A Kinder, Gentler Machine-Gun Hand? A Response to Preston Sprinkle’s People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is not Just an Issue

Ted Grimsrud—March 31, 2016

Back in the early 1990s, Neil Young recorded a song, “Rockin’ in the Free World,” that protested social circumstances in Reagan/Bush America. It included this line, referring to the language of the Bush campaign calling for a “kindler, gentler America” and pointing to “a thousand points of light” that reflect the goodness of the country: “We’ve got a thousand points of light for the homeless man, we’ve got a kindler, gentler machine-gun hand.”

Young called out the Bush campaign for its misleading message, its claims to seek a more humane country that was contradicted by the actual policies that only exacerbated the dynamics leading to homelessness and that sought expanded militarism.

I’m a little uneasy with using this rhetoric in relation to the current discussion in evangelical Christian circles about whether and how to be welcoming toward sexual minorities. However, I think the question raised by remembering Young’s critique applies.

Is the effort Preston Sprinkle makes (echoing numerous others) to emphasize the call to love gay people actually a signal of a “kinder, gentler” evangelical community—or is it only reflecting a façade of “kindness” that does not actually signal much of a change at all? I’m afraid my reading of the book People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is not Just an Issue (Zondervan, 2015) leaves me with a strong impression of a deeper-seated “machine-gun hand” that remains solidly in place.

Do actual people really matter much?

Sprinkle is a New Testament scholar with a PhD from the University of Aberdeen and is currently an administrator at Eternity Bible College (Boise, ID). He has written several widely circulated books. He begins and ends People to be Loved with attractive reflections on the need to “love the sinner.” But he also spends the large majority of the book focused on how the Bible supposedly clearly describes and condemns the “sin” that must be hated. These dual foci, “love the sinner; hate the sin,” widespread in evangelical writing on these issues, are difficult to reconcile.

Sprinkle does not spend much time reflecting on the inherent tension in the “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach. As a consequence, the “love the sinner” element plays little appreciable role in Sprinkle’s biblical discussion—and the hopes engendered by the book’s title (that it would emphasize the people aspect and refuse to reduce “homosexuality” to an “issue”) remain unfulfilled.

The first chapter, “My Name was Faggot,” is humane and humble in tone. Sprinkle begins with the story of a gay evangelical Christian whose rejection by his family led to his suicide. “I am disheartened to say that the Christian church has often played an unintended yet active role in pushing gay people away from Christ. Sometimes away from Christ and into the grave” (p. 14). Indeed. Then, “If the gospel is good news, and the church is to be the light that warms the world with this good news, then why are gay people leaving the church in search of better news? If the gospel is not good news for gay people, then it’s not good news” (p. 15). Indeed again.

Sprinkle goes on in this chapter to propose some changes that would make our language more respectful. Don’t use the word “homosexual as a noun to refer to a person who is gay” (p. 22). “I would also recommend ditching the term lifestyle, as in ‘the gay lifestyle’ (p. 23). So far, so good. Might it be that this will be a path-breaking evangelical book that actually lets the violence and disrespect of evangelical churches shape the entire agenda of the book, including reading the Bible in light of these realities?

As it turns out, no, this book is not actually very path breaking. It could have continued in the mode of taking the actual experienced of LGBTQ Christians seriously as a central part of the process of interpreting the Bible. However, Sprinkle essentially abandons the stories of such people when he turns to the Bible. What this means is that the stories are useful for him insofar as they are negative stories that strengthen his call to be kinder and gentler. But he’s not interested in positive stories of successful and Christ-honoring marriages and other committed relationships. Such stories would throw into question Sprinkle’s easy use of the scattered negative biblical allusions to same-sex sexual intimacy as a basis to reject the moral legitimacy of same-sex marriage.

Finding what one wants in the Bible

Sprinkle does not take up the issue of the relationship between the Bible and present-day experience of LGBTQ Christians. He doesn’t discuss the experiences of those (whose number grows daily) who have found fulfillment in church-blessed marriages. He doesn’t explain why these isolated and cryptic snippets from the Bible trump without discussion the actual present-day experiences. This failure to justify what will prove to be a profoundly unkind and ungentle appropriation of the Bible throws into question Sprinkle’s claim to be taking a more humane and respectful approach in this book.

Right away, in chapter two, “Holy Otherness: Is Male and Female Sexual Difference Necessary for Marriage?” Sprinkle suggests that Genesis 1–2 teaches that the essence of marriage is that God created it to be exclusively for one male with one female. He applies this teaching literally to today and assumes it should determine what we believe about marriage. So, if I know Christians in life-giving same-sex marriages, I should deny that such could possibly be God’s will based on Genesis 1–2.

However, even if Genesis 1–2 presents the “norm” for marriage being one male and one female, why should we assume that no exceptions to that normal pattern may be acceptable? After all, Jesus allows for exceptions to the permanence of marriage when quoting Genesis (at least in Matthew’s version, 19:9) and refers to the exceptions Moses allowed for (Dt 24:1).

