Josh Butler, who was at the center of an online tempest earlier this month because of an article he wrote for The Gospel Coalition (TGC), appeared on Preston Sprinkle’s Theology in the Raw podcast Monday to explain what he was trying to communicate in his article and to address the pushback against it. While Butler said that it had been “unwise” to publish that particular excerpt from his upcoming book, “Beautiful Union,” he nevertheless stands by what he wrote.
“I was unwise to allow that excerpt to be used in a short article,” said Butler, who shared that his “heart has been extremely heavy the last few weeks.” He added later in the episode that the excerpt makes more sense within the context of his book, a purpose of which is to show that “God has designed bodily union, sexual union of a husband and wife…to point to and bear witness to the gospel.”
Josh Butler’s Article on The Gospel Coalition
Josh Butler is the pastor of Redemption Tempe in Tempe, Arizona. At the time his article was published, he was a fellow at The Gospel Coalition’s newly formed Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics and was set to lead a learning cohort through the Keller Center on “The Beauty of the Christian Sexual Ethic.”
On March 1, TGC published Butler’s book excerpt under the title, “Sex Won’t Save You (But It Points to the One Who Will).” The post caused a firestorm online, initially uniting Christians of many theological stripes in agreeing that some of the language in the article was disturbing.
Critics faulted Butler’s excerpt for presenting a male-dominant view of sex and for sexualizing believers’ relationship with God. Among the passages people took issue with was one where Butler described a wedding night by saying, “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.”
The bridegroom on that night pictures Jesus, said Butler, who “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.” In contrast, on her wedding night the bride “gladly receives the warmth of [her husband’s] presence and accepts the sacrificial offering he bestows upon the altar within her Most Holy Place.”
Butler received critiques for over-spiritualizing the sex act, for poor exegesis, and for presenting a harmful, even abusive view of complementarianism. Two days after the excerpt was published, TGC pulled it and posted the introduction and first chapter of Butler’s book in order to give more context.
The criticism did not abate. Pastor and author Rich Villodas and church planter Dennae Pierre each retracted their endorsements of Butler’s book and admitted they had not read it in its entirety. Preston Sprinkle, the president of the Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender and who has also endorsed the book, tweeted “Killer book!!” when the controversy erupted and has stood by his endorsement.
On March 5, TGC pulled the introduction and first chapter of Butler’s book and replaced them with an apology. In that apology, TGC president Julius Kim said TGC had accepted Butler’s resignation as a Keller Center fellow. Some took issue with The Gospel Coalition for this response, saying the organization was simply reacting to the pushback instead of doing the work required to understand why the excerpt was a problem in the first place. Meanwhile, others faulted the “mob” who had unfairly attacked and canceled Butler.
Josh Butler’s Thoughts on the Controversy
Preston Sprinkle said that he wanted to have Josh Butler on his podcast in order to “have an in-depth, thoughtful conversation” about what had happened. Sprinkle stated that he has been good friends with Butler for some time and that he did read all of his book. While Sprinkle does not agree with everything Butler wrote, he thought the book was “extremely good.” He also believes that the section TGC published as an article was “probably the worst excerpt of the book to release in isolation.”