An evangelical Christian pastor and author whose book on the theology of sex caused a furor online earlier this spring resigned Wednesday from the leadership of his Arizona megachurch.
“We have found ourselves in an impossible situation,” Joshua Butler wrote to members of Redemption Church in Tempe in announcing his resignation. A copy of the letter was posted on social media. His photo and bio no longer appear on the church’s website.
Butler’s new book, “Beautiful Union,” which argues that “God’s vision for sex” explains the meaning of life, was controversial even before it was released in April.
In March, an excerpt of the book appeared on the website of the influential church resource organization The Gospel Coalition. In the excerpt, titled “Sex Won’t Save You (But It Points to the One Who Will),” Butler offered repeated descriptions of sexual intercourse in spiritual terms, most of them characterizing sex as a man bestowing a holy gift to a woman and comparing that to the relationship of Jesus and the church.
“She gladly receives the warmth of his presence and accepts the sacrificial offering he bestows upon the altar within her Most Holy Place,” wrote Butler. “Similarly, the church embraces Christ in salvation, celebrating his arrival with joy and delight.”
Give a gift of $30 or more to The Roys Report this month, and you will receive a copy of “Wounded Workers: Recovering from Heartache in the Workplace and the Church” by Kirk Farnsworth. To donate, click here.
The excerpt led to public outcry, claiming Butler’s writing contained not only bad theology but an oversexed view of religion centered on male pleasure.
While the excerpt did quote from the New Testament’s Letter of Paul to the Ephesians, theology professor Beth Felker Jones, among others, argued Butler had missed the point of the passages he addressed.
“But the piece does not dig into Ephesians, paying close attention to the text,” wrote Jones. “Instead, it turns into a rhapsody over a very male-centered experience of sexual intercourse.”
The Gospel Coalition removed the article days after it was posted, replacing it with an apology and a note that Butler had resigned as a fellow with the Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, a project of The Gospel Coalition, named for popular author and retired pastor Tim Keller. Butler’s ties to the center amplified the controversy over the book.
In his church resignation letter, Butler said “the toll of this controversy on many of our staff and leaders this month has been intense.” Butler and other elders at the church decided it would be best for him to step down, according to the letter.
Resigning, he said, would allow him to take part in “public conversations” about his book without harming the church.
Those public conversations have taken place even as Butler contemplated his resignation. He continued to promote the book on his personal website, publishing another article related to the book, titled “The Ethics of Contraception,” that also created controversy.
“A condom dams up the ‘river of life,’ preventing its life-giving waters from reaching the opposite shore,” Butler wrote. “With a diaphragm, a barrier is placed at the most intimate point of contact, preventing a full reception of the gift within the generative holy space of the womb.”
Butler also said he would be revising a future printing of the book in light of feedback he has received and he would be available to speak with church members who felt angered or hurt because of the controversy.
Bob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.
22 thoughts on “Josh Butler Resigns from Arizona Church, Following Furor Over Book”
“A condom dams up the ‘river of life,’ preventing its life-giving waters from reaching the opposite shore,” can we say “ick”.
I read the first chapter of this book when TGC had it posted on their website. If chapter one is any indication of the remainder of the book, it is appalling that it made it through the editing and publishing process. The eight individuals listed as credentialed professionals endorsing this work (as listed on Amazon) should be ashamed of themselves. This work is an absolute slap in the face to any woman who has ever been sexually assaulted or in a sexually coercive relationship.
I can definitely say “Ick!”. My main observation though is that so many of these quotes read like the sort of things one might write in parody of the Evangelical obsession with sex.
“A condom dams up the ‘river of life,’ preventing its life-giving waters from reaching the opposite shore,”
That could be comic gold. Imagine it coming in the Monty Python “Holy Hand Grenade” speech voice. Instead the writer who becomes a joke saying such things seriously and without any trace of irony. Just one more icky example of the demented relationship so many church leaders have with the topic of sex.
I shudder to think of what flowery condemning spiritual insights Josh Butler might share regarding vasectomies.
Does this [person] have a Theology degree of any value?