Another part of the picture of marriage in Genesis 1–2 is the expectation of having children (“be fruitful and multiply,” Gen 1:28 follows right after the “male and female” clause). Yet, we allow for exceptions for people unable to have children. Why could Genesis 1–2 not be read as reporting the norm for most people, with the sense that a few might not fit into the “for life,” the “fruitful and multiply,” or the “male and female” elements of the norm?

Taking account of the experience of married same-sex couples from recent years could encourage Sprinkle to move toward a more humane reading of this passage. Yes, the Bible teaches that it is normal for men to marry women. In part, this is because marriage is understood as a good thing, a way to encourage human beings to find a lifelong companion to meet our intimacy needs. But for a few, male/female marriage is not an option. We now know that something like the lifelong, conjugal partnership established in Genesis two when Eve was created is also possible in God-honoring ways for same-sex couples. To affirm these partnerships is in no way a threat to the normativity and value of opposite-sex marriage; in fact churches should see the affirming of both types of marriage as a mutually reinforcing commitment that will strengthen human community.

However, Sprinkle clearly has as his agenda the invalidating of same-sex marriage for Christians. Hence, the ease with which he takes a passage that simply describes the early history of humanity and turns it into a statement that the essence of marriage is the joining together to two clearly and permanently differentiated genders. He doesn’t take into account contemporary understandings that our gender identities (masculine and feminine) are varied and somewhat fluid and not irrevocably tied to our sexual identities (male and female).

Sprinkle places a great deal of weight on the two cryptic commands in Leviticus 18 and 20 that forbid men having sex with other men. And he finds there the clarity he looks for: “Leviticus 18 or 20 don’t appear to have a specific form of male-male sex in view. The verses use general language, which includes all forms of homosexual sex. There’s no concern over the status of the male partners. There’s nothing about prostitution, rape, or men have sex with boys. The commands most naturally include all forms of male same-sex intercourse—thus including consensual sex between two men in love” (p. 48).

That is, for Sprinkle, the cryptic nature of these commands—they simply show up in the lists of prohibitions with no explanation—becomes a basis for asserting that they have the broadest possible timeless application. He dismisses several attempts to situate the no male-male sex in the specific context of the time of Leviticus that would show that these prohibitions are limited to a certain time and place. One option he doesn’t address—the one I find most likely—is the idea that the prohibitions here have to do with the importance for the community of children. This seems like the only explanation that makes sense of each of the prohibitions in the series in Leviticus 18:19-23, which speak to non-procreative sex, sex between family members, and child sacrifice.

Does Jesus’s silence mean he would oppose same-sex marriage?

Sprinkle asserts that think that Jesus would affirm same-sex marriage would be to “rip him out of his Jewish context” (p. 70). This is because, according to Sprinkle, “the Judaism that existed for 500 years on either side of Jesus unequivocally condemned same-sex behavior” (p. 70). This is quite a strong statement considering how little we know about the views of the Judaism of the centuries around Jesus’s time.

“The fact that Jesus’ authoritative Bible prohibited male same-sex intercourse suggests that Jesus would have believed the words of Leviticus had the question come up” (p. 72). This is a great example of how Sprinkle, reflecting the arguments of many of his fellow-evangelical writers on this topic, constructs certainty out of silence. It seems just as plausible that Jesus would have been aware of the intimacy of such biblical same-sex relationships as Naomi and Ruth or David and Jonathan, so had he encountered a same-sex couple who were committed to a permanent, monogamous, mutually up-building, God-centered partnership, he would have used those biblical precedents as a basis to bless such a relationship. That is, without insisting that those two Old Testament intimate friendships were sexually consummated, he could have believed that they reflected the same life-giving dynamics of the partnership he encountered.

Another problem with Sprinkle’s argument concerning Jesus’s Jewish context is that he seems to assume that on these kinds of issues we should see such ancient cultural assumptions as normative for us today. If Jesus’s Jewish world was unequivocally opposed to same-sex partnerships we should be too. However, this is problematic on many levels. For one thing, we by the nature of the case cannot know very much about those supposed cultural assumptions; our data is sparse and often cryptic. We are surely liable all too easily to read our own biases into such incomplete information.

By ignoring the present-day experience of LGBTQ Christians in intimate relationships, Sprinkle acts as if those ancient, weakly ascertained cultural assumptions should carry much more weight than present day data. Instead of imagining how the Jesus of welcome to vulnerable people would respond to the fruitful lives of present-day people of faith, Sprinkle asks us to assume that Jesus’s silence on same-sex relationships is evidence for how he would reject all possible present day relationships.

