A book excerpt posted by The Gospel Coalition shines the light on the (spiritually) abusive theology rampant in conservative evangelical circles
Evangelical and ex-evangelical Twitter was on fire today, lit up by a new controversy: The Gospel Coalition had, alongside many prominent voices, endorsed Josh Butler’s latest book and published an excerpt. Butler, a pastor, is being lauded as a young voice in the realm of “Christian sexual ethics” - and boy, what a worldview he has dished up for us. Let’s look into what Butler proclaims, and why it is so dangerous - and why many of the critiques of his article (or rather, the larger excerpt of the book TGC published after the initial backlash) still fell short. Butler starts by bemoaning a sex-obsessed culture (immediately seemingly conflating sex and relationships):
“Our culture looks to sex for salvation(…). We want romance to free us from solitary confinement, to deliver us into a welcome embrace. “A nobody can become a somebody,” the myth goes, “if you just find the right person.” Yet the search often leads to sadness. The lover lets you down. The rapturous embrace starts to suffocate. The emotional high crashes and burns. Idolizing sex results in slavery. You can chart up your long list of ex- lovers and join Taylor Swift in telling the newest applicant, “I’ve got a blank space, baby, and I’ll write your name.” You can find yourself in the Egypt of a new romantic wasteland, more cynical and isolated than when you first began. Yet I’ve discovered a crucial corrective in the gospel that can lead us out into true freedom . . .”
Butler makes clear early on what path he is on (if that the Gospel Coalition is singing the praises of this book wasn’t enough to tip you off): What you’ll read in this book will be staunchly anti-abortion, anti reproductive rights, anti premarital sex, anti-LGBTQ, anti-porn and anti- sex work. We are in the territory of right-wing evangelicals, after all! (Given the complete absence of the concept of consent in Butler’s “analysis”, the next paragraph almost reads like mockery:)
“we’ll move to “When God Says No” (chapters 6– 10), seeing how the beauty of God’s vision helps explain why some things are off- limits. We won’t shy away from the tough topics in this book. We’ll talk directly about divorce, premarital sex, adultery, gay sex, pornography, abortion, and more.
Now, I am no theologian, and I have no desire to be one - I will therefore leave the biblical exegesis to the theologians and those who are more well-versed in bible study than I am.
But even I, with my Jesuit education, which at least involved a couple of years of weekly bible study, would say that to many Christians, Butlers next claims seem to be a stretch at minimum:
Sex is an icon of Christ and the church. In Ephesians 5, a “hall of fame” marriage passage, the apostle Paul proclaims: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery— but I am talking about Christ and the church. Now, the context 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.
“…on closer inspection, there is a distinction between the male and female sides of the equation. The Bible makes this distinction explicit. The most frequent Hebrew phrase for sex is, literally, “he went into her” (wayyabo eleha). Translations often soften this for modern ears, saying he “made love to her,” or they “slept together.” But the Bible is less prudish than we are, using more graphic language to describe what happens in the honeymoon tent.”
Here, Butler becomes graphic in a way that might surprise those of you who have been blessed enough to never have had to read a conservative evangelical marriage advice book (because boy, are those explicit) - and for that, I envy you. Here, Butler essentially lays down the core of complementarianism, that men and women are not created equal. He deduces this in the most crude way, thereby betraying that he only sees penetrative sex as sex - and again, showcases, that gay sex is not even a part of his musings.
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“there’s a distinction between the male and female roles in sexual union…On that honeymoon in Cabo, the groom goes into his bride. He is not only with his beloved but within his beloved. He enters the sanctuary of his spouse, where he pours out his deepest presence and bestows an offering, a gift, a sign of his pilgrimage, that has potential to grow within her into new life.”
Apart from the equation of salvation and semen, let’s not overlook the deeply gender essentialist reading of sex and gender here: With the woman’s “most holy place”, Butler seems to be referring to the uterus. Because he places the sex act only into the confines of marriage, reduces it to reproductive organs and then sacralizes the whole thing as “life giving”, he reduces sex to reproduction - and manages to not only exclude the many people struggling with fertility, but also exclude LGBTQ-people, and especially trans people from his “analysis”.
“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. Inversely, back in the wedding suite, the bride embraces her most intimate guest on the threshold of her dwelling place and welcomes him into the sanctuary of her very self. She gladly receives the warmth of his presence and accepts the sacrificial offering he bestows upon the altar within her Most Holy Place. Similarly, the church embraces Christ in salvation, celebrating his arrival with joy and delight…. 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.”
This places the woman’s role in this “union” - because Butler explicitly and only refers to a heterosexual married couple, of course - as not only the sexually passive part, but as means to an end: procreation. This is where the anti-abortion rights agenda comes in, albeit more neatly hidden than usual. Because what makes sex sacred, in Butlers view, is that it results - in his extremely narrow interpretation - in “life”. This, of course, is a deeply gender essentialist view, which excludes not only trans people, gay people, but also all of those struggling with fertility.
If you think we have reached peak-fucked-upedness, you are in for quite a ride. Because it only goes downhill from here, and fast. Because now, we learn that Butler has no concept of consent - and this leads not only to a deeply reactionary, patriarchal assertion of gender roles during sex, but also to a deeply harmful and dangerous lack of understanding of boundaries and unwanted advances:
“A husband’s unprovoked desire is a sign of Christ’s pre- existing affection for his bride. Christ wanted to be with us— before we wanted to be with him— and took the first step in movement toward union. This doesn’t mean women are less sexual than men, but rather that their sexual desire tends to work differently than men. To borrow language from Dr. Emily Nagoski, men’s sexual desire tends to be more spontaneous, while women’s tends to be more responsive. …Wives, on the other hand, usually prefer to be romanced toward the bedroom…A wife’s desire points to the gospel as well, in other words. Her desire to be romanced is iconic of the church, which has had the f lames of our desire stoked by the passion of Christ’s sacrificial devotion toward us.”