Theology degrees don’t count for much in mass market Christianity which turns worship into a show, pastors into actors and celebrities, and marriage into something far less mutual than God intends. It’s a sad day.
The demands of “mass market Christianity” have led to the creation of many books not written by the name on the front cover. There are websites that announce the availability of Christian ghostwriters. What a concept, eh? Has The Roys Report looked at the scandal of Christian celebrities paying others to write books for them?
Remember when Mel White announced his contributions to the literary pretensions of various Evangelicals that didn’t have the talent or time to actually write a book but did have the desire for money coming from said book, as well as the encouragement of publishers? Many Christians were ashamed . . . but that was mostly because White shared with the world that he had abandoned his wife for another man. Maybe there’s an unnamed co-conspirator involved. If that is the case, why should Butler get all the credit?
is there any indication that Butler used a ghostwriter? or is this just speculation?
This is a great example of why Christian publishers need to have reviewers and editors who are enabled and willing to go toe with authors to help them with their exegesis, theology, and the like. There are legitimate points for differences, theologically speaking, but inserting sex as a picture into Ephesians 5 & 6 really does violence to the text. For that matter, the church age is not the marriage of the church to Christ, but the betrothal, and hence there is a certain degree to which sex is absolutely not parallel to the ministry of the Gospel because Biblically, sex is supposed to come after marriage–i.e. after the rapture of the Church and all that.
And speaking as an married man, it saddens me that my fellow married men who were familiar with the hypothesis didn’t speak up more. I’m glad for the women who administered a well-deserved beatdown of the hypothesis, but they should have been joined more by male theologians.
“…that my fellow married men who were familiar with the hypothesis didn’t speak up more”
seems to me the church leadership industry has succeeded in repressing people for the sake of the industry (from which many profit and are economically dependent – ie, for seminaries to be viable, there must be careers for their graduates to go into).
TGC & pastors themselves disseminate the message of obedience, not rocking the boat, unity (at all costs), silencing one’s common sense and gut instinct as “sinful” / carnal. Less and less resistance means more and more control & power, easily wielded.
it is a travesty.
christians have allowed themselves to be groomed into passive compliant happy-go-lucky minions.
who’s only outlet is getting their righteous anger all worked up on social media against people whom their influencers tell them are their enemies.
they merely parrot really stupid talking points they hear from their influencers, without any real understanding of what they are all upset about or the grounding as to why.
these christian men you refer to did not speak up against a prominent pastor & his grossly problematic theology because they’ve been trained not to.
this assumes that his publishers and editors (and TGC) are in disagreement with what he wrote. They most likely were not- they most likely thought it fit within their theology and ideas of how men and women relate. After all, none of them had any problems with it until people outside of their sheltered circles rightfully noted that it’s a gross and unbiblical take.
I appreciate Preston Sprinkle’s Conversation with Josh, a Sex Abuse Survivor, and a Female Theologian, regarding this online fire storm. Instead of talking past, canceling, or piling on, he talked to him. https://www.dennyburk.com/josh-butler-tells-his-side-of-the-story/
Joel. Good that you posted this. I’ve set the linked item aside, and will watch and listen later this evening. I’ve always felt it important to engage with anyone that the majority of a collective turns against so vehemently.
“I appreciate Preston Sprinkle’s Conversation with Josh, a Sex Abuse Survivor, and a Female Theologian, regarding this online fire storm. Instead of talking past, canceling, or piling on, he talked to him.”https://www.dennyburk.com/josh-butler-tells-his-side-of-the-story/
Joel thank you for posting this conversation. Everyone commenting on this thread or anywhere else should take a moment (or an hour and a half) to listen to this thoughtful dialogue. I came away with a totally different mindset than the one I started with, where I was ready to join the outrage.
There is still enough outrage reserved for TGC and what was underlying their decision to post that excerpt out of the entirety of a book.
