The, Um, Joy Of Evangelical Sex

The Protestants in my Twitter feed are going bonkers over a super controversial essay that a young pastor named Josh Butler wrote for The Gospel Coalition — actually, it was excerpted from his book. Here’s a summary of the controversy. It was taken off their website after a massive outcry, but here it in on the Wayback Machine. He compares sexual intercourse to Christ’s relationship to the Church. Excerpts:

Sex is an icon of Christ and the church. In Ephesians 5:31–32, a “hall of fame” marriage passage, the apostle Paul proclaims, “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (NIV; I’ve translated proskollao as “cleave”).

Now, the context here is marriage. “Leave and cleave” is marriage language and the surrounding verses are all about husbands and wives, not hook-up culture. Yet that second part, about the two becoming one flesh, is consummation language that refers to the union of husband and wife.

Paul says both are about Christ and the church.

This should be shocking! It’s not only the giving of your vows at the altar but what happens in the honeymoon suite afterward that speaks to the life you were made for with God. A husband and wife’s life of faithful love is designed to point to greater things, but so is their sexual union! This is a gospel bombshell: sex is an icon of salvation.

How? I’d suggest the language of generosity and hospitality can help us out.


The Hebrew language is onto something, however: there’s a distinction between the male and female roles in sexual union. Each brings something unique to the fusing of two bodies as one, and this distinction is iconic. On that honeymoon in Cabo, the groom goes into his bride. He is not only with his beloved but within his beloved. He enters the sanctuary of his spouse, where he pours out his deepest presence and bestows an offering, a gift, a sign of his pilgrimage, that has the potential to grow within her into new life.

This is a picture of the gospel. Christ arrives in salvation to be not only with his church but within his church. Christ gives himself to his beloved with extravagant generosity, showering his love upon us and imparting his very presence within us. 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.

Inversely, back in the wedding suite, the bride embraces her most intimate guest on the threshold of her dwelling place and welcomes him into the sanctuary of her very self. She gladly receives the warmth of his presence and accepts the sacrificial offering he bestows upon the altar within her Most Holy Place.

Similarly, the church embraces Christ in salvation, celebrating his arrival with joy and delight. She has prepared and made herself ready, anticipating his advent in eager anticipation. She welcomes him into the most vulnerable place of her being, lavishing herself upon him with extravagant hospitality. She receives his generous gift within her—the seed of his Word and presence of his Spirit—partnering with him to bring children of God into the world.

Their union brings forth new creation.

Boy oh boy, there were massive freakouts among Evangelicals over this. The Gospel Coalition took down the excerpt and the Keller Center, a new project of TGC, separated itself from poor Josh Butler, who resigned, and is watching everything in his career fall down around him. I’m seeing where some Evangelicals who defend him are being denounced and told to “read the room” — a craven, sniveling phrase meant to bully people into conformity.

Well, look, I guess there would have been no place at The Keller Center for St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407), an archbishop of Constantinople and one of the most important Fathers Of The Church. His sobriquet “Chrysostom” means “golden mouth”; he got it because he was such a famed preacher. In his 12th Homily On Colossians, St. John writes:

Is marriage a theater? It is a mystery and a type of a mighty thing; and even if you reverence not it, reverence that whose type it is. This mystery, says he, is great, but I speak in regard of Christ and of the ChurchEphesians 5:32 It is a type of the Church, and of Christ, and do you introduce harlots at it? If then, says one, neither virgins dance, nor the married, who is to dance? No one, for what need is there of dancing? In the Grecian mysteries there are dancings, but in ours, silence and decency, modesty, and bashfulness. A great mystery is being celebrated: forth with the harlots! Forth with the profane! How is it a mystery? They come together, and the two make one. Wherefore is it that at his entrance indeed, there was no dancing, no cymbals, but great silence, great stillness; but when they come together, making not a lifeless image, nor yet the image of anything upon earth, but of God Himself, and after his likeness, you introduce so great an uproar, and disturbest those that are there, and puttest the soul to shame, and confoundest it? They come, about to be made one body. See again a mystery of love! If the two become not one, so long as they continue two, they make not many, but when they have come into oneness, they then make many. What do we learn from this? That great is the power of union. The wise counsel of God at the beginning divided the one into two; and being desirous of showing that even after division it remains still one, He suffered not that the one should be of itself enough for procreation. For he is not one who is not yet [united, ] but the half of one; and it is evident from this, that he begets no offspring, as was the case also beforetime. Do you see the mystery of marriage? He made of one, one; and again, having made these two, one, He so makes one, so that now also man is produced of one. For man and wife are not two men, but one Man. And this may be confirmed from many sources; for instance, from James, from Mary the Mother of Christ, from the words, He made them male and female. Genesis 1:27 If he be the head, and she the body, how are they two? Therefore the one holds the rank of a disciple, the other of a teacher, the one of a ruler, the other of a subject. Moreover, from the very fashioning of her body, one may see that they are one, for she was made from his side, and they are, as it were, two halves.

For this cause He also calls her a help, to show that they are one Genesis 2:18; for this cause He honors their cohabitation beyond both father and mother, to show that they are one. Genesis 2:24 And in like manner a father rejoices both when son and daughter marry, as though the body were hastening to join a member of its own; and though so great a charge and expenditure of money is incurred still he cannot bear with indifference to see her unmarried. For as though her own flesh itself were severed from her, each one separately is imperfect for the procreation of children, each one is imperfect as regards the constitution of this present life. Wherefore also the Prophet says, the residue of your spirit. Malachi 2:15Septuagint And how become they one flesh? As if you should take away the purest part of gold, and mingle it with other gold; so in truth here also the woman as it were receiving the richest part fused by pleasure, nourishes it and cherishes it, and withal contributing her own share, restores it back a Man. And the child is a sort of bridge, so that the three become one flesh, the child connecting, on either side, each to other. For like as two cities, which a river divides throughout, become one, if a bridge connect them on both sides, so is it in this case; and yet more, when the very bridge in this case is formed of the substance of each. As the body and the head are one body; for they are divided by the neck; but not divided more than connected, for it, lying between them brings together each with the other. And it is the same as if a chorus that had been severed should, by taking one part of itself from this quarter, and the other again from the right, make one; or as these when come into close rank, and extending hands, become one; for the hands extended admit not of their being two. Therefore to wit He said with accuracy of expression, not they shall be one flesh but joined together into one flesh Genesis 2:2Septuagint, namely, that of the child. What then? When there is no child, will they not be two? Nay, for their coming together has this effect, it diffuses and commingles the bodies of both. And as one who has cast ointment into oil, has made the whole one; so in truth is it also here.

know that many are ashamed at what is said, and the cause of this is what I spoke of, your own lasciviousness, and unchasteness. The fact of marriages being thus performed, thus depraved, has gained the thing an ill name: for marriage is honorable, and the bed undefiled. Hebrews 13:4 Why are you ashamed of the honorable, why do you blush at the undefiled? This is for heretics, this is for such as introduce harlots there. For this cause I am desirous of having it thoroughly purified, so as to bring it back again to its proper nobleness, so as to stop the mouths of the heretics. The gift of God is insulted, the root of our generation; for about that root there is much dung and filth. This then let us cleanse away by our discourse. Endure then a little while, for he that holds filth must endure the stench. I wish to show you that you ought not to be ashamed at these things, but at those which you do; but thou, passing by all shame at those, art ashamed at these; surely then you condemn God who has thus decreed.

Shall I tell how marriage is also a mystery of the Church? As Christ came into the Church, and she was made of him, and he united with her in a spiritual intercourse, for, says one, I have espoused you to one husband, a pure virgin2 Corinthians 11:2 And that we are of Him, he says, of His members, and of His flesh. Thinking then on all these things, let us not cast shame upon so great a mystery. Marriage is a type of the presence of Christ, and are you drunken at it? Tell me; if you saw an image of the king, would you dishonor it? By no means.

