusioned by pretty much all of them.
But the main thing I’ve been left feeling disillusioned, disappointed and even depressed by—and what I want to focus on here—is the general lack of theological rigour and acumen that has characterised so many of those responses in so many different ways.
I’ve got a number of concerns with the article and with the portion of the book that I’ve been able to read so far. But my primary one is that its entire premise is fundamentally and theologically flawed. In fact, I think the theological argumentation is so problematic that it actually ends up undermining the very thing which Butler (and I) long to see celebrated and elevated — namely the profound mystery which Paul speaks of in Ephesians 5.
Let me explain what I mean.
It’s All About Sex
Butler’s book (Beautiful Union) is absolutely, unapologetically, and comprehensively about sex. The description on the back cover describes the book as:
“A powerful call for Christians to understand sex as a window into God's story of redemption, and a validating guide to living with authentic love in a changing culture […] Beautiful Union offers a third way, one that is both true and beautiful. It gives us a provocative, positive look into the deepest Christian understanding of sex . . . and what sex reveals about God, our world, and even ourselves. Through biblical teaching and livable, joyful answers to our tough questions about sexuality, author and pastor Joshua Ryan Butler shows how sex illuminates the structure of creation, the nature of salvation, the abundance of God’s kingdom, and God’s heartbeat for the world.”
As the subtitle of the book explains, Butler seeks to explain “How God's Vision for Sex Points Us to the Good, Unlocks the True, and (Sort of) Explains Everything”. He then confirms this in the opening pages of his book with comments such as:
Sex is iconic. It’s designed to point to greater things. That’s the central thesis of this book. (xiii)
God has designed sex to point beyond itself to greater things. In Ephesians 5:32, the apostle Paul says sexual union is a “profound mystery” because “it refers to Christ and the church.” Whoa! That’s some heavy-duty symbolism. Sex is an icon of the mystery of our salvation. (xiv)
…sexual union is like stained glass in a cathedral: intended to give us a lens into the transcendent, and a glorious glimpse into the heart of God. (xv)
When Paul says sex is a great mystery, the phrase he uses in Greek is mega mysterion— literally, a “mega mystery.” (xv)
The mystery has been lost because sex no longer speaks to a greater reality in which we’re found. Yet sex is a mega mystery, Paul reminds us, because it points to greater things. Our goal is to restore the icon (xv)
We’ll start by looking at “The Beauty of Sex”, exploring not only what God has to say about sex but what sex is designed to say about God. (xvi)
For in the radiant light of Christ, sex becomes a window into something greater, a catalyst that can lift our gaze to the heart of the gospel and the hope of the world (xvii)
Sex is an icon of Christ and the church. (4)
In case you missed it, this is a book about sex.
Sex is the icon of the mystery of our salvation and of Christ and the Church. (NB. Every Protestant bone in my body is jittering at this iconography language. But we’ve got enough on our plate for now, so moving on…).
Sex is the window into the gospel.
Sex has been designed to speak to us about God.
Sex points us to the good, unlocks the true and (sort of) explains everything.
Sex is the profound mystery of Ephesians 5:32.
Except that it is not.
Here is what Paul says in Ephesians 5:31-32, in context:
28In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
The profound mystery that refers to Christ and the Church is NOT sex. It is the marital relationship. It is the man who has left his father and mother and who has come to hold fast to his wife whereby the two have become one flesh.
Yes, sex (wonderfully) serves the marital relationship. But the mega mystery is not sex. It is marriage. It’s the lifelong, exclusive, monogamous, committed, uniquely intimate relationship of husband and wife which points us towards the wonderful heavenly mystery of Christ as the bridegroom and we as his bride.
That is what the profound mystery is. Not sex.
What We Have Here Folks is a (Bad) Category Error
From the very outset, Butler has made a very unfortunate and very problematic category error. He has confused the part (sex) with the whole (marriage).
But, wait. Let’s give him a fair reading. Butler continues in Chapter 1:
Now, the context [of Ephesians 5:31-32] here is marriage. “Leave and cleave” is marriage language (we’ll look at this in a future chapter), and the surrounding verses are all about husbands and wives, not hookup culture. Yet that second part, about the two becoming one flesh, is consummation language that refers to the union of husband and wife. Paul says both are about Christ and the church (4)
I don’t have access to the later chapter which he refers to here. Nonetheless, we can see from these comments that Butler is seeking to locate iconic sex within the context of marriage. And so perhaps I’m being too pedantic in critiquing him for his category error? Perhaps we should just take it as read that when he says “Sex is an icon of salvation” (4) he’s simply using that as shorthand for the one flesh relationship between husband and wife?
