Hello friend, Liz here.
In March, I wrote briefly about the language of sexual violence within evangelicalism, specifically regarding Joshua Ryan Butler’s inflammatory TGC article that go so much bad press (and which his publisher rushed to print 😱…).
Welp, I’m here with an update: Butler has resigned his post of co-pastor of his megachurch in Arizona, citing the stress of the controversy surrounding his book and his staff’s/family’s overwhelm in facing it.
You can read the resignation letter here—it’s actually not a bad apology, which to my ear rings genuine, especially since Butler says he paid for additional sensitivity readings(out of his own pocket?) which yielded edits that will be incorporated into the next printing. Because, don’t forget, the first printing was rushed by the publisher who was eager to offer context to the problematic excerpt at TGC… and/or to cash in on the attention.
So, in a sense, this is justice, right? To have a male author-pastor face financial and social consequences for a harmful and untrue theology?
Sort of because, since the book has come out, more nuance has appeared in Butler’s message, as it always does when writers have more than 800-words to play with. For example, I found Brenna Blain’s examination interesting on the “Theology in the Raw” podcast.
(Start the episode at 53:14 and pause at 1:00:33 if you don’t want to hear from Preston Sprinkle or Josh Butler 😉)
As for me, I'm not interested in dissecting Butler’s text line by line today to offer more nuance (ugh, hard pass).
Instead, I want to talk about what comes after a controversy like Butler’s and all the people who bear its weight.
Consider Butler’s resignation letter, posted to twitter, in which he states,
“The toll of this controversy on many of our staff and leaders this month has been intense.”
“…For some of you, my lack of greater pastoral nuance in areas of the excerpt evoked pain, particularly for some women with histories of sexual abuse.”
“I will still be available to any of you in our church who are confused, hurt, frustrated or angry over anything I’ve written, said or done…”
Can you hear the references to the other unnamed victims of this controversy? Yes, Butler stepped down from his pastoring (supposedly by his choice and his elder board’s jointly), but there are other people behind the scenes that we cannot see through the slim lens of Twitter.
The people involved include: the entire elder team, the vocational leaders on staff, lay leaders, and two campuses of congregants. Most significantly, Butler names one group of women whose concerns seem to have risen to the top: those female congregants with histories of harm and abuse in their pasts.
Now that I see those formerly invisible behind-the-scenes, I can’t stop thinking about them. And I am angry.
There were so many failures that led to all these other humans feeling betrayed, harassed or confused by what happened with Butler’s book that I’ll need to go slowly to catalogue them for you, so you can follow my thinking here:
#1 Did the elder team consider that a pastor writing a book could come into conflict with that pastor’s ability to shepherd and lead his congregation?
Because it always does!!! Elders are meant to be the stopgap between a pastor and his people, a means of holding both accountable and in unity.
I realize this book was Butler’s third and likely the reason he was invited to pastor this church cause that’s how the system runs. But again, we’re running into these conflicts between celebrity and genuine shepherding. I have to say, I struggle to trust pastors with publishing ambitions because, whether rightly or wrongly, I assume that it betrays an attitude that actual ministry with humans is secondary or lesser. That a book deal means more than people.
Frankly, I feel wearied by the consistency of celebrity beating congregations.
#2 Another frustration: Why didn’t the Gospel Coalition give Butler’s words a sensitivity reading before publishing his excerpt? And why did they pick that portion of the book to share? (“What the heck?” said Brenna Blain after reading the whole book and then reflection on the strange section shared with the internet.)
Perhaps this is less of a frustration and more a resigned here we go again from me.
#3 Why was a backlash necessary to make Butler see that he needed his own community—his congregation—to read his book and offer feedback?
I want to say this plainly to the male pastors I know who are seeking to learn, grow and be accountable: you do not have all the answers. Your theology is not 100% right. You need people intimately involved in your thinking, writing, speaking, and teaching to offer you other perspectives that you do not realize you lack. You, too, need correction and you need safe people with whom to be wrong.
