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Topics: Homosexuality, Marriage

Eugene Peterson, Homosexuality, and God’s Saving Grace (Updated)

July 12, 2017
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Eugene Peterson lectures at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Wash., in May 2009. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

UPDATE: Responding to the article and interview discussed below, Eugene Peterson seems to have retracted his affirmation of same-sex marriage in a statement to reporter Kate Shellnutt at Christianity Today. His statement includes the following remarks:

“Recently a reporter asked me whether my personal opinions about homosexuality and same-sex marriage have changed over the years. I presume I was asked this question because of my former career as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), which recently affirmed homosexuality and began allowing its clergy to perform same-sex weddings. Having retired from the pastorate more than 25 years ago, I acknowledged to the reporter that I ‘haven’t had a lot of experience with it.’  To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.

“I’ve never performed a same-sex wedding. I’ve never been asked and, frankly, I hope I never am asked.

“This reporter, however, asked a hypothetical question: if I were pastoring today and if a gay couple were Christians of good faith and if they asked me to perform their wedding ceremony—if, if, if. Pastors don’t have the luxury of indulging in hypotheticals. And to be honest, no is not a word I typically use.

“When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that. That’s not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage. That said, I would still love such a couple as their pastor. They’d be welcome at my table, along with everybody else.”

While his statement still leaves many questions, such as if he thinks same-sex sexual desire and intimacy is something that needs to be repented of, it appears that he does not want to be considered an evangelical that has changed his mind in favor of supporting same-sex marriage, as Merritt originally reported.

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Jonathan Merritt recently interviewed Eugene Peterson about his views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage (SSM). The interview is short and to the point, and it is alarming, disheartening, and altogether sad.

The premise of Merritt’s interview is to find out where Peterson stands on homosexuality and SSM. As Merritt points out, Peterson’s view is nowhere in print on these issues—until now.

Here is what is alarming. First of all, when Merritt asks Peterson if his views on homosexuality and SSM have changed, he recounts his limited pastoral experience with individuals who identify as gay or lesbian. As an associate pastor, he knew of two women in his congregation who identified as lesbians that, apparently, he never confronted about their sexual sin. And as a pastor, he allowed a man who had confessed in front of the congregation that he identified as gay to serve as minister of music. He even adds that he was pleased that the congregation did not find it problematic that one of her ministers had just confessed to embracing sexual immorality—something that not only disqualifies from church leadership, but also from church membership altogether (1 Cor. 5:9-11).

But even more alarming is this statement from Peterson:

“I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over. People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church. So we’re in a transition and I think it’s a transition for the best, for the good. I don’t think it’s something that you can parade, but it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned (emphasis added).

We have to be at least thankful for Peterson’s honesty when he ends his answer with “as far as I’m concerned,” but therein lies the problem. He’s not the only one who’s concerned. There is One who is infinitely more important than Peterson, who is also infinitely more concerned and has made Himself clear on this issue:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” [1 Cor. 6:9–10, ESV]

Peterson is right in his impulse to want to extend grace. But the grace that we extend is derivative, not ultimate. Our pronouncement of grace has no power if there is not a higher pronouncement made by God in Christ Jesus. Peterson’s declaration that homosexuality and SSM are not a “right or wrong thing” does not make it right or wrong. There is one Maker; there is one moral law giver; there is one Author of salvation. And He has made salvation possible through one way: repentance and faith:

“And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” [1 Cor. 6:11]

Such were some of you. Not such are some of you. And so in this interview we see Peterson saying what he thinks about homosexuality and SSM, as far as he is concerned. But it is not Peterson who should ultimately concern us. We must beware lest we think ourselves more merciful than God.

Merritt ends his short interview with Peterson with this bizarre question:

“You’re entering the final stage of your career, your ministry, and your life. One day, as with all of us, Eugene Peterson will not be someone who exists. He will be somebody who did exist once. When that moment comes, how do you hope people will remember Eugene Peterson?”

But this is not a biblically-minded, even biblically-framed question. Eugene Peterson will not one day be “somebody who did exist once.” After Eugene Peterson dies—and we wish him long life—he will face judgment (Heb. 9:27). And God will hold him accountable for everything he has ever said or done, including this interview that very well could lead many astray (James 3:1).

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