When I began “People to be Loved—Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue” by Preston Sprinkle (Zondervan, 2015), I was tentatively encouraged by the author’s gracious tone and seeming willingness to break away from the evangelical party line on exclusionary practices on LGBTQ people.
After all, Sprinkle includes hopeful declarations throughout the book: “We are going to do our best to lay aside our assumptions and genuinely seek to know what the Bible, not our traditions, says about homosexuality.” (p. 10) “As Bible-believing Christians, we have a responsibility to accurately interpret, believe, and respond to God’s Word. I only hope and pray that I have done that in this chapter and I genuinely invite feedback and critique if I have not done so.” (p. 101)
And, “This book represents part of my journey in thinking through homosexuality, it’s not the end of my journey. “ (p. 177)
To those who are not fully immersed in the conversation about faith at the intersection of sexual orientation and gender identity, Sprinkle does seem balanced and courteous. I do appreciate that he is not as acerbic in tone as some other authors whose books I’ve read and reviewed, but still, this book is not as generous as I had hoped.
So here you go, Mr. Sprinkle. You’ve asked for feedback and indicate that you are willing to learn along this journey.
Sprinkle’s book begins with a chapter on marriage and is, expectedly, based largely on Genesis 1 and 2. He uses these texts as a sort of blueprint for marriage, but maybe these chapters are not intended to be used as blueprints for human sexuality and marriage. After all, which creation story should we use as basis? Genesis 1 or Genesis 2?
Science informs us that the order of creation as told in Genesis is neither logical nor probable. Taking it a step further, even if we use the most literal reading of Genesis, Adam and Eve were created about six thousand years ago. Three thousand six hundred years later, the author(s) of Genesis wrote the creation story(ies) down—about 3,600 years after the event. Verbal transmission over 3,600 years is sure to net at least some errors in the “blueprint.” Adding to the declining integrity of a message, for over 1,000 of those years, there was no ability to write.
More logically, perhaps, the creation narrative was not intended to be a blueprint for human sexuality and marriage, but rather, the way in which ancient people understood how they came to be and how they are seen in the eyes of God.
If it is not a blueprint for all time and all peoples, are you willing to consider an expanded view of the diversity of human creation by listening to the stories, witness, and testimonies of LGBTQ people today, those who have had conversion experiences and are indwelled by the Spirit of God, and those who want access to equality in churches?
This should be stamped across every Bible: “Read ancient texts in ancient context.” Further, allow yourselves to be informed by science. We love science when it comes to medical care, but many of us push it aside when it comes to what is known about human sexuality.
The Genesis texts and the verses on marriage in Ephesians 5 were written to a culture could have only understood very distinct categories and roles of men and women. Men were the dominant and superior; women the submissive and the inferior. All biblical and ancient texts were written through this lens. When a man took the social or sexual role of a woman, it was entirely degrading.
No biblical writer could have imagined a time in the future when women attained a more equal status to men and the cultural stigma of same-sex relationships (or rather, a man “taking the role of a woman”) would lift and no longer be degrading.
Sprinkle, along with the majority of conservative Christian pastors, hold tightly to the creation story as a strict blueprint for both human sexuality and marriage. Reading literally, Sprinkle invests a chapter building the case that male/female marriage is the only way in which people can form sacred vows.
I’ve done a great deal of historical research ( Walking the Bridgeless Canyon: Repairing the Breach Between the Church and the LGBT Community so that I could both understand biblical texts in contexts and to understand the slow progression of understanding of human sexuality toward same-sex relationships.
The expression and comprehension of same-sex attraction only visibly began at the turn of the 20th century. From there, it was a slow progression to confronting cultural stigmas which coincided with increased medical information about human sexuality. Sexual orientation and faith is a new conversation that was inconceivable to biblical authors. Whenever they wrote about same-sex behavior, they were not writing about what we understand today as a homosexual orientation.
In the ten years in which I have done equality work, I have seen the witness of hundreds of LGBTQ Christian couples in God-honoring, mutually sacrificial, and covenantal marriages. It is clear that God is blessing these couples, and that they are flourishing in Him, with one another and in community. Their mere existence and witness should challenge the literal reading of Genesis 1 and Ephesians 5 with their restrictive interpretations.
Do we regard all biblical texts as applicable to us today? No, we use our sensibilities to understand that some verses only had ancient application. We don’t toss menstruating women out of the house, or scream “abomination” at tattooed people, or make sure to treat our slaves well, or muzzle women at church and insist they cover their heads.
But we sure get weird when it comes to human sexuality. We do not like this progression of understanding. We want Adam and Eve and nothing else.
In Chapter Six, “Fall Short of God’s Glory,” Sprinkle tackles Romans 1. I was quite disappointed in Sprinkle’s work in this chapter. I realize some people, especially vice presidents of Bible colleges (one of which the author is), are bound in a stranglehold to their deeply ingrained beliefs when reading and interpreting Scripture. Few risk challenging their views, even when their views so clearly damage others.
I had hoped Sprinkle would do as he promised and “lay aside (his) assumptions and genuinely seek to know what the Bible, not our traditions, says about homosexuality.”
Sprinkle believes Paul is referring to the creation narrative in Romans 1:18-25. If so, the story goes something like this: after Adam and Eve, at some point, humanity rebelled against God and turned from Him, they made idols and worshipped them. To punish them for idol worship and polytheism, God allowed them to be depraved, fall into their passions and homosexuality. Thereby, homosexuality becomes the punishment handed out for idolatry, and polytheism.
While Sprinkle quotes the brilliant Yale New Testament scholar Dale Martin several times in his book, he does not seem to let what Dr. Martin writes about the context of Romans 1 truly challenge him to stretch beyond a restrictive view. In many of his writings, in particular in Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation . Dr. Martin builds a strong case for what he believes is the context of Romans 1. Though the differentiation between the two views of the context of the verses seems subtle and perhaps insignificant, it is important.
According to Dr. Martin, Paul reminds his audience of stories from their Jewish history that tell them how evil and sexual impurity entered the world. Paul’s audience would have known the stories in 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilee of the Watchmen, or the fallen angels, who came down to earth and had sex with women. Through them, evil entered the world along with sexual immorality.
Sprinkle wants to connect Romans 1 to creation so he can highlight the sex differences between Adam from Eve, “Paul situates the same-sex relations in the context of departing from the Creator’s intention.” (p. 93) He adds, “It seems that Paul draws attention to God’s creation of humans into different biological sexes. Therefore, Paul considers same-sex relations to be a departure from God’s intention in creation.” (p. 92)
Context matters. Easy, and apparently obvious interpretation does not mean the interpretation is correct. Sprinkle continually makes the same grievous error that Dr. Robert Gagnon is adept at and so well known for. Read a verse, assume the context, slap God’s clear meaning to it, and call it a truth. When it comes to texts dealing with same-sex behavior in the BIble, this is a pattern not worth repeating but unfortunately does, over and over. That is sloppy work that damages LGBTQ believers.
The scene that follows in Romans 1:26 – 28 is out of control, sex with lust, filled with passions and desire and largely non-procreative. Both the Jews and Gentiles alike would have seen this as over the top excesses.
Paul considers his audiences and is not only speaking to the Jews at the beginning of Romans, he is also addressing the Stoic Gentiles. When he introduces “nature,” and “natural,” Paul is speaking to the Gentiles in language they understand. To them, to be in harmony with nature, or to operate naturally, included: social and sexual male dominance, control of sexual lust, passions and desires, and participation in sex with an intent toward procreation.
Make no mistake here all you (me included) heterosexuals, Paul has nothing good to say about passions and desires in marriage or out of it. He is anti-sexual passions, as were good Stoics who operated in harmony with nature. People, the Jews, the Gentiles, you, me, are to keep it under control and rein in those sexual passions. So, those of you who think your steamy heterosexual sex in marriage would escape Paul’s bony finger of condemnation, you are wrong. He is talking to you too. Uncomfortable, right? So much easier, and wrong, to make it about LGBTQ people rather than dig into what Paul was saying in the context of time and his beliefs.
When I read difficult passages in Scripture, I consult commentaries and a variety of experts, while always keeping in mind “Does my reading or understanding of this passage alienate or harm people? Does my reading or understanding of this passage extend dignity to others who do not share my experience?”
If your interpretations and conclusions exclude others, especially those who make be unlike you, it is important to question whether you are interpreting incorrectly?
Next, when Sprinkle deals with Romans 1:26, he writes, “I cannot emphasize enough how important 1:26 is for interpreting this passage. Female homosexual relations were mutual, nonpederastic, and not the result of an out-of-control sex drive. Still, Paul says they were against nature.” (p. 99) His interpretation of this verse becomes a lynchpin for the validation of his other assumptions. And it fails.
In using her body unnaturally in Romans 1:26, a woman could be participating in sex in multiple ways: having non-procreative sex (use your imagination for the many things that couples do that do not involve penis/vagina), she might be taking a dominant/superior sexual position, or penetrating a man with an object, or having sex with another woman. Reading it as Sprinkle does as mutual female sex unassociated with out-of-control sex is to narrow the verse down to woman-woman sex only, which is not what the verse was translated as until 1971. 1971. Grasp that. There was no translation in any language in any version of the Bible that specifically translated Romans 1:26 as exclusively woman-woman sex until 1971.
Sprinkle brings up another postulation frequently about the value and status of women in both the OT and the NT. In discussing Leviticus 18 and 20, he writes, “neither text goes on to say because women are inferior to men. The texts hint at maintaining gender distinctions; men should act like men, and women should act like women. But there is nothing in either passage that assumes a low view of women. Men should act like men not because they are superior, but because they were created differently.” (p. 48) And, “Did Paul really think women were inferior?” (p. 95) “I’ve always been struck by Paul’s high view of women, especially when measured against his environment.” (p. 95)
I kept thinking, “you’ve got to be kidding!” The entirety of the Bible is written (and has been interpreted until recently) through the lens of male superiority and patriarchy. If you miss that point, or conveniently ignore it, then using a male sexually as one would a woman, does not carry the gravity it actually did in ancient cultures. Old translations read precisely this way—using a man as one does a woman, or variations of those words. Again, read my book, it will expand your universe about context.
In Chapter Seven, Sprinkle tackles two Greek words malakos and arsenokoitai. Again, I wish he would, with risk, intellectually and honestly engage both Dr. Martin’s work on these words, along with the work of Dr. James Brownson in Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships . Though Sprinkle appears to build a logical flow to his final conclusion that malakos “was most often used to describe men who looked and acted like women, that is, effeminate men” (p. 106) and arsenokoitai “probably refer(s) to men who have sex with other males regardless of age,” (p. 113) the author either intentionally ignores the etymology and contextual understanding of both words, or it is far too risky to say, “hey, you know what, we may be wrong about these words. Maybe our working definitions are not as conclusive as we think they are.”
When I read this chapter, and marked it up massively and wrote notes in the margins. By then I lost confidence in Sprinkle’s repeated declaration that he was willing to put aside assumptions and investigate passages on same-sex behavior with academic and moral integrity.
Of the two words, Sprinkle concludes “Malakos refers to men who thoroughly cross gender boundaries by receiving sex from men. Arsenokoitai refers to men who have sex with other males.” (p. 120) No. No. No. This is not the meaning of these words, again, in ancient contexts, in ancient languages.
The short version is—malakos refers to the complexity of all it meant to be female, which involves a very long list of ugly traits associated with women in ancient cultures: lazy, lustful, unchaste, deceitful, excessive, and malakos was also used to indicate men who ignored their business, dressed up like dandies to attract women, were too bookish, ate too much, and yes, took the female role in sex. It is a word that is tough to translate to modern understanding because it is no longer degrading to be a woman.
Arsenokoitai, on the other hand, is a word we do not know the precise meaning of. We can get hints by looking at its appearance and position in vice lists around the time Paul used it. The word, seemingly coined by Paul, was only used about 100 times over a 600 year span, and it was never defined.
It never appears in close proximity on various vice lists along with sexual sins like incest or adultery, but rather, it is associated with exploitative sins, economic sins, and in context of slave trading (or what we might call sex-trafficking). When we translate arsenokoitai to homosexuality, do you think that it is accurate to reduce same-sex relationships to economic exploitation and sex trafficking? Not only is that dehumanizing, it is highly insulting.
Though there is far more to address, the last topic I’ll address is one on which Sprinkle seems to be camping lately—the increasingly popular “solution” for LGBTQ Christians to stay in compliance with biblical mandates—lifelong celibacy.
