Preston Sprinkle: People to Be…Misunderstood: A Response to the Gospel Coalition

Preston Sprinkle has graciously consented to cross-post his response to Anne Paulk here. To check out his other writings, please visit his Patheos blog

The Gospel Coalition just published a review of my two books, People to Be Loved and Living in a Gray World. The author of the review was Anne Paulk. As a writer, I enjoy good, constructive criticism of my work, and I’m so thankful to have people in my life who give it to me. Since I’m not Jesus, everything I say contains a mixture of truth and error, and I’m on a mission to weed out the latter.

people-to-be-lovedThis is why I rarely respond to critical reviews of my books. It could look rather defensive if you do. Plus, who has the time? It’s tough enough to write a book; to respond to its critics would require that I quit my day-job. But it’s difficult not to respond to Paulk’s review. Again, I’m totally fine if someone represents what I say accurately and then disagrees with what I say—preferably by providing evidence. But misrepresenting someone’s work is never helpful especially when people are reading reviews to get an honest idea about the book’s content.

I knew the review wasn’t going to be very accurate when Paulk began by saying that I live in Spokane, WA. I’ve heard that Spokane is a beautiful this time of year. It has lush forests and breathtaking mountain ranges. But don’t take my word for it. This is all hearsay. I’ve never even visited Spokane.

I sort of chuckled at the mistake; it’s just a mistake and I take no offence at it. But this level of misrepresentation is reflected in the rest of Paulk’s review of my book. Here are some brief examples.

I found the review to be terribly unbalanced. The bulk of my book is an in-depth look at what the Bible says about same-sex sexual behavior. I spent thousands of hours researching the Old Testament, Mesopotamian and Egyptian sexuality, same-sex relations in Greco-Roman and Jewish literature, Jesus’s statements on gender, sex, and marriage, and the relevant passages in Paul. All of this work gets a few passing comments in the review, which is misleading for a reader wanting to know the book is all about. It’s like visiting the Statue of Liberty and spending your time starring at (and critiquing) lady liberty’s shoulder.

Paulk goes on to say that I used Alan Chambers as “one of [my] key sources on change.” While I mentioned Chambers when I talked about Exodus International, my reference to Chambers’ statement on change (that only 99.9% of people didn’t experience total change from gay to straight) was relegated to an endnote at the end of the book. Even in that endnote, I stated some disagreement with how Chambers understands “change.”

What Paulk fails to mention that the main source I drew upon was not Chambers butthe longitudinal study by Drs. Mark Yarhouse and Stanton Jones—the largest scientific study on the success rate of so-called “ex gay” ministries—which I discussed in the actual body of my argument (see p. 160). Paulk’s critique gives the impression that I didn’t do any actual research on “change;” I just sort of relied on Chambers.

I’m totally fine with disagreement, even more so with correction. But this appears to be misrepresentation.

Paulk also critiques my use of the term “gay” as a synonym for “same-sex attraction.” I found her criticisms to be rather bizarre, especially since most gay people I know use the term exactly how I described it in the book. Justin Lee, an affirming gay Christian and leader of the gay Christian network, says “When I use the term gay, all I mean is that I’m attracted to men and not to women.”

Paulk also says that “endorsing” the term “gay” as a “descriptive use for an otherwise faithful Christian…is problematic in light of the biblical exhortation to repent of sin and embrace one’s new identity in Christ.”

This seems odd to me. I stated quite clearly in the book that same-sex attraction is not a morally culpable sin that people should repent from—something Paulk says she agrees with. And since the term “gay” only means “attracted to the same sex,” then how am I neglecting “the biblical exhortation to repent from sin?” Paulk is pumping the term gay full of meaning that I don’t subscribe to, nor do most gay people—affirming and non-affirming—subscribe to. I’m pretty sure that Paulk doesn’t endorse a reader-response theory of interpretation, but this is what she’s doing in this review. She’s determining the meaning of my words, rather than letting me determine the meaning of my words. And I took a good deal of time explaining exactly what I mean by the term “gay.”

Paulk also thinks that my use of the term “gay” “is problematic in light of the biblical exhortation to…embrace one’s new identity in Christ.” I had to sit back and rub my eyes when I read this and wonder, did she read the part where I said that people should not use “the term gay to describe their core identity” since the gospel “shatters and shackles all other identities and submits them to Christ?” Or the part where I celebrated the fact that “We are slaves of King Jesus and find our ultimate identity in his death and resurrection (Eph. 2:4-7; cf. Gal. 3:28)” (p. 141).

