(RNS) — An evangelical Christian pastor and author whose book on the theology of sex caused a furor online earlier this spring resigned Wednesday (May 3) 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.”
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, entitled “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.