Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, then you know that the most hotly contested issue within American evangelicalism is the subject of homosexuality. While there are a host of issues that are being debated within American evangelicalism, this topic is the elephant in the room that everyone is talking about. Progressives on the left largely agree that same-sex sexual practice should be allowed within the church and conservatives on the right largely agree that same-sex sexual practice should not be permitted within the church.
For the sake of full disclosure, let me state that I locate myself within the broader conservative camp. Through my own study of Scripture, theology, and Christian tradition, I have come to agree with the traditional sexual ethic of the Church, that the only licit form of Christian sexual behavior is between one man and one woman in a monogamous marriage. However, this is not simply an academic issue for me. Through my own interactions with several gay people (including one of my best friends, who is a celibate gay Christian) my theological framework has been refined around this issue. As such, I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with many of my fellow conservatives in their defensive measures against progressives.
My frustration is that, in the midst of our defense, we have forgotten that there are real people in our churches who are silently seeking to faithfully work out their sexualities in a world that often views them as pariahs. In many ways, we have become partially blinded by our defensive maneuvers. We have forgotten that gay people are still people who need to be loved, even in the midst of our defense of orthodoxy.
I am not alone in this thinking. Preston Sprinkle, a New Testament scholar, pastor, and professor at Eternity Bible College, has recently written what may be the best conservative, evangelical treatment of homosexuality available. In his new book, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just An Issue, Sprinkle approaches the topic from both a biblical and pastoral perspective, first examining the biblical texts that speak to the question of same-sex sexual behavior, and then looking at how conservative evangelicals can move forward in loving their LGBT neighbors.
The first two-thirds of the book are devoted largely to Sprinkle’s in-depth examination of the five major biblical texts that address same-sex sexual behavior: Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10. Before diving into these key texts though, Sprinkle begins by looking at Genesis 1–2, and the “holy otherness” (as Sprinkle describes it) that God has built into opposite-sex sexual relations. This “holy otherness” is not only in accord with the distinctions present in creation, it also serves as a created reflection of the “holy otherness” that exists ultimately between Christ and His Church. By taking this approach, Sprinkle frames his later discussions of the key texts within the larger narrative of God’s pre-Fall creational intent for human sexual behavior. This animates the rest of the first section with a positive view of human sexual behavior (what sexual intercourse between one male and one female in monogamous union is for) instead of only a negative view (what sexual relations are not for).
Sprinkle spends the rest of the first section examining—in quite amazing detail for a lay and pastorally-oriented book—each of the five major texts listed above, all the while critically interacting with, and contesting, the strongest “affirming” interpretations of the texts (e.g., James Brownson, Robin Scroggs, etc.). In the end, Sprinkle comes to the conclusion that the Bible simply does not affirm same-sex sexual behavior. However, what Sprinkle rightly notes throughout his exegesis is that the Bible only condemns the action of same-sex sexual behavior, not gay people. Even in texts like Leviticus 18:22, where the shocking word “abomination” is used, it is only used for the sex act, not for those involved in it.
This is incredibly important, and the implications of it fill the final pastoral section of the book. This means that while the biblical texts consistently prohibit same-sex sexual behavior, they also never ever call gay people “abominations.” All the sermons preached that have called gay people such things are not biblical and certainly not Christian. All people—Jew and Gentile, male and female, gay and straight—are fallen and mired in sin, but no subcategory of humanity is inherently an abomination based on how they are born. Gay people are just as loved by God and made in His image as straight people are. However, as Sprinkle notes (and I agree with him) just because we are born a certain way does not necessarily mean that is how things are supposed to be. All aspects of our humanity have been negatively affected by the Fall, including our sexuality, and sadly—because of the complexities of a fallen world—gay people suffer more so than others in this area.
This means that while we should stand firm on the traditional, non-affirming sexual ethic of the Church, we should equally surround LGBT people in our churches with love, compassion, and grace in the midst of their struggles and pain. Sprinkle offers many pastoral suggestions in this regard:
– We make our churches and small groups safe places for gay Christians to talk about their struggles without alienating them.
– We affirm the gift of celibacy and singleness equally alongside the gift of marriage.
– We weep with our gay Christian brothers and sisters in their trials, and celebrate with them in their triumphs.
– We kill homophobia within our churches. To quote Sprinkle: “Non-affirming Christians should be just as relentless [as affirming Christians]—if not more—in confronting the unchristian posture [of homophobia] toward gay people that runs rampant in the church.”
As Sprinkle forcefully and rightly argues, the proper Christian response to homosexuality is to affirm the humanity and worth of the LGBT people in our midst, without affirming same-sex sexual behavior. We do affirm the humanity of gay people. We do not affirm same-sex sexual behavior.
In the end, the title of the book sums up Sprinkle’s thesis. Homosexuality is the presenting issue in the American evangelical church right now and it is not going away any time soon. A firm, orthodox, biblical stand must be taken in regards to traditional marriage and human sexuality.
However, homosexuality is not just an issue. At the heart of the topic are gay people in our churches and in our midst, who are struggling, seeking to be faithful to Jesus, and finding little if any help from us conservative evangelicals. In the midst of our defense of the traditional ethics of marriage and sexuality, we must also actively remember that gay people, as with all people, are people to be loved.