When The Gospel Coalition and The Keller Center scapegoated Josh Butler due to his article about sex and the church — an excerpt taken from his Beautiful Union book they previously hailed as “the Protestant magnum opus on sexual ethics we’ve been waiting for” — many people wondered if Butler and his book would go gentle into that good night.
But as it turned out, Butler chose to rage against the dying of the light by doubling down, while others came out of the woodwork to help him rehabilitate his image and his book.
Butler first went on Preston Sprinkle’s “Theology In the Raw” podcast for a discussion with biblical scholar Sandy Richter and speaker Brenna Blain. While Richter explained to Butler how he was misunderstanding ancient Near Eastern scholarship related to the temple and sexuality, Blain admitted her disapproval of the article TGC published, wondered why TGC chose to feature that particular chapter, but ultimately said the chapter was totally taken out of context from the entirety of the book, which she continued to highly recommend. Sprinkle also voiced his continued strong affirmation of Beautiful Union.
During their discussion, Butler shed more light on the editing process his book went through.
“We, the publisher and I, had valued sensitivity in this area,” he said. “We ran the content through a wide variety of perspectives — single people, divorced people, women, people of color, same-sex-attracted people, people with backgrounds of sexual abuse — all gave really valuable input on the manuscript. And when all that was done, the publisher actually hired an outside professional female editor who specialized with sensitivity reviews and a personal story uniquely suited to give sensitive input on the book. And she loved the book, big picture. And we took all her recommendations and tweaks.”
Given the high praise so many evangelical leaders gave the book initially, and given the thoroughness of its editing process, supporters of the book believed perspectives against it could change if we simply heard more from Butler.
Hearing more from Butler
But that naïveté was exposed as the book released, filled with problematic quotes centering semen, and with an article this week by Butler where he theologically processed the ethics of contraception. Butler’s article was written as a discussion with the Catholic theologian Christopher West as a “further exploration of some broader ideas” from his book.
“A condom dams up the ‘river of life,’ preventing its life-giving waters from reaching the opposite shore.”
In part of this week’s article where he offers an argument against contraception, Butler says: “A condom dams up the ‘river of life,’ preventing its life-giving waters from reaching the opposite shore. With a diaphragm, a barrier is placed at the most intimate point of contact, preventing a full reception of the gift within the generative holy space of the womb. Birth control intentionally denies a fruitfulness that points forward to the future hope of the kingdom, in the eschatological abundance of the new creation.”
What is this river? Butler explains in Beautiful Union: “The river does have one more advantage though: It’s liquid. Life moves forward through liquid means. The man’s procreative presence goes forth in intercourse to water the soil of the woman’s womb. Inversely, the woman moistens in the exchange to make way for this aquatic channel between them. They are like two sides of a canal opening, to share this river of life.”
Back to this week’s article, Butler continued: “As such, contraceptive sex is unable to bear witness to the work of the Spirit. Moreso, as I argue in Beautiful Union, procreation is an iconic window into not only the work of the Spirit but also the person of the Spirit (see Chapters 3 and 12). With contraception, the lover and beloved refuse to welcome the love who proceeds from their union, intentionally shutting the door on the fruit of their love. Such sex is thus, we might say, non-trinitarian. We could sum all this up by saying contraceptive sex is non-pneumatological.”
But many evangelical women were not interested in floating down this river.
Evangelical women have heard enough
“I can’t look at any more of the Josh Butler stuff this week,” tweeted Beth Felker Jones of Northern Seminary. “Just remember, even if you’re not worried about abuse, p*nis worship is idolatry.”
“Just remember, even if you’re not worried about abuse, p*nis worship is idolatry.”
Beth Allison Barr added: “Please get Josh Butler off my timeline. His theology is dangerous. It puts the male body in the place of God & reduces women to Kevin DeYoung’s ‘womb-man.’ Heck, it reduces humanity, including our faith, to the sex act.” Then she asked, “Where does complementarian theology lead? You tell me.”
