The Gospel Coalition recently published an excerpt from Josh Butler’s book, Beautiful Union, entitled “Sex won’t save you but it will point to the one who can.” The article prompted a lot of internet outrage and they’ve since pulled it, suggesting that the problem was a lack of context from the book, so they’ve instead offered an introduction to the book which you can read here. Personally, I don’t think the issues people had were driven by a lack of context in the article, there was enough context to avoid some of the outrage and other concerns and challenges are not going to be changed by added context. I also think that they would have done better to engage the debate and discussion, to properly retract unhelpful stuff and to push back legitimately on some disagreement, allowing the author to defend his case.
So, slightly handicapped by the absence of the original article but at least with this article from Michael Bird that quotes some of the content, I want to try and engage with some of the issues arising and perhaps help us to think through where they went right and where they went wrong in publishing the article. This will help us think about where we can go right and where we can go wrong as well.
Objections to the article on social media were along the lines that it was “weird”, developed a sex theology and was misogynistic, with also the suggestion that it excluded single people. So, I want to try and pick up on those things in a little bit more detail.
Weird and cringey?
First, is it weird and “cringey” for us to talk openly about sex and then relate it to God and the Gospel? Well, if you have a problem with the use of imagery related to sexual intimacy being used to describe Christ’s relationship to the church, then you might just have a problem with the Bible. I’ve written and spoken quite a bit recently on the Song of Songs, fascinatingly a lot of contemporary people do react strongly to any association of The Song with its sensual, often seemingly explicit language about love and desire being associated with Christ and the Church. I wonder though if this says more about our own culture and how it views sex. Even modern secular attempts to put sex out there still do so in a way that suggest that it’s an intentionally shocking thing rather than a natural thing to talk about. Modern society has just as unhealthy a relationship to sex and the language of sex as did the Victorians. Why I think that it is right to apply Song of Songs theologically to the Gospel is that this lines up with how other parts of the Old Testament use language about sex and relationships. The prophets also talk about God choosing Israel as his bride, the book of Revelation picks up the theme too. Meanwhile sexual immorality, prostitution and adultery are treated as metaphors for spiritual unfaithfulness and idolatry.
So, if you think that the article was wrong for drawing an explicit relationship between sex and spirituality, you might want to think again because in one sense I’d argue that Scripture does it just as explicitly. However, there are two challenges here. The first is a wisdom one. I think we have to be alert to how language functions in our context too. Language is interpreted culturally -hence a lot of the imagery from Song of Songs sounds pretty weird to our ears and if you started using it in a romantic conversation in Birmingham it wouldn’t draw the hoped for response. We need to be aware of that as preachers and teachers.
Do we really want to shock and disturb people when we are seeking to warm their hearts to the love of Christ? The problem may well be how our society hears things, there may be a bigger conversation to have about how we view and talk about sex, that sex is a good and beautiful thing but we will do that best when we are pastoral not provocative. And yes, just as with worship song lyrics, we do need to remember that sadly a lot of people in our churches have been seriously hurt and damaged by not just unhealthy but abusive experiences of sex and sex talk.
Which leads to the second challenge. Yes, the Bible can seem to be even more explicit and some of the language might even be considered crude to our ears. However, I would argue that when that kind of language is employed, it is usually in the negative passages talking about idolatry.
How does Scripture deal with the issue of talking about physically intimacy in a way that makes the subject beautiful? Well, it tends to use poetry to do that. Talk about beautiful intimacy, whether between Christ and his church or between lovers should be talk that sings.
Bad Sex Theology?
If the Song of Songs, Hosea, Ezekiel, Ephesians and Revelation all use the imagery of sex and marriage to help us develop a theology of God’s relationship to his people, then we should be cautious about calling it bad theology.
I want to suggest here that the basic premise of the article is actually right. Marriage, according to Ephesians 5 is meant to point us to our relationship as a church with Christ. Sex and marriage is not our saviour, and that’s important to say because a lot of people seem to think that one or both of them are but yes, they do point to Christ and the Gospel.