More eloquent than Josh Butler, of course, but basically he’s making the same point, in contemporary language. This is what Catholics and Orthodox mean when we call godly marriage an “icon” of the Church — that is, of God’s relationship with the Church. In a spiritual sense — at St. John understood — Christ is the bridegroom who fertilizes the bride (the Church — that is, us), whose receptiveness to the bridegroom’s initiative generates new life — a life of faith. I guess it had not occurred to me that Evangelicals didn’t see it that way. This is a big reason why Catholics and Orthodox cannot accept same-sex marriage: because it violates the iconicity of marriage, which has been understood as a symbol of God’s creative, organic spiritual relationship with His people.

Do all Evangelicals see this as gross? As bad theology? It’s pretty basic for Orthodox and Catholics. In fact, if you read the introduction and the first chapter of Josh Butler’s book Beautiful Union, from which the controversial essay was excerpted, you’ll see that Butler is pushing back towards reclaiming a sacramental view of sexuality within marriage. Excerpts:

The icon is not intended to be a literal depiction of Jesus, like an Instagram selfie showing the Savior’s snazzy new haircut to the masses or a photo ID to give the TSA security agent. Rather, it’s a window into a greater reality. It is a picture of something larger. Jesus holds love and justice perfectly together. Mercy and righteousness are inseparably intertwined in his identity, bound together in union through the excellency of his character and the perfection of his person. In other words, don’t look at the icon as a photographic replica but through it as a window into the nature of the One it points to.


And what, at the end of our exploring, shall we discover? That God is love. The love of God is the endgame of this book, for it is what the icon points to. God designed sex to reveal his love for us in technicolor.

So, let’s pull back the veil on the icon. Like gazing through Christ Pantocrator, our ultimate goal is a fresh vision of Jesus. For in the radiant light of Christ, sex becomes a window into something greater, a catalyst that can lift our gaze to the heart of the gospel and the hope of the world, like a springboard we can
launch from to take flight into the heavens and ascend into the mysteries of God . . .

I want to quote a long passage from my 2017 book The Benedict Option, from the chapter about Sex.

I once heard an Evangelical woman, in a group conversation about sexuality, blurt out, “Why do we have to get stuck on sex? Why can’t we just get back to talking about the Gospel?” 

Christianity is not a disembodied faith, but an incarnational one. God came to us in the form of a man, Jesus Christ, and redeems us body and soul. The way we treat our bodies (and indeed all of Creation) says something about the way we regard the One who gave it to us, and whose presence fills all things. 

As the Benedictines teach, one of our tasks in life is to be a means by which God orders Creation, bringing it into harmony with His purposes. Sexuality is an inextricable part of that work. 

Wendell Berry has written, “sexual love is the heart of community life. Sexual love is the force that in our bodily life connects us most intimately to the Creation, to the fertility of the world, to farming and the care of animals. It brings us into the dance that holds the community together and joins it to its place.” 

This is more important to the survival of Christianity than most of us understand. When people decide that historically normative Christianity is wrong about sex, they typically don’t find a church that endorses their liberal views. They quit going to church altogether. 

This raises a critically important question: is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force? 126 THE BENEDICT OPTION 

Though he might not have put it quite that way, the eminent sociologist Philip Rieff would probably have said yes. Rieff’s landmark 1966 book The Triumph of the Therapeutic analyzes what he calls the “deconversion” of the West from Christianity. Nearly everyone recognizes that this process has been underway since the Enlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage than most people—least of all Christians—recognized. 

Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the Sexual Revolution—though he did not use that term—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s demise. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture and redirecting the erotic instinct was intrinsic to Christian culture. Without Christianity, the West was reverting to its former state. 

It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun. 

In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love. 

