Dr. Preston Sprinkle (Ph.D.) joins Tim and Rick to discuss one of the more pressing issues facing the Church and Christian conviction – sexuality and gender. In a Pew Research survey 73% of LGBTQ+ adult respondents said they experienced evangelical churches to be unfriendly toward them, and only 3% of respondents said they experienced evangelical churches as friendly. In light of these troubling statistics, how should churches respond? The apostle Paul writes about the power of kindness in Romans 2. How can churches embody “the kindness of God” to the LGBTQ+ community without undermining or compromising conviction? In the area of faith, sexuality and gender, Preston models what it means to have “winsome conviction,” so we’re thrilled to learn from him and glean wisdom on how to navigate our day to day relationships with those who identify as LGBTQ+ in both truth and love.
Preston Sprinkle: And I've done that before. You're listening to somebody and you're kind of hearing them, like Charlie Brown's teacher. It's like... And you're just waiting for an opportunity to refute what they're saying. And you're not really listening. You're not listening in order to understand or to love.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. I'm Tim Muehlhoff, professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California.
Rick Langer: And my name is Rick Langer, and I'm a professor here at Biola, as well, in the Biblical Studies and Theology Department. And I'm also the Director of the Office of Faith and Learning. Well, it's a privilege for us to have a Preston Sprinkle with us. He's been a professor, he's an author, he's a speaker, and he has spent a lot of his life dealing with issues around faith, gender, and sexuality. And so, it's a privilege for us to have him with us, and we'd love to just ask you a few questions, Preston. One of those things, I'd love to hear just a little bit of your background. How did you get into spending so much of your life and energy addressing this issue?
Preston Sprinkle: I kind of fell into the conversation about gender and sexuality accidentally. Several years ago, some mentors in my life looked at me and said, "Hey, you seem to like controversy. Well, why don't you write a book on what the Bible says about homosexuality?" I was so naive. I just thought it was a bunch of verses that just said, "It's sin, period, move on." And so, I thought it would be an easy topic to engage, but then I realized that not only are there... There's a good deal of complexity when it comes to the theological conversation about sexuality and gender, but there's also a profound relational complexity when it comes to gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual individuals. And it was those stories, listening to people who are LGBT, that threw me for a loop. It didn't change my theology, but it did change how I think theologically, how I talk theologically, how I do theology. I don't think experiences or people's stories should dictate what you believe, but it should augment or shape how you believe, how you approach certain topics. Yeah.
Preston Sprinkle: In short, I mean, I believe in a traditional view of marriage, and I don't think God desires people to enter into a same-sex sexual relationship. I don't think that's God's design. And yet, there's a lot of people, I mean a lot, like millions of people who identify as LGBTQ who are raised in a church, who had profoundly, like horrible experiences in the church, not just because they might've disagreed with the theology, but because they were mistreated. They were dehumanized, they were, in some cases, mocked and made fun of and abused. And I mean, there's so much, if I can say, spiritual trauma that often surrounds somebody's experience growing up in the church as an LGBTQ individual. So, my last five years journey into this conversation has been trying to navigate the truth of what scripture says with the very, sometimes horrific, reality of how LGBT people have been treated by the church. So, it's been an interesting adventure.
Tim Muehlhoff: And that's what we're particularly interested in, Preston. You do a great job with the theology of a defensive traditional marriage, and let me recommend your book, People to be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue. But we're interested in the Winsome Conviction Project, of coming at, how do we engage people in a way that is both truthful but also loving?I love this one quote I read in an interview of yours where you said, "Debates about sexuality and gender are not just about issues, they're about people, beautiful people. These debates, they're about my friends."
Tim Muehlhoff: And to be able to pull that off, Rick and I are very curious about that, too, to both have a traditional view of marriage, which in today's culture war, today's argument culture, that's just enough to stop people dead in their tracks, but to have those friendships. To do both truth and love is what we're really interested in. And you mentioned two things. One is that the church has been correct in its theology, but then you make an interesting point that the church has been wrong in its approach to loving people. So, how do you think the church is doing well on one part, but missing the second part of how we treat people that we disagree with?
