Last week people kept asking me if I was going to weigh-in on the drama du jour generated by a salacious post at The Gospel Coalition website. My response was that there was no way I would be taking this dog by the ears (Prov. 26:17). As far as I could tell, this was “strife” not belonging to me, and there was no sense in making it mine for no good reason. Nevertheless, over the weekend it became clear that the conversation had taken a turn in a way that implicates not just me but all complementarians. So here I am now.
The controversy concerns an essay that Joshua Butler wrote for TGC’s Keller Center last week. The essay is an excerpt from Butler’s forthcoming book Beautiful Union (Multnomah, 2023). Butler’s overall point is that the marriage relationship is an icon of the gospel. In other words, God has ordered the covenant of marriage such that the husband’s relationship to his wife images Christ’s relationship to the church. That much is boilerplate Christian typology that anyone who has ever read Ephesians 5 is well aware of:
Ephesians 5:23-32, “23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; 26 that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless… 31 For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. 32 This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.”
This typology is not a New Testament innovation but is the extension of similar typologies from the Old Testament in which God is portrayed as the husband to his people Israel (e.g., Isa. 54:5-7; Jer. 31:32; Hos. 2:19; Ezek. 16:8-14).
Had Butler’s article stopped there, it probably wouldn’t have spawned such a backlash. But it didn’t stop there. The article goes on to press the analogy in explicit, sexual terms. I’ll refrain from describing those terms here because I do believe that they are unseemly. Suffice it to say that it sexualizes Christ’s relationship to the church in a way that Scripture seems to carefully avoid. It presses biblical metaphors and types beyond anything reasonably warranted by the Bible’s own language. For me anyway, it made my skin crawl to see Christ depicted in this way. And just about everyone of nearly every theological persuasion seems to be in agreement on that much.
After a sonorous outcry, TGC pulled the article and replaced it with a link to the first two chapters of Butler’s book in hopes that greater context would lessen the offense. It didn’t work. I read the two chapters, and if anything they made matters worse. The outcry from critics then reached a fever pitch and pivoted from constructive to destructive. Many progressives and egalitarians in particular accused Butler and TGC of mainstreaming misogyny and abuse. They called not merely for a correction but for a cancellation. They wanted Butler’s head on a platter, and they got it.
TGC ultimately pulled down the two chapters and issued an apology and announced that Butler would no longer be a fellow in TGC’s new Keller Center. Effectively, they cancelled Butler. TGC’s apology was problematic. It was a-theological and gave no explanation as to what was wrong with Butler’s article or his forthcoming book. It merely apologized for failing readers and asked for patience as they learn how to do this better in the future.
The problem with this apology is that it scapegoats Butler while avoiding the substantive theological questions at issue. Are there problems with Butler’s essay? Almost everyone agrees that there are. He has pressed the metaphors too far and crossed a line both hermeneutically and theologically.
But the critiques from progressives haven’t merely been about that. Their most vociferous and vicious critiques have alleged things that Butler didn’t even say—as if he had advocated for the abuse and mistreatment of women (which he most certainly did not do). These critics also reveal an allergy to any suggestion of asymmetry in the relationship between husband and wife in marriage. On this latter point, it is no surprise that some of the loudest critics have been egalitarians making the case that complementarianism itself is somehow a seedbed for misogyny and abuse (which it most certainly is not).
The Bible does teach that marriage is an icon of Christ’s relationship to his bride the church. Marriage points to the asymmetrical reality of Christ’s sacrificial headship vis a vis his resplendent bride. The complementarity of head and helper in the covenant of marriage gloriously displays Christ’s love for his church (1 Cor. 11:9; Eph. 5:25). This is the mystery that was hidden in ages past but that has now been most conspicuously displayed in Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection (1 Cor. 2:7-8; Col. 1:26). None of this sits well with the egalitarian spirit of the age, but it is nonetheless the message of Scripture.
The egalitarian rejection of asymmetry necessarily backgrounds procreation and foregrounds pleasure and physical climax. Physical climax becomes the necessary focus of some egalitarian writings on sex because it’s something that, at least in principle, can be mutual. This is the entire point of books like The Great Sex Rescue. There is a place for writers to focus on such things, but when they focus on this to the exclusion of procreation, they depict sex as something that’s finally selfish and small, because it’s focused only on the couple, and not the bigger world that together they can create. Jonathan Leeman describes the biblical vision well in his book Rule of Love:
The biblical teaching on love also includes a bed. But it places that bed in a garden, where the couple’s union ultimately yields a flourishing world of rose bushes and apple orchards and a mess of children’s shoes by the front door and swing-sets and skyscrapers. Biblical love creates a far, far bigger universe. It’s not stagnant like a bed all by itself. It has forward motion and a story to follow. It generative. It’s fruitful…
A brand of love that shines the spotlight exclusively on the couple, divorced from all other relationships, perhaps intentionally childless, perverts biblical love into something barren and stagnant. It’s a universe that eventually collapses inward on itself. We might even say that Romanticism’s story of love can’t help but culminate in homosexuality, where a self seeks to complete and complement itself only in itself, its mirror image, two tabs colliding, two positively-charged ends of two magnets, incapable of uniting or creating anything [pp. 28-29].
