Review: "LGBT & The Church" by Dr Preston Sprinkle
This is a review of a recent video course produced by the US-based Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender. The organisation is led by Preston Sprinkle. He has written several well-balanced books, including “People to be loved”. Some people might be suspicious of whether US material would be suitable for a UK audience but, apart from the occasional use of US survey data (e.g. 80% of gay people in America are from a Christian background), the material travels well.
Overall it’s a great course, with the intention of holding together grace and truth in this discussion. The tone is set by Sprinkle, getting away from the ivory tower to seek out many gay people in order to hear their stories. This feeling underlies one of the free previews “Dear Church, I’m gay”, with a wide range of experiences and pastoral disasters powerfully portrayed by personal testimonies. He holds with TFT’s ‘historically Christian’ understanding of the biblical teaching, but his approach gives those individuals facing LGBT temptations the visibility that is lacking in many simplistic sermons on these matters.
Two horror stories set the tone. Firstly, the woman whose pastor escorted her out of the building after she shared her struggles with him. And, secondly, a gay undergraduate who was invited to give his testimony to the youth after returning to his home church during the summer vacation. He then told the leadership of his struggles, only to be told “We don’t need to address this – we talked about it to the youth seven years ago.” “Oh, that was the session I was too young to attend…” These stories are told by the actual victims.
Sprinkle’s vision is to change the culture of the church, so that we are seen as loving, seeking to walk with the struggler as they engage with God, rather than offering condemnation. He does then offer solid exposition of the Bible in support of our position, helpfully starting from marriage before engaging with the prohibitive passages.
Sprinkle shows us that we first need to get our language right. If we use words that are heard as saying something different from what we intend, then we create unnecessary barriers. Thus ‘homosexual’ is unhelpful because it feels clinical. He works through the ‘Same-Sex Attracted’ v ‘Gay’ debate, and appeals for freedom – people need to use the term they find most helpful in dealing with the people to whom they are speaking. The test needs to be ensuring that love is heard: “Love is the best apologetic for God’s truth”. If our language makes our love less visible, then there may well be a problem.
On the trans issue, Sprinkle reports that ‘sex’ has come to mean biological/physical aspects, whilst ‘gender’ relates to the sense of self, based on psychological, social and cultural aspects. For many gender is now something other than male and female. ‘Transgender’ is used to refer to a wide range of such experiences. ‘Transitioning’ is the alteration of sex towards a person’s self-declared gender. The word ‘Transsexual’ is now out of fashion.
Sprinkle discusses various labels. Having run through ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Conservative’, he adopts ‘Historic Christian’ for himself, though is largely happy with ‘Traditional’. He uses ‘Affirming’ for those endorsing gay sexual relationships as Christian.
The videos explore the four clear presenting types of transgenderism, which helpfully distinguishes between a range of experiences under this umbrella term.
The statistics in this area are problematic, not least because the increased visibility of transgenderism has encouraged a wide range of people to identify with it. Sprinkle offers these figures:
1. 0.005 – 0.014% of the population are diagnosed with gender dysphoria.
2. 0.6% identify as transgender.
3. 12% of millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming.
4. 27% of California youth identify as gender non-conforming.
5. 50% of millennials don’t believe that gender is binary.
We need to hear those figures, as this is another area where the church is struggling to catch up.
Pastoral Case Studies
One case study considers a 16-year-old who has come out as gay and is now railing against the church as being judgemental and bullying. The panel concludes: start by humbly admitting that your church has got something wrong, if that’s what he’s feeling; get him to talk without defending yourself; and ask whether he is feeling suicidal (nb asking about suicidality is hard, but does not in itself provoke suicidal thoughts).
Another case study considers a lesbian couple who are converted and want to serve in your church. One would like to get involved in ministry to the homeless. The other, a talented musician, would like to be part of the worship team. And then what about baptism? Thinking this case study through should clarify a church’s theology. The only ‘no-no’ is to treat an unmarried straight couple differently. Sprinkle offers the tools to come to your own conclusion.
Using This Material
Most of this material is aimed at church leaders. Some of the questions raise issues about the vision and approach of the church that are less relevant to Christians who are not leaders. Some sessions (eg ‘Pastoral Cases’, ‘Membership, Service, and Leadership for LGBT+ People’) should be seen by the whole of a church’s leadership, as they are likely to raise important policy questions for discussion. Other sessions are more straightforward and might be best watched individually before meeting together to discuss.
For non-leaders and small groups, the other package that they offer (“Grace/Truth 1.0 & 2.0” - $12.95 each) would probably be more suitable. Also, the excellent free pastoral papers (eg ‘Why Didn’t Jesus Mention Homosexuality?’ and ‘Should Christians Attend a Same-Sex Wedding Ceremony?’) are relevant to a wide readership, and offer thoughtful responses. These papers are available at centerforfaith.com/resources
The powerful free preview video “Dear Church, I’m gay” (www.digitalleadersforum.org/pages/free-preview) would probably be perfect for most church services, although it would need to be watched beforehand by a few leaders so that they can respond effectively to any negative feedback or emotions triggered.
There are plenty of good books addressing these matters, but there has been a dearth of good quality video material before now. Although some people may prefer to read, some of the sessions really benefit from the video format, as they present a variety of experiences and voices (eg ‘Meet the Family’, Pastoral Cases and ‘Membership, Service, and Leadership for LGBT+ People’).
Encouraging Our Leaders
Some church leaders have been avoiding these matters and leaving their sheep confused, or drifting into an affirming position. For those church leaders who say, ‘I’m not equipped to address this issue’, this course does equip them with plenty of material to help them prepare their churches. Let’s encourage our leaders to get equipped – this course may well be a good investment. Some of it is not easy to work through, so getting the whole church leadership to go through it together may well be helpful.
This review was originally published in the Spring 2020 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the Spring 2020 edition of Ascend