How not to read Paul on same-sex relationships

According to Sprinkle, “Romans 1 is probably the most important passage in the debate about same-sex relations” (p. 87). The Romans text and one other brief mention in Paul (1 Cor 6:9) receive extended attention in the two longest chapters of the book. However, in his discussion of both the Romans and 1 Corinthians texts, Sprinkle makes a fundamental mistake that renders much of his discussion of particular words irrelevant.

He starts his discussion of Romans with an important observation: “The entire context of Romans 1–3 is important for understanding [1:26-17]” (p. 89). However, after a brief, accurate summary of the theological argument Paul makes in these three chapters, Sprinkle focuses on the few verses in chapter one with little attention to how Paul’s discussion there fits with the larger argument. This leads him fundamentally to misrepresent Paul’s point in writing about sexuality in 1:26-27.

As I understand Romans, beginning in 1:18, Paul portrays the dynamics of idolatry that characterize pagan Romans. Their not trusting in God but in created things instead lead to their abandonment by God. This misdirected trust sets off a spiral of injustice (“wickedness”) that leads to “degrading passions” (1:26) and culminates in “every kind of injustice” (1:29) that means they deserve death (1:32). Clearly, though, Paul presents here a caricatured version pagan idolatry. He sets his readers up by giving a description that would evoke their sense of disgust at what the pagans do.

What follows is a turning of tables that echoes the prophet Nathan’s trap of King David after Uriah’s engineered death. David condemns the king Nathan tells about who takes away the poor man’s precious sheep. Then Nathan springs his trap. That’s what you have done! Paul’s says something similar here. You self-righteous insiders to the covenant, when you point your fingers at those terrible pagans you forget that you are just as guilty. Paul eventually goes on by the end of chapter three to provide a message of hope and healing.

It is crucial for understanding Romans one to see that it is not a considered statement about human sexuality (contrary to Sprinkle’s inference when he writes about Paul “prohibiting same-sex eroticism,” p. 123). Paul simply describes in an exaggerated way what pagan Romans do that reflects the problematic dynamics of the spiral of idolatry at its most extreme. And he does this not to condemn the pagans, but to spring a rhetorical trap on his readers in their judgmentalism. It is ironic how this passage then becomes the most important text for Sprinkle (and many others) to be judgmental about same-sex marriage.

In other words, the purpose of Romans 1:18-32 (which includes the reference to same-sex “shameless acts” in 1:26-27) is not a considered statement concerning how Christians should not endorse same-sex marriage. It’s not even a considered statement concerning any kind of should or should not. It’s a exaggerated caricature meant to confront the self-righteous religiosity among Paul’s readers that leads to judgmentalism. And this confrontation is not itself a form of Paul’s own judgmentalism, but a move toward the core goal of his letter to the Romans: Affirmation of the healing love of God in Jesus that reconciles sinners with God and in community with each other.

So Sprinkle’s labors to show how Paul articulates a theology of marriage here that justifies a rejection of same-sex marriage as “against nature” are misspent. There are many problems with the specifics of what he reads into Romans 1:26-27, but his failure to read the passage in its context points to the biggest problem. That is, in his eagerness to find biblical material to support his disposition against same-sex marriage, Sprinkle reveals how flawed the case for discrimination is. His “most important passage” does not even speak to the issues he tries to address.

In his eagerness to find materials that support his assumption that what is “wrong with same-sex relations transcends cultures,” he imagines in Romans 1:26-27 an argument for “God-given gender boundaries [that are] universal and absolute.” Sprinkle imagines that Romans one teaches that these boundaries “go against the way God created males and females and intended them to relate to each other” (p. 93). If Paul did believe that there were such a thing as God-given gender boundaries that are universal and absolute, we would have to say, based on the evidence from life, that Paul was wrong. However, Paul surely had nothing of the kind in mind here. He simply repeats stereotypes about pagans in order to stimulate the kind of response that will allow him to make his anti-judgmentalism critique.

We can see the same problem at work in Sprinkle’s lengthy interpretation of the second main proof text where Paul allegedly addresses same-sex sexual behavior, 1 Corinthians 6:9. That is, once again Sprinkle ignores the context for his key verses and imagines that they speak directly to his agenda of rejecting same-sex marriage. However, in fact, Paul’s actual agenda is to describe pagan behavior in a way that supports his point concerning something totally other than sexual ethics.

Sprinkle doesn’t even bother this time to mention the broader context for his key verse. He simply jumps in with the one verse and narrows the focus even more closely to two specific words mentioned in his verse—as if all we need to do here is establish the meaning of these words, something that he seems to think can be done without considering the literary context for Paul’s use of these words here.

Sprinkle goes to great lengths to show that in fact these two words are all about Paul’s antipathy toward all possible same-sex sexual intimacy. Based simply on the meaning he constructs for these individual words based on scholarly word studies, he concludes that Paul means to “prohibit same-sex eroticism” under all circumstances and for all time (p. 123).

