Published March 9, 2023
Yes, the church is the bride of Christ, and Christ will be united to His bride. Consequently, Christian marriage, including its physical consummation, is an image of Christ and the church. But proclaiming these beautiful and profound biblical truths is now enough to get Christians mobbed by other (ostensible) Christians.
Pastor Josh Butler was just canceled by The Gospel Coalition, which caved to an online backlash against him over an article he wrote. The offending essay was erased from the group’s website, people who had praised the forthcoming book it was adapted from were pressured into withdrawing their endorsements, and Butler resigned from the newly launched Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics.
Yet Butler’s core claim that “A husband and wife’s life of faithful love is designed to point to greater things, but so is their sexual union!” is entirely orthodox. He is guilty here of nothing worse than expounding this in the sometimes-awkward style of a pastor who is eager to share theological insights in relatable language. This enthusiasm led to some cringey prose — “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” — but no heresy, let alone the blasphemy his many angry critics accused him of.
Pastor Butler’s cancellation led the Orthodox writer Rod Dreher to pronounce himself befuddled at all of this outcry over something that is “pretty basic for Orthodox and Catholics.” However, the reaction to Butler’s article is deeply rooted in the pathologies of parts of American evangelicalism and the theological deficiencies they produce.
The most basic of these problems is that many American evangelicals are theologically ungrounded, which can extend to entire congregations and even denominations. There are exceptions, especially within the Reformed tradition, but there are many evangelical churches whose theology goes no deeper than a pastor who has read some C.S. Lewis and heard of Augustine.
In fairness, this neglect of theology arises in large part from the evangelical insistence on the primacy of Scripture, which is often paired with genuine devotion to its study and application. But reliance on the individual interpretation of Scripture has in turn produced an evangelical culture that is awash in entrepreneurial theology as charismatic leaders build movements and megachurches, often on thin theological ice with little accountability.
The sad story of Joshua Harris is a perfect example of how badly this intellectually deficient spirituality can turn out. As a (very) young man he shot to evangelical fame with two books on dating culture and its discontents; he got some things right and a lot wrong. Eventually, Harris, who made his name by kissing dating goodbye, did the same to his ideas, his faith, and his marriage.
Few evangelical influencers make it as big as Harris did. Even those who do have only a partial share of the attention of the spiritual shoppers in the evangelical religious and cultural marketplace. Evangelical theology is always divided, with factions that are frequently driven by charismatic leaders — or the backlash to them. The harm done by Harris and similar figures is surely behind some of the anger directed toward Butler.
This is a common story in the evangelical world; bad theology (or good theology badly applied) prompts overreactions that produce more bad theology. From the large to the small, the currents of popular evangelical theology tend to be shaped by personality and (oft-petty) rivalries and power struggles as much as by serious theological reflection.
The backlash to Butler’s awkward but orthodox essay is driven more by personal offense and tribalism than articulated theological disagreement. Even critics who have some theological training are engaging hyperbolically and uncharitably. One such writer wailed that “This kind of theology is causing devastating damage.” She added that it “turns Jesus into a pagan God, a mythological and unholy character akin to Zeus” and that “The article is fundamentally pagan and idolatrous.” She then proved this by burning a battalion of strawmen at the stake and making sure we knew just how upset she was.
These sorts of overwrought attacks reveal more about the baggage Butler’s critics carry than about the theological validity of what he wrote. They share a conviction that the church has a problem with women, and they are primed to attack someone who highlights the sexual differences between men and women and sees spiritual significance in them. There are real theological issues here, but they are obscured, in large part because Butler’s critics focused on emoting and accusing, rather than articulating theological disagreements.
Complementary Nature of Women and Men
Nonetheless, Butler’s critics may have inchoately understood the challenge his essay poses to those who chafe at the complementary natures of men and women. Nothing is more complementarian than sex. Even the mutuality of sex is based on its complementarity. And if the physical union of husband and wife is a symbol of Christ and the church, then the complementary nature of the union of our bodies cannot be dismissed as otherwise irrelevant. Rather, sexual complementarity is fraught with meaning and reveals truths that extend beyond the marital bed.
Butler was awkward in articulating this part of sexual theology, but his critics go far beyond critiquing his word choices to denying the basis for a biblical sexual theology, which is the complementarity of men and women and the one-flesh union of husband and wife as a symbol of Christ and the church. This is also why they resorted to such hysteria — stating their objections clearly and without hyperbole would show that Butler is obviously standing on orthodox biblical ground.
That Butler was nonetheless canceled demonstrates why it is essential to develop (or reclaim) a thorough evangelical theology of sex and marriage. While we should not be afraid to draw from our Catholic brothers and sisters, starting with Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” there are plentiful resources for this work in the Reformed tradition as well. Indeed, the intellectual work is probably not the hard part.
The real difficulties arise from an evangelical culture that has conceded far too much to the world. Many evangelical churches are not used to telling their members no or disciplining them. For instance, far too many church leaders shrug at easy divorce and remarriage in their congregations. Far too few have given thought to whether the casual use of contraceptives (or on the flip side, in vitro fertilization) by Christians is spiritually good or harmful. Unthinking acceptance of the pill has done far more than bad theology to encourage evangelical men to treat their wives as sexual playthings.
Addressing these matters requires a theology of sex that looks to the union of Christ and the church, which is both heralded and reflected by the union of husband and wife.
Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has included work on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is currently working on a study of Kierkegaard and labor. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.