The Newest Non-LGBTQ-Affirming Approach: Reviewing Preston Sprinkle's "Center for Faith, Sexuality, & Gender"
“This is, by far, the kindest, most wonderfully wrapped turd I’ve seen. It’s still a turd, of course, but you’ve decadently wrapped it in the best chocolate I’ve tasted.”
This was what I told Preston Sprinkle last week after attending his recent Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender Leaders Forum here in San Diego. He laughed, knowing what I meant, and (I think) still accepting my compliment.
What’s the turd? Traditional beliefs on marriage that are inherently anti-LGBTQ.
And the delicious wrapping? Preston’s presentation to the 150 or so pastors and leaders who attended the forum.
According to their handbook, the one day leaders forum is “an interactive seminar aimed at equipping Christian pastors and leaders to engage questions of faith, sexuality & gender with theological faithfulness and courageous love.” Preston’s organization seeks to address two needs in the church: “One, to help leaders cultivate a more robust biblical ethical of marriage, sexuality, and gender. Two, to help churches and organizations create a safe and compassionate environment for LGBT+ people, their families, and anyone wrestling with their sexuality or gender identity.”
He was also promoting his newest church resources, Grace || Truth 2.0, the next iteration of how Christians can try really really hard to love LGBTQ people even while simultaneously holding theological beliefs that dehumanize them.
When I learned that Preston was coming to San Diego to put on this seminar I registered immediately. It’s important to me to stay connected to how non-affirming Christians are talking about topics of sexuality and gender. Every couple years they update their lexicon, slightly tweak some of their positions, and continue to wrestle with how to remain “biblical” in a post-modern world. Also, as a fellow pastor here in San Diego, I wanted to see what other pastors/churches were going to this thing.
Because the truth is, most churches are still offering up turds, but no one actually enjoys it (except for one pastor who, toward the end, spoke in to the mic about “initiating church discipline” if a gay couple came to his church. You don’t say that out loud unless you kind of like it). So they clamor to events like this to figure out how to serve their turds more gingerly, more discreetly, and more “lovingly.”
I offer this review of my experience for three reasons:
In case other people are curious about Preston’s work and want an affirming pastoral perspective on it.
In case Preston, or people connected to his organization, or those who’ve attended, would like to know what I got from the experience.
Because I don’t think LGBTQ people should have to keep consuming turds. So if I can warn them before they fall for this delicious ganache and sea salt exterior (ie, the Grace || Truth curriculum), then I’ve done good work.
(Editor’s note: so far I have used the word “turd” six… well, now seven… times. I will try and steer clear of it moving forward, in the event it causes you to take me less seriously. But if I drop another one, just roll with it.)
First, I’ll share a few things I appreciated about the Forum
1) I APPRECIATED PRESTON
I’ll say right off the bat that from what I can tell Preston Sprinkle is a genuine, honest man with a big heart and a desire to do good.
I’ve been aware of his writings for several years, and every time I’ve witnessed him tackle a sticky topic, or engage with someone who disagrees with him, he always conducts himself with high levels of grace and compassion. He listens well and engages respectfully. This quality seems more and more lacking in today’s polarized environment, so it truly is a breath of fresh air when it happens.
(Case in point: the other week Preston wrote a review of my book UnClobber, and it was an incredibly charitable review. Obviously he disagreed with my conclusions, and he wasn’t shy in doing so—I’d expect nothing less. But he was kind and respectful in the process. I hope to do the same here. Turds notwithstanding.)
For the most part I enjoyed listening to Preston teach. And afterwards, when I introduced myself to him, he was warm, friendly, and I genuinely appreciated our chat. Although I’m still unclear as to why he formed The Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender, and I’m still not sure why he’s taken on this topic with such fervor, it’s clear that he’s passionate about it and passionate about helping Christians (at least, those who hold a traditional view of marriage) conduct themselves in more kind and compassionate ways.
And that’s not nothing!
As I told him, “you’re helping move people from a place of fear, ignorance, and aggression, to awareness, kindness, and compassion.” That’s hardly a bad thing.
