Eugene Peterson has revealed that he now embraces homosexuality and gay marriage as consistent with the Christian faith. In an interview with Jonathan Merritt, he writes:
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.
To say that Peterson’s justification for same-sex relationships is really thin would be an understatement. His is not an argument based on scripture. Rather, it’s an argument based on sentiment. He says that he’s known some nice gay people, therefore he now discards the moral consensus of the entire 2,000-year history of the Christian church. This is not pastoral wisdom. It’s folly of the first order.
Anyone familiar with Peterson will probably not be surprised by this interview. His denominational affiliation is with the PCUSA, and his views fit right in with that group. Perhaps what is more surprising is that we are only just now finding this out with this level of clarity.
Peterson says that as a pastor he had openly gay church members and even once hired an openly gay music minister. Since Peterson retired from pastoral ministry in 1991, that would suggest that his acceptance of practicing gay church members and clergy goes back at least 26 years. During that time, his writings have had an enormous impact among evangelicals through the nineties and beyond. I had one of his books assigned to me as required reading when I was in seminary. He has been contributing to Christianity Today as recently as this year. It is surprising that this information wasn’t more widely known among evangelicals before now.
Peterson’s greatest legacy is his paraphrase of the Bible titled The Message. This book has had a massive impact worldwide (including famously and recently with Bono). I am not a fan of paraphrases, and so I have not paid a lot of attention to The Message over the years. But I decided to take a look at some of the key passages today in light of the interview.
Merritt points out in the interview that Peterson doesn’t use the words “homosexuality” in The Message. Merritt is right about that, but that is not the most important thing about his rendering of these passages. It turns out that in the three New Testament passages that deal explicitly with homosexuality, Peterson obscures and conceals the Bible’s meaning altogether (see Rom. 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9-11, 1 Tim. 1:10 in The Message). These are renderings that revisionists like Matthew Vines could be quite happy with. Again, perhaps Peterson’s views aren’t so new after all.
People have asked me whether I believe Peterson is a bona fide Christian in light of this revelation. The best way I can answer that is to say what I would do if he were a member of the church where I pastor. We wouldn’t immediately presume that he isn’t a Christian. He would be given the opportunity to repent and to come back to the truth of scripture. If he refused to repent and persisted in this false teaching, we would eventually excommunicate him and treat him as an unbeliever (Matthew 18:17; Titus 3:10). This is what we believe our Lord teaches us to do in dealing with false teachers, so we would do it.
Merritt’s interview with Peterson concludes with an odd question:
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?
It is true that Peterson will one day die, but it is not true that he will one day cease to exist. Peterson will exist after death and into eternity—just like the rest of us. In eternity, “how people remember Eugene Peterson” will not be the most important question. The preeminent concern in that day will be how God remembers Eugene Peterson. This is the biggest question not only for Peterson but for all of us.
Eugene Peterson is not the first and won’t be the last well-known “Christian” to fall to the wayside over the issue of homosexuality. This is the watershed issue of our time, separating those who will follow the word of Christ from those who will not. No one among us will be able to avoid this question. No one.