Paulk obviously disagrees with how I use the term gay. And this is fine, I guess. But pointing me to the “biblical exhortation to…embrace one’s new identity in Christ,” as if I’m unaware of this, makes me question whether she actually read the entire book.

Paulk also believes that “clearly same-sex attracted is much more helpful to describe a person not wanting to indulge sin.” She may believe this. But “same-sex attraction” isn’t as neutral as she thinks. The phrase is often associated with ex-gay ministries, which encourage the use of the term. I’ve talked to several people who have had a bad experience with such ministries (not all, but many) and the phrase “same-sex attraction” conjures up some very bad memories. I’m not saying the phrase is bad, or that “gay” is better. All I’m saying is that no term/phrase is without its problems.

Paulk assumes that “Our culture equates, and unabashedly promotes, the identity of gay or lesbian as wanting or seeking a romantic or sexual relationship with someone of the same sex.” Describing “our culture” as some monolithic entity, however, is quite bizarre. Do some people use the term “gay” to mean “seeking a romantic or sexual relationships with someone of the same sex.” I guess some do. But I don’t. My Side B gay—boom!—Christian friends don’t. Heck, many of my affirming friends don’t use the term this way. Even Justin Lee, who doesn’t see anything wrong with “seeking a romantic or sexual relationship [marital, of course] with someone of the same sex” doesn’t use the term gay this way. He uses it the way I use it. As a descriptive label for being attracted to the same sex. Nothing more.

I guess what gets me the most is that in my discussion of the term “gay,” I was very careful, trying to see things from both sides of the debate. I was wrestling with the question, “should Christians use the term gay as a descriptive label?” I considered this, I considered that. I even said that in some contexts, it might be best for Christiansnot to describe themselves as gay. But Paulk’s review doesn’t convey any of this discussion. She doesn’t reflect on my journey, only disagrees with my destination, and never mentions how I arrived there.

I enjoy reading critical reviews. They help me hone my own thinking and become a better writer. And you can’t talk about homosexuality without expecting some criticism. Such is the nature of the discussion. But sloppy reviews do nothing to help the discussion.

About Preston Sprinkle

Dr. Sprinkle serves as the Vice President for Eternity Bible College’s Boise extension and has authored several books including Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence (David C. Cook, 2013), Paul and Judaism Revisited (IVP, 2013), Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us (David C. Cook, 2014), and the New York Times bestselling Erasing Hell (David C. Cook, 2011), which he co-authored with Francis Chan. In December 2015, Preston will release two books on homosexuality: People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is not just an Issue, and Living in a Gray World: A Christian Teen’s Guide to Homosexuality, both published by Zondervan.

Preston also hosts a daily radio program and podcast titled Theology in the Raw, which can be listened to live online (941thevoice.com) or via the Theology in the Raw podcast in iTunes.

Preston frequently speaks at various venues including college chapels, churches, music festivals, men’s retreats, youth camps, family camps, conferences, and anywhere else where people desire to hear relevant Bible teaching. If you want to have Preston speak, you can contact him directly through his website: prestonsprinkle.com.

10 thoughts on “Preston Sprinkle: People to Be…Misunderstood: A Response to the Gospel Coalition

  1. Re. terminology: I feel like there’s an “all things to all people” argument here that I don’t see many people talking about? I haven’t read Preston’s book; maybe he addresses it there. When Paul declares in 1 Cor 9 that he has become as one under the law or as one outside the law, or has become weak, or a Jew, he doesn’t split hairs about people reaching the wrong conclusions when he, e.g. (I assume), eats meat sacrificed to idols, or declines pork because it’s unclean. Surely he generated a lot of fuss when he did either one of these, but he holds onto these “identities” loosely: apparently rooting your identity in Christ and reaching people with the Gospel does not require such meticulous identity management? All that to say I suspect if we follow Paul’s lead we will find perhaps there is room for identifying/describing yourself as gay in some situations or “struggles with same-sex attraction” in others, depending on which one is going to distract less from the good news of the Gospel.

    • That approach is always ineffective given the tribalism of many Christian communities. The meaning of a word or phrase is often less important than what the word is a team badge for. Invent a new way of saying the same thing – say… “non-hetero” – and watch Christians scramble to make sense of where that puts you in terms of group affiliation rather than work out what you mean by that term.

      • I gotta show some love for my church here! I go to a moderately large, doctrinally conservative church in the Southeastern US that teaches a traditional “one man, one woman” theology of marriage. When I came out publicly a few years ago, I asked one of the pastors whether they saw one terminology as favorable over the other, and whether they would take issue with me using “gay” to describe myself. Not asking permission–I had pretty much already decided–but I respect the leadership a lot so I wanted to have the opportunity for open dialog. The message I got back from the leadership was pretty much, “Wow, hm, we have no idea what to say about the terminology question. We’ll defer to you on that one. We will trust you to exercise discernment, to seek wisdom and to find wisdom, and wherever you wind up we’ll stand behind it.” Where I wound up is pretty much what I stated above although I will add that I find myself defaulting to “gay” rather than “same-sex attracted,” and “gay” is the word I use with all the people closest to me. A handful of people have had polite and non-confrontational questions about my choice, but those conversations have gone well so far. People at my church listen well and do a good job of trying to understand where I come from.

        Speaking of “non-hetero,” I have begun using the word “non-straight” in working with said leadership to launch an LGBT+/SSA/whatever ministry in our community. I have found that while the term is unfamiliar, folks catch on pretty quickly to what I am trying to accomplish: attempting to alienate the fewest number of people possible by using a novel term. That is, there are some non-straight people among us who would not come to an “SSA” ministry, and others who would now come to an “LGBT” ministry. We’ve used the term a few times in public communications and so far I haven’t seen much scrambling to categorize “non-straight” as in-group or out-group. From what I can tell people seem pretty accepting of it.

        I get that this experience is not typical! But I think “always ineffective” is a little strong. I don’t doubt that the tribalism you describe is a big problem in many communities. However, in those situations I would (a) wonder whether “ineffective” always means “incorrect” and (b) suspect the Christian response to such un-Christ-like tribalism is to reject the tribalism, perhaps by refusing to hold onto these kinds of identities tightly.

      • Thank you for telling this story!
        “Gotta show some love for my church here!” – yay! ❤

        “I would…
        (b) suspect the Christian response to such un-Christ-like tribalism is to reject the tribalism, perhaps by refusing to hold onto these kinds of identities tightly.”

        yay…
        Paul’s statement of “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews… To those outside the law I became as one outside the law… that I might win those outside the law.” must have sounded SO extreme at the time.

        Joy to you.

        (sorry for the super-belated response… doh.)

      • Didn’t realise I had written *always* ineffective – yes that is a little strong.

        I’m not surprised to hear that within individual churches the response is more varied. TGC is an outward focused brand – so I guess they are under more pressure to defend/promote a kind of corporate loyalty on social issues.

      • Ryan,

        I think the “non-hetero” term makes some sense, as the gay-straight dichotomy seems a bit too rigid to me. I ended up identifying as asexual, but it took some amount of secular counseling to get me there. I knew that I wasn’t straight. So, I figured that I was gay and was just repressing it. I came out, only to discover that I wasn’t gay either.

        Still, evangelical culture places a lot of emphasis on comforting to certain sexualized gender roles. So, those of us who are not straight still end up being marginalized.

  2. This is unsurprising. First, Anne Paulk is something of a train wreck. She has spent the better part of the last few decades spreading lies. I don’t see why she would stop now. Second, the TGC website seems to focus more on grinding axes than fostering honest discussion. The website is run by a DC-based PR guy with close ties to the Religious Right.

  3. I must say I am relieved to see this response to Anne Paulk’s review. When I read her article a few days ago, I was pretty shocked by how blatantly unfair and misrepresentative it was. I read the Gospel Coalition fairly regularly, but I’m feeling rather disappointed with them at the moment.

  4. Anne Paulk is a jackal who preys on LGBTQ people who hope they can become the mythical “ex-Gay”. The Gospel Coalition and their ilk have made a great deal of money preying on us. I am not surprised she would peddle her lies in a review of a book that doesn’t serve her own agenda.

    “But be it so, I did not burden you: nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you with guile.” (2 Corinthians 12:16)

    What do you expect from a follower of “Saint” Paul, eh?

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