(I think? I mean, yes, on the surface, kindness and compassion are better than aggression and bigotry. Yes. But if the road of kindness and compassion still ultimately ends up at a non-affirming destination, what have we gained? I honestly wrestle with this)
Many LGBTQ people can tell you stories of hearing preachers and church leaders condemn them, and do so with great anger and disgust and arrogance. None of that sort of antagonism is present in Preston or in his writing.
Like I said, I’ve never seen the turd wrapped so well.
2) I APPRECIATED THE FOCUS ON LANGUAGE
Preston spent an entire session focusing on defining terms within the LGBTQ conversation. And he did it admirably, I have no complaints. It’s not just the technicality that I appreciated, it was his insistence on how much it matters. He told, for example, everyone in the room to stop using the term “homosexual.” Little things like that go a long way, and I promise you there were men and women in that room had never heard that before, and hopefully they will update and improve their vocabulary.
3) I APPRECIATED THE ACKNOWLEDGMENT THAT ORIENTATION IS NOT A CHOICE
Soon in to his presentation, Preston told the room that gay people do not choose their orientation any more than he didn’t choose to be straight. He does push back on the “born that way” argument (which I don’t object to, I think it’s problematic in it’s own way as well), but he absolutely acknowledges the science that suggests that a person’s sexual orientation is some combination of nature and nurture, and that a gay person is not one because of their choosing.
4) I APPRECIATED HIS INSISTENCE THAT “GAY CHRISTIAN” IS NOT AN OXYMORON
Now obviously Preston is not affirming, so if the Christian in question is in a relationship with someone of the same gender, then he’d take issue with that. But, as long as the Christian in question is celibate, then Preston has no objection to that person not only identifying as “gay,” but identifying as a gay Christian.
This was likely challenging for many in the room who insist that just being gay, or calling yourself gay, is wrong, therefore causing “gay Christian” to be a non-starter. Hopefully Preston’s argument compelled them otherwise.
5) I APPRECIATED NOT BEING STRAW-MAN’D
The seminar included a session on the three popular arguments for an affirming view. And for the most part, he laid them out fairly. He obviously didn’t do them great justice (he was there to defeat them, after all), but it was a charitable summation all the same. It would have been easy for him to not include affirming views, or include them in a straw man way, but for what it is, he at least acknowledged that there are reasonable arguments for affirming theology.
Here are my three biggest frustrations from the day.
1) YOU CAN’T SEPARATE THE BEHAVIORS FROM THE BELIEFS
One of Preston’s main points that he drove home a number of times in different ways is that a Christian can (and should) hold a traditional view of marriage and still be loving to LGBTQ people. He said, “we can get the Bible right, but if we get love wrong, we’re wrong!”
And that is a great saying! I just wish he’d realize one day that he is getting “love wrong.”
Here was one of my biggest beefs with the whole day—and like I said, it showed up multiple times. Preston seems to think you can separate a person’s or church’s belief (in this case, a commitment to a traditional view of marriage and a non-affirming theology) from how that person or that church treats LGBTQ people.
In other words, he was there to criticize how the church has harmed LGBTQ people, but still affirm the non-affirming theological positions. At one point he offered some stats that were so laughable to me, I looked around and couldn’t figure out why other people weren’t snickering as well.
According to a survey of 1,712 LGBTQ people, conducted by Andrew Marin for his book “Us Versus Us,” 51% of LGBTQ people left their faith community after the age of 18. (Note: I assume the percentage continues to increase as you raise the age level. But I guess by 18, only half of them had left yet).
According to these surveys, of those that left the church, only 3% say they left primarily because of the church’s belief that same sex marriage was wrong.
THREE PERCENT?!?! Woah. That’s crazy low, right?? (That number seems shockingly and suspectly low to me. I wonder how the question was posed?).
But here’s the kicker. Then Preston put on the screen the “other reasons” why LGBTQ people left the church. I was bracing myself, prepared to be wow’d at the 97% of LGBTQ Christians who left the church after turning 18 for reasons other than the church’s theology that blocked them from marriage, blocked them from being pastors, and blocked them from living fully in to their humanity.
Here they are (and try not to laugh… it’s what I had to do, too!)
