A Response to Rosaria Butterfield

Many of our readers are likely familiar with Rosaria Butterfield, who has a powerful testimony being converted to Christianity while being a professor specializing in queer studies. Although I’ve had certain disagreements and frustrations with her, she had always struck me as a compassionate, honest, and fair person.

Rosaria Butterfield

For this reason, I was surprised when I recently happened upon this video of Rosaria Butterfield talking to a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) church. Starting around the 53 minute mark, she made slanderous statements about several groups near and dear to me—the PCA, Reformed University Fellowship, and Spiritual Friendship. I was surprised by the degree to which she misrepresented these groups, because I was expecting better from her.

For example, at one point Butterfield stated,

Especially today, and I know I’m speaking in a PCA church, so I understand the stakes of this, but especially today, the PCA is smitten in a stupid way, and I’m using a hard word, very stupid way, and to their shame, to the gay Christian movement, both A and B.

She also added, “RUF, I’m talking to you here.”

“A and B” refer to the “sides” of the debate on gay relationships and Christianity. This terminology was originally developed at Bridges Across the Divide and later popularized at the Gay Christian Network. Side A is the belief that the sex of the people in a sexual relationship has no bearing on the morality of the relationship, while side B (the view espoused by the writers on Spiritual Friendship) is the belief that the only appropriate context for sex is marriage between a man and a woman. Rosaria’s claim here is that both sides, including in particular the revisionist “side A,” are well-represented within PCA and RUF leadership. This is an extraordinary claim. The doctrinal statements that PCA and RUF pastors and elders uphold take the “side B” view, as Butterfield herself does.

I am fairly familiar with how the PCA is approaching sexuality. Over the past few years, I’ve been a member in good standing of two PCA churches in fairly liberal college towns (Chapel Hill, NC and Madison, WI). I’ve been close with a pastor at each church, and paid some attention to denominational politics. I’ve had a number of friends studying at Covenant Seminary. In all these settings I’ve had numerous discussions regarding sexuality.

And while I never participated at RUF as a student (having gone to a Christian university for my undergraduate work), I’ve known quite a few students and alumni from the group. Several of my friends have gone on to do RUF internships or to go on staff with RUF. And the work of RUF matters to me, to the point that RUF is second only to my local church in terms of how much money I’ve given.

My experience further solidifies my belief that Butterfield’s claim is patently false. I see no evidence that leadership of RUF and the PCA are embracing a “side A” perspective at all. Perhaps Butterfield is just talking about laypeople in the pews or students who attend RUF events, rather than leadership? But it’s not fair to the PCA or to RUF to blame them for the culture in which they’re trying to do faithful Christian ministry. Unless Butterfield can provide substantial evidence to back up her claim, her statements about RUF and the PCA amount to slander.

She also made some harsh and unfair criticism of Spiritual Friendship:

Or hey, I could go “side B” with Wesley Hill and the Spiritual Friendship gang, where I would learn that my sexual desires for women were actually sanctifiable and redeemable, making me a better friend to one and all, but for the sake of Christian tradition, I should not act on them. Well, if you haven’t figured out by now, I was raised on the wrong side of the tracks. So let me tell you right here, that telling someone like me that I am to deny deep desires because of Christian tradition is simply absurd. Christian tradition is no match for the lust of the flesh.

I think that sexual strugglers need gay Christianity and all of its attending liberal sellouts, including the side B version, like fish need bicycles, to refresh an old feminist slogan. Gay Christianity, touted as the third way for those churches and colleges, is a poor and pitiful option to give someone like me. And while some people see a world of difference between between acting on unholy desires and simply cherishing them in your heart, our Lord would say otherwise. If anger is murder and lust is adultery, then the differences that separate the factions of gay Christianity, the differences between Matthew Vines and Wes Hill, take place on a razor’s edge, not a chasm.

This represents a very serious misunderstanding of what Spiritual Friendship promotes and teaches. Spiritual Friendship has always defended the orthodox Christian teaching on sexual ethics (see here, here, here, here, and here, for a few examples).

Now I do want to acknowledge that much of Butterfield’s view is probably from this post by Wesley Hill. At least Ron Belgau and I have long had certain concerns about this and some of Wes’s other writing. Primarily, we thought it was too ripe for misinterpretation and needed more explicit theological development. We also realized it could come across to our critics as viewing temptation or sin too positively, or could encourage sloppy thinking that would actually cause some of our readers to view temptation or sin too positively. Ron has pushed back against this some and attempted to provide a more rigorous reflection on some of the issues in Wes’s “Is Being Gay Sanctifiable?” post.

