Men and women dealing with same-sex attraction, along with their loved ones, are looking for help and understanding. I know this from experience as a woman who once identified as gay and found new life in Jesus—as well as from the sad vantage point of being a wife forsaken by a spouse identifying and embracing homosexual behavior.
Many in our day are seeking hope and answers. That Preston Sprinkle, who doesn’t struggle with same-sex attraction, dares to cover this difficult ground speaks of his courage and desire to pastor people where they are. Sprinkle—a theologian and director of extension classes for Eternity Bible College—has recently written two books on homosexuality, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue and Living in a Gray World: A Christian Teen’s Guide to Understanding Homosexuality (his companion book for teens).
As I minister to Christians who struggle with same-sex sexual desires, I appreciate any and all who seek to be a voice of wisdom in our times.
Don’t Jump to Conclusions
Sprinkle makes an appealing theological case for holding to the biblical and historic understanding of sexual ethics—that engaging in sexual behavior between two members of the same sex is sin and requires repentance. Few can make the case well; even fewer can make it in an emotionally sensitive way so as not to needlessly offend. Sprinkle does both.
Additionally, Sprinkle addresses common misunderstandings. For example, he shows that same-sex attraction is quite different from same-sex sexual behavior. This is vital knowledge for pastors, parents, and friends who ought not jump to conclusions about someone in their family or congregation struggling in this way. It’s vital to put aside one’s assumptions, ask follow-up questions, and listen. Sprinkle makes his point well throughout both books.
Sprinkle also makes the point that being tempted with same-sex attraction isn’t sin. I’ve also shared this view for decades, as have many of my brothers and sisters in “ex-gay” ministries. Temptation is different from sin. After all, the Lord Jesus, the perfect God-man, was tempted yet without sin (Matt. 26:39; Heb. 4:15).
Confusion of Terms
Since I agree with Sprinkle that the question of homosexuality is “one of the most important ethical questions facing the church today,” the words we use are exceptionally important, especially when they can be misunderstood. “Gay,” for example, is one of today’s most culturally loaded terms; Sprinkle ends up endorsing its descriptive use for an otherwise faithful Christian. I believe this is problematic in light of the biblical exhortation to repent of sin and embrace one’s new identity in Christ (2 Cor. 5:16–17).
Beyond this problem, using and affirming the terms “gay Christian” and “lesbian Christian” also seems naïve to me. Our culture equates, and unabashedly promotes, the identity of gay or lesbian as wanting or seeking a romantic or sexual relationship with someone of the same sex. Yet Sprinkle writes, “I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to describe yourself as gay, if you’re using the term not to speak of your core identity but your unique experience as a same-sex attracted person” (142). He then uses the terms “gay” and “same-sex attracted” interchangeably, though clearly same-sex attracted is much more helpful to describe a person not wanting to indulge sin. The terms are simply confusing—and particularly so to the reader dealing with same-sex attraction.
As a Christian who once called herself gay, I believe what we call ourselves is significant. Self-labeling in this manner could help solidify a person’s attractions to the same sex. Similar to how telling ourselves we can’t succeed leads to not trying to accomplish a challenge, calling oneself gay is also limiting. Labels can inhibit the potential for growth in another core identity, any resolution of homosexual attraction, or attraction to a special member of the opposite sex whom God may have in store.
Also problematic is the argument that gay or same-sex sexual orientation is distinctly separate from sexual desire, which is a fascinating though artificial separation. This perspective is one basis for Sprinkle’s use of the label “gay Christian,” “celibate gay Christian,” “lesbian Christian,” and other related terms. He argues:
It would be wrong to reduce same-sex orientation to a desire to have sex. . . . [It is a] persistent emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attraction to someone of the same sex and includes other non-sexual relational bonds . . . [S]ame-sex orientation is not just about wanting to have sex. (146)
From this argument, readers might come away thinking Sprinkle assumes all non-sexual relational desires of persons dealing with same-sex attraction are inherently part of their “same-sex orientation.” From my vantage point, this is a major mistake. In viewing the desire for relational closeness together with same-sex orientation, Sprinkle would not leave room for blessing godly aspects of the individual’s personhood apart from fallen sexual desire. Consider this: is a desire for rich conversation, non-sexual physical affection, emotional bonds, and mutual affection by definition “gay”? (Think of the Band of Brothers miniseries, or films such as Beaches and The Joy Luck Club.) Of course not. The need for friendship is common to all men and women and should not be seen through the lens of homosexual identity. It’s important for us to recognize that each woman or man dealing with homosexual temptation is inherently valuable and comprises more than errant sexual desire. I’m certain Sprinkle does not want to denigrate those dealing with same-sex attraction, but this argument seems counter to his intent.
