Joshua Butler recently published a book explaining evangelicals' extended metaphor about sex and marriage. It has caused an absolute uproar in evangelicalism due to its shoddy theology, its obsession with men's pleasure, and the ease with which its message can be used to rationalize abuse.
Recently, evangelical pastor Joshua Butler resigned from his church position. This resignation was sparked by his new book about marriage. And that book’s caused an absolute uproar. Now, with evangelicals’ current nonstop sex and sex-abuse scandals, you’d think someone might have stopped him before the book ever came close to publication. You’d think someone might have told the guy much earlier that his ideas perpetuated some really sickening and toxic dynamics between spouses.
But nobody did. Really, nobody even could have. Here’s why nobody stopped him, and why Joshua Butler isn’t backing down at all.
Everyone, meet Joshua Butler—and his weird sex book
I first ran across Joshua Butler in an evangelical book, Before You Lose Your Faith (2021). It’s a collection of evangelical talking points, strawmen, and fallacious arguments that its creators hope will short-circuit deconstruction and deconversion. Butler’s chapter of the book poorly addressed dealbreaker questions involving Hell.
Butler first rose to prominence through his first church, Imago Dei Community in Portland, Oregon. He’s exactly that kind of evangelical that evangelicals envision as best-case examples of their faith: a socially-conscious culture warrior who embraces evangelical misogyny and bigotry as the most perfect plan a god could possibly devise for humanity. They think he makes their vast cruelty sound divinely loving and compassionate.
As such, Butler’s associated with the extremely evangelical Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender as a writer and advisor. (This group also pushes Preston Sprinkle’s equally fail-tastic anti-gay book People to Be Loved, which I reviewed at exceedingly great length some years ago.)
In 2018, Butler wrote movingly of his decision to accept an offer to be the co-lead pastor of Redemption Church of Tempe, Arizona. Naturally, he couched the decision as a divine order. In his post, Butler repeatedly asserted that he thought Jesus was calling him there—and that his wife, a real live prophet, had foreseen this major change.
He lasted in Arizona for about five years.
Incidentally, neither his old church nor his new one appears on the master list of Southern Baptist member churches. Redemption certainly seems to be generally of the same mind on a lot of topics, though. In particular, they share the same alarming view of church discipline that all too many Southern Baptist church leaders like to push on their flocks.
(Read: Evaluating the claims of church discipline; Why dysfunctional authoritarians love church discipline.)
This past March, Butler’s newest book, Beautiful Union, came out. Its subtitle reveals that it offers the usual standard-issue evangelical talking points about sex: “How God’s Vision for Sex Points Us to the Good, Unlocks the True, and (Sort of) Explains Everything.”
An introduction to evangelicals’ beloved marriage metaphor: the Bride of Christ
Many hardline evangelical authors offer sites like The Gospel Coalition (TGC) teaser excerpts from their upcoming books. TGC always seems happy to print them. This particular author was no exception to that rule, either. The site published his teaser excerpt on March 1st, 2023.
want need to stress this point beyond all possible others:
Nothing Joshua Butler says about sex is new or unique. Evangelicals have pushed all of these talking points for decades. All Butler did was regurgitate these tired old talking points back to an audience well-used to hearing them. He just did it in a way they really liked, and then he went into way more detail than that audience is used to hearing.
Evangelicals like to imagine that married-people sex is a metaphor for Jesus Christ and his Church, which is Christianese for the collective group of Christians everywhere. Often, they also describe the Church as a body, and yes, they really do think of it like that. It’s like Voltron: there’s all these separate machines that can do stuff completely separately, but then they can also come together to do the Christian equivalent of kicking some giant monster’s ass into the next galaxy.
In the context of evangelicalism, that “body” becomes the Bride of Christ. The Bible talks a lot about the Bride of Christ. Even Jesus frequently used the same metaphor!
(Feel free to speculate about the rabidly anti-gay nature of evangelicals while their men are apparently completely okay with being the Bride of Christ. Over the years, a lot of folks certainly have.)
