What is THE number one issue impacting the evangelical church today, especially among young people? Some may think I am going out on a limb here to be so bold. Okay. I get that. But I am going to say it anyway.
I am not a betting person, but if I did wager, I think I would be right on this one: If you actually have a frank conversation with people under the age of 30 in the church today, it should not be difficult to arrive at a consensus: the issue, broadly speaking, is about gender and its relationship to sexuality. This would include issues like transgender, same-sex marriage, and same-sex attraction in general. What does it mean to be male? Or female? Young people, particularly those already in our churches, have a lot of questions about these issues and what the Bible has to say about them. But let us focus in on one of these in particular: homosexuality.
Unless you have been living in a cave for the past twenty years, you might have noticed a gigantic sea change regarding public opinion regarding same-sex attraction in Western culture. Hollywood personalities, like Ellen Degeneres, have in a sense, normalized social acceptance of same-sex behavior. The U.S. Supreme Court recently declared same-sex marriage to be a legal right. Even Super Bowl Half-Time shows appear to be joining in on the cultural realignment, in the minds of many. The situation has been building for some time, but looking back, it seems like the changes have been happening overnight.
When I have had discussions with Christians since the June, 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, most have voiced the sentiment that America is going to “hell in a hand basket.” For many believers, this recent mega-shift in Western culture is an indication of a spirally downward decadence of a once Christian culture. Many fear that we have become Sodom and Gomorrah. Conservative Christian intellectuals wring their hands over what to do about the crisis of morality in the West.
The issue at a cultural level is indeed significant. We could spend a lot of energy debating what many consider to be cultural moral decline.
However, that is not what I want to talk about here. Can we shift gears on this discussion? Because the issue is deeper than Supreme Court decisions. The issue hits a lot closer to home.
It involves our churches.
It involves people with names, hurts and stories.
It involves family members, children of Christian parents, neighbors, co-workers, and friends.
It probably involves someone you know.
Homosexuality is not just an issue.
It is about people to be loved.
Chances are very high that a young person growing up today, in an evangelical church, personally knows of someone, perhaps even a close friend, who struggles with questions of same-sex attraction. But such a friendship puts that young person into a real quandary. Many Christians somehow “know” that the Bible condemns homosexuality, but they simply do not know how to care for friends or family members who wrestle with feelings of same-sex attraction. They know somehow that same-sex marriage is wrong, but what do you say to someone in your school, workplace, or church who admits, “Hey, I think I might be gay?”
Sadly, most local churches are not equipped to handle these type of issues. There are a few cases where someone, who has questions about their own same-sex attraction feelings can talk to a friend or small group about their dilemma. But these situations are sadly rare. If someone has mustered up the courage to step forward to tell their pastor or other trusted Christian leader that they have some sort of same-sex attraction, many times they are met with an awkward response. Some are gently told to keep quiet, as this is an embarrassing type of sin. Or, it is simply too controversial to talk about in a local church setting. So, the same-sex attracted person is then encouraged to find help in some para-church ministry, shuttled off to talk with some expert or Christian psychotherapist outside of the local church for support.
In some cases, these type of para-church support systems work. Many times, however, they do not. The worst cases end in tragedy. Teenagers who wrestle with their sexuality are getting thrown out of their Christian homes, something that justifiably enrages mainstream journalists. The suicide rate of people who struggle with same-sex attraction type issues is staggering, and many blame the Christian church for the problem.
Many Christians today are seeing how badly things are going with this type of approach to homosexuality. Some, like young author Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian, argue that evangelical Christians need to change their view on homosexuality, simply accepting that same-sex behavior through gay and lesbian marriage is actually a good thing and approved of by God. Vines, and others, go on to argue that Christians who oppose same-sex marriage are simply “on the wrong side of history” and need to get over their “fear” of the homosexual.
In response, some people simply refuse to talk about the subject and prefer to sweep it under the rug.
Others are saying, “Hey, not so fast. We get the idea that the church has been handling the issue of homosexuality in the church rather poorly. This is a point well taken. But perhaps we need to rethink this a bit more before dismissing two-thousand years of Christian teaching. Let us take another look at what is going on. What does the Bible actually teach on this subject?”
I know that the emotions are intense. A number of Christian families I know are deeply divided. In some circles, talking about “same-sex attraction” has become a taboo, for fear of offending someone. Some families know that there are simply some conversation topics at Christmas dinner that are not to be discussed!
The reputation of the church has suffered in the midst of this crisis. Blogger Rachel Held Evans is worth listening to here. Evans notes that according to author David Kinnaman, in his book unChristian, a recent Barna Group survey among Americans 16-29 years old indicates that the word “anti-homosexual” is the most common word that describes the Christian faith.
Really? I mean, I surely would not want to be associated with any group or movement primarily known for hating people, whether that be same-sex attracted people, much less anyone else!
This issue does not and will not go away. The names and faces of people who have the courage to speak up about their own sexual struggles still trouble us. How does someone, who does not have a super-deep knowledge of the Bible, know what to think? Has the church really been wrong on this for two-thousand years?
