Why Josh Butler's Book Beautiful Union Matters

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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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  • Karmel Pope

    Karmel Pope

    The fact that my two favorite podcasts are in some way meshed into this one blog gives me all the positive feels!! 🥰
  • Molly Pedersen

    Molly Pedersen

    Thanks so much Juli! I appreciate this perspective. Whenever there is strong backlash, I think it’s important to listen between the lines and understand that there is something behind those strong reactions, and certainly women have experienced so many damaging approaches to sexuality. And because we have so many broken and distorted experiences of sexuality, it’s not hard to see why people recoil or lash out when it’s compared to God and his relationship to us. As you often say, every sexual issue is a spiritual issue. When people have experienced sexuality in harmful ways, they don’t want to hear that sex is like God’s covenant love. So the work is in redeeming those broken experiences and helping people heal to the point of understanding that God’s covenant love is NOT like the broken versions we often see. I’m thankful to have a great, safe, grounded place to discuss these things. Thanks for your courage and integrity in addressing them!
  • Erin Jupe

    Erin Jupe

    Thank you for this article. I was signed up to take his cohort with him next month with Keller Center for Apologetics. It is canceled and he resigned. I am praying for him, his career, and his family.
  • James DeMarco

    James DeMarco

    Julie, thank you so much for your clarity and wisdom on this topic. I don’t do a whole lot of social media and I have to admit I have not read Josh’s book but as I was reading the vitriolic responses to what he was trying to convey in his symbolic discussions of the sexual union in marriage, I was thinking to myself am I the only person who feels like he has a point. Maybe he didn’t word it masterfully or maybe he phrased things in a way that may be triggering towards women who have been hurt or abused by the power of sexuality in their lives. But nonetheless, the Scriptures seem clear from Genesis to Revelations that marriage and the ultimate intimacy of sexual union between a bride and her bride groom are fundamental to our understanding of how God wants to be portrayed. How He wants us to understand Him. I felt some shame in believing that way. Before reading your beautiful and well thought out blog, I probably would not have been brave enough to state those beliefs nor been able to defend the underlying premises put forth by Josh if someone had challenged me. When I read the blog posts that disparage Josh’s work, I get an uneasy sense within my soul - as if I am vicariously experiencing the blog writers undisclosed prior hurt, shame or trauma. Then when I read your blog I feel the peace of the Holy Spirit and sense this is closer to the truth. The words here seem to reflect more Gods perspective than a skewed reaction of a human’s perspective. So thank you for standing strong. For not standing in the shadow of shame but helping us take a step forward into the light of deeper and more mature Christianity. Jay D
  • Gordon Baker

    Gordon Baker

    Masterful blog. Thank you Juli. How careful we all need to be in handling God's beautful revelation.
  • Janna Nordeman

    Janna Nordeman

    Such good truth. Thank you Juli. So grateful for you and how God has called you to shed light on his truth about sex. Preston Sprinkle had Josh on his podcast talking about this. There he shared more of how the excerpt was taken out of context and also stated he could have used some better language to describe the metaphor.
  • Phyllis McGowan

    Phyllis McGowan

    This is so on point! The bottom line is that the church has not evolved with the times; and in not doing so, we have missed so much of what God has to show us in His word. As for me, this journey has truly illuminated scripture to me in a whole new way; and I pray that the Lord starts a revival among those that I have been sharing this new-found passion with and that they will be inspired to come alongside and learn more about this timely, urgent issue. We have a finite amount of time to reach the dying world and show them how much God truly cares for them and wants to save them. I thank Authentic Intimacy for this critical work!
  • Hollis Burkes

    Hollis Burkes

    Amen! That will preach!

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