TGC Issues Apology, Retracts Article Comparing Sex to Salvation

The Roys Report [Chicago IL]

March 6, 2023

By Josh Shepherd

In the wake of growing controversy, evangelical Reformed parachurch group The Gospel Coalition (TGC) has retracted an article that used explicit sexual language as a metaphor for salvation. However, some say the retraction does not address underlying issues of concern. 

The article published on March 1 compared the act of sexual consummation with the spiritual work of Christ. Arizona pastor Josh Butler, excerpting from his upcoming book Beautiful Union, wrote in part that “the fusing of two bodies as one . . . is a picture of the gospel.”

One passage described when “the groom goes into his bride” in explicit terms, referring to the “sanctuary of his spouse,” where the groom “ bestows an offering, a gift.” Butler continued the metaphor, saying the wife “gladly receives the warmth of his presence . . . Similarly, the church embraces Christ in salvation. . .” 

Many evangelical observers reacted swiftly.

“They do know, right, that the idea of women as a fertile field to be planted with male sperm is not only misogynist but inaccurate? Don’t they????” tweeted author and Baylor University Professor Beth Allison Barr.

Christian crisis counselor Will Soto stated: “You can be dehumanizing, inappropriate, and objectifying towards women while using poetic, ‘spiritual,’ and seemingly non-offensive language.”

Author Kristin Du Mez called out TGC Senior Editor Brett McCracken for publishing Butler’s article and also calling Butler’s upcoming book a “magnum opus on sexual ethics.” She also criticized Multnomah for publishing the book. “(T)his is exactly what happens when you put a No Girls Allowed sign on your ‘gospel coalition,’” she tweeted.

TGC removed the article a day later and stated that it “lacked sufficient context to be helpful in this format.” The article link referred readers to a PDF download of the book’s entire first chapter. 

Criticism of the article continued, notably from author and podcast host Sheila Wray Gregoire. “Those of us who are calling out the book . . . want to protect those who will be taught toxic things about sex,” she tweeted in a thread. “Rescuing those readers is our #1 priority.”

Pastor Rick Warren tweeted: “I’m glad TGC removed yesterday’s article that was both offensive and erroneous theology. But no apology?”

Religion professor Dr. Anthony Bradley of The King’s College also commented. “TGC is doubling down on this instead of doing the right thing,” Bradley said in part. “Here’s where he’s *still* wrong: sex is not an icon of Christ & the church. That’s marriage.”

On Sunday, March 5, TGC replaced their two-sentence retraction with a four-paragraph statement from TGC president Julius Kim. He stated that editors “took the time to listen to our critics and (their) serious objections.” 

He said TGC has accepted the resignation of Butler as a fellow at TGC’s recently launched Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. He stated that Butler will not speak at the upcoming TGC23 Conference nor will he lead an online cohort covering the themes of his book. 

Kim noted that they are developing “better review systems (to) ensure greater accountability.” He added: “We want to model grace-filled conversations, and we want to learn from one another. In this case, we failed you and hurt many friends.”

Several leading voices persisted in their criticism following this announcement. 

Author and theologian Aimee Byrd responded in a thread: “Removing Butler as a TGC speaker or fellow of their new Apologetics Center does not remove the theological system & Aristotelian anthropology that the book sprung from & was heavily promoted in. They do not cleanse themselves by erasing Butler.”

Similarly, theologian and author Scot McKnight critiqued the apology. “Frankly, it reads like image management more than apology,” he wrote in a blog post.

Article retracted, book release moving ahead

Titled “Sex Won’t Save You (But It Points to the One Who Will),” the now-removed article reportedly has similar content to a TGC conference session delivered by Butler in October 2018. “TGC knew what it was doing,” tweeted Matthew Boedy, a professor and author. 

On Saturday, Northern Seminary professor Beth Felker Jones, author of Faithful: A Theology of Sex, published a 6,000-word response to the article

“This kind of theology is causing devastating damage for the people of God,” writes Jones. “Maybe the very bad article can be a wake-up call.” She provides eight reasons the article is “terribly reductive” and not reflecting the “nature of the Gospel,” citing themes of pornography, power, abuse, idolatry, and misunderstanding of sacraments.  

Multnomah, an imprint of Penguin Random House, is set to release Beautiful Union: How God’s Vision for Sex Points Us to the Good, Unlocks the True, and (Sort of) Explains Everything on April 11. 

In the wake of backlash, multiple Christian figures who endorsed Butler’s book retracted their advance praise. However, the book’s first print run has already been published with their blurbs included.

Pastor and author Rich Villodas noted that he had read “about 25-30% of the book” prior to writing his endorsement. He stated: “I clearly see how the excerpt from the article creates conditions for sexual harm that contradicts my commitment to the healing and honoring of women . . .” 

Similarly, Arizona church planter Dennae Pierre of The Crete Collective, who calls Butler a “co-laborer,” pulled her endorsement. “I shouldn’t have endorsed something that I hadn’t read fully,” she said. “I’m sorry to anyone who (feels) a breach of trust in my capacity to advocate for the church to dignify women. I’m especially grieved and sorry for sexual and spiritual abuse survivors.” 

Gregoire, who writes frequently on marriage, sex, and relationships, sought out the context that TGC offered and analyzed the book’s first chapter. “It gets worse,” she tweeted in part. “The sin of prostitution is portrayed as SELLING sex, not BUYING sex.”

She quoted Butler’s book: “Yet prostitution welcomes a ‘guest’ while charging admission. It turns what ought to be an exchange of pure gift into a transaction. It makes a person a product. Selling sex rents out a holy place, converting the sanctuary into a transit station . . .” 

Further, Gregoire took issue with how Butler quoted her in his book and criticized that TGC’s leadership has “not a single female.” 

The Roys Report (TRR) reached out to Multnomah for comment but did not hear back.

Larger questions 

One theologian who remains a fellow at TGC’s Keller Center responded to critics of the backlash. 

Dr. James Eglinton, Senior Lecturer in Reformed Theology at the University of Edinburgh, stated in a thread: “To say that the negative reaction is just prudishness or the opposite is not helpful at all . . .  I think the article approaches the text with the wrong theological/exegetical method (and) it never recovers from that.” 

Dr. Bradley offered a similar critique. He stated that the publisher, TGC, and “the evangelical Gospel Industrial Complex” are partly to blame. “Seminary profs have been sidelined by celebrity pastors,” he said.

“The moral of the story: demand more boring books written by theologians who’ve spent years studying topics & are held accountable by scholarly peers. Christian publishing has declined since ‘platform’ became the No. 1 determiner of who gets book deals instead of content quality.”

Professor Barr, among the most vocal online critics of the article, praised the retraction. “I’m glad @TGC listened. I hope they keep listening.”