Christian marriage, Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.” Chastity—the rightly ordered use of the gift of sexuality—was the greatest distinction setting Christians of the early church apart from the pagan world. 

The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what a person does with their sexuality cannot be separated from what a person is. In a sense, moderns believe the same thing, but from a perspective entirely different from the early Church’s. 

In speaking of how men and women of the early Christian era saw their bodies, historian Peter Brown says the body 

was embedded in a cosmic matrix in ways that made its perception of itself profoundly unlike our own. Ultimately, sex was not the expression of inner needs, lodge in the isolated body. Instead, it was seen as the pulsing, through the body, of the same energies as kept the stars alive. Whether this pulse of energy came from benevolent gods of from malevolent demons (as many radical Christians believed) sex could never be seen as a thing for the isolated human body alone.

Early Christianity’s sexual teaching not only comes from the words of Christ and the Apostle Paul, but more broadly, it emerges from the Bible’s anthropology. The human being bears the image of God, however tarnished by sin, and is the pinnacle of an order created and imbued with meaning by God. 

In that order, man has a purpose. He is meant for something, to achieve certain ends. When Paul warned the Christians of Corinth that having sex with a prostitute meant that they were joining Jesus Christ to that prostitute, he was not speaking metaphorically. Because we belong to Christ as a unity of body, mind, and soul, how we use the body and the mind sexually is a very big deal. 

Anything we do that falls short of perfect harmony with the will of God is sin. Sin is not merely rule-breaking, but failing to live in accord with the structure of reality itself

The Christian who lives in reality will not join his body to another’s outside of the order God gives us. That means no sex outside of the covenant through which a man and a woman seal their love exclusively through Christ. In orthodox Christian teaching, the two really do become “one flesh” in a way that transcends the symbolic. 

If sex is made holy through the marriage covenant, then sex within marriage an icon of Christ’s relationship with His people, the church. It reveals the miraculous, life-giving power of spiritual communion, which occurs when a man and a woman—and only a man and a woman—give themselves to each other. That marriage could be unsexed is a total novelty in the Christian theological tradition. 

“The significance of sexual difference has never before been contingent upon a creature’s preferences, or upon whether or not God gave it episodically to a particular creature to have certain preferences,” writes the Catholic theologian Christopher Roberts. He goes on to say that for Christians, the meaning of sexuality has always depended on its relationship to the created order and to eschatology—the ultimate end of man. 

“As was particularly clear, perhaps for the first time in Luther, the fact of a sexually differentiated creation is reckoned to human beings as a piece of information from God about who and what it meant to be human,” writes Roberts. 

Contrary to modern gender theory, the question is not Are we men or women? but How are we to be male and female together? The legitimacy of our sexual desire is limited by the givenness of nature. The facts of our biology are not incidental to our personhood. Marriage has to be sexually complementary because only the male-female pair mirrors the generativity of the divine order. “Male and female he made them,” says Genesis, revealing that complementarity is written into the nature of reality. 

As y’all know, I don’t have a lot of knowledge about Evangelical theology. With respect, I welcome correction if I misunderstand anything (email me at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com). But I’m wondering in light of the Josh Butler controversy if that Evangelical woman I quoted at the beginning of the passage was disclosing something that not just she believed about sex, but that is common to Evangelical theology. I mean, look at these tweets condemning the book:

With regard to Joshua Butler’s book Beautiful Union, to equate sex with Salvation is very disturbing. I hope @TGC pulls this book. So much of it is harmful.

— Michele Pedersen (@MichelePeders14) March 4, 2023

“Very disturbing”. “Harmful”. Good grief. This is theologically illiterate. More:

This week the Gospel coalition published an article saying a woman’s holiest place is her vagina and that a man ejaculating is the greatest sacrifice he can make.

— Lindsey (@lmnopandas) March 3, 2023

This is tendentious, unjust, and once again, theologically illiterate. Do we have to bowdlerize the Bible now, and patristic writing, to suit the sensitivities of 21st century Americans?