Butler does not seem to understand, that female desire is something that exists without a male counterpart who has started his “pursuit”, and therefore doesn’t understand the different categories of desire, foreplay, or, God forbid, the female orgasm. Because while he is all too happy to talk about “romance” and “desire”, female sexual pleasure, or the female orgasm, play no role whatsoever.
A woman’s need for foreplay to enjoy full sexual satisfaction is a sign of our affections being warmed as the bride of Christ by his amorous advances and pursuit. Similarly, a husband serving his wife in the bedroom can be a sign of Christ’s initiation with his church in salvation, cultivating our responsive affection toward him.
Do not even get me started how deeply fucked-up it is that the man in this situation is being likened to a non-believer, or the church, being “pursued” by Christ - it is maybe one of the most revealing passages of the text. Because if the husband engaging in foreplay is the same as God “pursuing” a non believer, that leads to only two conclusions: a) a wife should accept her husbands initiation of foreplay regardless of her own mood and desires and b) someone who is being “pursued” by God, has to “give in” to conversion. If this imagery eerily sounds like something along the lines of “spiritual rape”, that’s because it is - we’ll get back to how this image is being used by the Big Names in complementarianism later on.
Sexual assault violates the safety, beauty, and faithfulness sex is designed for in marriage, turning the beautiful into something brutal, intimacy into invasion. Because sex is designed for something so powerful, its abuse can wield that much more damage. As C. S. Lewis remarked, love “is a stronger angel, and therefore, when it falls, a fiercer devil.”
What is interesting here is that Butler does not see rape within marriage as even a possibility. The category simply doesn’t apply as soon as the sex act takes place between husband and wife. This shouldn’t be surprising: Many complementarian marriage advice books teach women to “just give in” if their husband wants sex and they’re not in the mood. It’s abusive theology that can lead to actual physical abuse: Wives who feel like they “owe” their husbands sex, because they have been taught that it is their wifely duty to be sexually available to their husband, all the time, every time - and that to not do so would be a spiritual failing. Butler then moves on seamlessly from rape to prostitution, as if both were the same:
“Rape corrupts the character of the icon. Prostitution, meanwhile, is the most symbolic inversion of hospitality. It’s worth recognizing that those involved in prostitution are often pressured to do so by circumstances beyond their control, and this is not strictly comparable to the sins of rape and other sexual violence that I just described. … Yet prostitution welcomes a “guest” while charging admission. It turns what ought to be an exchange of pure gift into a transaction. It makes a person a product. Selling sex rents out a holy place, converting the sanctuary into a transit station, a bus depot for the traveling stranger on their way to the next stop.”
This is, once again, incredibly fucked-up: This whole excerpt invalidates and dehumanizes sex-workers, and takes away their agency. Because framing sex as something only meant for married couples and holding up purity culture imagery (the woman’s body as a “holy temple”) leads to sex workers “devaluing” the spiritual meaning Butler has infused sex with. His imagery of the woman’s “holy place”, ergo, uterus that is being “rented out” to the highest bidder echoes harmful imagery of girls as “used chewing gum”, or “half-eaten hamburgers”, because their worth is seen as inherent in their “sexual purity”. For evangelicals of Butlers ilk, the only thing more sinful than sex outside of marriage (apart from LGBTQ sex, God forbid!) is selling sex, which also explains their obsession with “the sin of porn”.
Similarly, if we look at “progressive” Evangelical criticisms of this passage, they fall short as well: Sheila Wray Gregoire, who claims to advocate for better Christian ethics, only manages to criticize that the (male) purchaser of sex is not being called out by Butler. It is one of the many instances where her seemingly progressive take on evangelical sexual ethics still shows itself as exclusionary (while also being anti-queer and sex negative) towards sex workers.
Now, if we take a closer look at the author and his previous musings, his take on masculinity, the male role during hetero sex and God shouldn’t surprise us. If his theology sounds predatory, that is because his God is, explicitly, a predator:
In "The Pursuing God", Butler describes Jesus as follows:
"Jesus reveals a God who comes after us, who is on the prowl, hunting down his world for reconciliation."
If you sacralize sex acts, and believe that only the man can initiate sexual intercourse, because you see sex as only penetrative, heterosexual intercourse, then sex act (within marriage - between husband and wife, or Christ and the church) has to be seen as holy, whether it is consensual or not. Even worse, consent is not even a category in this thinking. If Jesus “comes after us”, is “pursuing” us, whether we want it or not, that is not love, but abuse - but those who this kind of theology is being taught to and who suffer from its implications lack the vocabulary to even call the violence that is being enacted out as what it is, because they have been told it is holy.
Butler’s theology is deeply patriarchal, phallo-centric and built on domination and penetration, and evokes images of sexual conquest through male penetration, which has deeply disturbing connotations:
Butler is far from the only one - Sprouls and Edwards speak of the “holy rape of the soul”, while Doug Wilson has similarly violent language when it comes to sex:
It also echoes Mark Driscoll’s patriarchal, predatory theology, him calling women “penis homes”, as well as John Piper:
This is no coincidence. It is the result of the predatory theology of Wilson, Driscoll, Piper and others influencing mainstream evangelical spaces, and wreaking immense harm. I’ll leave the last words of this article to Christa Brown, a surviver of sexual violence in the Southern Baptist convention: