Rosaria Butterfield's Shift From One Extreme to Another

By Matthew Vines

June 24, 2024

In 2012, Rosaria Butterfield published The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith. Her spiritual memoir chronicled her conversion to Christianity after identifying as a lesbian and being in same-sex relationships from her late twenties to her mid-thirties. As a result of her writing and speaking, Butterfield quickly became a popular voice among non-affirming Christians.

Initially, Butterfield maintained important nuances in her views. While she identified as a “former lesbian” and strongly opposed same-sex relationships, she also condemned conversion therapy, called for greater empathy toward LGBTQ people, and asserted there was “no shame” in disclosing one’s same-sex attraction to one’s church.

I regard Butterfield as a sister in Christ and am grateful for her conversion to Christianity. Unfortunately, in recent years, her message has changed dramatically, and I have serious concerns about many of the ideas she is now promoting. Given Butterfield’s influence among non-affirming Christians, I believe it is important for people to understand what she is currently teaching—and how her beliefs have shifted in alarming ways over the past several years. Most notably:

  • She has disavowed her earlier rejection of conversion therapy.
  • Her new message to LGBTQ people is to “get back in the closet,” “pray the gay away,” and reflect on how “shameful and despicable” it is even to be attracted to the same sex.
  • She now argues that even abusive heterosexual behavior is morally superior to loving same-sex relationships.
  • Most disturbingly, in her new book, she endorses the use of physical violence to address theological error.

I recently joined Tim Whitaker of The New Evangelicals for a detailed exploration of Butterfield’s current views. This article provides an overview of some of the key points of our discussion, but I recommend watching the full video for a more comprehensive analysis:

Butterfield’s Former Identity as a “Political” Lesbian

When Butterfield says that she is “no longer a lesbian,” many assume she’s claiming her sexual orientation has changed.1 However, Butterfield has never used the term “lesbian” according to its standard definition. As she has written:

“I never did call lesbianism my sexual orientation… I believed it was an informed choice—and part of normal sexual fluidity.”2

This perspective differs sharply from that of most gay and lesbian people, who experience their same-sex attraction in a fixed and unchosen way. Butterfield’s lesbian identity, by contrast, was rooted in her political ideology. Butterfield was a self-described radical feminist and a professor of queer theory, an academic discipline that seeks to deconstruct all norms, especially those related to gender and sexuality. As she has written, at that time, she believed “marriage was slavery.”3 Consequently, she adopted a lesbian identity to avoid becoming “a commodity under male headship or patriarchy.”4 Despite having boyfriends and calling herself heterosexual in college, she later chose to date women because she believed lesbianism was “more moral” than heterosexuality, as “everything about it was based on egalitarianism.”5

In 1996, while identifying as a lesbian, Butterfield wrote in her book The Politics of Survivorship that she rejected the concept of sexual orientation as an innate, biological reality. Instead, she explained, she chose to pursue same-sex relationships “as political practice and choice.”6 This approach to identifying as a lesbian is known as political lesbianism, a fringe concept rooted in radical feminism advocating for women to reject heterosexual relationships to subvert patriarchy.

Butterfield’s academic background in queer theory further informed her approach to lesbianism as a political choice. She wrote:

“Because we were leaders in poststructural feminism and Queer Theory, disciplines that understood sexuality as a social construct, we situated ourselves—for good or bad, right or wrong—in the world of free choice. We claimed psychological proof that gender and sexuality were social constructs, and as such, matters of personal expression that can be changed, resisted, or shaped as our own individual sense of personal integrity and desire allowed.”7

This understanding of lesbianism starkly contrasts with most lesbians’ experience of their sexual orientation as an intrinsic, unchangeable part of themselves. Recognizing this distinction is crucial when considering Butterfield’s story. As Butterfield has described in her books, she began identifying as a lesbian at age 28 for political reasons, and she stopped identifying as a lesbian at age 36 when she developed new religious and political beliefs. While her story is genuine, it isn’t representative of most gay and lesbian people—nor is it an example of someone who was exclusively same-sex-attracted becoming heterosexual.

