What we don’t talk about: The Fall out from that TGC article about sex and salvation

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Following “that” article on The Gospel Coalition Website about sex and salvation, the saga continues.  You may remember that at the time I wrote my response, the original article had been pulled and replaced with a longer article from Josh Butler’s book.  Well, if you go to the page now, you’ll instead find a statement from TGC, that seems to admit that they got a few things, wrong, though quite what the failing was remains unstated, they ask their readers for forgiveness, though they have not said sorry for anything and they announce that Butler has resigned as a fellow of the fledgling Tim Keller Centre for Cultural Apologetics.

I’m not convinced that anyone comes out of this sorry story well.  The article was bad, I indicated some of the problems with the theology in my first article and intend to pick up a little further later on in the week. So, Butler should take ownership for what he wrote.  TGC have editorial responsibilities for what goes on their site.  However, I don’t think a lot of the response was great either. There are a few people who have carefully engaged with the pastoral and theological issues. I include some who I would not agree with on all their conclusions in that.  However, there has also been a level of aggressive and at what seemed at times personalised response that tapped into cancel culture.  Only the other day, I observed someone from the egalitarian world talking in the language of throwing complementarians under the bus. You may remember that such language got Mark Driscoll into trouble, but not a bat of the eye lid at this intentional echo of his words.  Yet not long following and yes, Butler has been “thrown under the bus.” 

Butler has been attacked as a misogynist and as someone seemingly taking delight in crude , pornified language and the objection of women.  Whether or not specific language was wise, I don’t think either charge is fair. Butler was very clear that men are to take a loving and sacrificial posture towards their wives. As I observed in my first article, despite what I’m reading on line, the Bible does not shy away from explicit language at various points.  To repeat, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t something he gets fundamentally and seriously wrong, nor that there aren’t significant pastoral implications.  However, it does not make the guy into the ogre he seems to have bene portrayed as.  In fact, what a lot of the loud shouting has done, is to distract us away from the kind of proper Scripture rich conversation that would enable views held not just by Josh Butler but by many others to be challenged and corrected.

And this leads me to a further concern.  The way that this has now been handled by TGC looks more political than it does theological or pastoral.  It looks more about how they safeguard their reputation than it does about getting to a right understand and application of Ephesians 5.

In the light of that, I notice the responses of some individuals connected in different ways. First, a few people who gave endorsements for Butler’s book have quickly withdrawn their recommendations with the excuse that they had given an endorsement without fully reading the book. This raises questions about what people are prepared to attach their names to and the whole celebrity endorsement culture.  However, it also raises other questions.  If the bits of the book they read were good, theologically sound, pastorally helpful, has that been changed by discovering that about 2 or 3 pages in a book, they consider to be overall good and helpful are actually unhelpful?

Then there are people connected to The Keller Centre.  When it was launched, the centre appointed a number of prominent evangelical leaders and thinkers as “Fellows.”  Now, we are hearing from some of these that, yes they had concerns about he article  and no, they did not say anything publicly but this does not mean that we should treat their silence as acceptance and support, they were having private, confidential conversations within The Keller Centre last week.

Now, I have a bit of a problem with this. You see, the situation we have here, is exactly the kind of situation that some of us raised when The Keller Centre was launched.  Questions were raised about accountability and transparency.  I want to suggest that in the face of a public controversy within conservative evangelicalism, that a group of prominent leaders heading off to have their own private conversations whilst the world around them burns, whilst people attack each other, whilst believers are getting hurt and whilst the controversy is also being used to make trouble by those opposed to the Gospel is actually part of the problem.  May I also gently suggest that it continues to give the impression that the focus for was more in damage limitation than theological truth and pastoral care.

I want to be clear here that my issue is not with the individual fellows. Nor am I arguing that everyone must always speak up on everything.  There are all kinds of reasons why time priorities and areas of expertise mean that it may not have been right for each individual to contribute something.  Nor am I saying that there is anything wrong with private conversations, as well as or in lieu of the public ones.  I hope that people were communicating directly with Josh Butler. 

However, two things. First, it would be good to know that TGC and TKC withdrew the article not just because they feared losing the backing of some big names, threatening to pull their support but because they recognised what was wrong with the article.  We don’t just want to win battles, we want to change hearts and minds.

Secondly, because, whilst it is for each individual leader/thinker/writer/teacher to decide what to engage on and how to engage, that should not have anything to with internal conversations in a parachurch organisation.  It’s worth observing here that by appointing fellows, TKC has taken on a pseudo-academic form and that should have implications too. Fellows in an Oxford College would presumably be free to disagree with each other on their academic conclusions.  There should not be anything to prevent one TKC fellow from disagreeing with another publicly as well as privately.  In fact, surely that is a way of encouraging growth in knowledge and understanding. 

The reality of the past few days is that a lot of anger has been expressed, a lot of hurt felt and a few people have had their reputations trashed, no doubt with further fall out for their ministires, families and churches.  Yet, we have got no closer to a good pastoral theology and ethic of sex and marriage.  We need to do better.

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