First, Sprinkle takes issue with those who identify as gay Christians. He says, of “one who used the term gay to describe their core identity, central to who they are, a primary aspect of their existence as a human. I have a hard time seeing how this can be reconciled with the gospel, which shatters and shackles all other identities and submits them to Christ.” (p. 141)
His validation is “On the one hand, I don’t call myself a ‘straight Christian.’ Why then should same-sex attracted Christians call themselves ‘gay Christians’? We are all just Christians. (p. 142)
Christians, if you learn nothing from the Black Lives Matter movement, please learn this. When you enjoy the privilege of being part of the dominant culture, you may be tempted to say, “all lives matter.” This snappy pushback erases the radically different experiences of those on the margins as if their alternate views, or the oppression they feel, are not valid.
It is similarly so for gay Christians/LGBTQ Christians. For decades, LGBTQ people did not even have the language to express their life experiences that existed outside the binary. Now, they have the language and a way to express that their feelings and experiences which are often quite unlike those of us who are heterosexual. Is it really so difficult to allow people the space, language and community to define their experience as unlike yours (mine)? We have no hesitation declaring our denominational loyalties saying “I am a Baptist, I am an evangelical, I am a Nazarene.” No one yells back, “No, you are not, we are all Christians.”
Of course the linguistic trap here is that we are to all place our identity in Christ. Using an identity label of “gay” does not negate Jesus or supercede Jesus. We straight Christians don’t need to label ourselves. We don’t need to say heterosexual Christians. We are the default; we are the “normal.”
Sprinkle lists few options for LGBTQ people who want to follow Christ wholeheartedly: reparative therapy, mixed orientation marriage, or celibacy.
How gallantly does the man who writes in his bio that he is married with four children, encourage LGBTQ people to enjoy “no genital contact” love like that of Jonathan and David’s that was “rich, satisfying, intimate love” that “was better than the love of women.” (p. 167) Or, “Jesus, John, Paul all talked about life-giving love that fills your lungs with the breath of heaven without ever mentioning sex.” (p. 167) “When affirming Christians talk about celibacy in the worst possible light, they not only misrepresent what celibacy is, but they reinforce a secular and rather thin view of love where intimacy is impossible without genital contact.” (p. 167)
Sprinkle, like others, try to sell imposed singleness as the good life, yet most statistics show married people are happier, have less stress, are at reduced risk of dying from cancer and heart disease, and potentially live longer. Yet, we want to fence out same-sex couples from marriage and intimacy. For what? For their good. Certainly not.
If, as a gay person, you don’t feel called to celibacy, which incidentally is not imposed on a class of people anywhere in the Bible, Sprinkle offers: “The Bible actually does talk about being called, . . . all Christians have been called by God, and we all have a call to live a faithful Christian life—even if you don’t feel like it.” (p. 172) “So I reject the notion that a gay Christian must feel some sort of call if they are to remain single and celibate forever. They are called to be like Christ, to love Christ, to uphold Christ as supreme in their lives. Celibate Christians are called to love, to serve, to rejoice in their suffering as Christ rejoiced in his. They are called to pick up their cross and follow a Savior who has suffered more than any of us ever will, who calls us—married or single—to rejoice in our sufferings inasmuch as they broadcast his suffering to the world.” (p. 173)
So, where are the heterosexual leaders who are willing to lay aside “a secular and thin view of love and intimacy,” to pick up their cross and rejoice in the suffering of their loneliness as Christ did and sacrifice their lives as an example of lifelong celibacy to show LGBTQ Christians the beauty of such a holy calling?
I am going to hope for the best and believe Sprinkle when he writes, “But I still think there is room for dialogue and fellowship with those who hold different views on this topic. Maybe I will change my mind on this.” (p. 152) Though I see no indication on the immediate horizon that Sprinkle is willing to take the risks associated with challenging his views by engaging with LGBTQ Christians or affirming leaders, I hope he will listen to his LGBTQ siblings and other progressive Christians with intentionality and humility. It is risky business and the cost is high. But the cost to the “other” is high too. Actually, immeasurably far higher.
Sprinkle begins his book by stating, “I stand on truth and I stand on love.” (p. 9) I contend that, though Sprinkle’s beliefs may be sincere and heartfelt, they do not square with an orthodox and academic reading and understanding of the Bible as it refers to same-sex behavior. Further, Sprinkle’s views are not loving. They are exclusionary, not well grounded in Scripture, and seen through his filter, his binary, his lack of understanding of and empathy for the lives and experiences of others whose relationship with God and Jesus are just as rich as his.