But I have a bit of compassion for Josh Butler and what he’s experiencing right now
I would echo Tricia in recommending this podcast. Four people expressed their thinking about JB’s book and the furore around the excerpt. So, JB himself, him mostly speaking to his own thinking about the body and sexuality in Biblical context. An academic professorial lady whose field was Middle eastern history and culture; in theological and exegetical context. A younger lady (with a doctorate) whose expertise lay in abuse and abuse survival, and whose primary concern is with the quality of argument and discussion and debate between people. Then the male podcast host, whose primary contribution was in reminding all of the ways in which JB’s work has offended.
JB is clearly disciplined and sincere and intelligent. Equally clearly he is speaking into a topic which cannot but other than become a firestorm, however it is addressed. I was most moved by the younger lady, who testified that she began reading the book in anger, and anticipated that anger increasing. Instead as she read the book, she experienced herself as being “seen”; where I can imagine no better affirming of the probity of JB’s work and intention. For myself, my take way was, that the thesis offered by JB, is useful to individuals, in individual exploration of the Bible and its existential offering; where that is top-order affirming from me. So, bottom line, the address of the book is useful and valid. That it offended, and how and why it offended, needs nevertheless to be addressed with energy.
I listened to Preston Sprinkle’s March 27 Theology in the Raw podcast and I agree that it was a thoughtful, respectful conversation. It did cause me to be interested in giving Butler’s book a serious look rather than my previous stance of dismissing it.
A couple things I noted: 1) They did repeatedly mention that it was poor judgement on behalf of Butler and TGC to publish the excerpt and subsequent introduction and first chapter without the context of the remaining chapters. 2) Sprinkle mentioned that the modern evangelical church has a bad tendency to lash out at differences of viewpoint rather than engaging in thoughtful conversation with those of opposing views. This tendency ultimately harms the message and mission of the church.
I wonder why Mr. Butler couldn’t just be the pastor of his church, instead of feeling that he needed to be a headline-making, provocative “theologian.” It would have saved him, his family, and his congregation some grief.
Or if we reviewed his sermons, would we find the same kind of exegesis? I’m guessing that we’d find more of the same.
That’s a good point. I suppose part of his church audience found it inspiring.
Naturally, I assume that those pastors who endorsed the book will be resigning from their pastorates as well.
Joshua Butler “said “the toll of this controversy on many of our staff and leaders this month has been intense.”
Joshua Butler “would be available to speak with church members who felt angered or hurt because of the controversy.”
he is blaming everyone on “the controversy”, which means he is blaming “the mob”.
He takes zero responsibility for his extremely purposeful and deliberate actions.
Joshua Butler, church members are angry and hurt because of what you wrote and what you are broadcasting, from which you financially benefit. At their expense, and the expense of so many others.
A beautiful example of an altered state of perversion. This behavior is extraordinary in all who gleefully attend this place of worship. What is it they worship? Well, birds of a feather flock together as the saying goes. Spectacular! Keep them all under one roof.
We live in a complex cultural and social psychological moment. Societal changes have multiplied the points of view and frames of reference which are being given public expression. One consequence of this, is, polarisation. Individuals and groupings holding to a particular point of view and frame of reference, powerfully defending both of those things because they mediate identity, and concomitantly condemning and seeking to annihilate points of view and frames of reference which threaten their own. The intensity of the forces involved, come from identity; as where identity is so threatened, the threat is existential.
One reading of the Josh Butler furore, is: that whatever the demerits and merits and validity and invalidity of what he has had to say; he has attempted to think and express in an area of belief and identity, where the forces of polarisation are greatest. Just as working in an irradiated space has pretty certain outcomes attached, it was inevitable that his thesis would end eviscerated.
However, it is arguable that, whatever else it is, the OT offers up a fertility religion that played crucial part in mediating the Jewish people and their survival. Sexuality, on that reading, is then central to that mediating and sustaining, albeit that sexuality is framed by the OT in ways which differ from the treatment of sexuality by JB. In his defence it might be argued that he sought to review this beyond the veil that OT script has clothed sexuality in; where much more could be said in such defence.
The Roys Report seeks to foster thoughtful and respectful dialogue. Toward that end, the site requires that people use their full name when commenting. Also, any comments with profanity, name-calling, and/or a nasty tone will be deleted.
Comments are limited to 300 words.