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TGC Under Fire for Article Comparing Christ’s Love to a Sexual Encounter

The Gospel Coalition
Photo by Filipe Almeida (via Unsplash)

An article recently published by The Gospel Coalition’s newly formed Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics has been the subject of considerable criticism for its description of sex as a metaphor for the salvific relationship between Christ and the Church.

The article, titled “Sex Won’t Save You (But It Points to the One Who Will),” was written by Keller Center fellow Josh Butler, an Arizona pastor and author. The article is an excerpt from Butler’s forthcoming book, “Beautiful Union: How God’s Vision for Sex Points Us to the Good, Unlocks the True, and (Sort of) Explains Everything.”

In the excerpt, Butler argues that while many within the current cultural climate look “to sex for salvation…idolizing sex results in slavery.”

“Sex wasn’t designed to be your salvation but to point you to the One who is,” Butler writes.

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Describing sex as “an icon of Christ and the church,” Butler cites Ephesians 5:31-32, in which the apostle Paul refers to marriage as “profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”

“It’s not only the giving of your vows at the altar but what happens in the honeymoon suite afterward that speaks to the life you were made for with God,” Butler argues. “This is a gospel bombshell: sex is an icon of salvation.”

Butler goes on to describe the man’s role in the sexual act as one of generosity and the woman’s role as one of hospitality. 

Butler writes, “At a deeper level, generosity is giving not just your resources but your very self. And what deeper form of self-giving is there than sexual union where the husband pours out his very presence not only upon but within his wife? … Here again, what deeper form of hospitality is there than sexual union where the wife welcomes her husband into the sanctuary of her very self?”

“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 the potential to grow within her into new life,” Butler goes on to describe, arguing that this “is a picture of the gospel. Christ arrives in salvation to be not only with his church but within his church.”

“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 muses. “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.”

“Their union brings forth new creation,” Butler concludes, referring both to the union between a husband and wife and the union between Christ and the Church.

While Butler’s article, as well as his book, represent a broader effort on the part of the Keller Center to provide a positive vision for the Christian sexual ethic in the face of changing norms and divergent sexual ideologies, many readers felt that the metaphor set forth by Butler missed the mark. 

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In particular, some took exception with Butler describing the presence of Christ as being poured “upon” and “within” the church through use of a sexual metaphor, as well as his use of the terminology of penetration in depicting the “generative seed” of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit given to the Church.

Some questioned why editors did not advise against these word and metaphor choices.

Scholar and theologian Anthony Bradley said that Butler “clearly theologically exchanges marriage for sex creating a hermeneutic fatal flaw. The TGC post is the poor exegesis of mystical sacred eroticism.”