When I was a child, I was equally fascinated and terrified by Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. In it, villagers rebuke a young shepherd boy for his repeated prank of crying out in warning of a wolf when there was no wolf in sight. Finally the day came when there really was a wolf. “Wolf! Wolf! There’s a wolf!”, the boy yelled. But nobody came. Depending on which version of the fable you read, the story ends with either the sheep, or the boy himself, being devoured! As I said, fascinating and terrifying!

The fable came to mind as I scrolled through seemingly endless social media responses to Josh Butler’s (now removed) TGC (US) article, ‘Sex Won’t Save You (But It Points to the One Who Will)’. Many readers considered aspects of the article’s argument to be very problematic. I was one of them. Indeed, I found myself quite troubled by numerous elements of Butler’s article.[1] However, I also found myself troubled by some of the forceful criticism he received from various quarters—including the critique of many of his single Christian readers.

Why were these single readers so dissatisfied? Because they understood his argument—namely, that “sex is an icon of Christ and the Church”—to be synonymous with saying that sexually chaste single Christians are less able to fully know and experience Christ’s love than married Christians. In other words, they saw him to be intentionally marginalising and excluding singles.

Why was I so dissatisfied with their line of critique? Because I don’t believe Butler was clearly guilty of that charge. That is to say, for all the problems I had with specific aspects of his article about the spiritual significance of sex, I don’t agree that in writing such an article he was automatically being detrimental or offensive to single Christians. In fact, just the opposite.


Gateways and Signposts

You see, in order to properly consider the spiritual significance of marriage (and sex within it), we need to be able to tell the difference between a gateway and a signpost. As we read the one-flesh relationship of marriage is ultimately a profound mystery that pertains to Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:31-32), we need to be able to discern whether that means marriage is a gateway into that mystery, or a signpost that points towards it.

If the one-flesh relationship of marriage is the gateway to experiencing God’s love—that is, if being married (and having sex with your spouse) provides you with a privileged internal encounter of God’s love—then yes, those who experience marital sex gain a deeper and fuller experience of God’s love. But if it is a signpost which points outward, not inward—to that which is greater than itself (i.e. the one-flesh intimacy between Christ and the Church)—then the profound significance of marriage (and sex within it) is not to be found in actual having or doing, but in genuine apprehension or understanding.

This means that people like myself, those who have never been married, are equally capable of apprehending and understanding marriage as a mysterious foreshadowing of the intimacy of the heavenly marriage. We don’t have to have lived it in order to get it. In fact it’s possible that in some ways not having lived it might mean we have a deeper capacity to get it! For example, not having experienced the lesser good thing can give singles a more urgent longing and greater sense of anticipation for the better and ultimate good thing. In this sense, chaste singles might be uniquely placed to exhort our married friends to not get hung up on the trailer break-downs on YouTube as together we await the full feature in all its cinematic glory.

In his article, Butler wasn’t trying to argue that having sex was the gateway to a deeper or fuller experience of Christ’s love. Rather he was attempting to argue that sex (in marriage) is a signpost that points to that love.[2]

The forcefulness of the critique that his article excluded and diminished single Christians concerned me because it suggested we shouldn’t spend any substantial time dwelling upon the profound mystery in Ephesians 5:31–32 if singles feel left out by us doing so. But what a tragic loss that would be! God has designed the marital one-flesh relationship between a husband and wife to be a gift to us all. Your marriages are intended to be a profound witness to me of the intimate and eternal relationship that we as the church will share with our saviour. We must not be reticent to faithfully plumb the depths of that mystery, so far as the mystery will allow itself to be faithfully plumbed. Whether we are married or single, in that mystery is located a deeply beautiful picture of our shared eternity!


The Problem with False Alarms

All of which brings me back to the fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. To me, the largely knee-jerk critique of Butler by and on behalf of single Christians seemed to be a cry of “Wolf! Wolf!” when there was no wolf. He was accused of saying something that I just don’t think he said—at least not in that article. And that’s a problem because the moral of the story is that the more times you raise a false alarm, the harder it is to get people to take you seriously when there really is something to be alarmed by.