If you do not have this, then you are certainly hurting people in your congregation by your lack of awareness, and you are likely cultivating an unsafe and homogeneous expression of Christianity in your church because you yourself are not seeking to diversify your own thinking.
This is mandatory, especially for the white pastor dudes, whose natural perspectives skew toward a teeny tiny subset of congregants while (unintentionally) leaving out the rest.
In fact, I find it telling that the ideas Butler wrote about sex were not “old news” to leaders and members of Butler’s congregation. Um, what?
Is he not preaching this content to his congregants? Was this a shock to the elders? I just don’t get how this could happen. Has he faced criticism before? I would have thought that these ideas would be worked out (and softened) in the context of communal worship and expression, which offers a natural means of pushback for speakers/leaders/teachers as we “try out” our ideas.
So even if he’s not sitting down one-on-one with women (heaven forbid), even if he’s not paying for sensitivity reads, even if he’s not collaborating with female staff members… why isn’t he teaching this content so as to receive that natural feedback from his congregation?
Honestly, I expect criticism when I speak or teach, especially as a female (who perhaps feels more accessible to approach than a dude). Criticism hones our ideas and words. Writers face rounds of criticism practically from the second they escape our keyboards.
Even as a congregant, I have received feedback from my pastors who read me and I have been confronted by multiple pastors about things I’ve written, even in passing on social media well before any book deal appeared to make me “important” and/or “worthy” of being read. Mostly, I welcome that dialogue, especially if it’s open-ended, framed relationally, and doesn’t come with a demand attached… ;-)
#4 So let’s be generous and assume that Butler did seek wisdom from his elder team, all of whom are male. Why did Butler not seek out the perspectives of his actual congregants, especially the women of his congregation who, by virtue of having different bodies, have distinctive experiences of sex? Why stick with a one-sided view, not including the other half’s insights and wisdom?
We’ll spend a bit more time here because I believe that underneath all these other frustrations is an insidious truth about men and women at church that we need to talk about.
Because male and female friendships at church are viewed as complicated and perhaps too complicated to engage by many male pastors. Believe me, I understand from experience the complexity because too often, the mistrust in such relationships is valid and some churches need to ask more questions about what their male pastor is doing with the women at church.
Yet many well-meaning pastors have decided that all female voices and friendships are off-limits, entirely off-the-table. In fact, the distance between the sexes is so vast as to be almost impassable… at least from the male point of view.
You can see how this gets complicated when we don’t let women be called “pastor.” Even within evangelical churches who will admit women to the deaconate (but not pastorate), these servant leaders are generally not invited to participate into important doctrinal or organizational decisions… to our great loss.
So there are just no female voices whatsoever, rendering half of the congregation invisible.
Assuming that Butler’s church may have taken a similar hardline gender stance (“no female friends allowed”), I will grant that Butler may not have had a smart female friend whom he could ask to be a reader.
Because in his church, like in many others, it’s possible the assumptions laid on a friendship with a female would invite questions and rumors and mistrust.
Might he have paid an outsider to give feedback? Or could he have gently asked a female staff member or lay leader to be early readers. Did he ask? If not, why not?
I believe it’s because in evangelical churches, in practice, women still play a second-class role. I’m not talking about theology here, because our orthodoxy claims that women and men are equal before God, are equally important in church spaces, are valued as highly as any other gender.
But in practice, it may not have occurred to Butler to seek a female opinion on his words because their views and words simply mattered less. Because in evangelical spaces, men’s rectitude is a certainty and assumption. Because male bias is still everywhere.
Here’s what I mean about male bias at church:
Let’s say I meet with a male church leader about a concern—whether a pastor, staff member, elder or layperson in a church—like I often have as an adult at church. I bring up an point or illustration in a sermon that hit wrong or that was wrong based on how I understand the Bible.
While I have my opinion in hand, I also understand that, going into that meeting, before I ever open my mouth, that male leader will assume that I am the one in the wrong. They might couch it in terms of theological education, calling or position (“authority”).
But when he disagrees with me, his words take on remarkably gendered objections: I’ve just misunderstood, I’m too sensitive, I’m missing the point.
