The title of Preston Sprinkle’s new book sums up its heart. Homosexuality: not just an issue. People: love them.
People to Be Loved will bless we who serve students in Christian higher education. Sprinkle offers advice about how to engage people of different sexualities and different theologies. Listen. Confront, but with love, not arrogance. Engage in real friendship, in relationship that is authentic, mutual and vulnerable. Sprinkle offers examples and stories of putting these words into practice so they are not mere platitudes but venues for living the love of Jesus Christ.
Is it possible, though, to maintain a traditionalist view while participating in an authentic listening relationship? Some may shift toward more affirming theologies, but Sprinkle maintains a traditionalist view. He doesn’t merely announce and defend his view. He does that, and at great length, but he also acknowledges that his views are sometimes perceived as painful by LGBT Christians. He believes there is still room for dialogue and fellowship with those of different views; he refuses to demonize or condemn those of other views. In these ways, Sprinkle brings a new way of holding views that have long been held.
Perhaps most controversial will be Sprinkle’s advice to same-sex attracted Christians who hold to the traditional biblical view of marriage. He offers three options: reparative therapy, mixed-orientation marriage or celibacy. These are challenging options, and Sprinkle describes them with appropriate caveats, compassion and inspirational stories of individuals who live these paths. As a social scientist, I’d like to see more integration between theology, personal narrative and research in this part of the book. Research from psychology, counseling and other social science is shedding light on both the benefits and challenges of the three options Sprinkle presents. Such empirical knowledge is essential for the church to integrate before it holds up examples of statistically unusual practices as plausible for all same-sex-attracted Christians.
Sprinkle’s book will likely be most useful to traditionalist churches, pastors, teachers and college leaders. His tone is consistently non-defensive and self-aware, concluding the book with challenges for what he terms “nonaffirming” churches, those who hold to the traditional view of marriage as a monogamous union between a man and a woman. He encourages these churches to maintain their theology but make deep changes to the ways in which they hold and live it out. For example, traditionalists should listen to the stories of LGBT people, and cultivate environments where people can talk about same-sex attraction. We must end homophobia and be proactive in educating our communities about the complexities of LGBT issues. By encouraging us to study and promote truly biblical masculinity and femininity, as well as to better support singleness, Sprinkle shifts the entire topic from being a concern of the few to broad issues of discipleship and life that affect everyone.
Christian churches face profound questions. Is it possible to hold together as a church, given different views on this topic? Is there any middle ground left on LGBT issues between hateful rejection and enthusiastic celebration? Can LGBT people receive love from traditionalist Christians, or must those churches change their theology? Can traditionalist Christians treat affirming Christians as true brothers and sisters? Only time will truly tell how we work through these issues, and there will likely be both successes and failures. From both traditionalist and affirming perspectives, and all perspectives in between and yet to come, the Christian church needs books such as this one to help us find our way.
Jenell Paris is a professor of anthropology at Messiah College (Mechanicsburg, PA). She is the author of The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are (IVP, 2010) and The Good News About Conflict: Transforming Religious Struggle Over Homosexuality (Cascade, 2016).