Why Josh Butler’s Book Beautiful Union Matters

If you pay attention to Christian Twitter, you are probably familiar with the online backlash a few weeks ago to the excerpt of Josh Butler’s forthcoming book called Beautiful Union. This short excerpt of a 288 -page book created a firestorm of criticism and dialogue about Christian sexuality. Finally, Christians were talking about God and sex, but not exactly in the way I had hoped they would.

One popular Christian podcast host described it this way: “Somebody wrote an article that took the metaphor of Christ and the Church and compared it to a husband having sex with his wife… and the entire world collectively went ‘EWW.’ And it was universal… The whole world of Christianity rose up with one voice and said, ‘That is icky, and we don’t like it!”

That is a response I’m quite sure I would have had a decade ago. Comparing sex in any way  to the holiness of God would have sounded offensive and even sacrilegious. We have a Christian history of being squeamish and silent on the topic of sexuality. The only ways the subject has historically been handled is in hushed tones, judgmental pronouncements, and lewd joking. The truth is that we don’t know how to talk about sex, so we have just ignored it or considered it a base part of our humanity that God wants nothing to do with.

While many can legitimately argue that Josh took the metaphor of sexuality representing Christ and the Church too far, we are blind to the danger of not taking this metaphor seriously enough. Without understanding the significance of this metaphor, we lack a Christian understanding of why sex and gender matter. The culture has a far more compelling narrative of our sexuality than what the purity culture offered us. So, what is the biblical alternative to seeing our sexuality as an amoral category or as a shameful part of our humanity that God tolerates?

Sermons and books are very comfortable noting that Ephesians 5 presents marriage as a metaphor of Christ and the Church, but they have avoided including the one-flesh union of sexuality within that metaphor, even though it is embedded within the text.

What Ephesians 5 points to shows up repeatedly throughout the Old and New Testament. God created sex and male and female as a form of revelation. Like so many other aspects of the physical and relational world, God reveals through our gender and sexuality.

Consider that in the Old Testament the metaphor of marriage, sexual faithfulness, and intimate knowing shows up again and again describing God’s relationship with the nation of Israel. In passages like Ezekiel 16, Jeremiah 2-3, Isaiah 54, and the entire book of Hosea, this metaphor of a physical marriage, including the sexual aspects of it, are used as a physical picture to help us understand what was happening spiritually between God and Israel. This is not just a passing metaphor, but one of the most common and significant metaphors used throughout the Scriptures.

The Bible itself points to the covenant ceremony in the Sinai desert as a form of a wedding. Then Jesus repeats this metaphor in parables about a wedding ceremony and virgins preparing for the Bridegroom. The metaphor is marriage, but it also undeniably includes sexuality.

I believe this is absolutely critical ground to defend because it helps us understand why sex, marriage, and gender have spiritual significance. Without this deeper grasp of what God was doing when He created sex and gender, the biblical ethic of sexuality seems archaic and arbitrary. However, if we understand that they were created to reveal the nature of God’s covenant love, we begin to see why there is such a spiritual battle around them. We also begin to see the heart of a God who created to reveal Himself through our lived experiences of sexual longing, sexual union, the interplay of male and female, and even through the tragedies of sexual betrayal and harm. Sexual and marital brokenness are so devastating because sexuality and covenant are so sacred.

There is understandably a reaction to the language Butler used from women who have experienced Christian teaching on sex, gender, and marriage as harmful, dismissive, and even abusive. We have learned a lot and must continue to wrestle with how to nuance these discussions in ways that highlight the value and importance of women. Much of our effort at Authentic Intimacy involves this objective. However, we must also be careful to not react so strongly to how this message has been harmful in the past that we eliminate the significance of what God has created and revealed through the Scripture.

The harm of traditional patriarchal teaching on sex and marriage is damaging, not because it differentiates between men and women, but because it has been taught in a way that is completely contrary to the revelation of Scripture. The picture of a husband being Jesus in Ephesians 5 is not one of a husband lording it over his wife and demanding his rights, but one of a servant who denied Himself so that His Bride might flourish.

I have seen Christian men both in the home and church use passages like Ephesians 5, I Corinthians 7, and similar passages to be insensitive bullies, flexing their power and silencing the voices of women. This is an affront not only to women but to Christ Himself. But I have also seen men take seriously the call to take on the humility of Christ, denying themselves for the sake of their bride. It is truly one of the most beautiful and redemptive illustrations of God’s love when this happens.

While the whole world seems to be running away from the argument that our sexuality has something to say about God’s love for us, I will continue to  lean into it. Let me assure you, I am not one to run into controversy. However, I have spent the past dozen years exclusively working in the trenches of Christian sexuality. While I have much to learn, I see the battle lines of truth and lies, humility and love. Much of it hinges upon a deeper understanding and a richer biblical narrative of why God created sexuality as part of our humanity.

Instead of reading a blog or book through the lens of seeking what is offensive, we must also read with the curiosity of what we can learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ. Let’s not be so quick to judge and criticize that we pass over the larger message of what is so desperately needed in this era of sexual consciousness. God’s written word speaks to us in this era of great confusion, but so do the echoes of His beauty in the creation of sexuality, male, and female.

Date: April 23, 2023