TGC’s apology should have clarified these issues, confronted problems in Butler’s article, affirmed Scripture’s husband-wife typology, and rejected the accusations against complementarian theology. They failed to do that and instead left all of these questions open. As a result, egalitarians and progressives have learned a lesson. They have learned that they can manipulate TGC with unfounded mob accusations of misogyny and harm. This is not good for Butler. It’s not good for TGC. And it’s certainly not good for the truth.
I don’t know Joshua Butler, but I am praying for him. In spite of the disagreement I have with some of the material in his essay and book, he sounds like an earnest and compassionate Christian pastor. There is nothing that he wrote that justifies the harsh condemnations that folks have been calling down on him. Constructive correction rather than cancellation would have been a wiser course for everyone (Gal. 6:1).
I’m not calling for TGC to be cancelled. I have published items there myself in the past. I have dear friends that I love and respect at TGC, and I’m sure that some of them probably share my concerns. I’m cheering for their faithfulness. So no cancellation is required, but a correction would be most welcome.
Postscript: Kudos to Jen Pollock Michel for her courageous humility in all this.
Post-postscript: I reworded some of the 11th paragraph after some readers interpreted it as a knock on the mutual delights of the conjugal union. That’s not what I intended (see What Is the Meaning of Sex, pp. 37-39, 113-15). I have slightly reworded a couple sentences to clarify what I was aiming at all along—to characterize how some egalitarian writers seem to approach the subject in their writings.
Update 3/8/23: Over the last couple days, I have seen some rather perplexing responses to the essay above. I considered linking directly to those responses here, but many of them are so obscene and immodest that I cannot share them in good conscience. So I will sum up the gist of the criticism as politely as I know how and then offer a brief response of my own.
The gist of the criticism is this: “Denny, you have made conjugal relations in marriage into a one-sided affair that only serves the interests of men. Why are you consigning women to an unhappy conjugal life with their husbands?”
My response to this criticism is pretty simple. I never wrote any such thing, nor do I believe any such thing. Nor did I slyly intend to imply such a thing. I can only speculate as to why anyone would project that interpretation upon the words that I wrote.
I’m not playing hide-and-seek with my views here. I’ve been writing and publishing on gender and sexuality for nearly two decades. I’m on the record. In my 2013 book What Is the Meaning of Sex?, I made the case that the one-flesh union of marriage has four purposes: (1) the consummation of marriage, (2) the procreation of children, (3) the expression of love, and (4) pleasure. These purposes apply to both husband and wife, and they all serve the larger goal of bringing glory to God. So yes, pleasure is one of the purposes of conjugal union, God designed it to be this way for both husband and wife, and it is a powerful inducement to achieving the other purposes.
In that same book, I also offer commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:1-6, where Paul calls upon spouses to render to one another “what is owed” (v. 3). It is an error to use this text as a one-sided bludgeon to make demands upon one’s spouse, as if one spouse’s delight is to be foregrounded while the other spouse is relegated to disappointment. On the contrary, Paul commands complete mutuality in meeting the needs of one’s spouse. Paul’s point is not so that one spouse might demand of the other “you owe me” but so that each spouse might say to the other “I owe you.” God designed the one-flesh union not to be self-serving but to be an expression of tender love and care for one’s spouse.
I have taught this text countless times over the years, and I am careful to point out that what each spouse owes the other is not merely the one-flesh union but also everything that goes into making that union the loving, joyful, and delightful experience that God designed it to be for both partners. That means that spouses need to attend not merely to the physical but also to the emotional and spiritual. Or to put it another way, spouses must learn to love and care for one another outside of the bedroom before their conduct inside the bedroom can be what God designed it to be.
I do recognize that Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:1-6 call for mutuality and thereby lay responsibility on both spouses. Nevertheless, as a complementarian, I also believe that if something is wrong in a marriage, God lays special responsibility upon the husband to lead in getting to the bottom of that problem and resolving it. Whether the problem manifests in dissatisfaction on the husband’s part, the wife’s part, or both, a husband must care for his wife as he does his own body (Eph. 5:28). Her needs, her wants, her desires, and her dreams need to be his daily concern. He is not rendering “what is owed” if they are not. If she is unhappy in their conjugal life, then he needs to figure out why and put his whole heart into changing that.
None of what I have just written contradicts the concern I raised in my original post above. This is the part that seems to have drawn the most ire from critics:
The egalitarian rejection of asymmetry necessarily backgrounds procreation and foregrounds pleasure and physical climax. Physical climax becomes the necessary focus of some egalitarian writings on sex because it’s something that, at least in principle, can be mutual. This is the entire point of books like The Great Sex Rescue. There is a place for writers to focus on such things, but when they focus on this to the exclusion of procreation, they depict sex as something that’s finally selfish and small, because it’s focused only on the couple, and not the bigger world that together they can create.
