The Gospel Cancelation

Cultured despisers want nothing less than a reinvention of Christian categories to serve the ends of sexual liberation…the problem is not with discussing sexuality, but only the vision of sexuality and gender roles patterned in Scripture.


Inspired by the legacy of Tim Keller, the Gospel Coalition recently announced the creation of the Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. The goal of the Center is to facilitate a new missionary encounter with Post-Christendom by combining cultural critique and theological depth. The tenor of the Center is one of hope: while secularization and polarization have weakened the Church, there is an opportunity to represent the Christian faith in a world desperate for meaning. In other words, demonstrating the beauty and goodness of true Christian beliefs will save the West.

By God’s grace, we can close the back door and stem the tide of dechurching. We can open the front door so skeptics will enter the foyer on the path to saving faith. Once equipped, we can depart together through the front door to show unbelievers the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel as the only hope that fulfills our deepest longings.

This week, the Keller Center faced its first trial when it released a now-deleted article promoting Josh Butler’s book on Christian sexual ethics. I want to suggest that the current backlash against Butler is instructive in how cultural apologetics, ignorant of the dynamics of the “negative world,” are destined to become impotent.

First, does Butler’s article, when shorn of its admittedly crude language, convey anything objectionable in substance about the marriage relationship? The central claim is that “Sex is an icon of Christ and the church.” By “icon,” he means that the sexual act itself points to something beyond it, which is the union of Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:31-32 certainly states this about marriage, though Butler’s specificity about the sexual act itself was awkward. Butler turns to the categories of giving and receiving to describe the act and how it parallels Christ’s relationship with the Church. The heart of sex is communication and the reception of two selves, and the fruit of this union is generative, which is at the root of Jesus’ teaching on marriage. When he is questioned about divorce (Matt 19, Mark 10) he quotes from both Genesis 1 and 2, reiterating the generative and unitive goods of the institution.

The point is this: One may take issue with Butler’s presentation—his graphic lingering on the sex act itself—but fundamentally, Butler is not conceptually aberrant in noting the patterns of male initiation and female reception in marriage reflects Christ’s relationship with the Church. So while Butler’s rhetoric might be unfortunate, he is not heretical on that point.

However, the backlash against Butler has been not just to take issue with his rhetoric, but to malign his theology as not only incorrect but dangerous and harmful. In Dennae Pierre’s retraction, she labels his theology as male-centric, enforcing a harmful gender dynamic. Others will say Butler’s thought creates the conditions for sexual harm and “harms women.” None of these things are actually true of Butler’s writing but they are indicative that Butler is being singled out as a scapegoat for the abuses of complementarian theology.

Consequently, when pressured by activists to pull his endorsement, Rich Villodas, issued a retraction, in under 24 hours, agreeing with these points. Villodas says, “Josh’s exegesis and commentary of Ephesians 5 is not just problematic, it’s dangerous.” What makes Villodas’ retraction instructive for demonstrating the dynamics of the negative world is that Villodas and Butler share virtually identical positions on sex. Villodas has also written a book on cultural apologetics (The Deeply Formed Life), in which he has a chapter on sex. There he describes sex, among other things, as a sacrament: “lovemaking in and outside the bedroom is a revelation. What does it reveal? Well, without overstating it, it reveals God. It is sacramental. Our lovemaking is to manifest our union with each other and, in so doing, manifest God’s union with the world.” (DFL, p.168). In fact, the sexual act for Villodas is not just any type of sacrament, it is eucharistic! Here I quote him at length:

Read More

Previous ArticleNext Article