Unfortunately, no. I don’t think that argument is valid. And the reason I don’t think it is valid is because of what Butler immediately goes on to say about “sex [as] an icon of salvation”.
As he writes about how the language of generosity and hospitality can help us understand sex as iconic, Butler starts with these words:
Generosity and hospitality are both embodied in the sexual act. (4)
Did you see it?
What is on view here is not marriage or even specifically sex in marriage but, the sexual act. Butler is being absolutely consistent with the claim of his subtitle, his book description and everything he said in its opening pages. This is a book about sex. It’s about the sexual act. It’s about sexual intercourse. It’s about a man and a woman doing sexual things with their sexual organs.
NB. Parental guidance is recommended for what follows.
Butler is not using sex as shorthand for marriage. His intended meaning is exactly what he says it is - the sexual act. Specifically, it is a man penetrating a woman’s vagina with his penis and (sorry everyone) ejaculating within her womb.
This is a picture of the gospel. Christ arrives in salvation to be not only with his church but within his church. Christ gives himself to his beloved with extravagant generosity, showering his love upon us and imparting his very presence within us. Christ penetrates his church with the generative seed of his Word and the life-giving presence of his Spirit, which takes root within her and grows to bring new life into the world.
Similarly, the church embraces Christ in salvation, celebrating his arrival with joy and delight. She has prepared and made herself ready, anticipating his advent in eager expectation. She welcomes him into the most vulnerable place of her being, lavishing herself upon him with extravagant hospitality. She receives his generous gift within her—the seed of his Word and presence of his Spirit—partnering with him to bring children of God into the world. Their union brings forth new creation. (6)
He then speaks of how the language of “one flesh” is another way of speaking about the sex act and therefore is a sign of salvation:
We have a lot of euphemisms for sex in our culture. Swiping right. Netflix and chill. Between the sheets. The Bible has one too: one flesh. (6)
One flesh is about the merging of two separate bodies into one. This body image is a sign of salvation (7)
Our Creator has designed us, majestically and intentionally, with the ability to come together as one. When we do, it points to something greater. The union of Christ and the church loads sexual union with meaning and power, as something beautiful and holy. (7)
The one-flesh union of bodies is iconic of the giving and receiving at the heart of salvation (9)
Again, it is the sexual union that is loaded with meaning. It is the physical merging of bodies that is a sign of salvation.
(Side note: In concluding that “becoming one flesh” is directly synonymous with sexual intercourse, I think Butler makes another very problematic category error. There are strong arguments throughout Christian tradition and discourse about the sense in which the “one flesh” language (deriving from Genesis 2) is far more expansive in its theological reference than merely “having sex”. Butler’s conflating of “one flesh” and “sex” is particularly problematic in the context of Ephesians 5:31-32. Here the “one flesh” reference does not seem to be primarily or even necessarily concerned with the sex act. Instead, Paul is emphasising the bodily one-ness of the husband and wife. Such is the unique intimacy between the spouses—their one bodily fleshiness—that a man who loves his wife loves himself. Husband and wife do not just temporarily become one flesh whenever penis connects to vagina. They have, in their committed, exclusive, lifelong, uniquely intimate relationship “become one flesh”. In this wonderfully expansive and intimate sense, we see a glimpse of marriage (not sex) as the profound mystery that refers to Christ and the Church—to Christ and his body, the one whom HE has become one flesh with. Perhaps another theologian might pick this point up for further exploration. For the moment, I just want to note that Butler argues that one flesh = the sex act, and therefore that one flesh in Eph 5:32 = sex as an icon of salvation).
As Butler goes on to speak about how “Sex helps explain the nature of grace” (12), again he locates the iconic theological significance of this in the mechanism of the sexual act.
Yet while each party participates, they are each involved in a different way. This difference is significant and beautiful. The groom enters into the bride with his presence, while the bride receives the presence of the groom within herself. (13)
Christ has the active role in his union with and salvation of his beloved, giving himself generously to the church […] We have the passive role in salvation, receiving him with hospitality as his bride. (13)
Sex as icon adds another layer of symbolism: corporately, the church receives Christ into her gut, or loins, a biblical image for a place both intimate and vulnerable, the seat of strength and vigor, and the center of procreative power. (20)
When Butler says sex is an icon of salvation he literally means the sexual act—the penetration of a woman’s vagina by a man’s penis—is the profound mystery that points to the relationship between Christ and the Church and indeed is iconic of the work of grace itself.
The Problem With Becoming One Flesh
Ok. But wait. You may have noticed that throughout the quotes I’ve included from Butler’s opening chapter, there is a liberal sprinkling of marital language. In them, and elsewhere in that chapter, Butler speaks of the husband coming into his wife; the wife receiving her husband; the conjugal union of the spouses; what happens in the honeymoon suite. He’s clearly committed to speaking of the iconically significant sexual act within marriage.
