The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Eugene Peterson and the difficulty of message

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Two days ago, an article was published declaring Eugene Peterson had come to affirm same-sex issues and marriage. Then there was the blow up. Eugene Peterson is an iconic luminary type of figure for many Christians and this affirmation was either a big problem or a reason for celebration depending, of course, where one stood on these issues. Then comes a retraction by Peterson who said he was put on the spot and, in his words, “I haven’t had a lot of experience with [navigating same-sex relationships issues].”

But his retraction leaves many questions unanswered. In the original interview, when asked whether he would perform a same-sex wedding ceremony, he answered with a one word “yes.” He’s retracted this and said:

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.

But why did he say “yes” in the first place? It’s a bit hard to believe that, as thoughtful a guy as Eugene Peterson is, he doesn’t have worked out views on this. Again, he’s a hero of pastoral ministry and the issue of whether pastors should perform same-sex weddings has been a central issue in pastoral ministry for at least a decade or more. Has he not had young pastors who have come to him for wisdom and insight on this question?

He was also very positive about the fact that the church he pastored was accepting of a music minister who was gay and said, seemingly referring to being gay, “it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.” So far as I know, Peterson has not addressed or clarified these things in his retraction.

So there are a lot of questions here. And what he has said publically is, at least, a bit confusing. And I’m of course going to let Peterson speak for himself.

This does, however, highlight a difficulty of message. My sense reading less than 1000 words of Eugene Peterson’s thoughts about same-sex issues is that he is clearly affirming of the person with same-sex attraction. Peterson says “they’d be welcome at my table, along with everyone else.” And, as he’s now made clear, he affirms biblical teaching on marriage and sexual ethics.[1]

I imagine this is where a lot of us are at. We have friends and family members who are same-sex attracted and we think, as people, they should be able to pursue Jesus too. And yet we hold to biblical views about these things and think the practice of homosexual relationships is morally wrong.

But it is VERY difficult to articulate this without either sounding affirming of homosexual practice or coming across as rejecting the person who is same-sex attracted. It doesn’t help that both sides seem ready to pounce depending on which side we lean. My sense is that Peterson was trying to emphasize that he accepts and would love a person who is same-sex attracted (even to the extent of momentarily being willing to perform a same-sex wedding), but it came across as he was affirming of same-sex marriage and sexual ethics.

This, it seems, is especially difficult for a church in their messaging. As a church, we want to say that everyone is accepted. “Come as you are” is a familiar refrain. But does that make a church an LGBT accepting church? If a church is “LGBT accepting” does that mean they accept same-sex attracted people who can pursue Jesus and biblical holiness (I hope so) or does that mean that the homosexual practice is morally acceptable (I hope not)?

It is difficult to message but I think it’s not impossible. I think we can and have to maintain both the acceptance and love of the person who is same-sex attracted and our convictions about biblical teaching on homosexual practice.

We need to make clear that all people, no matter what they have done or what sorts of things they deal with, are accepted as people. All people should be welcome at your table (and your church) too. We can be friends and remain family members with people whose lifestyles are contrary to biblical teaching. It may limit the relationship some, but it shouldn’t, in principle, disqualify it. Many of us can and do have friends and family members who sleep around, or who, from time to time, take recreational drugs, or who don’t parent well, or who engage in legal but immoral business practices. Just to be clear, I’m not referring to womanizers, drug addicts, child abusers, or the mob. I’m just saying there are likely people who have “attractions” to practices that are out of step with Scripture and those are not typically grounds to disassociate. And these things are certainly not attractions that put them out of the reach of the gospel. Same goes with same-sex attraction issues.

But we also have to make clear that Scripture teaches a particular way of living one’s life. There are some things (a lot of things, in fact!) that are generally accepted, but are morally prohibited by Scripture. There’s of course room for lots of discussion. It’s not always obvious how to apply the claims of Scripture with the thorny issues of politics, economics, business, and morality. By and large, it seems to me that Scripture is clear on sexual ethics. Jesus and the writers of the New Testament epistles seemed to see how crucially important it was to live sexually pure lives and in God intended ways. It’s, by definition, an intimate issue and one that can have effect on the rest of our lives. In a word, the biblical view is that sex is intended for marriage and marriage is in its very essence is a man/woman union.

There are many things in the Christian way of life that is difficult. I have an exceedingly difficult time loving and serving my wife as Jesus loved and served the church (Eph. 5:25). I also rarely succeed as loving my neighbor as myself (Matt. 22:39). Likewise, the sexual ethic is not easy. I imagine those who take themselves to be polyamorous (non-monogamous) will find it burdensome. It is difficult for almost everyone in the post-adolescent years. And it is going to be a hard word for those who are same-sex attracted. Virtue is not easy and we shouldn’t expect it to be. But I remain convinced living a life according to biblical teaching is the way of human flourishing.

So I don’t know what Peterson has in mind on these issues. I have a very deep respect for the man. He’s a really thoughtful guy and suspect what comes next will be good and we’ll be led to love others better in light of the way of Jesus. Perhaps the author of The Message will lead us towards how to message loving acceptance with biblical conviction.

Related post:

Bono and Eugene: Learning to Cuss without Cussing

[1] I won’t argue for this here, but a wide majority of Bible scholars see the Bible as clearly prohibiting any same-sex sexual relationship, which precludes affirmation of same-sex marriage.

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One Reply

  1. Dwight Ward

    Very well handled brother.