Years ago, after a college chapel service that featured a sermon about God as Heavenly Father, the person sitting next to me turned and said bluntly, “If God is a Father, I want nothing to do with Him.” She was speaking from a place of deep, personal pain. However, even the worst experience with an earthly father does not change that God has revealed Himself, throughout Scripture and specifically in the words of Jesus, as our Father.
I thought of my friend and that chapel service during last week’s Christian Twitter maelstrom. On Wednesday, the recently announced Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics at The Gospel Coalition published a book excerpt authored by Pastor Josh Butler. The article described a sacred vision of the physical union of a husband and wife, arguing that not only marriage but that physical intimacy within marriage is a type (or picture) of Christ and the Church. In the process, he used terms and imagery that, without additional context, seemed shockingly graphic.
Almost immediately, the Twitterverse erupted, decrying the article as “icky,” “cringe,” and “dangerous.” Within a day, critiques of the article, even those asking legitimate questions about Butler’s hermeneutic method and conclusions, had been lost in an online outrage that had taken on a life of its own. On Sunday, TGC apologized for the article, announced Butler’s resignation as a Keller Center fellow, and noted that he would not be speaking at their 2024 conference.
Author and blogger Rod Dreher summarized the reaction to the article as, “people were horrified that he would taint Jesus with the dirtiness of human sexuality.” That horror took different forms. Some argued that Butler’s words were wrong because they could be used to justify sexual abuse. Others argued that, at least in this brief excerpt, Butler centered the husband’s experience and failed to mention the wife’s experience. Most critics, however, simply seemed enraged that the article had “spiritualized” sex.
To be clear, publishing only a short excerpt of an entire book on a controversial subject wasn’t wise, nor was the use in the excerpt of explicit sexual imagery. Still, like my wounded friend who could not grasp the idea that a father, even God Himself, could be loving or good, it quickly became clear that many evangelicals cannot imagine sex as something good, created by God to both serve His purposes for humanity and to point us to an even greater intimacy with Himself.
That reaction, on one hand, is understandable. So many today have only known sexuality as twisted, corrupted, and weaponized. Reading experiences and assumptions into Butler’s words, many concluded that he was employing spiritual language in order to argue that sex should primarily serve the interests of men, who could do with women as they pleased, though Butler said nothing of the kind.
God’s first description of His image bearers included that they were male and female. His first commands to Adam and Eve were to “be fruitful and multiply.” The rest of Scripture presents imagery that connects the relationship between husband and wife, including the physical relationship, with the relationship between God and His people, and Christ and the Church. Many Church Fathers point out the significance of the human body, as well as the significance of the physical marital act. In fact, throughout Church history, one would be hard-pressed to find a theologian who didn’t think that the sexual imagery in Scripture pointed to Christ and His Bride.
Scripture clearly describes physically intimate relationships, both married and illicit unions, as morally weighty in and of themselves and also as ways of understanding God’s relationship with His people. In his book, Our Bodies Tell God’s Story, theologian and author Christopher West argues that the human body, male and female, needs to be thought of as a form of revelation by which God makes Himself known. And, since we are made in God’s image, humans reveal God in ways unique from the rest of creation. Thus, as West writes, “Authentic sexual love becomes an icon or earthly image of the inner life of the Trinity.” In the same paragraph, West includes a quote by Tim Keller, “Sex is sacred because it is the analogy of the joyous self-giving and pleasure of love within the life of the Trinity.”
A husband’s desire for his wife can be viewed as “generous,” which was Butler’s term, just as a woman’s response can be seen as “hospitable,” also Butler’s term. It would be wrong to reduce Christ’s relationship with His Church, not to mention the physical act itself, to only these categories, of course. It would have been helpful had more context been given for the excerpt. His words could have been clearer, but the fact that so many found them outrageous and unthinkable speaks volumes about the state of the evangelical imagination.
Scripture uses sexual imagery to describe Divine realities. It is tragic to only think of sex in terms of abuse or exploitation, or at best self-serving pleasure, rather than as something created by God to reveal Himself to us. “Earth,” poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, is “crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God.”
Sex, like all of life, belongs to God. It was created to serve His purposes and is redeemed to those purposes by Christ. Especially today, we need to be willing to consider what those sacred purposes truly are.
John Stonestreet and Heather Peterson
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