Reasons why LGBTQ people left the church:
-Do not feel safe (18%)
-Relational Disconnect with leaders (14%)
-Incongruence between teaching and practice (13%)
-Unwillingness to dialogue (12%)
-Kicked out (9%)
Oh hold me sweet baby Jesus…
Why do you THINK people who are LGBTQ:
“did not feel safe,”
“didn’t feel connected with leaders,”
“felt like people treated them differently,”
“experienced church leaders who weren’t willing to dialogue,” and
“got kicked out”!?!?!?
Because of anti-LGBTQ beliefs!!
Good gravy. SMH.
It is precisely because a person holds an anti LGBTQ belief that they treat LGBTQ people differently.
It is because a church holds a traditional view of marriage and puts limitations on and excludes LGBTQ people that causes disconnect between leaders and gay kids.
I could go on and on, but you get my point.
This idea that LGBTQ people are only kinda-sorta-barely bummed by bad beliefs, and mostly bummed by bad behavior, is a ridiculous distinction.
How do I know this?
Simple. Remove the turd and see what happens.
Take away the church’s belief that same-sex marriages are wrong, take away a person’s theology that says gay people can’t be in relationship, take away a person’s belief that says transgender people are sinning, and guess what happens??
Those shitty behaviors disappear.
I literally could not believe how often throughout the seminar the idea was put forth that LGBTQ people aren’t asking for the church to change its belief as much as they are asking the church to change its posture.
No, no, no.
The posture is created by, informed by, sustained by, and motivated by the belief. Refusing to acknowledge this does not make it less so.
Phew… okay… I think I’ve calmed down now. Sorry. That one just really got to me.
We cannot make such a distinction between anti-LGBTQ belief with LGBTQ dehumanizing behavior. They are inseparable. White supremecists and neo-nazis don’t treat black people horribly because they’re just not loving and caring people. It’s precisely because they hold inherently dehumanizing beliefs about black people.
Sorry, Preston. The beliefs have to change. We can’t just try and dress it up nicer.
Here’s the next major thing I took issue with…
2) THE BAIT AND SWITCH THAT HAPPENS IN CHURCHES
Any LGBTQ person knows the bait and switch and its painful aftermath.
The Bait: a church’s website, signage, even humans that attend, say things like “all are welcome!” So LGBTQ folks bravely show up. With hope in their hearts they bring their families. They think at long last they’ve found a faith community where they can grow in their relationship with Christ, build a fellowship with other believers, and serve the community.
The Switch: a some fateful moment they discover their place is outside in the court of the Gentiles, far from the holiest place. They learn that their church won’t actually marry them. They realize they can’t serve in leadership or volunteer with children or play in the band. They become horrified that their church actually expects them to stop being gay, or quit their same sex relationship, or to not be trans.
I loath the Bait and Switch from the deepest parts of my bones.
Here’s the funny thing, though. Preston does too!
Or so he says. And I want to believe him.
Multiple times he spoke against it. And at first I was like, “damn, bro! Thank you for speaking this important word!” Because I know the churches in that room. I’ve seen their websites. I’ve met some of their leaders.
And they ALL practice the bait and switch. And here was Preston, the leader, saying “don’t do that.” Cool.
But then it got weird, because right after saying “don't do the bait and switch,” he said, “but also, I’m not a fan of putting theological statements or policies about LGBTQ people on your website, either.”
“It can shut down potential conversation,” he went on, “and prevent people from exploring your church or getting to know you.”
Um, exactly. If your church is non affirming, then treat LGBTQ people with some dignity and TELL THEM THAT up front. Don’t waste their time and treat their hearts with such disregard in the name of “conversation” and “exploration.”
But then Preston said, “Silence is not an option. It’s pastorally irresponsible to avoid this issue, even if it hurts your church… because our history has done too much harm.” And now I’m right back at cheering you on, brother!
But you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too.
You seem to want the points from people (like myself) by admonishing the bait and switch, and by advocating for not being silent on the issue. Yet in the next breath you tell leaders to not be too upfront about it.
Can’t have it both ways.
As I eventually told the other church leaders at my table that day, if your church is non affirming, then the right thing for you to do is name that on your website. Feel free to wrap the turd in all the loveliest of languages, I don’t care.