Here’s a link to a report on the controversy that won’t even use the word “sex” (the author writes “s*xual”). Screenshots from it:

Gosh. More:

Hmm. Ever read Bonhoeffer’s Child? The person is a crackpot. More:

“Penis-dependent salvific thought.” That pretty much sums up how seriously we should take that person.

From what I can tell from reading the Twitter complaints about Butler’s piece, it offended people who think sex is icky and shouldn’t be brought too close to Jesus because reasons, and offended some feminists. I sense here deep suspicion of the Body. Because I don’t spend any time in that space, I’m really struggling to understand how they can all be so quick to react so harshly to an interpretation of marital love — yes, including sex — that has a very, very long tradition in Christian thought and writing. Here is a modern, simple explanation of the connection between sex, marriage, and God in the Orthodox Church. Excerpts:

Sex results in the spiritual union of husband and wife. The two mystically become one flesh and achieve a level of intimacy and love perhaps only rivaled by that between a mother and her child. This unique “oneness of soul and body” mirrors the relationship between Christ and His Church and brings incredible happiness and growth to the couple that follows Christ.



We read in 1 John 4:7-8 that love comes from God, that “God is love”. It follows then, that human sexuality, as part of God’s creation, is based on this divine love. By this we don’t mean some sort of fleeting attraction. The divine love of God is agape love, spiritual love that is unconditional, selfless, genuine, and cheerful, with no expectation of receiving anything in return. This kind of love surpasses all codes of ethics and the scope of human feeling; it is the love we see between the Persons of the Holy Trinity, and the love God has for His creation. Because God is the source of all things, our exercise of this love must be done in accordance to God’s will and commandments.

How do we know God’s will when it comes to human sexuality? We look to the creation of Adam and Eve. God created man with two modes of being: male and female (Genesis 1:27) and created them to be in communion with one another, just as the Persons of the Holy Trinity are in communion. God appropriates male and female as perfect companions for one another in marriage (Genesis 2:24), and as Christians we must exercise our love and sexuality within these parameters. Therefore, things like adultery, homosexualitytransgenderism, bestiality, pornography, and fornication are unacceptable for Orthodox Christians.

God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to us, to restore the communion with God that we lost after death entered the world through sin. Christ’s death on the cross was entirely voluntary; He never sinned and thus was never under the same penalty of death as the rest of us. He chose to die for us, because He loved us. Sexual love must mirror the love of God; it should be giving, unique, and selfless, not casual, crude, and self-centered. The only way for sexual union to mirror God’s love, is for it to be blessed and sanctified in marriage.

Sexual union within a blessed, licit marriage, mirror’s God’s love — within the Holy Trinity, between Christ and the Church, and between God and His creation.

Don’t Evangelical Christians believe this? I thought they did. Am I wrong? Or should Josh Butler, who has been so badly and unfairly maligned in this matter, become Orthodox?

Stiven Peter over at American Reformer takes the correct position in this matter. He finds Butler’s language to be “awkward” at times, but says that his position is thoroughly Biblical. Moreover, Peter calls out pastor Rich Villodas for this craven retraction:

My statement and retraction of my endorsement for Joshua Butler’s forthcoming book.

— Rich Villodas (@richvillodas) March 3, 2023

As Peter writes:

What makes Villodas’ retraction instructive for demonstrating the dynamics of the negative world is that Villodas and Butler share virtually identical positions on sex. Villodas has also written a book on cultural apologetics (The Deeply Formed Life), in which he has a chapter on sex. There he describes sex, among other things, as a sacrament: “lovemaking in and outside the bedroom is a revelation. What does it reveal? Well, without overstating it, it reveals God. It is sacramental. Our lovemaking is to manifest our union with each other and, in so doing, manifest God’s union with the world.” (DFL, p.168). In fact, the sexual act for Villodas is not just any type of sacrament, it is eucharistic! Here I quote him at length: 