Butterfield’s New Message: “Get Back in the Closet” and “Pray the Gay Away”

In 2014, Butterfield condemned conversion therapy as a “heresy” and a “modern version of the prosperity gospel.”8 However, in her 2023 book Five Lies of Our Anti-Christian Age, she recanted that view, calling those statements “the most misguided words I have written as a Christian.”9

In the same vein, she criticized the “‘pray the gay away’ philosophy” as striking “an unbiblical chord” in 2015.10 But now, she endorses it as the appropriate message for Christians with same-sex attraction. She approvingly described internalizing this message at the church she attended in her 30s: “No one told me to pray the gay away. Because every sermon told me to drive a fresh nail into every sin every day, no one needed to.”11

Butterfield has also significantly changed her message to LGBTQ Christians. In 2015, she advised Christians with same-sex attraction “to share this so that people in your church community can be your friend in a real way,” emphasizing that “there is no shame in truth-telling.”12 Her current counsel, however, promotes much more secrecy and isolation:

“Get back in the closet. If anybody here is listening and you’re struggling, get back in the closet. What anyone struggling with homosexual desires needs to do is you need to tell your pastor, you need to tell your elders, and you need to tell a couple of close friends. And you need to really cut the ties of every form of entertainment that is minimizing the danger of sexual sin. None of that will happen if you come out of the closet.”13

Her message about shame has also changed. She now states that repentance for those with “homosexual desires” involves “taking very, very, very seriously how shameful and despicable that sin was.”14 Notably, she now argues that even being attracted to the same sex—not just acting on same-sex attractions—is “shameful and despicable.”

Likewise, while she previously described celibate Christians who identify as gay as “faithful brothers and sisters,” she now claims that they are “heretics” for not repenting of their same-sex attraction itself.15

Butterfield’s New Hierarchy of Sin

Another concerning shift involves Butterfield’s view of the relative severity of sexual sins. In her 2015 book Openness Unhindered, she explicitly rejected the notion that same-sex relationships are inherently worse than sinful heterosexual behavior. She wrote, “Does it necessarily follow that homosexual sexual sin is on a higher plane of evil? Many Christians draw that conclusion, but pride, lust, bitterness, anger, and a multitude of other sins lie behind our sexual sins in a way that prohibits sweeping generalizations as to the evil of one over and against all others.”

To illustrate her point, she provided a stark example: “A heterosexually married man who rapes and abuses his wife is committing horrific evil that is in no way mitigated by the fact that it is heterosexual. God forbid that anyone might suggest otherwise.”16

However, in her 2023 book Five Lies of Our Anti-Christian Age, Butterfield completely reversed this position. She now asserts that any same-sex relationship is inherently worse than any heterosexual sin, regardless of the nature of the acts involved:

“[H]omosexual sin is a violation against both God’s pattern of creation and the moral law of God, while heterosexual sin violates the moral law of God exclusively… Because homosexuality is sinful at the level of pattern and practice, it is always on a lower and more base sin level than heterosexual sin.”17

This new position leads to the disturbing implication that even the most egregious heterosexual acts are morally superior to committed same-sex marriages. Although Butterfield previously recognized and rejected the perverse logic of this stance, she now embraces it.

Butterfield’s Endorsement of Violence to Address Theological Error

The most alarming aspect of Butterfield’s recent work is her endorsement of physical violence as a response to theological disagreement. In her latest book, while advocating for women’s submission to husbands, elders, and civil authorities, she argues that “[s]ubmission doesn’t imply brainless passivity.”18 To illustrate this point, she recounts a shocking 17th-century incident as an example of “biblical submission:”

“Scottish Reformer Jenny Geddes was acting in submission when, one Lord’s Day, July 23, 1637, she threw the stool on which she sat at the preacher’s head after the unsuspecting preacher—James Hannay—opened the Scottish Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Jenny hurled the chair at the state-sponsored pastor because the Bible had taught her that the state doesn’t run the church, the state doesn’t sponsor the pastor, and the state-sponsored prayer book contained serious theological errors. Jenny knew her doctrine well, and she showed herself to be quite a biblically submissive woman in her historic stool-hurling…. In fact, Jenny Geddes’ action launched the English Civil War.”19

Butterfield praises Geddes, claiming that “throwing the stool revealed Jenny’s submission to God rather than unmitigated rage and anger.”20 Despite the fact that this violent act sparked a church riot and ultimately a war resulting in nearly 200,000 deaths, Butterfield not only defends it but encourages contemporary Christian women to emulate such behavior:

“Calling a woman to submission is calling her to be like Jenny Geddes in times of war.”21

Butterfield has insisted that the current church debate about same-sex attraction and relationships is itself a “war.”22 Moreover, she has publicly expressed desires to physically harm Christians she disagrees with, saying of one leader, “If I had had a brick in my hand, I would have probably thrown it at him.”23 In another instance, she said, “This is where you want to throw a stool at somebody’s head or an Easy-Bake oven… Use whatever prop the Lord gives us.”24 While one might hope that her rhetoric here was hyperbolic, her explicit endorsement of violence against one’s theological opponents in her book is deeply disturbing. It is also profoundly antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, who warned his disciples that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

Shifting From One Extreme to Another

Rosaria Butterfield’s ideological journey has been marked by a shift from one extreme to another. As a “political” lesbian, she held radical views: marriage was slavery, lesbianism was morally superior to heterosexuality, and sexual orientation was a mutable social construct. Ironically, although she disagrees with me now, she also would have disagreed with me then, as I believe marriage is good, same-sex relationships and heterosexual relationships are morally equivalent, and queer theory is fundamentally flawed.