So Christians are the bride in the marriage, and Jesus is the husband. That’s how evangelical men rationalize their insistence on virginal brides, and also how they rationalize their extremely misogynistic treatment of those brides. After all, Jesus doesn’t take orders from Christians, now does he?
If you’ve never been evangelical or tangled much with evangelicals, you likely have no idea just how deep this metaphor goes. (<– Pun very much intended.) But it is integral to evangelicalism. It goes all the way from the nitty gritty sticky act of sex itself all the way to parenting and household chore distribution. Evangelicals like to imagine this metaphor as governing every single facet of marriage.
Of course, this metaphor also governs how churches operate. But here, we’re just looking at its treatment of marriage.
Joshua Butler’s ideas about sex aren’t unique at all, nor even new
If you read Butler’s post over at TGC, you will find nothing new there. He offers the usual testimony format:
Act I: He had unapproved sex. Alas, that kind of sex failed to make him happy.
Act II: Moment of epiphany. He figured out that evangelicals’ rules for sex are perfect for all humans.
Act III: A cosmic reversal of Act I. He discovers that evangelicals’ version of sex is awesome!
Here is the climax of the essay (<– Pun unintended, but I’m letting it ride):
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.Joshua Butler, TGC
The next two paragraphs detail how the Bride of Christ anticipates and responds to this divine penetration. In the last, we learn: “Their union brings forth new creation.”
Interestingly, the essay doesn’t actually tell us that Butler began following those rules and finally experienced joyful, satisfying sex for the first time. Instead, he pushes a very typical evangelical narrative line: Correct behavior and great results always follow correct beliefs, as the night the day. His implication is that now that he knows exactly what sex means in religious metaphor form, he is now prepared to have satisfying, loving sex with his wife.
I want to stress once again that absolutely nothing in this essay was new to me as an ex-Christian and ex-Pentecostal. It’s gross, but it’s definitely not new. Indeed, these were all standard-issue marriage teachings in the 1980s and 1990s. In somewhat sanitized form, I even heard versions of all of this stuff preached at wedding ceremonies.
All Butler did was take that tired metaphor way, way, way further than evangelicals were used to hearing. As Ph.D scholar Laura Robinson asked in her Twitter thread:
So… that’s it? In conclusion, sex is all about marriage, female purity, and male sexual gratification?
But that’s literally exactly what every other pastor says about sex! Why did Josh write an ENTIRE NEW BOOK about this? He adds nothing!Laura Robinson, Twitter thread, March 1
Indeed. I think Butler managed to make even evangelical men who’d grown up hearing this metaphor their entire lives feel uncomfortable.
Joshua Butler must have thought the world was now his oyster…
Thankfully, some thoughtful soul archived Butler’s post. That’s how we know that TGC was so incredibly impressed with Butler that they had already made him a Fellow with their newly-launched Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics!
(Read: In Tim Keller’s dreams, he is free indeed; The lies Tim Keller tells about death; Tim Keller pushes the myth of Original Christianity for a reason.)
Even more amazingly, we learn in that archived post, TGC had already tapped him to lead a special seven-week-long online course called “The Beauty of the Christian Sexual Ethic.”
I’m not that surprised that they seemed to like this guy so much. After all, they’ve hosted Butler’s bad arguments about other topics for a while now, and they’re the ones who organized and published Before You Lose Your Faith.
… But then the evangelical world exploded at him
Theology professor Beth Felker Jones immediately criticized Butler’s inept theology:
If we imagine the thing this way, I’ll wager most men will insist on continuing to imagine themselves, not as the bride, but as Jesus. And there’s the first problem. If we forget the limits of the analogy, men are going to think they’re like Jesus in a way that women are not like Jesus. And men may also think that Jesus is like whatever sinful twisting of masculinity their culture upholds. [. . .]
It’s a euphoric ode to the glories of ejaculation, which the article characterizes as “gift” and “sacrificial offering.”Beth Felker Jones, March 5
Meanwhile, Laura Robinson neatly summarized it:
In sex, a man is generous by providing semen. Correspondingly, a woman is hospitable by providing a place for semen. [. . .]
