Editor’s note: The controversial article mentioned here was removed from The Gospel Coalition website sometime March 2, after generating a swirl of protest online. It is still available, however, in a excerpt of Josh Butler’s new book, Beautiful Union. The Gospel Coalition website says: “We recognize that the adapted excerpt from Josh Butler’s forthcoming book Beautiful Union lacked sufficient context to be helpful in this format.”
In a recent article published by The Gospel Coalition, “Sex Won’t Save You (But It Points to the One Who Will),” Josh Butler describes sex as an “icon of salvation.”
Butler compares the sexual union of a husband and wife to the union of Christ and the church, explaining how they both become one flesh to consummate their unions. He then discusses how generosity and hospitality are “embodied in the sexual act” as each partner gives extravagantly to and receives the life of the other. He describes sex as an act of “mutual self-giving,” yet makes a point to distinguish between the ways in which women and men participate in sex.
“The Bible makes this distinction explicit,” Butler says as he references passages that describe sex as men going into women, rather than partners making love. For him, this defines how the roles of women and men during sex are not the same. The man has an active role in sex, representing his agency to initiate sex with (and thus penetrate) a woman. In contrast, the woman has a passive role in sex, representing her submission to his penetration as he enters her body.
These differences, he explains, are important in understanding the picture of the gospel. In this analogous relationship, the male-female sexual union, active versus passive, is representative of the relationship that Christ has with the church, he contends.
“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.”
In Butler’s metaphor, the male sexual role represents Christ in his relationship with the church, his bride: “Christ arrives in salvation to be not only with his church but within his church.” He continues, “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.”
Butler goes on to describe the passive role of women and the church: “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.” He continues in the following paragraph, “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 anticipation.”
Butler’s metaphor depends upon the binary view that during sex, men are always active and never can be passive, while women are always passive and never can be active. In this view, men always should initiate and play the dominant role in sex, and women always should be welcoming of their partner’s sexual advances, avoiding acts that would require dominance, such as initiating sex or rejecting a husband’s sexual advances.
For Butler, men’s sexual roles should be viewed as representative of the power Christ has to enter and control the church. In contrast, women are representative of the church, which is constantly anticipating Christ’s presence within her.
What this analogy fails to consider is that human sexual relationships do not function in this strategic, binary way in which only one participant has power and the other gracefully submits. Likewise, neither does the relationship between Christ and the church.
Women should not be completely submissive to the sexual advances of men simply because that is their role as women. There are no consensual sexual situations in which a woman is passive, as mutual consent requires active agreement and participation between both parties involved in the sex act. Any sexual interaction that does not include mutual consent, and thus any relationship in which one participant is passive, is rape or sexual violence.
Further, there are many situations in which it is possible for the woman to assert dominance over her own sexuality.
In an ideal sexual scenario, although only one participant may initiate sex, both participants have the autonomous agency to accept or reject the invitation to engage. However, Butler’s scenario does not recognize this and instead idolizes a sexual relationship in which men always initiate and women always submit.
This parallels the complementarian theology of Butler and other conservatives today who believe God created men and women for different roles in church and home and women must always be submissive to men.
“The only interchange between men and women in which men must initiate and women must receive is forcible genital intercourse.”
In her book Women and the Gender of God, Amy Peeler addresses these issues directly:
“One may even view heterosexual genital intercourse as the woman enveloping the man. The only interchange between men and women in which men must initiate and women must receive is forcible genital intercourse. Rape by a man of a woman is the only time when initiation must be from the male. Theologians who assert that God’s initiation is masculine have embraced what Israel’s Scriptures, the New Testament, and conciliar Christianity adamantly deny: the crude male sexualization of God. Even worse, this theory assumes what the evangelists worked so hard to deny: rape by a male god.”
Thus, Butler’s analogy is not only inaccurate but dangerous for believers. Without mutual consent, this analogy enforces a violent image of God, in which the church is forcibly exploited for the gain of Christological power and dominion over the lives of believers.
And if men are the image of Christ, and women are the church, this analogy allows for the bodies of Christian women to be exploited in the same way by Christian men who believe it is their God-sanctioned right to have physical and spiritual dominance over women’s bodies.
When the bodies of women are theologically viewed as necessitating a welcoming presence to the penetrating power of men, women are stripped of their power and autonomy. Surely, there is no true image of God that would require the passive destruction and denigration of believers for the sake of dictatorship over the worship space.
This, although hidden within Butler’s smooth theological language in which women are described as welcoming, embracing, celebrating or delighting in their submission to men’s sexual dominance, is the pornification of Christian women.
In her book Biblical Porn: Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Evangelical Empire, Jessica Johnson discusses the impact of pornographic imagery used by pastors (specifically Mark Driscoll), and the marketing of masculinity, femininity and sexuality to create and assert spiritual authority.
She critiques the teachings of “muscular Christianity,” in which women are instructed always to be sexually available to their husbands and are at times held accountable for their husband’s poor spirituality due to their inability or unwillingness to deliver to them sexual acts copied from pornography. Consequences of these environments where “muscular Christianity” is promoted often include coercion, abuse and feelings of shame (especially for women) in connection to sex.
These theological systems commodify the bodies of Christian women, making them objects of the pornographic desires of men in power around them. Women are thus viewed as necessarily passive modes through which men can achieve sexual relief and assert dominance. Men, in contrast, are not challenged to wrestle with or deeply understand their bodies beyond sexual desire and are instead taught to glorify the overpowering of their wives in God-sanctioned acts of sexual union.
“Men are taught to glorify the overpowering of their wives in God-sanctioned acts of sexual union.”
And because these beliefs pornify Christian women, Butler’s analogy also sexualizes the church in her union with Christ.
The church becomes an irresistible object of Christ’s desire and is passively debased as Christ penetrates her without consent. Thus, because she is not actively engaged in a relationship with Christ and is instead forcibly submissive to intercourse with him, the church becomes a captive, nonparticipating source of power and authority for Christ. In contrast, Christ becomes an aggressive and uncaring deity who makes no effort to cherish or respect the needs of his bride and is instead a violating dictator.
In this dictatorial sexual union between Christ and his bride, the church does not achieve freedom, as is promised by salvation. Instead, the church is sexualized as an object of pornification, and further subdued and prevented from fully participating in a relationship with the Redeemer.
Mallory Challis is a senior at Wingate University and serves this year as BNG’s Clemons Fellow.