Further, is homosexual orientation amoral, as Sprinkle seems to contend? “Repent from illicit sexual desires—yes!” Sprinke says. “But same-sex orientation is not the same as illicit sexual desire” (148). Permit me to clarify my point by using a completely different form of fallen desire, even though I’m not equating the two. Were we discussing someone who struggles with violent feelings, would it be acceptable to have a violent or murderous orientation? It’s sin to murder, but is the orientation to do so amoral? Of course not (cf. Matt. 15:18–20). So, even if unwanted feelings may not be sinful action, I find it difficult to argue for the goodness of desires that when acted upon are indeed sin.
Now for a lesser, though significant, concern. Sprinkle incorporates Alan Chambers’s views on “change,” which he covers under the heading “Reparative Therapy.” At the outset, Sprinkle wrongly confuses soul healing and discipleship ministry with reparative therapy, which is a particular form of psychological therapy. He equates the two and binds them together as representative of Exodus International, a former national coalition of Christian ministries. I served as a board member of Exodus, and I can declaratively say it was never a “reparative therapy” organization. Chambers closed the office headquarters in 2013 as he increasingly lost his theological footing. But he couldn’t shut down the faithful care of the many local discipleship ministries that continue to this day—which are not coercive, don’t overpromise change, don’t insert memories of sexual abuse, and have never used electro-shock. Many of these ministries reorganized under the covering of Restored Hope Network in 2012, which goes unmentioned in either book. People have experienced new life in Christ apart from merging a gay identity with a Christian one.
Thankfully, unlike Chambers and his mentor Clark Whitten, Sprinkle maintains Jesus “cares deeply about obedience” (74). Chambers recently said gay marriages can be “holy” and “Christ-centered,” despite the claim Chambers still holds to a traditional sexual ethic (of same-sex behavior being sin). It’s confusing at best since Chambers—one of Sprinkle’s key sources on change—holds the mutually exclusive views that same-sex behavior is sin and yet same-sex marriages can be holy.
In Living in a Gray World the same issues are reflected, but Sprinkle offers some problematic advice for teens who suspect a friend might be gay:
It’s best for the person to come out of the closet and not be dragged out of it. You can help them come out. But they must take the first steps. (107)
This might not be good advice for Christian teens and their friends. While the phrase “come out of the closet” can mean being transparent and honest, the terminology is unwise given its pervasive connotations—namely, embracing gay feelings, identity, and gay sexual relationships. In the Christian ministry field, “disclosure” is the appropriate word for confiding varying degrees of same-sex struggles to trusted pastors, counselors, family, and friends in order to gain their support for walking in holiness.
In that same book, Sprinkle writes, “Homosexuality is about people and not about some issue. We’re talking about people” (22). How I wish he’d written, “We are talking about people and an issue in their lives.” Through repeated uses of such terms as “gay persons,” “gay friends,” “gay Christians,” and “celibate gay Christians,” he cements “gay” as inalienable to their personhood. Instead, he could have elevated the newness of life and new identity in Christ to encourage readers. As Scripture commends:
Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1–2)
Despite Sprinkle’s good intentions, for those I know struggling with same-sex attraction, the concepts embedded in People to Be Loved and Living in a Gray World may crush hope for those wishing to cast off these impediments.
Preston Sprinkle. People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015. 224 pp. $16.99.
Preston Sprinkle. Living in a Gray World: A Christian Teen’s Guide to Understanding Homosexuality. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015. 160 pp. $12.99.