However, because I’m a strong female, my confident/intellectual demeanor can often disrupt this narrative in a way that sometimes feels threatening and “wrong” to male leaders.
Fortunately/unfortunately, I’m also a cry-er, which I’ve found both helps and hurts my cause: crying makes me vulnerable and “weaker” (thereby less threatening to male pastors) but also means my points can be dismissed more easily because I’m just emotional. Sigh.
I’m telling you all this because my particular experience illustrates a broader one. This is a common experience for female leaders within evangelical churches.
From the start, females are put in a defensive stance because the culture of evangelicalism works against us.
So, back to my not-so-hypothetical confrontational conversation with a male leader at church: I have learned to make my case very gently. I have learned the hard way that if a male pastor’s ego is wounded, then my ideas no longer matter because I myself am seen as a threat to be defeated. My theology, sure, can be overlooked, but if I come on too strong, than my character becomes suspect. (I wish I were exaggerating about this.)
To avoid this, to go gently, I have adopted a few methods for conversing with male pastors (even those I love as if they were my own brothers!!!):
I overthink my phrasing.
I read way too many theology books to make minute Biblical points.
I cushion my language, use a zillion examples and tell what I think slant, in stories.
I make personal conclusions—not law, just opinion.
In all these ways, I find myself constantly atoning to the male-centered church for my femaleness.
Cause my femaleness does not conform so easily to their preferred mode of stay-at-home home-schooling child-rearer and sex toy. Then again, I am those things; then again, I am not.
One note here: I want to be clear that I do not blame every man (all men everywhere) for this lopsided culture.
I know many men who have found ways to subvert the gender norms in their churches, assumptions be damned.
(For example, a former pastor I worked with at an Acts 29 church treated me with such respect and care that thinking back on our conversations still gives me great hope for males everywhere!)
And I have met so many kind and humble men who choose to denigrate themselves in service of people and causes normally seen as female or extraneous to the “real work of the gospel,” gender norms be damned. My husband is one of these good men.
(Ironically, I find myself wanting those men to take up more space, not less.)
But the fact remains that church spaces center themselves on male experiences, male thoughts, male preferences, male theologians, male schedules, and normative male bodies and sexualities.
The reason may be as simple as the fact that men dominate church leadership teams. Or it might be as complex as generations of perpetuated misogyny within church so that the work of women at church could be labeled outside God’s mainstream work in the world. I have a hunch it’s both.
As I consider what happened with Joshua Butler, I see a more public reckoning with this fact of male bias at church, and I believe this is part of the reason that those who disagree with Butler’s words have come down so strongly against Butler.
For those of us outside the mainstream, Butler reminds of the representative cis male culture that guides evangelicalism and so we are violently rejecting it. (“Violently” being metaphoric, not actual.)
I deeply disagree with Butler’s article. I also disagree with almost every way in which this publication of the article and book was handled. And yet, I cannot stop thinking about this controversy.
A few nights ago, I could not fall asleep because I was thinking about Julie Roys post about Butler’s resignation and could not shake a deep sense of loss as I tossed and turned.
Because while I disagree with nearly everything in connection with this damned book, I also feel grief.
I grieve that Butler is exiting his church rather than being discipled in how to deal with his celebrity and for how his family will suffer for it.
I grieve that the elders did not involve themselves more in Butler’s writing life, nor that they did not anticipate the way it would affect their church.
I grieve for the elders and staff who have experienced such stress and anxiety over the last few weeks that they had to encourage Butler to leave his role.
I grieve for the women who felt betrayed by their pastor’s unthinking words.
I grieve for those real life congregants who have lost a pastor.
And I grieve that the evangelical church has failed, over and over again, to vanquish the power of money in our midst, that we would rather hire a celebrity than a shepherd as our leader, that we have been so easily seduced away from the tender and just heart of God that we could find ourselves in ANOTHER of these messes YET AGAIN.