Preston Sprinkle: It's a great question. I don't know if I can completely answer it. From my vantage point, I think the church absorbs a lot of political approaches to this conversation. Everything's about outrage and polarization and us versus them, and you're the enemy, you're evil, you're wrong. From whichever political camp you're coming from. And when Christians absorb that kind of political tribalism, then of course the LGBT community is going to stand in the tribe of their enemy. They're going to be liberal or Democrat or whatever, even though that's just a gross simplification of the conversation. So, I think Christians can often absorb the posture of the political tribe that they give allegiance to, and I think that can contribute to the problem.
Preston Sprinkle: I think there's a lot of ignorance in the Christian community about the relational experience of somebody who is LGBTQ. I think there is a lot of fear that LGBTQ people are anti-Christian, or anti-this, anti-that, anti-family, anti-truth, anti-religious freedom, anti [inaudible 00:06:18]. Just on and on it goes. But when you actually meet and hang out with and listen to and learn from actual LGBT people, you'll realize that there's a massive diversity in the LGBT community. Even some of the vitriol, the very, if I can say, anti-Christian, anti-evangelical sentiment among some LGBT people, if you start asking questions about why do they - they, this certain kind of LGBT person - why do they respond so aggressively against the church, you might find some traumatic experience that they've had within the church. 83% of LGBT people were raised in the church. I mean, that's-
Rick Langer: A big number.
Preston Sprinkle: ... that's a big number. It's very rare that an LGBT person was not raised in a Christian church. Okay? Just factually, statistically. 51% left the church after 18, but only 3% of the ones who left said that they left as a result of some kind of disagreement with the church's theology of marriage and sexuality, which means, if you can follow the numbers, 97% of LGBT people who left the church left for relational reasons. They got tired of the hypocrisy in the church, were lenient on sex outside of marriage, on divorce, on pornography. Of course we say, "No, you shouldn't do that," but we accept people who fail in those areas. But when it comes to same-sex sexuality, we take a very black and white stance. No accommodation, no grace, no forgiveness.
Preston Sprinkle: Or even like a lot of LGBT people were just sometimes unintentionally dehumanized. They hear sermons that are just like, "Oh man." Unintentionally dehumanizing. Or they were intentionally ostracized and mocked and made fun of. And so, I mean, there's piles and piles of stories of LGBT people who just went through spiritually traumatic experiences in a church that didn't have to do just with reading Leviticus and saying, "Yeah, I don't know if I agree with this verse." It's so much more complex than that. It's LGBT people, for the most part, not experiencing, as Paul says, "The kindness of God that leads to repentance." They didn't experience kindness and grace and forgiveness with Christians.
Rick Langer: So, let me pick up on that thought. We talk about the Winsome Conviction Project. One of the things I think Tim and I both noticed is that one of the ways we run afoul of this is when we hit contentious issues, we either decide we're going to maintain our conviction and we lose our winsomeness, or we decide we will become winsome at the expense of our convictions. And it seems to me, you have done a masterful job of avoiding falling into either of those two pits. Imagine a person from church came in and said, "Preston, I've got some convictions about this issue, but I realize I really have failed in the communication of those," what advice would you give them? What would you tell them to do? Or what insights could you offer? Because I really do think you've done a wonderful job of this, and I appreciate the model that you've given.
Preston Sprinkle: Well, I really, I mean, I appreciate that. That's a huge compliment, and I'll be the first one to say that I haven't always succeeded. I'm striving for that. So, I appreciate that. I get this a lot from parents with LGBT kids who they'll come to maybe a talk I'm giving and they realize, "Oh my gosh, I've failed in how I've navigated my relationship with my gay son, trans daughter," or whatever, and my first response is, "You know what? This is all part of the journey, and there's always forgiveness and learning and hope for the future." For the Christian that is maybe hasn't gone about this conversation well, that is wanting to do better, God's a God of forgiveness and grace.
Preston Sprinkle: I would say the majority of what I would consider unhelpful or negative Christian responses to the LGBT conversation, the majority of those responses are, I would say, unintentional. It comes out of ignorance. I think most genuine Christians are well-intentioned, they're wanting to love the scriptures and love people, and sometimes they don't always go about that well. So, I think, especially when it comes to parents of LGBT kids, my first response is, "Don't be afraid to forgive yourself. Unless you're a horrible, evil person, you probably were trying to do the right thing." And if you're a parent, let's say, and your kid comes out as gay and you've never been taught, educated in this conversation, you've never been coached in what language to use or whatever, and if you respond wrongly or just unhelpfully, I mean, part of that's not really your fault. It's just the Christian culture that we've been nurtured in.
Preston Sprinkle: And I've seen just amazing stories of reconciliation between a Christian parent and they're gay or lesbian or trans kid after 20 years of tension and animosity, where the parent comes to their kid and says, "I'm so sorry for how I've responded. I love you and care for you. I want what's best for you. I have these convictions about what God says about this topic, and I hold to those, and I'm trying to navigate what that looks like and how to love you." And just when LGBT people see a Christian trying to just love better and understand better, oftentimes, that really goes a long way. Even if at the end of the day, there's a theological disagreement about whether same-sex relationships are endorsed by God or not.
Tim Muehlhoff: Let me ask... So, I love what you're saying, Preston, but here's what we get a counter to what we're trying to do. We wrote a book called Winsome Persuasion, and one person reviewed it and said, "Listen, we are way past winsome persuasion. You'd have to be pretty ignorant of the cultural war today that Christians are losing so much ground today that we don't need winsome persuasion, we need to take a stand. And if that means speaking truth in a way that some people are going to be hurt by it, we need to speak as firm as our opposition is speaking. And so, the time for this winsome approach, man, the ship has sailed."
Tim Muehlhoff: I had my students read this... Christianity Today, did this about 10 years ago, they had two theologians, and they disagreed with each other on whether they should use cultural war language. And one theologian said, "I think it's really hurting the church to do that." The other one said, "Dude, we're in a war. You're ignoring we're in a war. And yeah, I use culture war language because that accurately reflects." So, I think some people would listen to you and say, "Okay, maybe within a family, we can do this, forgive each other and be patient and kind and perspective taking, but when the church needs to step up and finally have the courage to say, "Enough is enough with this gender dysphoria and we just need to proclaim what is true," what's your reaction to... I get that sense of urgency. Part of me gets that, but what would be your response to that?
Preston Sprinkle: Well, first of all, I resonate with the passion behind that concern. I really do. For me, it's not whether we should stand by our convictions, it's how we should embrace and promote those convictions. To me, whether we should have convictions... It's funny because when people who are very progressive hear me talk, they label me as a radical fundamentalist conservative, and then when some fundamentalists hear me talk, they think I'm like wishy-washy. It's all a matter of perspective.
Preston Sprinkle: I guess for my audience, let me clarify, I am a diehard Bible guy. My greatest addiction in life is to sit in a closet and study the Bible for 14 hours a day. That's my candy. That's my guilty pleasure. Because if the God who breathed stars into existence also breathed out his word, then we have a mandate, a logical moral mandate, to follow every single jot and tittle of scripture. It's why I learned Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and other languages, because I care so deeply about the word of God. When I say that, people are like, "Oh, you're a raging Fundy." I'm like, "But whatever label you want to use, I'm going to go where the texts leads."
Preston Sprinkle: And yet, how to embody those convictions and live out those convictions in a secular society takes a little more thoughtfulness and nuance. I take the cultural or political position if I can say it like that... The way I view my place in society is that I'm an exile living in Babylon. And so, how do I take my exilic, my Judeo-Christian faith, as a citizen of another kingdom, of another world, of another way of living, how do I navigate my faith and the body of my faith in Babylon, in a secular society? I just fear that some people that do engage in so-called culture wars forget that they're not exiles in Babylon. They have really drunken the punch of one Babylonian party or whatever.
Preston Sprinkle: But no, Paul says, it's the kindness of God that leads to repentance. It's a simple statement. It's a basic statement, but it's profoundly challenging. If I actually want people to repent, which I do - I'm an exile living in Babylon, I want every single Babylonian to repent - then that means, if Romans 2:4 is true, which I believe it is, then that means I should embody the kindness of God that leads to repentance. And also, there's such a history of Christians being obnoxious, if I can say it, unnecessarily offensive and combative with how they view their values, and I think that's turned a lot of people off. And so, I think we have to take that into consideration as we want other people in Babylon to consider and possibly even appreciate, or even embrace Christian/exile values that I think we need to go about it in a posture of kindness.
Rick Langer: Seems we're also called to seek the welfare of the city in the Babylonian analogy. And you do wonder sometimes how are we doing in actually seeking the welfare of the city? Or do we want the city simply to adjust to our terms? Or do we resent the fact that the city used to look more like us and now it looks different? And we have a hard time living in the kind of exhibit city we actually find ourselves in.
Preston Sprinkle: That's good. Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: I had a friend come to me who is a foster parent, and their foster child was now transitioning. And I'll never forget her sitting in my office with tears in her eyes saying, "Nobody wants my child in church. No one. We had to leave the one church because the youth pastor absolutely refused to use the pronoun that this transitioning child preferred. He saw that as condoning." So, then she said, "So, we tried to go to another church and met with the senior pastor, and he just said, 'Yeah. You know what? We're not really equipped for this, and so I'd find a different church.'" And she came to me and said, "Do you know of a church?" And it was really hard to think of one that had any kind of a structure that would make a person feel welcomed. So, when you say kindness, can we put some feet on that to say, "Okay, so a pastor is listening to our podcast and says, "Okay, Preston, I'm in, I want to consider this," what would be some concrete things a church can do to show a welcoming, kind attitude to the LGBTQ community, let's say?
Preston Sprinkle: Oh man. How much time do we have? One of the things, the kind of first step in embodying the kindness of God, is becoming a good listener and not listening in order to refute. And I've done that before. You're listening to somebody and you're you're kind of hearing them like Charlie Brown's teacher. It's like... And you're just waiting for an opportunity to refute what they're saying, and you're not really listening. You're not listening in order to understand or to love. And I think if the Christian can truly stare into somebody's soul and listen with a genuine desire to understand where they're coming from, that can be a profoundly humanizing thing. And it doesn't mean that the person you're listening to, that whatever they're saying, that you agree with, it just means that you care enough about the person to understand their experience, their story, their wrestling, whatever.
Preston Sprinkle: So, like with this trans kid that you're referring to, it's like, instead of saying, "That's right," or, "That's wrong," it's like, what's going on in somebody's life where they would take profound measures, painful measures, lifelong irreversible bodily measures, to align their body to their perceived sense of who they are? What's been their emotional, psychological journey through that? Are there any other co-occurring things like depression, anxiety, perhaps even suicidality? This person desires to transition. That's the tip of the iceberg. There's so much lying beneath the surface that as somebody who is called to love my neighbor, even love my enemy, if you... My passion should be to get to know the iceberg lying beneath the surface, the possibly complex journey that has led to this really difficult decision, rather than just giving a black and white, "Yes, no. Don't come to my church, we don't..." But that's not an expression of loving your neighbor.
Rick Langer: It's interesting, you talked earlier about the importance of overcoming ignorance. Just in the honest sense, we often really don't know, and it's easy to think about that... I don't know that much about gay or lesbian lifestyle. I don't know about transgender identity. The other point that you seem to be making here is that [inaudible 00:22:06] I don't know the person. Tell me your story. Be interesting if a son or daughter who was coming out to their parents, if their response was just, "Honey, tell me your story. I bet this has been hard. Tell me your story." Just shutting down the other responses and just say, "Let me adopt a posture of listening to hear," could go a long way to opening the door to whatever else might need to follow.
Preston Sprinkle: To listen is to love. It's hard to love somebody without genuinely listening. And those of you who are listening who are married, can you imagine not being a good listener to your spouse? It's taken me a few years to get this, and I've done this with my wife. I have this real black and white logical view of stuff, and this is accurate, this is not. And it's taken me a few years to learn like half the time just listening to well, genuinely listening and trying to put myself in her shoes just is foundational for a genuine relationship. And anybody who's married knows that if you're still married.
Rick Langer: That's a great example.
Preston Sprinkle: Oh my God.
Rick Langer: We so often try to fix somebody else's problem so quick, and they really just aren't there for that.
Preston Sprinkle: Half the time my wife, when we were working through something, half the time, just listening well is the fix. "Thank you so much for listening. I feel so much better." I'm like, "Well, so what are we going to do about this or whatever." And she's like, "Oh no, I'm good. I just needed somebody to hear me. I just needed somebody to hear and care for what I'm saying." And I don't want to sit over simplified things. I mean, that's not just... Just listening isn't going to fix every single situation. But when it comes to the LGBT conversation, people who have had an LGBTQ journey, for some reason, I think a lot of Christians are scared to just listen, just listen with the sole goal of understanding and loving that person. And maybe down the road, we need to get into Leviticus and Romans or whatever. Maybe there's a place for a theological conversation down the road. But many, if not most, LGBT people who are raised in a church have not experienced what it is to have a Christian, a straight Christian, simply listened to their story, and that's [crosstalk 00:24:25].
Rick Langer: And that's a great point.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, you're speaking of my... I'm a professor of communication her at Biola, so the listening thing is so well said, so hard to pull off.
Rick Langer: Let me change the topic a little bit here. You talked about going through an experience both beginning to think about some of the LGBTQ issues, and then also having a lot of discovery conversations with people that you knew or met. My bet is a lot of our listeners may not have had those kinds of conversations, so if you wanted to just say, "Hey, two or three things I wish the evangelical church would understand about the LGBTQ community," what would some of those things be?
Preston Sprinkle: Number one, to reiterate what I said earlier, most LGBT people were raised in a church. They have a church as part of their journey, and typically, it's a very negative view of church. That'd be number one. When you go into a conversation, it's not a blank slate, it's not a neutral... Typically, they have a perception of what it means to be a Christian that's not Jesus-like. So, just know that going in. This is going to be an extreme example, but if you are a missionary and you travel to a foreign country, and if that foreign country had a history of being slaughtered by Christians, let's just say a Muslim country who, a few years after the crusades, where the Christians came and killed people that weren't Christians, whatever, that would shape their view of Christianity. As a missionary, it would be essential. Missiology 101, understand their preconceived view of Christians before you come in, because your presentation of the gospel might need to at least consider the background there. So, that'd be number one, understand the animosity between the church and the LGBT community.
Preston Sprinkle: Number two, have a posture of humility. Most LGBT people I know, they're scared of Christians. I just talked to a pastor friend of mine who owns a coffee shop in Long Beach, which has a big LGBT community, and he said... He's got a tattoo of a cross on his arm, owns a coffee shop, loads of LGBT people come in, and he says when they see the cross in his arm, he sees them visibly get scared. Then they talk, and they find out he's a Christian, and they get frightened. They literally think that he might yell at them or maybe even hit them. That's their perception of Christians. So, coming into a conversation with an LGBT person with a deep posture of humility, the fear is, "I'm going to sacrifice some convictions. I'm going to condone," or whatever. In most cases, I don't think if you're kind to an LGBT person, they're going to just assume that you have no convictions. They might be just blown away that you have these convictions but you're also kind to them.
Preston Sprinkle: And just I guess what I said earlier, just be a good listener. Truly, truly, truly. This isn't just LGBT specific, but just human specific. I mean, just learn how to be a good listener, listening with the sole goal of understanding. It's something that I've tried to learn as a parent with four kids, listen to my kids, not to refute, correct, or teach, but just to understand. My neighbor, my whatever, my Republican friends, my Democrat friends, truly listen to their viewpoint to understand. I just see people feel profoundly loved. And when you do that, when they feel loved, that typically opens up space for a genuine, authentic Jesus-centered conversation where somebody can actually hear the truth that you might be wanting to promote.
Tim Muehlhoff: And that's coming straight from the Book of Proverbs. I think the ancient writer says, "It is folly and shame to speak before listening." And I think we get the folly part, right? It's silly to jump into a topic and I don't really know what you're saying. By the way, that does not stop me with my wife, by the way. I was on the debate team in college, and so my poor wife will start to say something, and I'll jump in and just give my rebuttal. And she's like, "Honey, that's not even what I was talking about." And my response is, "But if it was, if it was." But I thought the shame part is fascinating. Shame to you to speak before listening. I think that's fascinating that they would attach the shame to the person who just doesn't have time for listening. I think that's really powerful.
Preston Sprinkle: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Preston, and let us just affirm you, as the Winsome Conviction Project, that it's your spirit that really captivates us. There's just a desire to listen, a desire to love, a desire to be as accepting as possible so we can have future conversations. We just want to say what a great example to us, so thank you.
Preston Sprinkle: Thank you so much for having me on. Appreciate it.
Tim Muehlhoff: Hey, thank you for joining us at the Winsome Conviction Podcast. If you've enjoyed this episode, we encourage you to subscribe to the Winsome Conviction Podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever it is you get your podcasts. Check out winsomeconviction.com and you'll get a bunch of different resources. But we're here to resource the church, we're here to resource Christians, your small groups. That's really what we're all about. So, again, thank you for joining us. We don't take it for granted.