Becoming a Christian should indeed cause us to reevaluate our beliefs, so Butterfield changing many of her views is to be expected. In her 2012 memoir, however, she expressed caution about Christians who were “so busy sharpening their intellectual sword that they lacked compassion and empathy for people who didn’t already share their worldview.”25 Although she had already embraced a new Christian worldview, she was determined to avoid developing the “narrow walls of a fear-driven theology” that she observed in some believers.26 Notably, she demonstrated self-awareness about the challenge this posed given her susceptibility to extremes:

“Had my sin not preceded me in a public way and had my repentance not been my lifeboat, had I found myself neatly protected within the confines and choice-making of Christian family and community, I today would probably have been the greatest of all Pharisees.”27

Unfortunately, Butterfield’s earlier nuance has disappeared, and she has shifted to the opposite extreme of where she began. She hasn’t simply changed her views about same-sex relationships. She now asserts that same-sex attraction itself is “shameful and despicable,” that the worst heterosexual sins are morally superior to same-sex marriages, and that physical violence is an acceptable response to theological disagreement.

While I continue to regard Butterfield as my sister in Christ, I am deeply concerned about her ideological shift. I sincerely hope she can rediscover the gentler spirit that shaped her earlier reflections. At the same time, it is important for Christians who have valued her testimony to recognize both that her former identity as a “political” lesbian has little in common with the experiences of most gay and lesbian people and that many of her views have changed dramatically in the past several years alone. Before endorsing her current message, Christians should fully understand what it is.

References
  1. Butterfield, Rosaria. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith. Crown & Covenant Publications, 2012, p. 24.
  2. Butterfield, Rosaria. Five Lies of Our Anti-Christian Age. Crossway, 2023, p. 45.
  3. Butterfield. Secret Thoughts, p. 96.
  4. Butterfield, Rosaria. Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ. Crown & Covenant Publications, 2015, p. 145.
  5. Ibid., p. 196, n. 1.
  6. Champagne, Rosaria. The Politics of Survivorship: Incest, Women’s Literature, and Feminist Theory. NYU Press, 1996, p. 199, n. 13.
  7. Butterfield. Openness Unhindered, p. 109.
  8. Butterfield, Rosaria. “You Are What—and How—You Read.” The Gospel Coalition, 2014.
  9. Butterfield. Five Lies, p. 19.
  10. Butterfield. Openness Unhindered, p. 55.
  11. Butterfield. Five Lies, p. 48.
  12. Butterfield. Openness Unhindered, p. 111.
  13. Butterfield, Rosaria. “Presbygirls #5: On Charity w/ Rosaria Butterfield.” Presbycast Live, YouTube, April 28, 2022. (See 24:24 mark.)
  14. Ibid. (See 38:44 mark.)
  15. Butterfield. Openness Unhindered, p. 116; Childers, Alisa and Butterfield, Rosaria. “Rosaria Butterfield Sounds the Alarm on the Threat of Side B “Gay Christianity.” The Alisa Childers Podcast, YouTube, February 11, 2024. (See 21:13 mark.)
  16. Butterfield. Openness Unhindered, pp. 99-100.
  17. Butterfield. Secret Thoughts, p. 304.
  18. Ibid., p. 162.
  19. Ibid., p. 163.
  20. Ibid., p. 163.
  21. Ibid, p. 163.
  22. Childers, Alisa and Butterfield, Rosaria. “Rosaria Butterfield Sounds the Alarm on the Threat of Side B “Gay Christianity.” The Alisa Childers Podcast, YouTube, February 11, 2024. (See 1:02:19 mark: “This is war. If you don’t like the metaphor of war, I’m sorry, but it’s a pretty biblical one.”)
  23. Butterfield, Rosaria. “Presbygirls #5: On Charity w/ Rosaria Butterfield.” Presbycast Live, YouTube, April 28, 2022. (See 48:27 mark).
  24. Ibid. (See 13:28 mark.)
  25. Butterfield. Secret Thoughts, p. 117.
  26. Ibid., p. 127.
  27. Ibid., p. 72.