A Response to Eugene Peterson’s Affirmation of Homosexuality

(Update on 7/13: It appears that Peterson has now retracted his words quoted below. According to Christianity Today, here is Peterson’s confession:

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 am thankful to see this. It appears to be an answer to prayer. With that said, I am keeping up the substance of my remarks so that we can think through this issue together, and because problematic elements endure even in Peterson’s retraction. As one example, it is not clear whether he views homosexuality as sinful per the biblical texts covered below. He speaks of his enduring happiness in pastoring a gay couple. This is no small issue; it is definitely unbiblical. See the end of the post for more.)

I have read and appreciated Eugene Peterson’s books for years. His take on pastoral ministry, with a focus on the theological nature of the work and a deep engagement with the beauty of spirituality, has marked me. I am not alone in this respect–not by a long shot. Even as I have disagreed with some of Peterson’s views, I have continued to read him.

It thus troubled me greatly to read Peterson saying homosexuality is “not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.” Here is the full quote:

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.

These are not sound words. We are called not merely to abstain from sin but to avoid giving approval to those who indulge in it (see the implication of Romans 1:32). None who practice homosexuality, and who take it as their identity, will inherit the kingdom of heaven (Romans 6:9-11). We recall these strong words: without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). This does not mean that Christians are perfect people; it does mean that we abhor our sin, fight it, and constantly repent of it.

This point bears restating. There is a great gap of a difference between people who sin and then repent, and people who sin and do not repent and even make it a positive part of their identity. Those who brazenly sin against God are those who must face church discipline and be warned that they are in danger of nothing less than eternal judgment (1 Cor. 5). Such people are to be “handed over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh” (1 Cor. 5:5). Are there any more frightening words in the Bible than these?

This much is clear: the stakes here are terrifically high, as Gavin Peacock and I show in this short book, The Grand Design.

We need to think realistically at present. The trend of evangelicals affirming homosexuality is not going away. The division this trend is causing is awful. We lament it deeply, particularly when we have learned so much from leaders like Peterson. But we must know this: division is not caused by the truth. Division is caused by departure from the truth. Nothing is more loving, therefore, than to rescue those who are pulled away by unbiblical teaching.

Let us therefore preach the bloody cross of Christ and call for immediate repentance. In deep compassion for fellow sinners, let us tell of the wrath-absorbing crucifixion of Jesus, and help the lost discover the kindness of repentance. Let us not lose heart. And let us pray for Eugene Peterson, that he may return to the old paths, and let us instruct the younger generation of Christians, for the pressure upon them is great, and there is only one way to God: the way of repentant faithfulness.

(Final update on 7/13: as stated above, I am deeply thankful that Peterson–a man I have respected–has retracted his remarks. However, upon further review, his retraction still has some significant problems. As stated in the Washington Post, he indicates a less than biblical approach to homosexuality in general. It is not clear whether he would call an openly gay individual–or couple–to repentance and holiness. It seems he would not, for he notes that he would serve as the pastor of a gay couple. This is no glancing matter; it is actually a serious problem.

Further, his understanding of the relationship between saving faith and biblical obedience needs filling out. Christianity is a call to come and die to sin. It is so for sinners of every kind. I cannot comment at length here, but Peterson’s retraction does not solve every problem raised by this interview, and raises as many questions as it answers.)

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