As with Romans 1, Sprinkle assumes that Paul intends in 1 Corinthians 6:9 to articulate authoritative direct ethical requirements for Christians. However, he can make this assumption only by ignoring that immediate context of the verse and the rhetorical role it plays in Paul’s argument. Once again, as in Romans 1, Paul describes pagan behavior in an exaggerated way in order to make a point about the behavior of his readers that has nothing to do with sex.

Beginning in 1 Corinthians 6:1, Paul writes of a major problem among the Corinthians Christians. They are taking their internal disputes to secular courts for adjudication. Paul insists that such behavior is totally unacceptable. It is likely that the people who initiated these court proceedings were some of the more wealthy people in the congregation and it was a form of exploitation against poorer members (see Richard Hays’s commentary on 1 Corintians). Regardless, Paul’s concern is straightforward. Christians are not to take their fellow believers to secular courts but instead are to work together to resolve their conflicts. Such a path is necessary for the sake of their witness to the wider world of the power of Jesus’s message of reconciliation.

To drive this point home, Paul gives a description of those who preside in the secular courts. They are characterized by injustice (or “wickedness”), not the kind of justice needed for a healing resolution to the conflicts. Paul’s description of the judges is clearly exaggerated. He is not meaning to carefully portray these people so much as exaggerate in order to make his point. Look, you Christians used to be unjust like those judges still are—and it was pretty bad as you would admit. So, don’t go back to that world when you are trying to work out your problems with your fellow Christians. All of you who now belong to Jesus Christ have the capabilities of embodying genuine justice and hence are well able to work things out yourselves when you are in conflict.

Paul uses a vice list as his means of describing the injustice of the secular judges. On this list he includes the two words Spinkle builds his anti-same-sex-marriage case on: arsenokoites and malakoi. Because Paul only gives a list, it is difficult to know for sure what he precisely means by these specific words. However, the meaning of the vice list as a whole is clear. Paul didn’t need to explain the meaning of the particular words to convey his point, which is about the general unjust sensibilities of the secular judges. It seems likely that there is some sexual connotation with arsenokoites (malakoi was used in non-sexual contexts at times), quite possibly having to do with male-male sexual behavior. However, as with Romans 1, the point is an exaggerated picture of pagans. The specific meaning of arsenokoites is both impossible to determine (as far as we know Paul made this word up and gives no explanation of what he might have meant) and basically irrelevant. The last thing Paul intended with this word is to provide a detailed and timeless instruction on how Christians should manage their sexual lives.

As with his discussion of Romans 1, Sprinkle here projects his own agenda onto the biblical text. Many of his speculative points about the possible meaning of arsenokoites may have some validity as possible readings—if not the most likely readings. But by missing the point of Paul’s use of the words, he betrays his own anti-same-sex-marriage disposition and perhaps a bit of desperation in finding explicit biblical warrant for that disposition.

What about the experience of those in happy same-sex marriages?

After his biblical exposition, Sprinkle turns to more practical and contemporary issues, and tries to explain why the clear biblical teaching against same-sex marriage can be sustained in light of present-day questions and challenges.

Here again, his failure to take seriously present-day experiences of LGBTQ Christians, including not only the crucial population of those happily married but others as well, leads to many problematic assumptions and assertions. While granting, grudgingly, the possibility that same-sex affectional orientation (my term; Sprinkle uses the term “desires”) is an unchangeable dimension of life for some, “this still wouldn’t mean that it’s okay to act on those desires” (p. 131). I would suspect that greater awareness of the experiences of LGBTQ Christians would help Sprinkle realize that “those desires” is an inadequate way to think about what motivates gay Christians to want to be married. The point is not wanting an outlet for sexual desire nearly so much as wanting to experience companionship and the broad dimension of intimacy that goes far beyond just having sex (important as sexual intimacy is) that characterizes the most life-giving of heterosexual marriages.

Sprinkle will go on to make the case for celibacy for gay Christians—it’s always problematic when a happily married heterosexual person denies access to that kind of relationship for others. In making this case, he articulates an uncharitable put-down for those who support same-sex marriage: “[Many] affirming Christians ignore the Bible and crown human desire as the lord of right and wrong” (p. 151). This comment seems to ignore the main argument in favor of same-sex marriage—it’s not about “desire as the lord of right and wrong,” but about mutual sharing of covenanted love (that same as the conservative institution of heterosexual marriage).

Sadly, Sprinkle shows no acquaintance with the extensive literature by Christians affirming same-sex marriage—such as David Myers and Letha Scanzoni, What God Has Joined Together: A Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005), and William Stacy Johnson, A Time to Embrace: Same-Sex Relationships in Religion, Law, and Society, 2nd edition (Eerdmans, 2012). I wouldn’t expect Sprinkle to agree with the arguments of these books, but by taking them into account he would have a harder time reducing the issue to “desire as lord of right and wrong” and would have more likely had to address the more challenging issue for those who oppose same-sex marriage—where is the harm in the real-life practice of same-sex marriage that mirrors the ideals of Christian opposite-sex marriage?

