It is an understatement to say that the question of homosexuality stirs up controversy among Christians today. Every month, we see news of various denominations and churches either struggling to come to agreement or taking opposite sides on questions related to sexual morality, love, fidelity, and marriage.
But the controversy extends far beyond the two camps of “affirming” and “non-affirming.” Because homosexuality raises so many related questions – self-identity, unconditional acceptance, church discipline – there is often controversy even within the “non-affirming” camps on the best way to move forward.
Preston Sprinkle on “People To Be Loved”
Preston Sprinkle belongs in the “non-affirming camp.” His book People to be Loved is the result of a long process of studying the Bible’s teachings on sexuality and coming to the conclusion that Scripture does prohibit same-sex relationships among Jesus’ followers. But Sprinkle has also listened carefully to many who belong to the LGBT community, and he sees how the church has often failed to respond to people with grace and truth. “I stand on truth and I stand on love,” he writes. “Figuring out how to stand on both is hard work.”
Indeed. Figuring out how to stand on both can also lead to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. In the past few months, I’ve watched as Preston has been assailed by LGBT activists for his biblical conclusions, no matter how graciously and winsomely he has sought to communicate the truth. If I were to summarize much of the disdain I saw coming from the LGBT activist wing of social media, I’d put it like this: You’re a straight white man, and so you really just need to never talk about this again.
Meanwhile, there are conservative Christians who oppose Preston because they believe his conclusions on a few questions surrounding identity to be too accommodating. For example, Anne Paulk’s review of Preston’s book focuses almost exclusively on one chapter of People to Be Loved, where Preston accepts the legitimacy of using “gay” as a descriptor among faithful Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction. Paulk, who once called herself gay, worries that self-labeling in this way harms a person at the level of identity. (See Preston’s response here.) I appreciate Paulk’s concern, but it is unfair to focus a review so strongly on this question when it overshadows the bigger picture of what this book is and does.
So what is the overall message of People to Be Loved? It’s that “homosexuality is not an issue to be solved; it’s about people who need to love and be loved” (20). How do you love people? By relentlessly showing both grace and truth.
What Does The Bible Say?
The first half of this book is a journey with Preston through the Scriptures, as he leads us to “lay aside our assumptions and genuinely seek to know what the Bible, not our tradition, says about homosexuality” (10). Preston is a Bible-guy, and a Reformation-guy as well, meaning that he believes Scripture stands over tradition, and so he returns to the text in order to understand and resubmit himself to the Word of God.
Most helpful in Preston’s survey of the Bible is the attention he places on creation, on God’s making of humanity male and female, on marriage, and how our relationships shine light on the gospel. He also does the historical work of showing what same-sex relationships were like in ancient times. And he makes a vitally important point when discussing Jesus’ sexual ethic:
“If we say that Christians should endorse same-sex relations, then we will need to recreate a rather un-Jewish Jesus and an un-Jewish New Testament” (68).
Indeed. And that is why some are making the case today that Jesus then was bound by his Jewish upbringing and held ancient perspectives on sexuality, but that Jesus now would affirm what 21st century revisionists say is the way forward.
In some places, I disagreed with Preston’s biblical exegesis, most notably his claim that homosexuality (at least as we understand it today) is not in view in the account Sodom and Gomorrah. Preston is right that there were multiple sins at work in Sodom’s wickedness, as the Scriptures indicate, but we shouldn’t overlook the interpretive support throughout Jewish and Church history for the idea that homosexual practice was one of those sins. (Preston interacts with Kevin DeYoung on this topic. For further reading, check out the chapter “Sodom’s Sins” in Unchanging Witness.)
In places like this, I found that Preston’s “Bible-only” or “Bible vs. Tradition” mindset hindered rather than helped his project. When he claims that “for many years, the church stood on the wrong side of the question of slavery,” he is oversimplifying the subject in a way that distorts the true picture. Which church? What kind of slavery? All Christians everywhere were wrong on race-based slavery? My denomination was started because northern Baptists stopped appointing slave-holding missionaries due to the slave-owner’s revisionist biblical interpretation and innovative ideas regarding God’s sanction of the slave trade. That wasn’t the case of “the church” being wrong, but of some Southern churches unfortunately affirming the views of the prevailing culture of the time, much like revisionists on sexuality do today. You can’t do everything in one book, but I do think Preston’s overall presentation would have been strengthened had he incorporated more tradition and church history into his preparation process.
How The Church Can Be Faithful
The second half of the book gives counsel on how to deal with the pastoral problems that arise when you seek to love people and stand on truth.
Paulk’s review took issue with Preston’s openness to Christians who identify themselves as ‘gay’ even while struggling to live faithfully. “Some people use the term ‘gay’ in a strong sense of capturing their core identity, while others use the term in a soft sense to describe their experiences as a same-sex attracted person,” Preston writes. “The term ‘gay’ does not in itself mean that someone is engaging in same-sex behavior or thinks that it would be right to do so” (134). So, while he is open to Christians who use that label (“If someone uses the term ‘gay’ simply to mean that they are same-sex attracted, then I think it’s fine in itself…”), he also cautions against it: “I also think it can be confusing and potentially misleading” (142). In the end, Preston’s point here is a perfect demonstration of what he wants us to do after we read People to Be Loved. “Look past the label to the person who is using it” (144). In other words, listen. Don’t get hung up on the label. Focus on the person in front of you.
There are other thought-provoking sections, including Preston’s contribution to a debate with Denny Burk on the nature of same-sex attraction, orientation, and the sinfulness of a desire vs. the sinfulness of an action, etc. Preston fears that if we conflate desire and action, or fail to fully appreciate how same-sex attraction may be a product of the fall and is not morally culpable, we heap additional shame and reproach on Christians struggling to be faithful – Christians who understand how to repent of sinful desires and actions, but have no idea what it would look like for a Christian to repent for having an orientation. (Denny and Preston debated this topic at ETS. Both sides worry about the pastoral ramifications of the opposing position. This is an internal disagreement among the “non-affirming,” and it’s not going away any time soon.)
Is This A Hill On Which To Die?
Some evangelicals believe that the evangelical church is about to split over homosexuality and marriage, and Preston wonders if the “non-affirming” could eventually be the minority. From my perspective, we should not overestimate the power of the revisionists’ argumentation or their progress. After all, there is no sign that the global church outside the West is about to split over this question, and while evangelicalism may splinter, I agree with Russ Moore that “evangelicals won’t cave.”
Preston writes that he is not yet fully convinced that this disagreement is a gospel issue, so here I’ll do my best to try and persuade him that marriage is an architectural doctrine of the Christian faith, and this is why there is no way to simply ‘agree to disagree.’ The affirming perspective, promoted by schismatics’ revisionist biblical interpretation, is “loving” toward the LGBT community in much the way the serpent “loved” Eve – enough to write books summed up as “Did God really say?” and then issue blanket statements like “You will surely not die.”
But it’s on that question of loving “the other” – the people in your church who struggle with same-sex attraction or who are wrestling with these questions – where Preston’s book is so helpful. If more churches and leaders would take many of Preston’s insights to heart, I imagine our churches would be a place where people would no longer hide these issues in the dark but feel safe enough to bring them into the light, where the goodness and grace of God as experienced in His beloved community can strengthen and sustain all of us sinners-turned-saints, just as He has promised.