But, and here is the crucial thing folks, according to his own (theo)logical argument, there is absolutely no reason why it is only sex in marriage that is spiritually iconic. To put it another way, Butler’s wanting to restrict the iconic significance of sex that occurs between a husband and wife is convenient rather than in any way necessary or required by the argument he is making.
He has just spent *an entire chapter* arguing that it is the sexual act of penetration and reception itself that is spiritually meaningful. Go back up and read all the quotes above again. It’s clear as day. What is eschatologically significant is the "one-flesh union of bodies [that] is iconic of the giving and receiving at the heart of salvation”. (9)
But here’s the problem. One fleshness, as Butler has very narrowly described and defined it, is not only “attainable” in marriage. It isn’t only husbands and wives for whom the Bible draws a connection between sexual intercourse and one fleshness.
15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.”
1 Corinthians 6:15-16
If the "one-flesh union of bodies is iconic of the giving and receiving at the heart of salvation” then in what sense is a man’s committing of sexual immorality with a prostitute not fully iconic of the heart of salvation?
If the "one-flesh union of bodies is iconic of the giving and receiving at the heart of salvation” then in what sense are the actions of a woman who has adulterous sex with another man not fully iconic of the heart of salvation?
If the "one-flesh union of bodies is iconic of the giving and receiving at the heart of salvation” then it follows that two people (perhaps, if you push it far enough, two people irrespective of their sex) who enjoy generous and hospitable, self-giving and graciously-receiving, sexual union with each other are doing nothing short of engaging in an act that is iconic of the heart of salvation.
I KNOW Butler doesn’t mean, want or intend to say that.
But nonetheless, that is the logic of his foundational claims that it is the sexual act that is an icon. That is what we are left with when we make the sex act to be independently iconic. That is the logical conclusion of Butler’s assertion that it is sex which is the profound mystery of Ephesians 5:31-32.
Logically speaking, his restricting of sex as iconic only (or primarily?) within the context of marriage becomes simply a matter of wishful thinking or personal preference. It does not stand up to the scrutiny of his own argument—or at least the portion that I have read so far and which is established right there at the beginning of his book.
And this is why I said right back at the beginning that I think Butler ultimately undermines the very thing that he wants to elevate and celebrate—the profound mystery that refers to Christ and the Church. In arguing that the mechanism of the sexual act itself is iconic of Christ’s relationship with the Church, Butler is actually diminishing the true foreshadowing on view in that passage—marriage. It is the unique and specific marital relationship whose unique and specific expression of one fleshness is a profoundly mysterious referent to the eternal intimacy between Christ and the Church.
Don’t You Think It Is a Bit Odd…
So the question I’m left struggling with is why is this concern not top of the list in the copious number of comments and critiques made on his article/book? Why have very, very few of the many, many people involved in critiquing Butler, TGC, book endorsers, “woke mobs” and basically anyone else who is remotely related to this whole saga shown very little interest in engaging with the deeply troubling implications of his argument for a theology of marriage? Why is this now emerging as especially true for some of those Christians who are usually the most vocal and vociferous advocates of defending, protecting and advocating for the significance of marriage in our midst?
Guys, I’m a never-married woman who is about to publish a book on a theology of singleness for crying out loud! Doesn’t it strike you as a bit odd that I’m one of the few voices insisting that Butler’s theology of marriage (and sex in it) is nowhere near as genuinely and faithfully honouring of marriage (and sex in it) as it should be?
We need to do better. We need to exercise more exegetical acumen. We need to be more theologically robust. There are very, very important things at stake here.
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Tbf, I kinda understand why that concern is not top of the list, it's just because the analogy is so weird and surreal and gross that that's what people were focusing on. They were too busy losing their minds about it to seriously look into it more seriously and think about the implications of the article on this. But you're analysis is absolutely right - sex is a part of marriage, and is beautiful and God-given. But sex is a complement to marriage, not marriage a complement to sex.
I will just say this: I really like Josh Butler. Others have told me that he has written really helpful other books, and he has some great interviews about those books. I only briefly saw the excerpt at TGC before it was taken down, and I was left with scratching my head. But I am more scratching my head over the glowing endorsements of the book. Yet since the rest of the book is not publicly available, there is a contextual issue that we are all missing, until more people actually read the book. But then I am even MORE scratching my head over endorsements that were withdrawn by people who never bothered to read the book. Why make an endorsement if you've never read the book?? Anyway, Dani, your critique of the article is spot on. Who knows if it is too late, but it would probably be better for Josh to rewrite those chapters, and re-release the book with the appropriate corrections. That will not satisfy everyone in the Twitter mob, but it might salvage his reputation.