Beth Moore declared: “I’m so grossed out. It’s gonna take me months to recover from the river talk.” Moore’s comments are particularly notable given the fact that she transitioned from being a Baptist to being an Anglican, which is a tradition that shares similar language to Catholics surrounding icons and creation.
And noting the fact that two men were discussing birth control in Butler’s article this week, Sheila Gregoire wrote: “I understand that there are many different views on contraception, and understand those who want to use NFP, and I even explain how it works in The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex so people can make their own decisions. I do have issues, though, when women’s voices are largely left out of these conversations, and when old and inaccurate medical information is shared. Women’s experience is just so missing here.”
The unitive and procreative dimensions of sex and the exile of women
Central to Butler’s article about contraception and to his larger book is union and procreation.
“In Beautiful Union, I argue that children are central to God’s vision for sex and marriage,” Butler postulates. “I argue that it is not only the unitive dimension of sex, but the procreative as well, that is iconic of greater realities we were made for with God.”
Butler’s emphasis on the unitive nature of sex is rooted in the Trinity and in Christ’s relationship to the church.
“There is a Trinitarian dimension to sex,” he explains. “If salvation is union with Christ, the kingdom is the abundant life that flows from his Spirit. If marriage points to the work of Jesus, children point to the labor of the Spirit. The unitive dimension of sex points to your union with Christ; the procreative dimension points to your life from the Spirit.”
He adds: “The church receives Christ into her gut, or loins.”
“Jesus gives his river of life to you, and you bear his life to the world.”
Butler applies his now-infamous river of semen metaphor to Jesus: “Jesus gives his river of life to you, and you bear his life to the world. ‘The water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ Jesus fills us up as his bride to overflowing, pouring his presence into you like water into a pitcher until it spills out all around.”
Butler traces the unitive and procreative dimensions of sex back to Adam. Because we all come from Adam, he argues, “we’re all connected. … There is an organic unity to the human race. That’s why it’s significant that Eve is made from Adam, rather than made separately.”
That “significant” point, of course, is the implication of only one of the two creation stories found in Genesis. Genesis 2 tells of God taking a “rib” from man to make woman. But the creation story of Genesis 1 speaks of male and female being created at the same time.
And while the talk about unity may sound inspirational, modern science shows humanity does not actually descend from a single human pair. We evolved over time in community. Sex wasn’t added onto the human story after our creation. We are participating in a far more ancient story of sexuality that existed long before we came on the scene.
But because Butler begins with Adam and Eve, his exploration of unity is gendered and binary. A husband is seen as the generous lover, giving the gift of his semen “not only upon but within his wife.” And a wife is seen as the hospitable beloved, becoming vulnerable and open to receive “the presence of the groom within herself.”
“The book is filled with penis and semen imagery, but never specifically mentions female orgasm or the clitoris.”
This imagery necessitates men having orgasms, but not women. This is perhaps why the book is filled with penis and semen imagery, but never specifically mentions female orgasm or the clitoris.
Butler’s descriptions of sex center his own heterosexual male experience and pleasure. The unitive and procreative dimensions are why he says sex must be between one man and one woman. But because his theology centers male orgasm as a giving of generosity to hospitable women, women become simply the facilitators of male orgasms, the hosts of semen rivers. And thus, if a woman has sexual desire, her orgasm is inconsequential. She is exiled from her body by being relegated to a receptacle of male pleasure.
A cosmic sexuality of unitive wholeness
If Butler were to trace union all the way back to the beginning of the universe, however, he would find the non-gendered mystery of singularity, from which far more diversity than simply human male and female bodies emerge. He would discover a story of universal wholeness. He would find an entire universe that, as Ilia Delio says, is “oriented toward integral wholeness, complexification and consciousness,” where “love, sex and cosmic evolution are intertwined in a field of integral wholeness.”