Josh apparently thinks the analogy between atoning blood, the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, revelation, and semen is so clear it does not require elaboration.@LauraRbnsn, March 1
Jones also noted the potential for abuse within this metaphor:
The giver/receiver paradigm carries dangerous baggage. Giver/receiver can easily be rephrased as “active/passive” or “Lord/subject.” This can be weaponized; we’re sinners, after all. The built-in asymmetry of power lends itself to abuse, too often telling women to submit in inhuman situations.Beth Felker Jones, March 5 (Archive)
This is absolutely correct. And it’s exactly why evangelical leaders push this metaphor so hard. Indeed, a large number of evangelical women pointed out that their husbands and churches had used this exact metaphor as their permission slip to abuse anyone under their power. All that separate but equal, complementary spheres blahblah evangelicals spout breaks down once anybody remembers why that concept is no longer acceptable under law.
Eventually, TGC realized they’d made a drastic mistake with Butler’s excerpt
If you go to the original URL of Butler’s TGC post now, you won’t see a single bit of Butler’s excerpt. (So I thank you, quick-witted archivist, whoever you are.)
Instead, you’ll see an abject apology from TGC’s president, Julius Kim—and the news that Butler has resigned from the Keller Center and that the planned online sex course won’t be happening at all.
However, it’s unlikely that theology arguments and women’s pain had much, if anything, to do with TGC’s decision-making. Evangelicals have faced both of those for decades now, and it hasn’t had any impact on their misogyny.
Instead, one Christian site, Dissenter, claims that TGC only began to second-guess the wisdom of running that excerpt after they began getting tons of pushback from evangelicals who found the metaphors a little too extended for comfort (<– Pun sort of intended).
Dissenter also notes that some of the big-name Christians who contributed endorsements to Butler’s book have publicly withdrawn those endorsements. Given how endorsements work in the evangelical publishing world, it’s almost certain that those folks hadn’t even read the book. Some of those Christians were also associated with TGC, meaning they’re likely hardline, ultraconservative, Calvinist culture-warrior evangelicals like the site itself is.
TGC might have a fight ahead of them to reestablish their reputation with evangelicals. This incident has even earned a mention at a site that lists examples of “Deception in the Church.” Considering TGC’s positioning, that’s got to smart.
Joshua Butler is not backing down, either
In response to the furor, Joshua Butler resigned last week from his co-lead pastor position at Redemption Church. (They’ve already removed his photo from their staff page.) Butler sent his former congregation a letter about his decision that speaks volumes about why he resigned—and what he plans to do next:
We have found ourselves in an impossible situation. On the one hand, I feel called to step more into these public conversations. I desire to be humble, charitable, winsome, and wise. There are some mistakes I’ve made I wish to own but also deep convictions I hold that I wish to contribute to the broader conversation. [. . .]
I want to affirm that I am committed to a process of repair with any members of Redemption who desire it. For some of you, my lack of greater pastoral nuance in areas of the excerpt evoked pain, particularly for some women with histories of sexual abuse. I want to apologize for not showing greater consideration for how my words in this section could be heard from within your shoes. I’m truly sorry.
I’ve worked with the publisher to make revisions to the excerpt based on a dozen additional sensitivity reviews I commissioned this last month from women (including sexual abuse survivors, counselors, and those who grew up in purity culture). These revisions will be incorporated into the next printing of my book.From Joshua Butler’s resignation letter, presented by this Tweeter (archive)
There is a lot of Christianese in this letter, and it’s doing a lot of heavy lifting. Let’s unpack it like a radioactive knapsack to see what Joshua Butler is telling his former congregation.
The Christianese that tells us everything
Christianese is a context-heavy language that uses jargon and group-specific memes to convey loads of information in few words. We find it mostly in hardline Catholic and evangelical circles. (I’ve noticed that the more off-limits and objectively-false the group’s beliefs, behavior, and goals are, the more Christianese they use.)
