So, what about that TGC article on sex?
Six thoughts amid the firestorm
On March 1, The Gospel Coalition posted an article by Joshua Ryan Butler, a pastor in Arizona and a fellow at the new Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. The article, an excerpt from his forthcoming book Beautiful Union, immediately drew curious eyebrows and strong criticism for its sexualized description of the relationship between Christ and the church, and for its description of the sexual relationship between husband and wife.
In response to mounting criticism, TGC made the entire chapter available in order to provide more context for the controversial remarks. But the digital wildfire was already out of control. In the end, Butler resigned as a fellow, he was removed from speaking at TGC’s national conference, and the online cohort based on his book was canceled. On March 5, TGC pulled the article and the chapter off the website and issued an apology, asking for forgiveness and expressing a desire to listen and learn from its critics.
Many people have already weighed in on the controversy, and I’m sure more articles are in the works. I don’t have any genius to offer, but maybe there will be some small value in expressing what others may be thinking. If nothing else, writing this column will help the voices in my head go away.
One, the article was off in two respects. First, and most importantly, it spoke of Christ’s relationship to the church in ways that were lurid and specifically sexual instead of generally typological. I understand there is a long and ecumenical track record of pushing the allegorical envelope when it comes to the mystical union between Christ and the church. What Butler was attempting to do was appropriate. In my estimation, however, the language he employed was not. The sexual metaphor was pressed home in a way that was awkward at best and a violation of the Third Commandment at worst. As Old Testament scholar Meredith Kline observed decades ago, biblical anthropomorphism avoids “attributing to the holy One of Israel the erotic passions and sexual functions characteristic of the gods of pagan mythology.”
Two, the article also took a misstep in combining spiritual language and sexual language to talk about marital intimacy between husband and wife. To be sure, there is a time for spiritual language and a time for explicitly sexual language. There is also a time to put the languages together, but very carefully. There’s a reason Paul speaks of “our unpresentable parts” when describing the church as the body of Christ and each of us as members. If someone took Paul’s metaphor and started naming church members as sexual body parts, the language wouldn’t be exactly wrong, but it would be unwise and not keeping with biblical modesty and restraint. Yes, the prophets sometimes used shocking sexual language (Ezekiel, for example), but they were meaning to embarrass their sinful hearers, not to make a sensitive point of pastoral application.
Three, as poorly expressed as some lines were—and editors should have helped him refine the language—it doesn’t take a lot of charity to know what Butler was trying to communicate. With a little help, he could have made almost the same exact points with much less heartache. For example, he could have said, “While we don’t want to press the analogy too far or speak too graphically about sexual matters, we know that Christ loves His people deeply and intimately. He implants the seed of the Word in the hearts of His people that they might bring forth new life.” On the marriage relationship, he could have said, “While we don’t want to describe marital intimacy in a way that centers the man and his experience, it is an undeniable biological reality that in sex that man enters and the woman receives. This is how Genesis often describes the sexual act. The woman’s openness and ‘hospitality’ is not ultimately for the man but for the potential human life that may come from their union.”
Four, I don’t know Josh Butler, but everyone seems to speak highly of his character. It is obvious that he wants to be caring, sensitive, and helpful to the struggler. Nowhere in the excerpted chapter does he come close to advocating violence against women or subjugating women to the pleasure of men. The fact that people were negatively “impacted” by the article does not mean we have to agree with the most negative interpretations of the piece. We can be kind to genuinely hurting people without acquiescing to the most aggrieved, most offended, most perpetually outraged voices online. Just because someone can take an article in the worst way possible does not mean that such a reading is a good or necessary take!
Five, many of the most virulent critics seemed to object to any asymmetry between men and women in sexual intimacy. Their concern was not with the language about Christ and the church but about husband and wife. Yes, Butler did not word things as I would have said them. But was the underlying point he described not true? The man enters, the woman is entered; the man disperses seed, the woman receives. These are biological givens, according to God’s design. No amount of grievance and protestation can change these realities. To mention them should not be considered harmful, hurtful, or dangerous.
Six, the article was not good. The mob was worse. Butler did not deserve to be pilloried. The internet can be a cruel place—and the most censorious persons can be those who think tearing down the “powerful” is the same as lifting up the weak. Some of the loudest critics seemed intent on believing the worst about everyone involved in the whole fiasco. This is what happens all the time in polarized politics. Democrats don’t want Republicans to make good decisions. Republicans don’t want Democrats to be careful. Each side wants the other to make gaffes, the bigger the better. This ordeal quickly moved away from theological sharpening to pitchfork-toting and axe-wielding. I fear that an apology for “hurt,” without naming any identifiable sin, sends the wrong message: it canceled Butler, when it could have clarified the issues at stake and pointed out a better way.
The best cultural apologetics strike the right balance between clarity, compassion, and courage, all the while without compromise or capitulation.
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