This does mean, I think that all aspects of a marriage in some way should be helpful to us in growing our love for Christ and appreciation of salvation. Yes, that includes sex. However, perhaps the problem comes when we take one of those parts of marriage, chop it off and attempt to analyse it in isolation from the rest of marriage. I believe that marriage is meant to be enjoyed as a whole, not broken down into its constituent parts. This becomes important when we talk about what the phrase “one flesh” means. There is a tendency to see this phrase as being specifically and only about sex. Now, sex is central to the theme of becoming one flesh but I want to suggest that there is more to it than that. Otherwise, a couple would only be one flesh whenever making love. And that’s not what either Adam or Paul seem to have in view when they describe it. Rather, “one flesh” is a description of our nature as a married couple for the whole of our relationship from that point when we covenant together. It describes much more than an act and rather emphasises how two people can become one person united in all aspects of their life, united in will and purpose, sharing the same dreams, ambitions and calling. Or to put it more starkly, marriage should not look like two single people with their own lives who happen to share the same house and have sex occasionally. For that reason, I think the author was unwise to focus in narrowly on the act of making love in the way that he did.
Whilst we are talking about theology, we might also want to consider the implications of consummation following the wedding feast of the lamb being a future, eschatological event. That’s perhaps a bigger question than one article will allow for though.
Josh Butler has been accused by some of encouraging misogyny. Why? Well, for two reasons. First in the extract, although he recognised mutuality in sex (though some have oddly claimed he didn’t) he notes that there are differences between the man’s role and the woman’s role in sex, that he is the one who Biblically “come into her” and physically enters her. I understand that this language is difficult for some, especially where they have experienced abusive relationships but both Biblically and biologically he is correct, the male and female experience of sex is different and in fact we do well to pay attention to that when seeking to understand and help when difficulties arise in relationships.
The problem is that the language associated with a man’s role has increasingly been associated with predatory, abusive and misogynistic behaviour but that does not mean that it is so in itself. It means that people have abused and distorted the distinctions between male and female for their own gratification. The man’s role in the relationship and in sex is meant to be self-giving, loving and caring. Indeed, Josh’s own language points towards a sense of sacrificial love.
The problem runs deeper though. Some people are unhappy because what this means is that in the image that marriage and sex gives of Christ and the church, the man is seen as standing in Christ’s position and the woman in the churches. Why do the roles not get reversed? It’s important to be clear here that taking a particular part in an image, a picture a play does not say anything about your permanent long term role. Mark Harmon may have impressively played the part of Leroy Jethro Gibbs in NCIS but that does not mean that we could ask him to do an army sniper’s job or solve complex cases involving international terrorism as his day job. I might be able to get Bradford City into the Premier League when playing FIFA but I’m not expecting a call from Valley Parade any time soon.
The image of husband and wife may point us to Christ and the church but that does not mean that I am Christ or that my wife needs me to save her. Remember, the original article heading “Sex will not save you.” Remember that in 1 Corinthians 7, it is the believing wife who sanctifies her unbelieving husband (note I’m not saying here that she saves him -just noting that there isn’t a one directional flow of holiness between the genders).
We may struggle with the way that the image is portrayed and that ties into a whole bigger discussion about God and gender but suffice it to say here that yes, God chooses in Scripture to use the image of husband and wife to represent Christ and the church. This also means that men are part of the bride.
Does it exclude singles?
I recognise that it is hard to run with something that is presented as helpfully pointing us to Christ and our relationship to him if we are not able to experience it for ourselves. Others who are single have engaged with this issue and they are worth a read.
I think what it is worth saying here is that if we are saying that God gives us lots of helpful things in life, then in his grace he will provide each of us with what we need to know him and enjoy him better. Further, we need to be careful about how we think of those images helping. The point in Scripture is not really that my experience of marriage enables me to understand Christ and the Church in a way that I wouldn’t if not married. Rather, its that the image of marriage itself and all it entails is a picture for all of us.
This is why as evangelical Christians we do not describe marriage as a sacrament. It’s why I think some of the language of iconography in the original extract was unhelpful. There may be good reasons as I enjoy all aspects of my marriage for me to let them point them to the Gospel, not least in that this should protect me from making sex or marriage an idol. However, in that respect my experience is not the primary basis of my relationship with Christ and nor is one experience in life more special or sacred than another.
We need to do better when it comes to talking about sex and relationships. We need to do better when it comes to talking about intimacy with Christ too. However, we need to be alert and sensitive as part of that better conversation to the way that language has been harmful to people and we need to double check that we really are being Biblical.
Postscript… It transpires that the original article was an extract direct from chapter one of the book. So you can follow up on that if you wish.
Having had time to digest the introduction and chapter I would say that it in some respects might also a few concerns but sadly it also exacerbates some too.
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