Putting homophobia to death?

Sprinkle returns at the end of the book to where he began, insisting that evangelical Christians must be kind and loving toward those with same-sex attraction. “We need to put homophobia to death. Stab it. Kill it. And bury it in a grave” (p. 181). Let me suggest that in spite of these admirable sentiments, Sprinkle’s book ultimately only underwrites hostility toward LGBTQ Christians. Here are five ways he does so:

(1) Perhaps the biggest failing of this book is Sprinkle’s failure respectfully to attend to the actual experience of Christians who are married to spouses of the same sex. Though the subtitle of the book promises otherwise, “Why homosexuality is not just an issue,” he does not acquaint himself or the reader with the practical experiences that would challenge his arguments that are based mainly on ideas.

For Sprinkle, in the end the book is about “homosexuality” as an “issue,” and the core element of the issue that he often refers to negatively as “desire”: Paul “condemns the actions that result from sexual desire. ‘Desire’ … and ‘passion’ … are considered wrong in Romans 1 not because such desires are excessive … but they grow into sinful sexual actions” (p. 100). It’s doubtful that Sprinkle would reduce the connection he feels with his wife that animates their relationship to “desire.” It is a shame Sprinkle seemingly hasn’t tried to acquaint himself with those who experience their same-sex marriages as life-giving and good—where “desire” is only one part of a rich and comprehensive experience of intimacy and commitment.

(2) It is difficult not to see an anti-gay bias at work in how Sprinkle uses Jesus’s teaching against divorce. Barely nodding at the fact that Jesus’s teaching where he mentions marriage in terms of “male and female” is about divorce (p. 73), Sprinkle proceeds to focus on sexual differentiation as the most relevant aspect of Jesus’s teaching. It is highly ironic that Jesus directly speaks to the terrible problem all too many attempts at heterosexual marriage end up displaying, a problem that has reached epidemic proportions in contemporary America, and Sprinkle proceeds as if Jesus’s main relevance is to forbid same-sex marriage.

(3) Sprinkle’s treatment of the direct biblical texts only makes sense if he is seeking to find evidence to support his pre-existing animus toward same-sex marriage. He takes these few cryptic and quite brief statements and spins them into all-encompassing definitive prohibitions. For example, the simple and unexplained command in Leviticus 18 and 20, “men should not lie with men as they do with women,” becomes the definitive basis for saying that the Old Testament forbids “all forms of male same-sex intercourse” (p. 48). And he takes similarly brief and cryptic statements from Paul’s writings where Paul describes the behavior of certain pagans and spins them into broad statements that are “prohibiting same-sex eroticism” for Christians (p. 123). These two brief descriptive comments (Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9) become the bases for Sprinkle’s assertion that “the reason Paul condemns the same-sex erotic behavior—that it is against nature and creates the Creator’s intention for male-female relations—shows that Paul’s language applies to all forms of same-sex intercourse” (p. 101).

These leaps that Sprinkle makes, from short, cryptic statements to all-encompassing and definitive ethical commands, are scarcely obvious from straightforward reading of the texts. To make such leaps, he must de-emphasize the literary contexts of these verses and focus on the alleged meaning of specific words. Such a method is notoriously susceptible to the imposition of meaning onto the text. That Sprinkle draws uniformly hostile conclusions from these passages that fit his starting assumptions so well makes one suspicious that such imposing indeed is happening.

(4) Numerous times throughout the book, Sprinkle implicitly makes parallels between same-sex affectional orientation and same-sex marriage with obviously wrong, sinful, and even disgusting behavior. These links subtly poison the reader’s disposition toward LGBTQ people.

There is an implicit link between same-sex marriage and incest and rape: “Jesus is silent on a whole host of … ethical questions, but I don’t think his silence meant that he was indifferent. Jesus never mentions incest [or] rape [or] bestiality” (p. 71)—implying some sort of moral equivalence among same-sex marriage, incest, rape, and bestiality.

“Jesus stands in solidarity with the woman caught in adultery, taking her shame and sin, and declaring: ‘Neither do I condemn you’” (p. 85). The parallel here is that “nonaffirming Christians” should treat LGBTQ Christians in the same way Jesus treated this woman, with an implicit moral equating of same-sex marriage with adultery.

In his discussion of Romans 1, Sprinkle denies that Paul’s condemnation of same-sex erotic behavior there could just be about certain types of behavior. “In a similar way, when Paul describes other pagan vices, such as murder, envy, deceit, covetousness, and slander in Romans 1:29-31, this does not mean that these acts are fine if they are committed by loving Christians” (p. 101). That is, same-sex marriage is on a moral plane with these other types of wickedness.