As we love each other, naked and unashamed, we enact the vulnerable, free, faithful, and fruitful qualities of love demonstrated in Jesus. He would lay down his life for us, give his body for us, pronounce forgiveness and grace, and renew us through this self-giving love. This too is what deeply formed sex is. (DFL p. 168)

Though Villodas is not as graphic as Butler, the same concepts are present and working. Butler uses icon, and Villodas uses sacrament. Both want to capture that sex reveals something about the Divine. Jesus initiates by giving his body to the Church in self-giving love. Per Ephesians 5, the man is the head of the marriage who gives himself to his wife and this love is self-giving and generative. To be clear, Butler and Villodas believe the same things about how the sexual act reveals God and mirrors the pattern of initiation and reception between Christ and the Church.

Villodas is a hypocrite who was frightened by the mob, so he threw Josh Butler to the braying hyenas to get them off his trail. Read these words of Stiven Peter:

Likewise, the Keller Center faces the same impasse. If they have Butler resign from the Keller Center, they too would be making a similar move of distancing themselves from someone who believes in the same exact theology that they do, so that they can preserve their own status and credibility. The point of the negative world thesis is precisely to make this point: the culture is not just indifferent to Christianity, but is actively hostile to historic Christian belief. Christian organizations must stand firm so as to be resilient when fellow Christians are singled out and scapegoated. In fact, they need to be focused on building resilience. Resilience requires prudence as well as loyalty and, as Colin Redemer has written in these pages, courage. We need the will to stand by a brother when the world comes for him. It is not just that your friend’s life and livelihood is at risk. Rather, the truth of the gospel is at risk too. On that truth, we must never compromise. And compromise is precisely the point of this exercise. 

Since this was printed, Butler resigned, though it’s not clear whether he was asked to. In an apologetic statement, Julius Kim, president of The Gospel Coalition (parent organization of The Keller Center), wrote:

Again, thank you for your patience with us. At TGC, we want to provide a venue for healthy dialogue and robust debate on important matters that affect us all. We want to model grace-filled conversations, and we want to learn from one another. In this case, we failed you and hurt many friends. Thank you in advance for your continued prayers.

Well, that’s it for the Keller Center. Maybe it had to take down Butler’s piece and apologize in order to keep its funders, but boy, what a terrible sign for them. Who can take them seriously now? How on earth is it going to reach this post-Christian world if Kellerist Christians are not allowed to speak analogically about sex in ways that are Biblically sound, and that have a deep history in Christian thought and theology, because it offends certain people? TGC backed down. The censors won. Why couldn’t TGC have published critical responses? Why did they have to take down his essay, and participate in the cancellation (by loonies who decry “penis-dependent salvific thought”) of a pastor who clearly meant no ill? Take a look at this podcast video he did a year ago about the same sex-as-icon theme, and try to say with a straight face that this pastor is a bad man who means women harm.

I don’t know Josh Butler (here’s a link to his website if you want to know more about him), and I’m quite sure we have a lot of meaningful theological differences between us. I would have handled the material a bit differently in terms of style, but he and I agree on the symbolism, which is what his critics object to. His only sin, if sin it be, is slightly inartful prose. So count me as standing by him. And I gotta say to Evangelicals who are scandalized by what Josh Butler writes about God, sex, and the body: it gets pretty spicy over here with us Orthodox and the Catholics, so put on your theological prophylactics when you come slumming with us.

(Readers, welcome to the last week of this blog on TAC. I invite you to follow me to Rod Dreher’s Diary, my subscriber-only Substack, where you’ll get at least five, and sometimes up to seven, e-mails per week from me, with the same kind of analysis and commentary you found here, but also more in-depth, non-culture-warring religious reflections. Plus, you get a terrific comments section for subscribers only. All for only five dollars per month, or fifty dollars per year. Subscribe! We might even talk about sex and God, after the horses have been put into the barn so they don’t get frightened.)

The post The, Um, Joy Of Evangelical Sex appeared first on The American Conservative.

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