“I felt called” is a blatant appeal to authority. Evangelicals believe that Jesus Christ himself hands them assignments, which they term callings. The process of handing them the assignment is Jesus calling them. When evangelicals say they “felt called,” they mean Jesus has asked them to do something. So Jesus told Butler to talk more about his weird evangelical sex ideas. If someone disagrees, then they are disagreeing with the wisdom and judgment of their Savior.
“… humble, charitable, winsome, and wise.” I award him a Miss Congeniality point for using an Oxford comma. However, these are all beloved evangelical self-descriptions. “Winsome,” especially, is seen as a very Jesus-y attribute. To evangelicals, it means presenting ideas in a way that wins people’s hearts. Butler, then, is pushing hard on the purity of his motivations.
“There are some mistakes I’ve made I wish to own…” Evangelicals love to hype up how totally accountable they are for their behavior (and by contrast, how much they think heathens hate to be accountable). When they talk like this, they mean accountability to Jesus, not to people. In reality, no evangelical wants to really own their mistakes. It’d open them to attacks. In this case, real accountability would require a lot more than gaining buy-in from a bunch of sensitivity readers and a carefully-couched not-pology worded in the most ego-defending way imaginable.
“Deep convictions” are related to callings. Evangelicals think that Jesus himself hands certain opinions to his best, most dedicated followers. They call these divinely-given opinions convictions. Similarly, when they talk about feeling convicted, they mean that Jesus has personally made them feel guilty about something.
“Pastoral nuance” is what most other people would call empathy and common sense. In this case, Butler concedes that as a pastor, he perhaps should have known better than to push the particular ideas he did without tons and tons of qualifications and asterisked conditions.
What this Christianese means
Dude’s coming out swinging.
He’s not sorry for what he wrote, only in how he worded it. The basic concepts remain, in his opinion, completely correct. He just forgot to make the usual evangelical mouth-noises about not taking Jesus’ metaphor as permission to abuse—which I guarantee every abusive evangelical husband has already heard and enthusiastically supports, because they would never.
It’s true: There is a way which seems right to a man. Except in this case, that way doesn’t lead to death, but to a crown and scepter in most evangelical churches.
However, Butler’s church isn’t willing to go down fighting with him. They clearly don’t want any part of the media firestorm that has already come Butler’s way.
And I’m guessing that they most especially don’t want to be known as a church that implicitly signs off on, condones, or agrees with Butler’s extremely extended metaphor about the divine power and cosmic value of men’s orgasms or their ejaculate and ejaculation.
That said, I’ve no doubt in the world that Butler’s message to evangelical men will find a receptive audience. (<– Pun unintended, but c’mon.)
Why evangelical marriage metaphors break down so spectacularly in real life
Joshua Butler is not the first person whose attempt to wrestle with evangelical metaphors has run afoul of reality. With great regularity, evangelical marriage and sex books do exactly the same thing.
In 2020, Emerson Eggerichs’ Love and Respect: The Respect He Desperately Needs sparked controversy for the exact same reasons:
[Blogger Sheila Wray] Gregoire says she’s heard from hundreds of women who say one of the book’s main themes — that giving a husband “unconditional respect” can lead to a happy marriage — contributed to abuse in their marriages. She wants Focus on the Family, which originally published the book in partnership with Integrity Publishing, to drop its endorsement.Religion News Service
Please note that evangelicals often slide between two completely different meanings of “respect.” Often, they do this within the same sentence. The word can mean either complete deference or polite civility. Context alone will show you which flavor of the word is meant; in this case, it’s obvious that “unconditional respect” means complete deference.
In the case of power-hungry evangelical men, they deserve next to no deference. But most of them ache for it, thanks to their membership in an extremely toxic, dysfunctional authoritarian system. Deference means safety as well as personal power that can be flexed at will. These men all believe that the women around them should show them this deference, which they have earned simply by accident of birth. Their wives should show them even more deference.
Unwarranted power is a poison that rots the spirit. Power without real accountability is a curse to everyone who comes into contact with the person holding it. And the power given to evangelical men in marriage is both of these.
(Related: Extended review of another evangelical marriage book, Gary Smalley’s If Only He Knew.)