(5) Ultimately, Sprinkle casts strong doubt on the possibility that being a self-affirming gay person is compatible with being a Christian. Some “use the term gay to describe their core identity, central to who they are, a primary aspect of their existence as a human. I have a hard time seeing how this can be reconciled with the gospel” (p. 141). Sprinkle seems to say here that he sees a fundamental contradiction between self-identifying as gay and “submitting one’s identity to Christ.”

I doubt that Sprinkle would say that other types of self-identification (being heterosexual or male or white or a Canadian) are irreconcilable with the gospel. Certainly, we would all agree that some self-identities can become so central that they push Jesus out of the picture. But why would the self-identification as gay be more inherently problematic that these other examples? Why indeed, unless there is a special bias against self-identifying gay people.

In light of these five points, it is difficult not to question how central to Sprinkle’s concerns his call to “put homophobia to death” actually is. He defines homophobia as “the dislike or prejudice against LGBT people” (p. 181). I finish this book with a strong sense that Sprinkle, despite what might be his best intentions, has produced a work that manifests “dislike or prejudice against LGBT people.”

I end up with mixed feelings about the idea of an evangelical such as Sprinkle writing a book that purports to focus on LGBTQ folks as “people to be loved.” On the one hand, it seems always to be a good thing for people to try to be kinder and gentler. Yet, the various problems with this book I have identified indicate that the kindness and gentleness are pretty superficial. Making motions to be kind and gentle while the core antipathy remains is likely for many to be seen as manipulative and hypocritical. Kindness and gentleness do not seem compatible with the kind of theological argument that Sprinkle makes in this book.

11 thoughts on “A Kinder, Gentler Machine-Gun Hand? A Response to Preston Sprinkle’s People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is not Just an Issue

  1. Thanks, Ted, for your reflections here. Your opening comments remind me of other responses to the “hate the sin, love the sinner” mindset–Jakobson and Pellegrini write that this “middle ground response” is inadequate as it “allows people to take positions that are punitive toward their fellow citizens, while at the same time experiencing themselves as being not simply ethical, but compassionate and even tolerant of difference.” Also, in the preface to their book, “Is the Homosexual My Neighbor,” Letha Scanzoni and Virginia Mollenkott state that that very title “shouldn’t be necessary . . . because Jesus made it clear that everyone is our neighbor.”

  2. Ted, I’ve appreciated your efforts for peacemaking and the evidence that you show from the New Testament text.

    I also do agree with you that all humans ought to have the right to monogamous marriage–opposite and same sexual both.

    But on the topic of same sexual relations in the New Testament text, I think your view is incorrect.

    You wrote, “…Paul describes pagan behavior in an exaggerated way in order to make a point about the behavior of his readers that has nothing to do with sex.”

    On the contrary, look at the list. The text says exactly the opposite.

    Every New Testament translation I’ve read (at least 25 including my Interlinear) translates same sexual behavior as wrong; some of the translations specify both sides of a same sexual relationship (nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with men–ERV; “nor effeminate, nor sodomites”–Youngs)

    And look at the other wrongs listed: “neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers…10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”

    Notice that 2 other wrong behaviors are sexual, and that all of the wrong sexual actions are in the same category as theft, coveting, drunkedness, reviling, extorting! And all of these wrong actions in human relationship are included with “idolatry.”

    Then Paul spends the next 6 verses even more condemning sex outside of opposite sexual marriage. (Heck, based on other letters, it would appear that Paul was mostly anti-sex completely. As a youth, I never liked his commandment, “not to touch” a woman in the other letter, and his grudging permission, “it’s better to marry than to burn.”:-(

    One of his points certainly is about sex, contrary to your claim “has nothing to do with sex.”

    When anyone reads a text, some amount of eisegesis affects the reading, but in my understanding (as a former literature teacher) your analysis has reading modern understandings back into the text.

    1. Thanks Daniel for reading and taking the time to share your response.

      I think you misunderstand my point—and I will take responsibility for not being more clear. I’m not saying that Paul does not use a sexual reference to make his point. I’m saying that the main point these references serve is not sexual. His main point is to set up his readers by playing on their anti-pagan biases. He then turns the tables and tells them that they are just as guilty. And note that the sins of his readers in chapter 2 are not sexual sins.

      When you say that Paul is “condemning sex…” you are missing the point and assuming that his agenda is to “condemn sex.” But all he is doing is describing the behavior of the Roman idolators. Certainly he does not approve, but to say he is “condemning” those acts is to misrepresent his agenda.

      I even think he exaggerates the depth of the sins of the Romans in order to draw his readers even further in in their judgmental reaction. Note, too, that later in chapter 2 he writes that some just pagans actually do follow the law, so he clearly is not meaning with his blanket description in 1:18-32 to objectively describe what all pagans do—again, he’s making the non-sexual point that his readers are sinners in their judgmentalism and idolatry of works of the law.

