During my Internet meanderings today I overheard someone talking about a recent article published by The Gospel Coalition. The referenced article was Sex Won’t Save You (But It Points to the One Who Will) by Josh Butler. I searched for the article, found it, and read it. In search of a few more comments I ended up on the Twitter page of Brett McCracken’s, who is senior editor of The Gospel Coalition. He had retweeted the article, describing Josh Butler as one of today’s best Christian thinkers on the theology of sex and gender.
The article is an excerpt from an upcoming book called Beautiful Union. Brett McCracken describes the book as “the Protestant magnum opus on sexual ethics we’ve been waiting for.” The majority of the commenters did not share his high praise. As to be expected on the internet, there was outrage and mockery. And perhaps a share of fair criticism. I don’t really know what I think about it myself, so I thought I’d take some time to try and figure it out. I’m going to go through the article paragraph by paragraph, with the original paragraphs bolded in order to set them apart. This isn’t meant to be an official review or commentary.
I used to look to sex for salvation. I wanted it to liberate me from loneliness; I wanted to find freedom in the arms of another. But the search failed. My college sweetheart dumped me. I found a rebound to feel better about myself—and hurt her in the process. I then fell head over heels for the “girl of my dreams” (at the time) and spent the next five years pining after this friend who didn’t feel the same.
I wanted to feel wanted, yet I wound up alone.
I think a lot of people can relate to this. Being that this is an excerpt from a book and not a solitary article, I don’t know what comes before this part. Is he talking about sex or is talking about relationships? He says he used to look to sex for salvation, and then goes on to describe former relationships in his life. He speaks of desiring freedom from loneliness. He admits to wanting to feel wanted. He says he ended up alone, which I take to mean that the relationships he describes did not produce for him the freedom he desired or salvation he was looking for.
Our culture looks to sex for salvation too. We want romance to free us from solitary confinement, to deliver us into a welcome embrace. But idolizing sex results in slavery. You can chart up your long list of ex-lovers and join Taylor Swift in telling the newest applicant, “I’ve got a blank space, baby, and I’ll write your name.” You can end up in the Egypt of a new romantic wasteland, more cynical and isolated than when you first began. Yet I’ve discovered a crucial corrective in the gospel that can lead us out into true freedom.
Sex wasn’t designed to be your salvation but to point you to the One who is.
He mentions looking to sex for salvation again. Then he speaks about romance. Then he goes back to talking about sex and how its idolization results in slavery. It does not appear that his references to sex here are mentioning anything related to the experience of physical pleasure. He uses the word “embrace” which implies the loving acceptance of another human being. He continues talking about sex in the context of past relationships, or potential but ultimately failing new ones. It isn’t entirely clear to me if he realizes he’s doing this, or in what way he sees the two (sex/relationships) as related or interchangeable. Ultimately, he sees “sex” as pointing to a greater divine being with the power to save.
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”).
I’m not sure if “Sex is an icon of Christ and the church” is accurate, or if this is the best passage to use to make his point, which at the very least, I think, is to say that sex (in marriage?) has a deep and profound spiritual meaning. Without further clarification, this seems to reduce marriage to sex, when it is profoundly so much more than that.
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.
He is zeroing in on the “one-flesh” language. He uses this to confirm that to speak of being one-flesh is to also speak in some way of 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.
This seems to be a very important point and discovery for him. I like this part–“that speaks to the life you were made for with God.” It seems to me that he speaks of the husband and wife’s life of faithful love and their sexual union as two different things, instead of the sexual union being part of a husband and wife’s life of faithful love. Here sex is set apart from the relationship, or at least emphasized as something special within it. The language is slightly different here. Before he said sex is an icon of Christ and the church, and now he’s saying sex is an icon of salvation. Does he mean the same thing or different things by this? I’m not trying to be picky, I’m just trying to wrap my head around what he’s trying to say.
How? I’d suggest the language of generosity and hospitality can help us out.