My point here is not that pleasure is wrong or needs to be cast aside. My point is that God designed the conjugal life of a couple for more than pleasure. God has designed the marital union to be generative and ultimately to point to the way that Christ loves his own bride, the church (Eph. 5:31-32). When we sever the goods of marriage from one another, that ultimately leads away from flourishing and happiness. Why? Because this is our Father’s world, and it is what He designed it to be in spite of people’s attempts to remake it into an autonomous zone.
Whether or not readers agree with my observation about egalitarian writers, that is a point of legitimate debate. I mentioned The Great Sex Rescue because I happened to be in the midst of reading it when I wrote the essay and because it focuses on pleasure without (in my view) giving due attention to the other goods of marriage. I think it’s fair for people to rejoin that giving a comprehensive account of the meaning of sex isn’t the point of a book like The Great Sex Rescue. Fair enough. That’s why I conceded that “There is a place for writers to focus on such things…” I really do believe that there is, and truth be told there are a variety of practical recommendations in the book that are really helpful. If I have given the impression that no one should ever write a book that focuses on one aspect of the goods of marriage, then I have overstated my case, and please consider this my retraction.
Nevertheless, there are some other elements within the book that I did not mention that I find to be highly problematic. If I have time at some point, I may write a proper review because I think the issues are worth addressing. For now, I’ll simply point out that the book argues that an egalitarian view of gender roles is key to marital happiness and pleasure. I couldn’t disagree more with this contention. God’s design for marriage is complementarian, and the only way to realize truly the mutuality of 1 Corinthians 7 is within the Bible’s overall complementarian framework. But we can leave this debate for another time.
For now, my aim here is to set the record straight against those who have been distorting it online. Perhaps in the process we have gotten a clearer view of what the Bible actually says about these things. For at the end of the day, it’s not what I or my critics have to say that really matters. It’s what Scripture says. The best we can do is to try and be faithful to that message and, hopefully, to treat each other fairly in the process.
I am one of the preaching pastors at my church. Below is an excerpt from a message that I preached on 1 Corinthians 7:1-6 on February 11, 2018. The excerpt is my exposition of verse 3: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.”
Update 3/10/23: The lead author of The Great Sex Rescue, Sheila Gregoire, has written yet another piece online distorting my essay above. I can’t keep up with all of it, but I will try at least one more time to correct the record. Her piece opens with this sentence:
“Last week, Denny Burk accused us of being for women’s pleasure rather than procreation.”
I am again at a bit of a loss how to respond to this. Please read my essay above for yourself. Nowhere in the essay do I ever make any such claim. Nowhere. No place. No how. I never single out women for censure at all. Here are the words that I wrote:
“There is a place for writers to focus on such things, but when they focus on this to the exclusion of procreation, they depict sex as something that’s finally selfish and small, because it’s focused only on the couple, and not the bigger world that together they can create” [emphasis mine].
My article never singles out and chastises wives for wishing for a delightful conjugal union with their husbands. It’s literally nowhere in the article. Even so, I wrote over a thousand additional words to clarify that point. I teach that 1 Cor. 7 calls for mutual obligations for husbands and wives. Husbands and wives have a duty to make sure that they are unselfishly serving their spouses.
My article says some egalitarian writers “depict sex as something that’s finally selfish and small, because it’s focused only on the couple, and not the bigger world that together they can create.” I said nothing about it being selfish for focusing on the woman. Nothing. Zero. Nada. I made no such claim. I said “couple” on purpose because I believe this focus in egalitarian writings applies to both spouses. Even so, in my estimation, if anything, it’s men not women who are the worst offenders in emphasizing pleasure, and usually their own!
As I said before, if Gregoire wishes to contend with my claim that some egalitarian writers write this way, I think that’s fair game. But at the very least, she needs to represent the argument fairly. So far, she isn’t doing that.
Update 3/27/23: Preston Sprinkle hosted a fascinating panel discussion with Pastor Josh Butler, author of the forthcoming book titled Beautiful Union and of the excerpt that I commented on at the top of this post.
Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath of the controversy, Butler wasn’t given an opportunity (or perhaps didn’t take advantage of an opportunity?) to have a reasonable conversation about his views and his book. Preston has hosted the kind of conversation that would have been helpful when this whole thing originally blew up. I am sympathetic to how difficult it is to be in the eye of a Twitter storm, but I wish someone had seen clearly enough to host this conversation with Josh and critics weeks ago.
To be sure, I don’t agree with the views of everyone in this podcast. Indeed, I have some really significant and profound differences with some of the perspectives expressed in this conversation. Nevertheless, they at least have a substantive discussion about the issues, and I appreciated that much. I also appreciated hearing from Butler himself for the first time since this whole thing started in early March. You can watch the YouTube video or listen to the podcast version. I’m posting both below.