      Of course, it’s also true that Romans 1:18-32 is useful in showing how Paul thinks of the dynamics of idolatry. And perhaps he thought that one of the most characteristic and destructive consequences of the spiral of idolatry is the kind of uncontrollable lust he refers to in 1:26-27. Even then, though, he turns around in chapter 2 to say that the idolatry of trusting in works of the law is just as bad. If we interpret Romans 7 as a reference to Paul’s own works of the law idolatry that led to his violence against Christians, we would to say that the spiral of idolatry has many non-sexual consequences as well.

      1. Good evening Ted,

        No, your article was very clear. I understood your various points. It’s my error that I didn’t explain that I agreed with your view that “He then turns the tables and tells them that they are just as guilty.” (I was trying to keep my comment relatively short.)

        I have a pretty good background in NT, was a youth minister, even started seminary but dropped out. So I think I understand Paul’s basic thinking in Romans and Corinthians, etc.

        Where we disagree is on the secondary points related to Paul’s ethics.

        I’m a retired literature teacher. If you don’t mind I will give an illustration:-)

        Let’s say that I am–a church leader (now that’s a stretch)–and am writing to Christians the U.S. South. My main point is that they are just as guilty as the secular Americans and atheists they condemn. In my rhetoric I list a bunch of American unethical behavior–support for torture, nuclear weapons, fornication, polyamory, high rates of divorce (especially among Christians), hard-heartedness against poor illegal “aliens,” greed, nationalism, etc.

        While my central point is the hypocrisy of American Christians, I am NOT giving the list of sins because I think they are unimportant or not wrong, but on the contrary because they are so very wrong. They aren’t my central point, but they are immoral behaviors that I am condemning, even as I mainly point out that Christians are wrong to think they are better even if they don’t commit some of the same ones.

        This is textural problem is like the issue of modern women’s liberation versus the contrary “Household Codes,” etc. in the Pauline letters (whether or not he spoke all of them or not) and the issue of slavery, too.

        It seems that trying to get around the condoning of subjugation of women and condoning (even promotion) of slavery and the ban on same sexual relations in the NT texts can’t be done with out reinterpreting the text.

        But I know that there are many fine Christian writers (including your self) who try to get the texts to say that the Bible is supportive of same sexuality, that women are equal in all social roles with men, and that slavery is inherently evil.

        I just don’t think it can be done.

        I’ve been around this roundabout on same sexuality since the early 90’s when it was first becoming big in the Mennonite Church and also was a big controversy at the Christian high school where we sent our teens.

        Out here in California, my wife and I were part of a Mennonite church plant that was in the midst of it. Tough times.

        I’ve changed a lot since then. Also, had to do battle with theological Calvinism again and again. Now its even invading some Mennonite and Quaker churches.

        Anyway, so I’m no longer a Christian; after 55 years, i finally realized that Christianity can’t be true. Too many contradictions among Christian leaders and denominations.

        But thanks for writing your article in support of same sexual individuals. It’s been very hard on those of them who seek God.

  3. It is my experience that most Christians participate in some of the love the sinner, but hate the sin behavior. It is common to believe some sin, attitude, behavior is repulsive or disobedient to God’s way, but if one loves neighbor, brother sister, etc., one tries to love the “sinner,” although “hating the sin.” I hate the sin of violence committed and supported by many Christians, yet I try to love them. Most Christians I know are selective in what parts or themes of the Bible they wish to stress. Historical-theological tradition, cultural context and personal preference influence such. Every time lectionary texts are used in worship or study, selective reading occurs. I often find that the nastier bits of scripture aren’t used.

  4. Ted, your reservations about using a violent metaphor to describe third-way approaches to same-gender relationships were well-founded. What persuaded you to start your post with such a provocative and offensive image? You must expect some significant gains.

    My congregation is currently engaged in discussion of its response to same-gender relationships. There is little-to-none of the animus you describe and much eagerness to welcome. The nub of the disagreement seems to be the biblical witness to a gendered creation. Is that witness anachronistic? Or does it reflect the wisdom of God?

    Before Jesus responded directly to those who approached him about the “issue” of divorce, he recalled that God creates us male and female and then observed that “for this reason” a man leaves the security of his family to form a new and fruitful union with the (feared) other.

    So a gendered creation–and man/woman marriage–is not merely the wisdom of God, but also God’s way of justice.

    Regarding Romans, I read it not as you do (a rhetorical trap for the self-righteous), but as a nuanced reflection on how we can still claim YHWH to be just if we also claim the fallen Jesus to be the righteousness of God. Does this new gospel preached by Paul make justice irrelevant, leaving only an ephemeral and metaphysical salvation?

    As for your dismissal of Paul’s remarks about sexuality in chapter 1, I join Daniel Wilcox’s reading (as reflected in his comment).