Generosity and hospitality are both embodied in the sexual act. Think about it. Generosity involves giving extravagantly to someone. You give the best you’ve got to give, lavishly pouring out your time, energy, or money. At a deeper level, generosity is giving not just your resources but your very self. And what deeper form of self-giving is there than sexual union where the husband pours out his very presence not only upon but within his wife?
I feel like things are starting to become more muddled. I like the generosity description. But then he equates the deepest form of self-giving as the sexual union, describing the husband’s role in this. In Ephesians 5, the giving mentioned in reference to Christ and the church is the fact that he gave up his very life for her. The life of Christ was given for us, poured out for us in a life of love as he walked the earth, and in the life he willingly surrendered when he died on the cross. His offering and gift was one of heart, body, and soul. Our salvation came in his shedding of blood.
Hospitality, on the other hand, involves receiving the life of the other. You prepare a space for the guest to enter your home, welcoming him warmly into your circle of intimacy, to share your dwelling place with you. Here again, what deeper form of hospitality is there than sexual union where the wife welcomes her husband into the sanctuary of her very self?
I have no hostility towards this man’s thoughts. I’m simply sharing what comes to mind. When a woman has sexual intercourse with a man, it is true that she is engaging in something very intimate and personal. There are no other physical instances that I can think of where you are that close to another human being in terms of nakedness of body. Their bodies do become one flesh through their joining and merging. Something very different, but similar, happens to a woman in pregnancy. While speaking in terms of hospitality, you could say that sex for a wife is surely in some way a taking in of her husband, women also experience this in pregnancy. In pregnancy a whole being grows inside her, receiving life and nourishment from the body that holds it.
Giving and receiving are at the heart of sex.
I want to say giving and receiving are at the heart of love, and sex in marriage is a part of that.
Obviously, a man and woman both give to each other and receive from each other in the sexual act. Sex is mutual self-giving. Yet, on closer inspection, there’s a distinction between the male and female sides of the equation.
The mutuality is what creates the union, yet in complementarian thought, the higher emphasis is placed on the distinction, insisting on keeping separate what is supposed to come together. I think the focus ought to be brought to where the two things happening in each of the partners becomes irrelevant as something new, an entirely different experience, is created for both of them.
The Bible makes this distinction explicit. The most frequent Hebrew phrase for sex is, literally, “he went into her” (wayyabo eleha). Translations often soften this for modern ears, saying he “made love to her” or they “slept together.” But the Bible is less prudish than we are, using more graphic language to describe what happens in the honeymoon tent.
I’ve never heard that this is the most frequent Hebrew phrase for sex, but I’ve not really paid much attention or given much thought to it.
One Sunday morning, I learned how graphic this language can be. My friend Karen was publicly reading Scripture for our church service, and we’d recently switched to a more literal Bible translation. We were in Genesis 29, where Jacob marries Leah and Rachel, and the phrase wayyabo eleha shows up (we discovered) a lot! Karen has, you might say, a “Rated-G” personality: very prim, proper, and polite. We all saw her cheeks turn bright red, with a lot of awkward pauses, as she had to continually read the phrase “and Jacob went into her” over and over again. After that Sunday, we went back to a less wooden translation and laughed a lot with poor Karen.
I’m back in junior high wondering if he meant to use the word wooden there. If he didn’t it’s kind of funny that he did. I also feel like the name “Karen” just sticks out negatively now no matter who it is.
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.
I’m squirming because I really want this article to work for him. We’re getting to the parts where people started having problems, describing it as soft-core porn, an immature, male-centered view of sex, logically and theologically problematic, etc.
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.
The Bible says our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. In the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we take in Christ’s body and blood into our bodies. When we hear the Word of God preached and taught, we take in the Holy Word of God through our ears, which by the work of the Holy Spirit makes its way to our hearts. There the Word of God takes root and grows into faith in Christ.
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.
The most holy place is the heart God gave us, that he creates anew within us by the mighty power of his Spirit. From this heart flow springs of life.
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.
I could write more, but it is now getting late. Lord, bless this man and the work he set out to do.