And there are indeed times to be alarmed on this count. Too often, evangelical writers, preachers, leaders and teachers do claim that being married provides Christians with a deeper and richer personal experience of God’s love. The signpost is too regularly turned into a gateway.

Consider, for example, a comment from an entirely different TGC (US) article, one published back in 2019. In this heart-wrenching piece, ‘I Feel Invisible After My Wife’s Death’, pastor Joshua Vincent, courageously writes of the very real and very fresh grief he experienced following the death of his beloved wife, Cari. As he shared the sense of invisibility he felt following her death, Vincent (I believe, unintentionally) evidenced how we evangelicals do sometimes view marriage to be the actual means by which we gain a deeper experience of God’s love. I observed just this when writing about Vincent’s article in my book on singleness:

As he grieves his wife, Vincent reflects that she was the one person who truly, accurately, and always saw him for who he was. It was in being so perfectly seen by her—and thus, also perfectly known—that he felt he could be truly visible to other people … However, what Vincent writes next reveals that it is not only relational fulfilment with other humans which is on view, but also relational fulfilment with God himself.

After speaking about his wife being the one “who saw me and was for me no matter what,” he immediately continues with the assertion that being that seen and loved is as close as any of us will ever come to experiencing the love of God for us in Christ”.  That one seemingly innocuous (though deeply heartfelt) sentence, published by one of the most prominent evangelical online platforms of the present moment, reveals something very important about how the contemporary discourse regards marriage. It is not simply (and rightly) that the marital relationship remains a wonderfully unique theological metaphor by which all Christians might gain genuine insight into the depths and character of Christ’s love for his church. Rather, marriage is considered to be the actual mechanism by which any Christian person may hope to encounter that love for themselves. [3]

This was no false alarm. On this occasion there really was a clear and present theological danger—unintentional as I believe it to have been. To read that (a good) marriage is “as close as any of us will ever come to experiencing the love of God for us in Christ” can be absolutely crushing to the unmarried Christian. To be told that your singleness (a situation often largely beyond your control) means you have a diminished experience of God’s love can be nothing short of harrowing. But more: it is not true. Marriage is a wonderful gift from God, not least because it helps us to better understand the depths of God’s love for his people. But marriage (and sex) is not the gateway to experiencing that divine love.

Such a gateway is found in Christ alone: being born again in him, found in our union with him; in the promise that his resurrection guarantees our resurrection, in his Spirit dwelling within us as a deposit guaranteeing what is to come.

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep … I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.  They will come in and go out, and find pasture. (John 10:7–9)

When someone claims that the way to enter into a deeper and fuller experience of the love of God is through anything other than Jesus himself, then we ought to raise the alarm. Loudly. Clearly. Unmistakably.  But be warned! The more times we raise false alarms the more likely it is others may not be inclined to pay heed to our true warnings of real theological and spiritual danger, nor to rush to our assistance as we plead the need for  faithful correction.

[1] For example, I believe he made a category error by conflating sexual union itself with the specific marital one-flesh relationship. In Ephesians 5:31–32, it is the latter of these—not the former—which the apostle Paul calls a profound mystery. That is, the Bible does not say that sex is a foreshadowing of Christ and the Church but that marriage (the exclusive, committed and lifelong one-flesh relationship between one man and one woman) is that foreshadowing. I found Butler’s confusion of these two constructs very concerning.

[2] It must be said that as I went on to read the complete first chapter of Butler’s forthcoming book (from  which the article was excerpted), I became concerned that his fuller argument might ultimately lead to a picture of sex as gateway rather than signpost. While Butler explicitly rejects that notion in a section on singleness, it seems his (problematic) argument about the “iconic” significance of sex increasingly blurs the distinction between gateway and signpost.  However, the limited excerpt provided in the original article, to which all that initial critique was responding to, did not convey this.

[3] Taken from pages 53-54 in The Meaning of Singleness by Danielle Treweek. Copyright © 2023 by Danielle Elizabeth Treweek. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.