To be honest, our readers really need a much fuller explanation of what we’re trying to say than can feasibly be done in this blog post. And we need to figure out within Spiritual Friendship to what degree there is agreement among the contributors. Ron and I have started discussing how to do a longer series of posts to discuss some of the questions at hand, but will want to take some time to develop it carefully. But in immediate response to this video, I want to clarify what we are not saying.

I want to be clear: we are not saying that as long as you’re not having sex, you’re fine. None of us would say that viewing pornography or entertaining lustful fantasies, for example, are morally acceptable, even if those are sins that some of us (like many other Christians) struggle with. We take seriously Jesus’s teaching that lust is adultery.

Additionally, we are not saying that desires to have sex with someone of the same sex are sanctifiable or something to be “cherished.” Wesley Hill was trying to describe aspects of his experience other than the desire for sex, and as I said, the point really demands a more rigorous explanation than he has yet provided.

Another strange notion in Butterfield’s presentation of our view is that we just pursue celibacy “because of tradition.” This isn’t really how we would describe it. We try to avoid gay sex because we believe it’s what God wants of us. The reason I haven’t pursued a sexual relationship with a male isn’t just because I want to respect tradition. It’s because I love Jesus. I believe that pursuing that kind of relationship, as with any other sin, would hurt my relationship with Christ. As a Protestant, the value of tradition for me is that it helps me understand what God has taught in Scripture. But Scripture is my ultimate authority, because it’s where I believe God has infallibly spoken.

And to deal with the sin in my own life, what I need is the Gospel, discipleship, and the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s certainly not just a matter of me doing the right thing in my own power because I trust tradition. We’re pitting the Gospel, discipleship, and the Holy Spirit, rather than tradition, against the lust of the flesh. I’m baffled why Rosaria Butterfield seems to think we claim otherwise.

I hope that Rosaria Butterfield, and anyone else who has seen the video, can come to a better understanding of where the PCA, RUF, and Spiritual Friendship stand. And I think Rosaria Butterfield owes these groups an apology for slandering them.

22 thoughts on “A Response to Rosaria Butterfield

  1. This is terribly disappointing and uncharacteristically (from what I’ve read of her in the past) sloppy generalization on her part. I hope she’ll listen to correction on this and clarify her remarks soon. I’ve never heard Wes Hill or anyone else’s arguments here as simply appealing to “tradition.” If they had, she’d be right – no tradition is going to ultimately be enough to compel someone to remain celibate – be you gay or straight. But I’ve always heard the Side B argument as appealing to Scriptural commands and teaching on sexuality and it’s proper context.

  2. Thank you for your clarifications. As someone not familiar with RUF or very familiar with the PCA, you provided a good corrective by giving the necessary context.
    God bless each of you as you work to provide theological reflection for the church on these issues, often at the cost of great personal vulnerability.

  3. I have read some of Wesley’s writings before and I have bad mouthed this website almost exactly for what she said about this website. Thank you for being clear about what you believe. I think it would be helpful if Wesley would communicate with such clarity. I have followed and read your site for quite and while and I have wondered why anyone would refer to them self as a “gay” Christian. Our Identity is as Sons and Daughters of the Father, not this or that type of Christian. Could someone tell me what is positive or the reason people would desire to refer to themselves as “gay” Christian? Thanks

    • When people refer to themselves as a gay Christian, it is not to say that that is their full identity or the sum of their desires. For me and many others, it is a way to express how our longings (sexual, relational, emotional) align. Our identity is still rooted and centered on Christ but we recognize & understand that our experiences and attractions, although disordered in some way, still make up a part of our identity and our testimony. The word gay, for many and myself, is a simple way to describe that we are primarily attracted to those of the same sex. There have many articles on this website that have addressed this specific question as well as Wesley Hill’s book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. I think this a great article by Joshua Gonnerman, who has written on this website frequently, on this subject in more detail: https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2012/05/why-i-call-myself-a-gay-christian
      I think identifying as a gay Christian while still affirming to a traditional view of sex allows me to build bridges between the church and the LGBTQ community as well. I am able to hold to a traditional understanding of sex while live out my vocation of being gay and celibate/singe. I think using the terms same-sex attraction holds a lot of baggage for people & the difference between identifying as “gay” or “experiencing same-sex attraction” is a matter of preference and semantics. I hope what I said makes sense! Let me know if you have further questions or anything.

  4. But she hasn’t slandered PCA, RUF, or SF. She is Side X, from start to finish. There is no clarification you could offer that would change her characterization of you. Nothing less than getting rid of all same-sex feelings and marrying people of the opposite sex will appeal her to you. In truth, when it comes to Side X, there isn’t much difference at all between Sides B and A.