I am not sure why Butler, in particular, evokes these thoughts/feelings within me—perhaps cause he’s not a white dude? But I see dramatic and violent change all at once in this congregation and life, and I grieve for him and them and all of us.
I want to encourage my fellow activists, too: tap into this empathy. Mirror this tenderness. Not because I’m awesome (HAHA! NOPE!) but for the sake of your own souls.
I myself had to repent of hardheartedness at first hearing of his resignation which made me go YEAH! SERVES HIM RIGHT! And then came all the other realizations of what it meant, the depth of harm and loss, the continual breaking of the Church.
The fact is, these situations are complicated and painful.
And the hunger for righteous apart from grace can eat us alive.
And “cancelled” people are loved by God, too.
Do not rejoice at this man’s cancellation; pray for him. Teach with humility. Let us be for righteousness and against the denigration of any human, including those who get it wrong, including those who have been wronged by those who get it wrong.
Because, friends, we ourselves will get it wrong, too. And when we do, we will also be desperate for God to overcome our many failures.
Lord, have mercy.
Thanks for reading.
Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
P.S. For those interested in how the Webbys wrapped up, I did not win. *shrug* I did, however, sit in first place for a good day and a half before ultimately being overtaken by the publication that won.
I am still astonished and grateful because, tbh, the fact that I could reach second place purely by the number of votes is MIRACULOUS. The dude who came in first had tens of thousands of subscribers… and currently, I have 835. (I told you I’m not important! Just a normie writer!)
So I just want to tell you how grateful I am for you taking the time to vote and share and offer kind words in support. You are an author’s dream.
You may not have heard of sensitivity readers, but published writers certainly have. These readers edit an author’s words right before publication and their entire job is to identify and thwart potential controversies. Here’s a good summary of what they do and why from the Guardian: “Sensitivity readers can be hired by publishers, usually on a case-by-case basis, to read a book – generally before it is published – and make editorial suggestions regarding content that could be considered offensive, inaccurate or stereotypical.”
By the way, I want to clearly state that I have not read Butler’s book and do not intend to. Personally, I do not want to use my limited time to teach evangelicals about sex (Sheila Gregoire and co. are already doing that holy work!!). However, I would love to gently nudge any feminist theologians in the room (paging Beth Felker Jones atChurch Blogmatics!) to consider reading and examining Butler’s argumentation and exegesis for us all who don’t want to read it ourselves, pretty please. ;-)
Guess what? Butler actually has four books, his fourth book being a study guide to his controversial sex book. Ugh. AND he has a fifth in the works with a release date for next year. Soooo we’re gonna keep hearing about this guy, apparently.
I love your thoughts on this. You have such a knack for being gracious but unafraid to point out the issues.
As I read, I was reflecting on the idea of getting congregations to read through work being produced by pastors. On the one hand, I 100% agree that this could help solve so many issues. On the other, depending on the charisma of the leader or the extent to which the church culture is high control, congregants can sometimes be the biggest supporters of toxic ideas. Specifically regarding teachings about women, I know that I used to be a huge supporter of ideas that subjugated women. At that time, I fear I may have read Butler's piece (even as a non-congregant) and thought he was onto something important.
Nonetheless, I agree with you that public (or potentially public) words only benefit from being exposed to more people. Unfortunately for Butler, his words were put into a large public forum and it's easy to pile on to work with so many glaring flaws. In this faceless internet age, it's easy to critique from afar without remembering the humanity of the person (and their support network) on the receiving end. I'm grateful that you've taken the time to remind us of the humanity of Butler AND the people who were hurt by his work.
This is incredibly thorough, Liz. I so appreciate your words, wisdom, and clarity here. Having been part of mostly smaller churches, the lack of theological accountability is often so lacking for men but excessive for women because we're also viewed skeptically for being "more easily deceived." I think you're spot on that a big problem is the male-centric nature of evangelical churches. I wonder if it's also the structure in general, how elders and pastors are more easily trusted and revered for their status as male leaders. I never felt I could converse with our pastors, let alone ask clarifying questions (especially as a woman). And I certainly never felt respected for any wisdom or discernment I might hold myself...