Rosaria Butterfield knits. Balls of yarn at her feet become fingerless mohair mittens for her family of six. But that’s not the only kind of knitting she does. She also wields her needles of theology and experience against the tangled mess of modern sexuality. The result is order where chaos tends to rule.
This order is timely. When it comes to same-sex anything, the church can appear awkward and clumsy. As the pressure mounts, we Christians fumble around with our Bibles, unsure of how to connect the truths in God’s Word to cultural discourse or personal struggles.
The church would be hard pressed to find someone better than Butterfield to help us make sense of our uncertainty. Once a tenured English professor, she approaches the issue of sexuality with notable scholastic rigor; her theology is profound. Once a committed lesbian, she empathizes with those in the grips of same-sex attraction; her compassion abounds. In her new book Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ [20 quotes], we benefit from both.
We don’t merely tamper with our bodies when we plunge into sexual sin; we tamper with the core of who we are. Sexual sin quickly transforms into sin of identity. So Butterfield—now a pastor’s wife, homeschooling mom, author, and speaker—doesn’t begin with a microscopic look at today’s questions of sexuality. Her first order of business is to beckon us back to a biblical understanding of true Christian identity.
Three questions guide her argument: (1) Who am I? (2) What am I like? (3) What do I need? With the theological thrust of a seminary class tempered by the approachability of a memoir, Butterfield establishes our union with Christ—not our experiences—as the preeminent category of identity. To be clear, she never dismisses experience. She just demands we place it in right relationship to what was won for us by the blood of Christ.
For every believer, our sexuality is subservient to our Christianity.
Sin Is Everyone’s Reality
As someone married for seven years and having never struggled with same-sex attraction, I didn’t expect to find my own sin staring back at me as I turned the pages of Openness Unhindered. But there it was. Butterfield guides us all to the highest peak in our hearts and points out the sin-marred landscape. “Sin thrives in the way that God declared in Genesis 4:7: it has agency, it knows my name, it lurks, it seeks me out and it dwells in and with me,” she observes. “And I am a believer” (65).
Butterfield doesn’t present the universality of sin so as to overlook the pet issues of the day, however. She just aims to direct convicted persons to grace through the practice of repentance. We tend to skip the repentance part, but she won’t have that. Her exposition of sin is an invitation to true confession and tenacious self-control.
Words matter. They carry our convictions with them. So Butterfield devotes two chapters to challenging the vocabulary—and therefore the concepts—of sexual identity. She chases the development of sexual orientation through history, and then chases the words associated with it—like “gay” and “homosexual”—through their semantic range.
In her pursuit, she proves that words matter. Unfolding the intricacies of sexual identity, Butterfield answers questions like:
- How do we approach the topic of “gay Christians”?
- When does homosexual desire turn from temptation to sin?
- How does original sin affect sexuality?
With each answer she knits together both confidence in God’s design and confidence in his love for us.
I imagine Butterfield didn’t flinch when she wrote that sexual orientation is a term that “extends the definition of sexuality beyond its biblical confines” (96). Elsewhere she remarks, “The meaning and interpretation of words in context of grammar and syntax transcend our good intentions.” Such statements upset our culture’s praise of sexual identity. They also expose the weight of our words.
Butterfield’s example challenges us to throw around the right kind of weight. The Word of God must inform our choice of words.
Gospel Words for Gospel People
Butterfield makes clear that wholesale acceptance of sexual orientation language does Christians a disservice. I’ve spent hours mulling over the statement: “Sexual orientation fronts a category of personhood that privileges natural desires over redeemed ones” (107). Affirming these concepts upsets the truth of Christian identity, the truth of the gospel of grace.
One of the astounding strengths of Openness Unhindered is that Butterfield doesn't stop at explaining the implications of the gospel; she applies it too. After affirming the personhood defined by God, she affirms the people loved by him: “If you are a child of God, washed in the blood of Christ, you should never again be defined by or reduced to an ‘orientation’ linked to a pattern of even persistent temptations” (108).
What’s at stake isn’t mere etymology—it’s the truth of the gospel. Blood-bought people belong to Christ, not to their sexuality, and we should treat them accordingly. Throughout Openness Unhindered, believers who fail to extend grace, shun those with homosexual desires, or refuse to see their own sin find a harsh critique. Judgment, fear, and self-righteousness are unbecoming of redeemed rebels. They breed strife where unity should be found. They aren’t the mark of gospel people. So what is, then? True community.
Butterfield’s final chapter is a short treatise on this topic. She portrays what it looks like to live in light of our true identity in Christ—to love each other fiercely and without compromise. “Christian love that is stronger than the lines that divide believers is the only response,” she contends. I hope her next book is an extended treatment of community.
More Than Answers
In Openness Unhindered, Butterfield sets out to equip and encourage those dealing with sexual temptation, guide unbelievers to Christ’s hand, and rouse believers blind to their own sin. If you come to the book seeking answers about one of today’s most controversial topics, you will certainly find some. But you’ll leave with more than answers.
You’ll leave with the hope of the gospel.
Rosaria Butterfield. Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ. Pittsburgh, PA: Crown & Covenant Publications, 2015. 206 pp. $13.00.