    • Hi DJ. I think Rosaria Butterfield has unfairly characterized the PCA and SF, and I hope she reconsiders her statements. That said, I don’t think it’s fair to characterize her as Side X. She rejects the Freudian categories of straight/heterosexual and gay/homosexual, and thus I believe she also rejects the Freudian-based ex-gay narrative that views heterosexuality as the ultimate solution. She has also affirmed the goodness of the unmarried state: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/something-greater-than-marriage.

      • I recognize she tries to make a distinction between her beliefs and reparative therapy…but not all Side X people believe in reparative therapy. But really, it’s just Side X with a shiny new veneer (or actually an old one that’s just been brushed off again). At the end of the day, she believes that gay is a sickness, a sin at its very core, and thus needs to be expunged. That’s just another way of adopting Side X theology. But this is not new. In the early days of Side X, before reparative therapy had really taken hold, what Butterfield espouses and what they “ex-gay fathers” espoused was remarkably similar. The one minor distinction is that she tries to pretty it up with a postmodern constructionist flare by decrying various labels. But it’s the same old BS. Regardless, when you work from her framework of what sexuality is, what homosexuality, you see you can come to no other conclusion than the ones she stated in the video…thus she has not mischaracterized the PCA and SF at all. She very accurately pegged them both given her foundation. It seems what you really want to do is critique her foundation, and once accomplished, one could arrive at a more favorable view of PCA and SF…but that’s impossible given the moral framework she swims in.

      • My post was not saying that Rosaria Butterfield doesn’t like us, and was therefore slandering us. It was also not saying that she has disagreements with us, and is therefore slandering us.

        My post pointed out specific factual claims in her argument that are false. For example, her claim that side A (and not just side B) is getting popular support within PCA and RUF leadership. Or her claim that Wes is saying certain specific things he isn’t saying. And the details of her argument that there isn’t much difference between Wesley Hill and Matthew Vines, rather than just the claim that there isn’t much of a difference. That’s the misrepresentation that I think involves an immediate apology, whether or not she comes to recognize our approach as legitimate or not.

        I also think Rosaria has given hints at being open to more nuance than you’re indicating, even if not fully supporting something like SF’s approach. For example, in the same video, she also says: “The broad evangelical church condemned the feelings along with the people who embodied them, calling homosexual desires a willful choice, declaring people like me abominations or reprobates. I know no one who has chosen same-sex attraction”

        So I’m not comfortable just saying, “well, we can categorize her as side X, so now she can say whatever she wants and we’ll just ignore her.” That’s not fair to either her, or to people sympathetic with her arguments. And I believe we should try to be fair to others even if they’re not fair to us.

  5. I’m not sure why you think those elements (Rosaria’s critiquing the way the church has treated gays and the acknowledgement that gay desires aren’t willful choices) distinguishes her from Side X. In 5 years of ex-gay ministry, even having leadership roles within Exodus Youth and other ex-gay ministries, I never met a Side X person who did not say similar things. That’s not nuance, that’s just common sense (and it naturally occurs to anyone who is gay, because we all experienced how much we didn’t choose it). Just because she acknowledges common sense when most churches don’t doesn’t make her nuanced. Not in the slightest.

    I hear what you’re saying. I understand the arguments you’re making here, but the only one I can agree with is the notion that she claims Side B is popular in the PCA and at RUF. Aside from that though, everything else she said (and that you take issue with) is, I think, not factually false. From her (Side X) vantage point, you’ll see that everything she says follows from her (Side X) premises. There ISN’T much difference between Matthew and Wes, unless of course Wes has unequivocally stated that BEING “gay” is disordered, sinful, and therefore must be avoided at all costs (including identifying as gay, regardless of the reason). From a Side X standpoint, that’s factually TRUE of Side B people… you are a just a little too comfortable with “being” gay, and that’s dangerous…because if you’re comfortable with that, you will not enter the painful process of leaving it behind, of dying to it. Dying to acting on it is a poor facsimile to true dying to gayness. You must not “do” gay, of course. There you agree. But to her, you must not be gay either (this is the very foundation of Side X theology).

    You seem to think that Rosaria misunderstands the Side B position, and Wes in particular. I don’t think she does. She’s a pretty smart cookie, and pretty good with discourse analysis. It is of course possible that she’s only done a cursory reading of Wes and crew, or has only engaged you through others who’ve engaged you. But I don’t think that’s the case (again, smart cookie and pretty darn good at discourse analysis…it’s what her whole academic life was based on, and what her Christianity has been based on since). I think she understands exactly what you’re saying, but she does not agree that your articulation is an orthodox one. The problem you have with her is not about false claims, it’s that you disagree about orthodoxy. Orthodoxy to her is essentially Side X (not the reparative therapy version of it, but the “be ye transformed” and “once were” core version of Side X).