How evangelicals rationalize the abuse caused by their teachings
In response, Eggerichs simply said that, gosh, any book’s advice could be misused by bad-faith actors. His publisher, Focus on the Family, issued a statement along similar lines:
“The fact of the matter is that we believe Mrs. Gregoire has seriously misread and misjudged various aspects of Love & Respect, and we further maintain that its central message aligns both with Scripture and with the common-sense principles of healthy relationships.”Religion News Service
They further stated that the examples of abuse that Gregoire and other women described were clear examples of “one or both spouses misapplying the text, not as the result of the book’s actual message.”
Of course. I’d expect them to say nothing else.
Evangelicalism is a broken system. Its groups long ago lost their ability to achieve their own stated goals. Instead, evangelical leaders use this system as a means of amassing power at members’ expense.
In broken systems, their message is always perfect. It can’t be questioned or criticized. If anyone has trouble with making the message work the way the system’s masters say it should work, that never reflects a problem with the message. People are the only weak link in that entire sequence, so they must have done something wrong in applying the message.
So naturally, if any woman faces spousal abuse after her husband absorbs messages like the ones found in Butler’s and Eggerichs’ books, her husband just misapplied the message.
Real accountability requires the examination of the message that keeps getting used to rationalize abuse. If it’s so easy to misapply even by the very most devout and pious of all real true Christians, then it can’t possibly be all that divine.
But the evangelical world is facing unprecedented scrutiny and pressure
Joshua Butler didn’t tell evangelicals anything new in his book. However, the evangelical world has changed significantly in the last five years, and I don’t think Butler ever got that memo.
Between the nonstop sex scandals and the abuse crises being revealed, evangelicals are more sensitive these days to misogyny and doctrines that encourage abuse. They’re not sensitive enough to question their broken system as a whole yet, but they have begun to realize that concepts like “the Bride of Christ” only open the door to abuse within marriage. They’re starting to understand why representation at all levels of power is so important in preventing abuse and encouraging real accountability. And they’re noticing that in systems like theirs, powerful networks exist to prevent that accountability from ever striking too close to home.
An entire book about how women perform hospitality for men by acting as receptive receptacles for men’s divine gift of semen might have been a bridge too far even for some of the extremists among them. Even TGC regulars couldn’t stomach that.
And the things evangelicals will never, ever ask Joshua Butler
As we’ve already read in his 2018 essay about heading for Arizona, Butler prays about all of his decisions. He even tells us that his wife is a real live “prophet,” which means in Christianese that she gets divine messages straight from Jesus. I’m assuming that every other person associated with his sex book prayed about getting involved with it. And I’m assuming that Julius Kim and TGC pray about their hiring and publishing decisions.
In The Hunt for Red October, there’s a line in it that perfectly describes evangelicals. Admiral Painter listens to Jack Ryan’s excited chatter about intercepting Captain Ramius in his state-of-the-art submarine. Then, he asks a direct question:
Adm. Painter: What’s his plan?
Jack Ryan: His plan?
Adm. Painter: Russians don’t take a dump, son, without a plan.The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Painter means that a man like Ramius wouldn’t even have begun his trip without knowing ahead of time exactly what he’d be doing with the crew, the sub, the route, and everything else. The Americans don’t need to worry about any of that stuff, because Ramius has already figured it all out. All they have to do is help him with his plan.
Evangelicals are much the same way. Though I don’t think they pray nearly as often as they claim to do, I do think that they pray before every major decision. We’ve got TGC, publishers, endorsement writers, editors, proofreaders, family members, church congregations, and who even knows who else—and not one of those hundreds, even maybe thousands of people heard a peep out of their ceilings about this book’s serious flaws.
So why did Jesus fail to tell a single one of these praying Christians that this sex book and its TGC excerpt would be such a stunning disaster? How is it even possible that so many people in so many different organizations utterly failed to notice how easily Butler’s writing could be bent toward rationalizing abuse?
I mean, non-believers already know why. Evangelicals, however, might consider wondering a bit about the matter.