Rethinking A Caring, Christian Response to Homosexuality without Tossing the Bible
Let me introduce you to Preston Sprinkle, a Bible scholar teaching at Eternity Bible College in Boise, Idaho. Preston was co-author, along with popular author and speaker Francis Chan, of Erasing Hell: What God Says About Eternity and the Things We Have Made Up, a book that attempted to address some of the problems with how former mega-church pastor Rob Bell engaged the issue of universalism in his book, Love Wins (John Paine tackled this topic a few years ago). Eternity Bible College is part of the vision of folks like Francis Chan to train young people for Christian ministry, and Preston is a young scholar who shares that vision.
Preston Sprinkle has also spent of lot time tackling the issue of homosexuality through his blog, Theology in the Raw. I like two things about Preston. First, he realizes that homosexuality is not merely an issue to be talked about and discussed in the public square. It is also about people to be loved. In doing his biblical research on homosexuality, he has made it a point to actually have conversations with people who take a different view from his. He has taken the time to talk with people who wrestle with same-sex attraction, both within and outside of the church. Whether you agree with his views or not, I hope you might find that he is genuinely caring about same-sex attraction strugglers as real people, with real names and real hurts, and not treating them as political footballs in the culture wars.
I also like that Preston Sprinkle is first and foremost interested in what the Bible really says and means. Preston Sprinkle is not interested in defending a “traditional” view of homosexuality simply because it is traditional. He wants to know what the Bible really teaches about same-sex attraction and same-sex behavior, even if it means dumping supposedly “sacred cows” of tradition, and he offers practical advice for how Christians should respond to these questions in a way that expresses the love of Jesus towards those who are hurting.
To give you a flavor of what Preston Sprinkle is saying, I would encourage you to start with Preston’s blog post on 5 Bad Reasons for Believing that Homosexuality Is a Sin. It is a pretty provocative title, for sure, but hey folks, we need to do better talking more honestly and straightforwardly here.
This might bother some people, since there are more than a few Christians who somehow “know” what God thinks about homosexuality without even consulting the Bible. To these people, there is no point in even having a discussion. But when pressed, you discover that these people have never taken the time to study what God’s Word has to say on this topic. This is sad, and thankfully, Preston Sprinkle will have none of this type of false piety.
On the one side are those who wish to be affirming of people with same-sex attraction, who want to promote fairness and justice, but who are not familiar with (or sometimes, who chose to ignore or reinterpret) how the Bible connects gender with sexuality. On the other side, there are some Christians, who have expressed very forceful condemnations of homosexuality, all in the name of the Bible, and yet they still miss the opportunity to extend love towards those who are hurting. How something is said is just as important as what is being said. How do you show compassion towards others and still embrace the full truth of what God’s Word says?
Do you see how difficult it is too have a conversation about same-sex attraction?
If those who are struggling with same-sex attraction are unable to find a listening ear in the church, sensing that they might be turned away or otherwise dehumanized, then those strugglers will go elsewhere to find love and acceptance… and believe me, there are other communities, which are deeply suspicious of evangelical Christianity, that are more than willing to welcome them.
Preston Sprinkle and Interpreting Romans 1
I have been developing teaching material for a class on the book of Romans. One of the chief proof-texts in the Bible regarding same-sex attraction issues can be found in Romans 1. But do we really understand what God is saying in the Bible in Romans?
A number of critics today, including Matthew Vines, believe that Christians have severely misunderstood Romans 1. Preston Sprinkle wrote a series of blog posts (in an older blog) that specifically address some of the arguments advocated by those like Matthew Vines. The full series starts here, but the material specific to Romans 1 is found here (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5, and #6). Preston has a really thoughtful meditation/study on Romans 1 targeted towards same-sex attraction as a product of the Fall of Humanity. But before you try to digest these links, please read on….
You can read those blog posts I linked above, but to be honest, it would be better to buy and read Preston Sprinkle’s new book People To Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not an Issue. The book contains Preston’s more mature, concise thought on the issue. In such a fairly short book, Preston is able to cover all of the bases on the topic. I only discovered Preston Sprinkle a few months ago as I stumbled on his Patheos blog, where he engages in a very positive, educational, friendly, and biblically informed debate with a pastor, Jeff Cook, who is affirming of same-sex marriage. I know that this topic can be extremely hot and explosive, but I appreciate how Preston engages other people and their ideas in a warm, non-threatening manner. Here is Preston’s latest, updated blog postings on the topic.
Over the past year or so, I have thought about writing my own blog posts here at Veracity more on the topic of same-sex attraction, but I found Preston Sprinkle’s writings to be so good, that instead of trying to re-invent the wheel, I would just encourage others to read Preston’s books and read his blog instead. Thanks, Preston!
If you want to jump to the quick and find out where “I stand” on this issue, I would encourage you to listen to this sermon given by the lead pastor in our church, Travis Simone, that he gave in the summer of 2015. Travis, at a high level, pretty much gets at the heart of this delicate topic, and it weaves in rather nicely with what Preston Sprinkle concludes in his recent book. But please do not get hung up about this as an “issue.” Remember that this is about more than that. It is about people to be loved.
Here is a promo for Preston’s book. I can not recommend this book any more highly. If you have any initial reactions, where you agree or disagree with Preston Sprinkle, please leave them in the comments section. But please, if you do leave a comment, please make sure it is something that will promote healthy, caring dialogue.
For more on this topic, you can read my first post on it, nearly three years ago, about Rosaria Butterfield.