    • That’s fair. As I said in the post, from my perspective it seems pretty clear she has made specific false claims that tarnish the reputations of the PCA, RUF, and Spiritual Friendship, which is why I raised the “slander” charge. But as I said, if she knows something about the state of the PCA and RUF that I don’t, I’m open to hearing about it.

      I reached out directly to Rosaria Butterfield when I put up this post, but I haven’t heard back from her yet. I’m hoping she’ll be willing to have a dialogue about this.

  6. What bothered me was that her judgments against the PCA, RUF, and SF were largely conclusory, and not substantiated in any meaningful way.

    From what I can tell, her argument seems to be that these groups don’t consistently promote patriarchal understandings of gender-role hierarchies. After all, if patriarchy is normative (as certain Reformed Christians suggest), then this whole business of sexual orientation is much ado about nothing. Males and females simply need to enter into opposite-sex relationships and perform according to the set script for biblical manhood and womanhood.

    So, if that’s the basis of her criticism, then the PCA, RUF, and SF are certainly worthy of criticism. After all, such views represent a small minority in the PCA these days, and are practically non-existent among the RUF and SF crowd. For the most part, the PCA, RUF, and SF have come to a certain pragmatic peace with the fact that our culture views sexual orientation as an important element in constructing social identities and forming committed relationships with others in a social context. Never mind that the proponents of patriarchy tend to rely heavily on post-Freudian understandings of sexuality. So, in the end, they’re not really promoting patriarchy or “biblical manhood,” but are instead promoting something more akin to “compulsory heterosexuality.”

    I read Butterfield’s book, and found her to be fairly inconsistent. She does appear to recognize the dangers of promoting “compulsory heterosexuality,” and seems to be promoting someone more along the lines of a pre-Freudian notion of marriage. Even so, she is reluctant to distance herself from or proffer any meaningful criticism against the CBMW crowd or other proponents of “compulsory heterosexuality.” After all, she like receives most of her speaking invitations and book sales from members of that crowd.

    As I’ve previously noted on here, I’m not an orientation essentialist. Despite our culture’s views concerning the importance of sexual orientation, I see it as a rather unhelpful concept. So, I do have some reservations concerning the gay Christian movement’s tendency to accept as a given our culture’s views concerning orientation essentialism. I’d rather see us reject such views in favor of something more akin to what Michael Hannon has proposed in his writings. Even so, I don’t see Butterfield’s patriarchy as a goal. As a Protestant, I see marriage as a purely pragmatic arrangement whose contours should be defined entirely by principles of contract law. I feel as though human sexuality is too complex to find its embodiment in some very limited number of social scripts. Therefore, I prefer that we help people to make wiser choices among a wider array of options. There may be some parties to whom sexual attraction is important, and to whom it would play an essential role in any decision to commit to someone else in marriage. By contrast, I rarely ever experience sexual attraction to anyone, and see it as serving no useful role whatsoever in structuring how I relate to people.

    • The notion that one is not gay (i.e., that gay is not who you are because you were made in the image of God) has always been foundational to many ex-gays’ belief systems. This quote of hers positions her quite comfortably within the ex-gay realm (the question of gay identity – whether you ARE gay, or merely have gay inclinations/temptations – has always been an internal debate among factions within the Side X world).

      • I agree it’s still a variation of ex-gay but, presumably, not one that requires marriage as proof of sanctification

      • I’d concur with that. I think she’s stated explicitly that she doesn’t believe marriage is necessary (or even preferable) for sanctification.

      • It’s probably worth noting that the term “gay” can refer to (1) a collection of underlying attractions, largely governed by epigenetic factors and relatively resistant to change, and (2) a particular set of social scripts sometimes adopted by those who possess such attractions.

        In my experience, the ex-gay movement tends to deny (1), which thereby renders (2) moot. In other words, the ex-gay movement believes that people’s underlying attractions can change. In that sense, the ex-gay movement believes sexual orientation is a useful concept in a social context, and that the only acceptable social scripts are those that are consistent with the underlying attractions we generally associate with heterosexuality. That view is consistent with the notion of “compulsory heterosexuality.” I would place Burk in this camp, although he tends to use different nomenclature than the ex-gay crowd. Even so, he ends up in largely the same place.

        I view Butterfield as accepting (1) but denying the necessity of (2). In and of itself, I don’t see this as a particularly problematic position. After all, that’s the basic thesis of Foucault’s work and lies largely in line with the thinking of most gender theorists for the past two decades. Butterfield’s problem is that she isn’t too creative when it comes to imagining what scripts may be available to Christians to whom (1) applies. In fact, she just adopts the same rigidly hierarchical social scripts that are promoted by the “compulsory heterosexuality” crowd. So, she repudiates the underlying thesis of the ex-gay movement, but then ends up in roughly the same place. To her credit, she doesn’t join Burk and his ilk in ontologically privileging heterosexual attractions. She just believes that the Bible promotes patriarchy, and that one’s attractions are largely irrelevant to that.

        So, I don’t disagree with Butterfield when it comes to her take on the whole “gay” question. I actually agree with her. I just don’t accept her theology. That’s where I think she needs to clarify herself. I suspect that her rejection of SF is two-fold. First, I suspect that she believes that it concedes too much on (2), which is a point of agreement I have with her. I too believe that SF doesn’t embrace queer theory enough. (Then, again, I’m saying that as someone who’s asexual.) Second, I suspect that she just believes that Christianity only permits patriarchal, opposite-sex relationships as the only model of committed relationships. I disagree with her on that point.

      • That said, Butterfield’s coziness with guys like Burk does make me question how material the distinction is between her views and those of the “compulsory heterosexuality” crowd. In that sense, it’s unclear why non-fundamentalist organizations like the PCA would have much to do with her.

  7. Identifying myself as a gay christian is more about being free to identify with Christ even though I am a lesbian and despite what certain Christians may say about whether or not my faith is true. So I label myself a gay christian to validate that I am in Christ and I don’t need to be straight to be whole, healthy or christian.
    What Rosaria Butterfiled is rejecting in my mind is not so much whether or not she still is attracted to women (however infinitesimal that may be now) rather she is rejecting the culture she came from after her train wreck. Those are my impressions.Therefore I am not surprised by her statements at all. She doesn’t and cannot identify with the gay community anymore lest she have a clash with the reality of those two worlds co-exsisting together in harmony.
    To me this whole thing comes down to a matter of conscience. Some will never be at peace with their sexuality because of how their hearts and minds have been conditioned by their upbringing, faith tradition or experiences. We have to be sensitive to that– both those who believe marriage is only between a man and a woman and those who believe two men can marry and exhibit good fruit through their relationship by being faithful members of the church body.
    blessings and peace !

  8. As I read through Butterfield’s and Burk’s statements, it reminded me again of what particularly annoys me about that crowd. It also explains why I’m no longer an evangelical.

    Neither Burk nor Butterfield seem interested in coming to a theologically nuanced understanding of this notion of homosexuality. Rather, Burk and Butterfield seem to be much more interested in defending a particular position from attack. But that position, if one examines it closely, is something akin to what Strauss would call a “noble lie.” It’s something that’s close to the truth, but represents a truth that’s been stripped of nuance and gray. It operates on the principle that clarity is usually more important than accuracy.

    Ross Douthat penned a great piece a few years ago, entitled, “Social Liberalism as Class Warfare.” Since the 1980s, the cognitive elite has become its own distinct subculture. One of the hallmarks of that subculture–among all of its members–is a rejection of explicit moralizing, and particularly of “noble lies” intended to encapsulate moral rules of thumb. After all, when elites think of same-sex marriage, they’re not thinking of Castro. Rather, they’re thinking of educated, wealthy gays who work as bankers, lawyers, accountants, etc.

    Evangelicalism is a middle-class phenomenon. It serves a populace that needs guardrails, and who lack the professional restraint and self-discipline that one finds among the cognitive elite. I travel extensively for work. Recently, I had to travel to a nearby rural county to attend a court hearing. The week before I had been in Shanghai and Tokyo. It struck me that I felt far more out of place in this rural county 30 miles form my home than I felt in Shanghai or Tokyo. The many billboards warning of the dangers of opioid abuse made it clear that I was entering a world that was completely foreign to my social world.

    I say that because I don’t think we have a common language any more for discussing issues of sexuality. I’m asexual. Even so, I find relationships with women to be overly complicated. And I generally find myself being more emotionally and aesthetically attracted to other guys. I generally couldn’t care less what women think about me; I care a lot what guys think about me. If I were ever to enter into a committed relationship, it would likely be a same-sex relationship. I would describe my attraction tendencies as complex, but they’re probably no less complex than anyone else’s. I expect my church to arm me with wisdom to navigate that complexity, not to tell me noble lies that push me to deny it. In that sense, I believe that these are decisions that are simply best addressed at a local level within local churches. Churches that minister to cognitive elites are likely to handle this differently from churches that minister to middle-class non-elites. And local churches need to have the freedom to do that.

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