A Change in Posture, Not Theology

By Graham McKeague on November 15, 2017

Dr. Preston Sprinkle delivered a thoughtful and engaging opening session for the 2017 Talking Points event at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.

Dr. Sprinkle's talk was titled "People to be Loved," and he opened his session by focusing on the stories of LGBT+ individuals. He employed simple but powerful imagery to convey his message. He walked behind a row of empty chairs on the stage and, in turn, presented different individuals and how their stories bring the LGBT+ issue to a deeply human and personal level. For example, we were introduced to the stories of:

  • Dan, a non-religious gay man who publicly opposes the church and is an advocate for LGBT+ rights.
  • Tom, a married man with kids and a successful pastor who is exclusively attracted to men. He is theologically conservative and knows that he cannot publicly talk about his sexuality without fear of being fired.
  • Leslie has experienced life as a boy ever since she was four years old, has been unable to know how to deal with her conflicting sense of who she is and had a deep crisis of identity in high school.
  • Mattie is a lesbian, but she is not actually attracted to women. She was abused by her father as a young girl, and she has since vowed that she will never be touched by another man.
  • Matt was raised in a Christian home and is a theology student with exclusive attractions to other men. He has prayed and sought counseling, studied the Bible and has come to the conclusion that the Scriptures call him to live a life of celibacy as a gay Christian.
  • Justin identifies as a gay Christian, was raised in a Christian home and feels that the Bible allows for same-sex monogamous relationships. He lives as a gay-affirming Christian.
  • Eric was raised in a Christian home, but he had a very difficult experience after he came out to his parents and friends. He was kicked out of the church, ridiculed and abused by others, ultimately to the point where he took his own life.

In presenting these examples, Sprinkle drew our attention toward the personal stories and tensions faced by LGBT+ individuals. He reflected on the idea that these individual stories must be kept in view so that this discussion is not treated simply as another topic. Furthermore, Sprinkle reminded us that not all LGBT+ people are alike; rather, they are individuals with different stories who long to be loved.

Sprinkle drew upon his training in biblical studies to affirm from Scripture the historic, global and Christian view of marriage as being between two sexually-different people. He quickly added that there's nothing in the Bible that says we should dehumanize people. He commented that Christians can get the Bible right, but love wrong. To emphasize this point, he discussed the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus from Luke 19 where Jesus relates to someone deemed especially sinful by society. Jesus insisted he visit with Zacchaeus as a necessary part of his ministry and mission in reaching the lost. In this story, it was Jesus' radical, publicly-risky, authentic love that moved Zacchaeus to repentance.

The Debate About Marriage

In light of this, Sprinkle turned his attention to consider how we talk about marriage, a key point of debate in our culture. He relayed insights from LGBT+ people who have left the church where they consistently talked about relational problems, rather than theological tensions, as their reasons for leaving. He referenced a study of over 1,700 LGBT+ people conducted a few years ago. The study showed that 83% were raised in the church, and 51% left the church after 18 years old. Why did they leave? Only 3% left because of the church's theology of marriage. The remainder left because they did not feel safe at church, or they were kicked out. Most of the people who left (76%) would consider coming back to the church, if the church listened to their story and provided love and support.

In conclusion, Sprinkle argued that agreement on theology isn't necessary for most LGBT+ individuals to consider rejoining the church. He is convinced that the church doesn't have to change its theology in order to love and honor LGBT+ people, and that the traditional theology of marriage is not intrinsically dehumanizing.

Given these findings, Sprinkle provided three reasons for the church to hold to a "historically-Christian view of marriage":

First, sex-difference is part of what constitutes marriage. The primary question we should ask is, "what is marriage?", and Scripture states that it is between two-sexually different people. Sprinkle notes that this is evident in Genesis 1-2 where the text describes opposites presented together in harmony, with the highpoint of male and female individuals at the apex of this account of creation.

Second, Sprinkle added that Scripture always prohibits same-sex relationships. The consistency of Scripture here is significant, but Sprinkle warned against focusing only on the specific verses that prohibit same-sex relationships. He argued that these passages should be treated as secondary to the main argument (point one above) because they assume the traditional understanding of marriage. He acknowledged that there is debate about the modern-day way to interpret these verses, but that doesn't take away from the overall biblical testimony regarding marriage.

Third, the traditional view of the Global Church historically provides a remarkable degree of uniformity on the theology of marriage across time and cultures.

Prioritizing the Love of Christ in Ministry

In closing, Sprinkle argued, as the above stories illustrate, that the church has often dehumanized and marginalized LGBT+ people, and we must instead elevate and prioritize the love of Jesus in our ministries. This is crucial, especially with younger people leaving the Church because it has not been right in addressing this issue.

This opening session effectively laid out the major aspects of discussion for the event. Dr. Sprinkle provided expert analysis and insight, combined with a passion for local church ministry and a desire for Christians to better serve LGBT+ individuals in ministry. In doing so, he presented a number of important considerations for pastors, ministry leaders and others to pursue in ministry where "the greatest apologetic for the truth is love."

Additional Resources

The following resources were recommended by the conference speakers for further reading:

Categories: Culture, Discipleship, Ministry, Theology