Or as Teilhard de Chardin put it, “Love was the building power that worked against entropy, and under its attraction the elements groped their way towards union.”
Butler says: “The convergence of land and sea, like the union of man and woman, has the power to both form beauty and generate life. It is at these ‘edges’ where two different systems touch that the productivity and diversity of life are massively higher.” He adds: “If sex is given by God, as a sacred window into the structure of creation, then the point is not to sexualize creation so much as to ‘creationize’ sex, to frame it within God’s holy design for the structure of our world.”
Because land and sea or light and dark are binary, he sees them as images of male and female being binary. And thus, Butler argues sex is the colliding union of the binary and must be between distinctly male and female partners. Anyone else is exiled from the sexual desires of their bodies.
But if you truly want to “creationize” sex, you should interpret what you presently see in the context of what is happening at more cosmic scales of deep time. If God designed the structure of our world, then God designed it as a single tissue of spectrum and becoming. There is no collision of day and night. There is simply the experience of the spectrums of dawn and dusk from certain perspectives, with the experience of complete union and presence from broader, more expansive perspectives.
“In reality, creation isn’t a set of static binaries that can be paralleled with male and female.”
In reality, creation isn’t a set of static binaries that can be paralleled with male and female. Instead, the cosmos is in process of becoming. On earth specifically — thanks to tectonic plate shifts, erosion and other scientific processes — land and sea are always shifting and evolving over time. The sea floor becomes the beach, which becomes the field, which becomes the hill, which becomes the mountain, which becomes the hill, and so on over billions of years. This is why there are marine fossils on Mount Everest.
So if Butler and conservative evangelicals want to begin taking their cues from creation, then they should take their own metaphor seriously enough that they’ll consider it in its cosmic scale. The problem for them though is if they did, they’d have to conclude that despite the apparent binary we see in each snapshot of time, we are all in a single thread tissue of spectrum and becoming. In other words, by their own metaphor, we would all be intersex and transgender.
Iconizing heterosexual married sex
Butler claims “sex is iconic. It’s designed to point to greater things. That’s the central thesis of this book.” He explains, “Historically, icons were not meant to be looked at, so much as to be looked through. They pointed to something beyond themselves.”
Therefore, because Butler believes godly sex is rooted in a binary view of creation, he claims any sexual expression other than sex between a man and woman in a monogamous marriage is a “cracked icon.”
Even though The Gospel Coalition cut off Butler after the response to his article, senior editor Brett McCracken gave Beautiful Union a five-star review, calling it a “masterful contribution to a crucial conversation.” McCracken added, “Whether rape, abuse, porn, adultery, pre-marital sex, prostitution, masturbation, same-sex sexual activity or any other form of sexual sin, what’s happening is a defacing of the icon of sex — like taking spray paint to the Mona Lisa.”
“Masturbation and pornography fall short of the unitive dimension of sex.”
Butler himself wrote in Beautiful Union, “Masturbation and pornography fall short of the unitive dimension of sex, even if one achieves a state of orgasm on one’s own. Similarly, contraceptive sex intentionally shuts union off from the procreative dimension.”
Butler joked about polyamorous people: “Some have begun using the Trinity to argue for polyamorous relationships. God’s got three persons in his communion-of-love; why can’t I have more in mine? Somebody tried using this recently with a friend, to justify his open marriage.” Rather than explaining why this argument is problematic, Butler simply objected, “Sorry, Don Draper, the third person of the Trinity doesn’t support your fling with the sexy receptionist.”
Despite what Butler desires, the vast majority of humans masturbate. Any time Butler alludes to masturbation, he mocks it as a “personal play thing,” or with selfish motivations meant to convict anyone who masturbates they’re living in sin.
Regarding single people, Butler says: “Singleness can be prophetic. Our culture wrongly sees sex as necessary for human fulfillment.”
It’s as if you’re never allowed to touch your own body, even in a heterosexual marriage. But how is that possible? Wouldn’t you accidentally brush up against yourself during sex? His aversion to self-pleasure not only ignores the paradigm of wholeness we see throughout creation, but it disembodies all of us by demonizing any processing of erotic attunement.
Also, asexual people seem to fit nowhere into his paradigm. Perhaps you could apply Butler’s affirmation of singleness to them. But if the union of a heterosexual couple producing the love of a child is the icon of Trinitarian love, then how would asexual people be anything other than exiled from the icon in his analogy?
Humanity was not created for icons
Based on Butler’s definition of icon as something that can be looked through to point beyond itself, one could argue that sabbath is a type of icon in Scripture. So when Jesus was confronted about his disciples gathering grain on the Sabbath, he answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need?” Then Jesus concluded, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
“I can’t imagine God would give us bodies with desires and then give us an icon of sex we have to serve while starving our desires for years or decades on end.”
The way Butler exiles women, LGBTQ people and all humanity from their bodies through his theology of sexuality reflects the people who told Jesus humanity was created for the sabbath. But Jesus understood the hunger of human bodies. And while we may not need sex in the same way we need food to survive, none of Jesus’ disciples were going to die by not eating on the sabbath either. I can’t imagine God would give us bodies with desires and then give us an icon of sex we have to serve while starving our desires for years or decades on end. Jesus’ handling of the icon of sabbath would seem to indicate a care for bodily desire conservative evangelicals are unwilling to extend.
What makes Butler’s theology of sexuality enticing and dangerous
There are male power and entitlement dynamics at play when it comes to reasons why men from The Gospel Coalition resonate with Butler’s theology of sex. But for many, it can be difficult to process Butler’s theology due to his likability as a human and to the way he communicates his message.
Throughout Beautiful Union, even though many of the images and metaphors are deeply problematic, Butler has a lightness in his handling of words. He refers to dad jokes, quotes popular songs, even references the movie Titanic with positive, lighthearted references. In the audiobook, he often laughs as he reads.
Also, the way he communicates his message is contrasted from the way other men have. For example, when R.C. Sproul spoke of sex in iconic language about salvation, he said: “You will resist it as hard as you can. But God will overcome your resistance. When God chooses to save somebody, in his sovereignty, he saves them. Edwards called it ‘the holy rape of the soul.’ Some people are violently offended by that language. I think it’s the most graphic and descriptive term I can think of, of how I was redeemed.” In other words, to Sproul, rape is the greatest icon of salvation.
I can’t imagine Butler ever would use that language.
While John MacArthur says “if you have the right master,” slavery is “the perfect scenario,” Butler says “Christ brings us to a place where we no longer call him ‘my master’ but ‘my husband.’”
And while men like Sproul, MacArthur and those at The Gospel Coalition consistently demonstrate an unwillingness to listen to critique, Butler has been going on podcasts for a number of years to dialogue with people who disagree with him.
Still, Butler’s language in podcast interviews, articles and in his Beautiful Union book ultimately produces the fruit of exile. He frames anything other than the experience of a heterosexual couple producing a baby as an icon of infertility or barrenness based on the images of non-fruitful land in the Bible. In doing so, he iconizes exile. What he misses is how his theology of union and procreation in a creationized and iconized understanding of sexuality has created the exile of disembodiment for women, LGBTQ people and every sexual or asexual human being.
For Butler to embrace a truly beautiful vision of sexuality, he’s going to need to repent of his heterosexual male-centric language that leads to exile and move toward a vision of unitive wholeness, a sexuality of spectrum and becoming, and an experience of sex as an icon that promotes the wholeness of an embodied humanity.
Rick Pidcock is a 2004 graduate of Bob Jones University, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible. He’s a freelance writer based in South Carolina and a former Clemons Fellow with BNG. He recently completed a Master of Arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary. He is a stay-at-home father of five children and produces music under the artist name Provoke Wonder. Follow his blog at www.rickpidcock.com.
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