    Ted, back in the ’70s when Central America entered its violent travail, many on-the-ground witnesses reported that those who seek a third way are targeted early and often by both sides. Your harsh critique of a writer who seeks a third way brings that sad truth to mind.

  5. Isn’t “a kinder, gentler machine gun hand” entirely more apt to a description of the current administration’s foreign policy of drone assassination, weapons proliferation, regime change coups, nuclear weapons buildups, expansion of special forces deployments in new wars, rather than its current position on gender politics?

    It’s a non-sequitur in a discussion of same-sex sexual relations, but it is more appropriate to discussion of the only venue where machine guns are actually used, the war theater.

    A machine gun hand, yes, but the administration’s “right to protect” excuse is neither kinder nor gentler.

  6. Hi Ted,

    I just ran across your post and appreciate your taking time to articulate your perspective.

    I’d like to invite you to reconsider one of your section headings: “Finding what one wants in the Bible”. The words of that heading assume that you can read Sprinkle’s mind, that you know he had a particular desired outcome, a particular bias or agenda, and that he only found what he wanted to find. Your heading conveys to your reader, even before they discover what you will say in that section, that Sprinkle’s credibility is suspect because he didn’t come with an open mind.

    The problem is, you can’t know that about Sprinkle.

    It would be easy for others to say about you, and maybe some people have said about you, “Ted is finding in scripture what he wants to find.” But they can’t know that about you, either.

    The conversation goes best when the entire Christian community is open to being corrected by scripture, corrected by the Spirit, and corrected by our brothers and sisters. That’s not a simplistic formula for landing on the same page, but it is a formula for mutual respect, kindness, and humility. One of the ways that we leave at peace with those who have a different perspective is to be able to say to the other, “We can’t both be right, but we can both faithful, keeping our hearts and minds open for God to bring us closer to the truth and to each other.” Peace is undermined when we dismiss the other by saying, “You only see what you want to see.”

    I personally land with Sprinkle on this issue. If someone said of me, “She sees only what she wants to see,” they would be wrong. For decades I have lived comfortably on the religious left. I have liked being counter-cultural in ways that align me with people who are marginalized. I have liked surprising secular friends with my progressive views. I have liked the sense that labels like “narrow-minded” and “bigoted” don’t fit. I have always voted Democrat. For me, affirming same-sex marriage would be the comfortable answer. It would enable me to fit in with the people I most enjoy.

    The problem is, when I look at the Bible, that’s not what I see. The answer that makes most sense to me is not the answer I find in scripture. I listen to what you and others say about life-giving committed same-sex relationships and it makes perfect sense. But “God created them male and female in God’s image” is not a fine point of Levitical law. It’s God’s design at creation. The consistent witness of scripture on marriage, from Creation to Law to Poetry to Prophecy to Jesus to Paul to Revelation is male-female. In the context of a broader culture that tells us to look inside ourselves to find our identity, to follow our hearts, to pursue our passions, it’s almost impossible to believe that a loving God would allow people to experience sexual desires that won’t be satisfied. That’s pure cruelty. Yet this has been God’s call to single people in the church for 2000+ years.

    I was very moved when I first heard Sam Allberry’s reminder to all believers of the call to deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow the Lord Jesus– to bring our deepest desires and our emptiness to Jesus. That’s an extremely vulnerable place for anyone–including this straight married women–in coming before God. God used the suffering and the witness of a celibate homosexual man to remind me to count the cost and to consider how God uses suffering to bring me into closer discipleship.

    I’m not saying any of this to convince you to agree with me, but just to remind you that you don’t know the motives or wishes of those who disagree with you. Maybe they found what they wanted to find in scripture. Or maybe they were unable to find what they wanted to find. Maybe they’d love to agree with you, but their understanding of scripture constrains them.

    So it’s best not to speculate about people’s motives. Assume the best–that they are open to God’s leading. As we all do that, and as we stay open to God’s leading in our own lives, we are better able to stay in step with God’s Spirit, with scripture, and with each other.

    1. You raise some interesting points, Kate.

      Here’s my quick response. On the one hand, I think you are overstating the importance of my section heading. As I reread the post, what I see in that section is that I critique Sprinkle’s actual argument, not his motivations.

      But, on the other hand, I do have to admit to believing that Sprinkle, or anyone else who thinks the Bible provides a clear condemnation of same-sex marriage, is finding what they want in the Bible and not understanding it on its own terms. It makes sense that this would be the case given the long practice in Christian churches of accepting cultural biases and practicing violence against LGBTQ people. It seems impossible to imagine that it could be otherwise.

      Of course, I am accused of doing the same thing. One way to adjudicate that impasse is to consider which approach seems closer to Jesus’s call to love. But mostly I think all we can do is try to speak the truth the best we can without coercion and trust in the Spirit to guide those with responsive hearts to God’s will for our lives.

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