But be clear. Anything short of that is a bait and switch.
I could feel Preston’s struggle, during this portion, to figure out how to maneuver the tension. And he never did find a way. He just said, “don’t do this… but also don’t do that.”
Sadly, he missed a huge opportunity to do right by thousands of LGBTQ people and their families.
Preston, if you’re reading this, I strongly advise that in future seminars you take a clearer and more firm stance on “don’t do the Bait and Switch,” without muddying the waters by saying, “but don’t put it on your website.”
The website is where people go to learn about a church. Someone has to do the work to find out if LGBTQ people will be welcomed (and affirmed or not!), I’m just asking that you tell churches to do their part so that less and less LGBTQ people are wounded by the switch.
You’re so close on this one.
Just bring it all the way home, baby.
My final frustration of the day…
3) THE CELEBRATION OF CELIBACY
The one and only time that Preston shared the stage was with another guy who came up to give his testimony. It’s a testimony that those of us in affirming spaces are all too familiar with: I used to be gay, but then I found Jesus!
Now, to be fair, the guy who shared does not come from that horrible camp of, “I used to be gay, then I found Jesus, and now I’m straight!” Thankfully Preston has come far enough along in his journey to know how destructive that is. He does not advocate for reparative therapy. Several times, in fact, he said to the pastors in the room, “if you think that just being gay is a sin, then what would repentance even look like? If being gay is really a sin, then the only option for repentance is to no longer be gay. And I can’t accept that because I don’t support reparative therapy.” (Just to clarify, though, while Preston says that “gay identity/orientation” is not a sin, doing any gay sex/intimate stuff most certainly is.)
Anyway, the one guy Preston invited up (he called that session, Meet the Family. Cute.) perfectly illustrates the kind of approach that Preston and his Center for Faith, Sexuality and Gender advocates for, which is: You can continue to be gay/lesbian, but if you want to be a Christian you have to be celibate.
And in fact, choosing celibacy is evidence of Christ at work in your life.
During this guy’s story my heart was breaking for my friend who was in the audience. My friend is a non-celibate gay pastor who exudes the love of Christ and clearly has a genuine relationship with God. Yet he had to sit there and be subjected to the insistence that what it looks like when God works in a gay person’s life is that they choose celibacy.
I wish Preston would consider also inviting LGBTQ Christians like my friend. Those who are married, or in same-sex relationships. I know this would push against Preston’s theology, but everyone there can still know that “hey, we disagree on theology, but I think it’s important to listen and learn from this perspective, too.”
What’s the downside?
I doubt anyone at these seminars would walk away and think, “oh, maybe I’ll become affirming after all.”
But the upside is massive.
If you want to truly show the LGBTQ community that you see them, you care for them, and you love them, then let them speak. Let them tell their stories—even if they don’t fit your paradigm.
I’ll close with this question…
When will the pain be enough?
Before getting in to his presentation, Preston put five empty chairs on the stage. Standing behind each chair he told us the story of 5 different LGBTQ people that he knew, all who had painful experiences with the church. It was a nice moment, because it helped everyone feel like LGBTQ people were there with us (even if, obviously, they weren’t). When he finished, Preston said, “I begin with these stories because I need to feel their weight. I need to keep in my mind the way LGBTQ people have suffered within our churches, being told they are abominations.”
My question is this: When will the weight of these stories be enough for you to question the source of what is actually crushing them?
If you are aware of so much suffering (and I believe you are), how much suffering will it take for you to seriously question if maybe something else needs to give? I applaud your desire to hold their pain in your consciousness, but when will their cries be loud enough for you to really listen?
The answer can’t be in simply trying harder to behave better.
This isn’t a posture problem.
It’s a belief problem.
Until the church wakes up to how we’ve misused the bible to justify our discrimination of LGBTQ people, we will continue to perpetuate divisive, marginalizing, isolating, and dehumanizing attitudes and actions.
I applaud Preston Sprinkle’s heart in trying to get the church to be more loving, but I fear he’s simply teaching new and improved ways to wrap the turd of exclusion and judgment.