Can we talk about sex and relationships? The pastoral challenges and pitfalls

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I’m returning to the themes coming out of The Gospel Coalition’s controversial article “Sex is not your saviour but it points to the one who is” which provided an excerpt from Josh Butler’s forthcoming book, Beautiful Unnion.

As promised, I want to deal here with some of the challenges and pitfalls around talking theologically and pastorally about sex and relationships.  I realise that in so doing, I’m probably at risk of falling into one of those pitfalls at some point, so please try to bear with me with patience and charity.

My further reflections are prompted, at least in part by Brenna Blain’s comments in the follow up podcast discussion hosted by Preston Sprinkle.  Brenna talks there about how her initial reaction to the excerpt was very similar to the anger expressed by others on social media, she did not want to read the book itself but when sent a copy, she pushed through the reluctance and read it.  She describes how this changed her reading of the original extract, that rather than finding a misogynistic man writing in an ignorant manner that marginalised women, treated them as objects and encouraged abuse, she found that she felt that she was seen and heard by him.  She also appreciated the gentleness of what he had to say and found the book pastorally helpful.

So, setting aside the specific theological issues that I had with Butler’s article, I wanted to think a bit more about why the article produced such a strong reaction, why it was not just annoying but deeply distressing to quite a few readers.  To do so, I think we need to pay attention to how some of the things Josh wrote were heard as saying things that I don’t think he was trying to say, in fact I think he was attempting to say the opposite.

A lot of the focus was on Josh’s description of the specific act of sexual intercourse and his attempt to overlay that with spiritual/temple/altar imagery.  In particular,  Josh focuses in on the husband entering his wife and her receiving him.  A lot of the reaction to this was to the implication that this meant that the husband was the active initiator and that his wife was the passive recipient.  There seemed to be two aspects to this. First, that this demeaned women by assuming that she must always take an essentially passive role in sex.  Secondly, that her passivity resulted in her being objectified, there for her husband’s pleasure and without the ability to give consent, thus giving theological cover for sexual abuse.

Now, from my memory of first reading the extract and the wider context of introduction and first chapter, I believe that Josh sought to strongly reject such views of sex.  His emphasis is in fact not on the man using the woman for his own pleasure but giving himself sacrificially to her.  However, I think we tend to hear the language he used in a certain way.   The result is that we make a double movement that I don’t think Butler is seeking to make.  First, we equate receiving with passivity.  Note, Butker does refer to one party being passive in the book. Second, we associate passivity with helplessness, lack of choice, engagement.  Indeed n’t think Butler intends us to end up there.

However, I would suggest that receiving is itself an active choice and not in and of itself passive.  Secondly, that passivity itself does not indicate a lack of consent or choice.  Being passive in a situation may indicate a level of trust but does not in and of itself indicate helplessness.

To help with this, it is worth observing that when we talk about justification and imputed righteousness, we talk about Christ’s active obedience by which we mean his life of obedient service and his passive obedience by which we mean, his suffering, sacrifice and death.  In the latter case, he allows himself to be led, prosecuted, beaten, made to carry the cross, nailed to it, mocked etc.  However, he is willingly there, he is active in bearing punishment and I would argue that he is not helpless.  He could at any point have turned the tables on his tormentors.

To give another example.  We might argue that when it comes to the article, that Butler is the one who offers something. He gives us his written thoughts.  We as the readers are recipients. However, this does not mean that we were not actively and voluntarily involved.

Yet, whatever Butler intended, he was certainly heard in a particularly unhelpful, hurtful and harmful way.  It’s important if we are going to engage on this and other related subjects that we start to understand why.

I think that the crucial reason is that we simply do not hear things in a vacuum.  We may wish that we could but we do not.  Butler was then, I believe naïve and reckless in the approach he took.  It is worth identifying three elements to the context in which people heard him

Historical baggage

First, his language and theology came with significant history behind it.  It’s worth highlighting again specifically the issues raised on the podcast about pagan idolatrous religion where sex was treated as a magical rite, opening up access to the gods.  We might want to go a step further here than the podcast did and observe that those temple rites were highly debasing and violently abusive to the women and girls that were used in them. 

Whilst that might belong to distant history. We may want to consider that there is a pseudo-religious element to the horrific accounts of rape and abuse that we hear from warzones, especially when those wars relate to ethnic purity and nationalism.  There is a religious dynamic to the Putin’s aggression and the war crimes of his soldiers in Ukraine.

Then there are the cases of abuse within modern day cults.  Consider the centrality of sexual abuse to the Branch Davidian cult at Waco, The FCLDS and Warren Jeffs or NXIVM.   It is therefore even more distressing to hear the accounts of abuse survivors from within mainstream evangelical churches who described their tormentors using the same kinds of language as cult leaders have done to justify their actions and to seek to manipulate their victims into submission, insisting that they should be grateful because they are playing a part in fulfilling God’s will.

Contemporary context

Christians in today’s culture have been hit with a barrage of three pertinent cultures.  First there is the porn culture which has normalised the objectification of women for sexual gratification.  It is worth considering even how much of the discussion about what expectations there are in sex in the resulting conversation was shaped by pornography, where women are expected to behave and act in certain ways to meet male desires.  On this point, we might observe why the narrowing of focus into the sexual act and genitalia was problematic in the article given that this is exactly what pornography does too.  Ironically, the classic “missionary position” that seems to be assumed in the article gets its name from the desire of missionaries to encourage intimacy in sex, a focus away from genitalia to face to face relationship. 

Alongside that, particularly in the US, there has been the so called purity culture.  This is problematic for two ways in which it mirrors porn culture. First, it treats sex as something shameful and dirty. Secondly, it anatomises sex. Yes it sees sex as something to be enjoyed in marriage but the attention is still on the question “how can I obtain sex.”

This then plays into the third cultural phenomenon.  You may recall me writing the other day about the kind of language associated with misinterpretations of 1 Corinthians 7. There is a certain form of patriarchalism, often associated with complementarianism.  Now, I don’t think it is complementarian at all, it’s a distortion, or a parasite living on the back of true complementarian theology.  Yet, this is the dominant voice many are hearing. It results in the kind of language where single women are portrayed as sad and lonely so that men are their saviours. 

If that weren’t bad enough, it also results in the kind of language we saw where marriage is seen as a man’s passport to sex and the solution to his lust and porn addictions. 

Finally, in that context it has also resulted in talks, books and articles where sexual intercourse is described explicitly in terms of male dominance and conquest. So, whilst Butler may not intend us to think in terms of female passivity and helpless submission to satisfy male pleasure, there are some prominent egregious examples that do seem to lead us in that direction.

Personal Context

We must sadly now come to the final and most distressing point which is that far too many women in our churches have experienced sexual abuse and very few if any will have escaped being objectified and treated in a derogatory manner at some point, if not throughout all of their lives.  Worst of all, far, far too many have experienced it in churches from supposed Christians, youth leaders and pastors. 

The pastoral point

This brothers and sisters is why talking about sex and relationships, whether theologically or pastorally is such a challenging issue. It’s why there are risks and pitfalls. It’s why we do need to be having those conversations but it is also why we need to do it carefully, sensitively and well.

I believe that the best way to have those conversations is not by anatomising sex and focusing our attention in on it.  Rather, we need to put it properly back in its place as part of the marriage covenant.  We need to talk about God’s better story for intimacy, relationships and marriages. As we do that, then we’ll be able to talk with greater sensitivity and more compassion about sex itself too.

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