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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.
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Sex and the Great Commission
Several years ago, I shared with a friend the vision of Authentic Intimacy. My friend listened patiently and then shared her honest opinion, “Why is it important to help people have better sex lives? Shouldn’t we be spending our time feeding the poor and sharing the gospel instead?” That same friend is now an avid supporter of this ministry. What changed?  Sexuality has historically received very little attention from Christians. In the wake of the sexual revolution, youth pastors and parents crafted purity messages, hoping to incentivize teenagers to save sex for marriage. This generation is now reaping the fallout of silence and simplistic approaches to the complexity of human sexuality.  You may think that sexuality is a peripheral topic, delegated to specialized ministries and counselors. In this blog, I hope to convince you that reclaiming biblical sexuality in western culture is now absolutely essential to accomplishing the Great Commission .  The core of Jesus’ commission to His disciples is two-fold: make disciples, baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (evangelism) and then teach them to obey everything I have commanded (discipleship). Individuals and ministries that are ill-equipped to enter the space of sexuality will be hamstrung in their efforts to both evangelize and disciple.   Sexuality and The Gospel I had just finished speaking at a conference in St. Louis and was exhausted. My coworker, Kristi, and I stopped at a local coffee shop to kill a few hours before our flight home. As we worked on our laptops, we could not help overhearing a very intense conversation in the booth behind us. A young woman was meeting with a mentor, sharing agonizing details about how her marriage was failing apart because of sex. After about thirty minutes, the older woman left and the young woman sat alone, still obviously emotionally hurting.  I looked at Kristi and we both knew this was a “divine appointment.” I approached the young woman and said that I couldn’t help but overhear her conversation. I briefly explained that I run a ministry helping people navigate sexual issues and asked if there was any way I could encourage her. She ended up joining us in our booth, gave us a brief rundown of her situation and finally asked the question that was on her mind. “Will I go to hell if I divorce my husband and marry a woman?”  This woman was not primarily asking a sexual or marriage question. As a lapsed Catholic, her agony was spiritual. How could she navigate her sex life in a way that wouldn’t destroy her relationship with God?  In this generation, sexuality represents one of the most pressing issues standing between people and God. Daily, we see teens and young adults walking away from the faith of their childhood over questions about sex.  Does God love trans people?  Where was God when my uncle sexually abused me?  How can I trust God when the church is filled with hypocrites and predators?  Why would a loving God give me desires that I can’t act on?  Is God a misogynist, telling women to essentially be sexual slaves for their husbands?  History has proven that Christian doctrine is robust enough to entertain every question of the human heart—even our sexual questions. However, the Church is woefully ill equipped, falling back on quoting verses without a compelling explanation of God’s heart for human sexuality. Evangelists and apologists regularly remind me that if we can’t engage sexual questions, seekers want nothing to do with Chrisianity. In his exposition of John 4, John Piper  explained that Jesus knew that “the quickest way to the heart  is through a wound.” To reach the woman at the well, Jesus had to identify the source of her thirst. In the same way, we must be ready and equipped to enter into the sexual wounds and questions as we share the Living Water with a lonely and thirsty world.  To be frank, many have experienced the Christian church as a source of deeper sexual wounding rather than a place of healing. The shame, silence and hypocrisy (not to mention the atrocities of clergy abuse) has pushed people further from the mercy of God. This will only change as God’s people intentionally push past long-held traditions and humbly step into the hurt with the hope of Jesus Christ.    Sexuality and Discipleship Jesus did not call us to make converts, but disciples. Christian discipleship means the whole-hearted pursuit of stewarding our lives under the sovereignty and Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Following Jesus goes way beyond our actions. We are new creations in Christ Jesus, set apart and called to be transformed in our thinking and desires. There is perhaps no arena in which discipleship is more necessary today than sexuality.  God created us as sexual people. He is the One who invented sexual desire, reproductive organs, and the pleasureable brain chemicals involved in sex. Although you may blush reading this sentence, can we agree that God created the orgasm? God is also deeply aware of how painful and destructive our earthly experience of sexuality can become. Yet, most Christians act as if they must manage their sexuality on their own, never thinking to integrate biblical truths in this area of their lives.  As a result,  the majority of committed Christ-followers (including Christian leaders) have no idea how to steward their sexuality. They have real-world complex questions like: Is masturbation a sin?  How do I stop looking at pornography?  Should I get a divorce if my spouse had an affair?  What is the purpose of my sexual desire as a single Christian?  Would God allow me to attend my son’s gay wedding?   How do I deal with the impact of past sexual trauma on my marriage?  If my wife never has sex with me, do I have grounds for divorce?  Do I call my niece by her requested male name and pronouns? Are sex toys OK within a Christian marriage?  I promise you that every one of these questions (and many more) are top of mind for the men and women (young and old) to whom you minister.  The good news is that you can be equipped to engage in sexual conversations! In Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul instructed the early church on how to be unified and equipped to do the work of God. He reminded them that God had granted the members of His Body spiritual gifts for the purpose of unity and spiritual maturity. As each part does its work, we will no longer be like spiritual infants, tossed around by the thinking of our culture. This is not the work of a single ministry; it is our work together.  Jesus did not leave us alone to figure out how to accomplish the Great Commission. As with the first disciples, He promises “I will be with you always!” The Father has given us the Holy Spirit who will lead us into all truth, giving us everything we need right here, right now.      If you would like to learn more about sex and the great commission and how to address tough questions like the ones mentioned in this blog, consider becoming a member of Sexual Discipleship today!