On Eugene Peterson’s Retraction

Yesterday I wrote about Eugene Peterson’s interview with Jonathan Merritt in which Peterson endorses gay marriage. That interview caused a firestorm, including news that the largest Christian retailer in the country would no longer be selling works produced by Eugene Peterson.

Today, Peterson has retracted what he said in his interview with Merritt. Sarah Pulliam Bailey has Peterson’s full statement at The Washington Post. I reproduce it here so that you can read it for yourself:

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.

It’s worth noting that in my 29-year career as a pastor, and in the years since then, 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. It was an awkward question for me because I don’t do many interviews at this stage in my life at 84, and I am no longer able to travel as I once did or accept speaking requests.

With most interviews I’ve done, I generally ask for questions in advance and respond in writing. That’s where I am most comfortable. 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.

When I told this reporter that there are gay and lesbian people who “seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do,” I meant it. But then again, the goodness of a spiritual life is functionally irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

We are saved by faith through grace that operates independent of our resolve or our good behavior. It operates by the hand of a loving God who desires for us to live in grace and truth and who does not tire of turning us toward both grace and truth.

There have been gay people in a variety of congregations, campuses, and communities where I have served. My responsibility to them was the work of a pastor—to visit them, to care for their souls, to pray for them, to preach the Scriptures for them.

This work of pastoring is extremely and essentially local: Each pastor is responsible to a particular people, a specific congregation. We often lose sight of that in an atmosphere so clouded by controversy and cluttered with loud voices. The people of a congregation are not abstractions, they are people, and a pastor does a disservice to the people in his care when he indulges in treating them as abstractions.

I regret the confusion and bombast that this interview has fostered. It has never been my intention to participate in the kind of lightless heat that such abstract, hypothetical comments and conversations generate. This is why, as I mentioned during this interview, I so prefer letters and will concentrate in this final season on personal correspondence over public statements.

As I tweeted earlier, I am grateful to see Peterson retract what he said in his interview with Merritt. He confesses that he succumbed to the pressure of the moment when being interviewed and that what he said to Merritt does not reflect his actual views. That he was willing to say so and to do a complete about-face is rare and remarkable. Peterson says, “I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman.” That is a faithful affirmation.

Having said that, I do believe that Peterson has left some pretty fundamental questions unanswered. How does he square this “biblical view of marriage” with admitting practicing gay people into church membership? How is his view of marriage consistent with bringing openly gay persons onto his ministerial staff? These are the pastoral practices of one who affirms homosexual relationships, not of one who opposes them. Peterson raised more questions in his interview yesterday than he answered in his retraction today.

And these questions are fundamental. The issue of gay marriage is not a second order issue like disagreements over baptism. Paul says that those who practice sexual immorality cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-11). We cannot treat this issue as if it were adiaphora, an issue about which otherwise faithful Christians might agree to disagree. To get this wrong has eternal consequences. And that is why a pastor may not claim to hold to traditional marriage while telling people that they need not repent of homosexual immorality. These two positions are mutually exclusive.

Today’s retraction was a step in the right direction. Peterson affirms a biblical view of marriage and says that he would not perform a gay wedding ceremony. This is good. But I hope he goes further to clarify that his past pastoral practices are not faithful to a biblical view of marriage. People are looking for a way to avoid the reproach that comes to Christians for upholding scriptural teaching on marriage. A pastoral practice that differs from what the Bible teaches about marriage would be one way to do that. That is why Peterson needs to make sure he addresses all the issues raised in his first interview. I hope he will.