I have been anticipating the release of this important and timely book for some time. I have followed the author’s blogs on the subject and listened to him talk about the project for a while now. Understanding how to love our LGBT neighbors is an extremely important topic of discussion for Christians in general, and for evangelical Christians in particular. Preston Sprinkle has gone to great lengths to ground People to Be Loved not only in exegetical and theological research, but also in the real-life stories of LGBT people, stories of people who have suffered insults and isolation or worse throughout their lives. The result of his work is an honest, and at times heart-wrenching, look at what the Bible says about the sexual ethics related to those who have same-sex attraction.
The strength of the book is in its ability to challenge people on both sides of the discussion. Far from fueling the culture wars over “gay marriage,” this book has the potential to bring people together in conversation as Sprinkle leads us in taking a fresh look at Scripture.
I read the book over a three-week span. One night when I grabbed my copy of People to Be Loved, I saw something sticking out from book like a bookmark. My six year-old had drawn a rainbow and tucked it into the book. I took it as a sign! I finished my reading of the book with hope for the church, not that we will all agree, but that we can find a way forward to love one another despite our differences.
Let me be clear: this book is not simply a pragmatic tool on how to carry on a debate about sexual ethics. Rather this book focuses on the Bible, and not merely what the Bible says, but what it means. Sprinkle argues that the debate surrounding homosexuality is not about what the Bible is saying, but what it means, because the Bible is clear in what it says. This claim is a bit over-stated as Sprinkle’s own exegesis shows. What the Bible is saying, the words it uses, is deeply entrenched in layers of cultural meaning requiring much effort to understand the key texts in this discussion. Thankfully Sprinkle has done solid work in grounding key Greek terms like pornia, malakoi, and aresenokoites in their historical context, a context which is debated among scholars.
The book is itself a conversation with others who are writing on this topic, those who are also wrestling with Scripture to determine what it means and how it informs how we love and how we live.
The book opens with a painful story, “My Name was Faggot.” It then moves on to look at marriage and creation, with an emphasis on sexual difference. I appreciate that Sprinkle has grounded the discussion in creation, a starting place for both Jesus and Paul in answering questions about marriage and gender-related concerns. From here he moves on to a discussion of the key passages where same-sex behavior is specifically mentioned. Recalling the conversations he had with LGBT people, he aptly calls them “clobber” passages as Christians have used these texts to “clobber” LGBT people. He makes a strong case for rejecting the idea held by some scholars that the Levitical law was prohibiting same-sex temple prostitution in Leviticus 18 and 20, a claim, according to Sprinkle, that has very little historical evidence. Before moving into the New Testament, Sprinkle spends time surveying sexuality in the Greco/Roman world, including the diversity of same-sex relationships in Greek literature, including monogamous same-sex relationships. This historical context also includes a brief treatment of same-sex relationships in the light of a Jewish perspective, which is univocal in considering such relationships to be outside the bounds of appropriate sexual behavior.
When bringing the reader to Jesus, Sprinkle is at his best. Jesus from the Gospels seems to have something to say to readers on both sides of the discussion. To those who are affirming of monogamous same sex relationships, Jesus has much to say about obedience. To those who are non-affirming, Jesus has much to say about love. According to Sprinkle, “Jesus doesn’t lead with the law. He leads with love—love without footnotes” (p. 76). Sprinkle devotes two chapters to discussing key passages in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10. Here he does honest academic work in dealing with the texts and responding to the interpretations of other scholars. To those who affirm monogamous same sex relationships, Jesus has much to say about obedience. Click To Tweet
The final one-third of the book is a helpful response to many of the questions evangelicals are asking in this complex conversation. I appreciate Sprinkle’s humility in this section, as well as his attention to nuance and specificity in our language choices. He makes no straw man arguments. Like a wise sage, Sprinkle gets to the heart of matter in many of the emotionally-charged issues surrounding this discussion. He remains keenly aware of his mostly evangelical audience when he writes things like:
Like waking up from a nightmare but realizing it wasn’t a dream, gay Christians battle daily with temptations and struggles that most Christians will never experience. It is time for straight Christians to lay aside the culture war and election ballots and become life-giving agents to brothers and sisters who are hungry for love yet often come up short when they search for it in the church. (p. 157)
He describes the challenges of celibacy for gay Christians and the honest reality that marriage is not the end-all answer for issues of loneliness and isolation. He makes a strong case that what makes us image bearers of God is not getting married, but in becoming fully human. What makes us image bearers of God is not getting married, but becoming fully human. Click To Tweet
I do wish Sprinkle would have taken a bit more time in dealing with sources within the history of the church to underscore the tradition of Christians regarding sexual ethics. He makes it clear in the beginning of the book that he is interested in Scripture over tradition and he is willing to rethink tradition in the light of Scripture. I tend to give a little more attention to tradition, particularly the Church Fathers, in interpreting Scripture, perhaps more than Sprinkle does. He does reference church history in piecing together the historical context surrounding the Greek word aresenokoitesand in his list of the arguments for the non-affirming position. I think his work would have been strengthened with an entire chapter (or more!) on sexual ethics in the Ante-Nicene church or a chapter on the history of the sacrament of marriage for example. I deeply enjoyed his humor throughout the book. I drew a smiley face in the margin of the book whenever he dropped in a humorous phrase that caught my attention like “dip my Kindle in sanitizer” or “hump anyone and anything” or “take the pill, or get snipped.” Some people may be put off by his humor, but I loved it! I like scholars with a sense of humor; it lets me know they don’t take themselves too seriously.
I have attempted not to reveal all of the conclusions Sprinkle comes to in the book, because I do not want you to label him (or this book) and relegate him to captain of one team or another. I am recommending this book and I really want you to read it! The strength of Sprinkle’s work here is his ability to speak to both sides. So I highly encourage you to read this book if you are a Christian and you have questions, whether you tend to accept the affirming or non-affirming perspective on most issues. At the end of the day what matters most is not the issues, but people. Click To Tweet
At the end of the day what matters most is not the issues, but people—gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people who were created in the image of God with worth and dignity, people for whom the gospel of Jesus Christ should indeed be good news.
Here is the trailer for the book: