Eugene Peterson Flips, then Flops on Gay “Marriage”

It was the latest defection from biblical orthodoxy by a prominent Evangelical Christian leader. When columnist Jonathan Merritt asked Eugene Peterson whether he would perform a same-sex “wedding” for a Christian couple of “good faith,” The Message bible author answered, “yes.”

Peterson’s flip on gay pseudotrimony created an immediate firestorm in the Christian blogosphere, prompting the former pastor to “flop” the next day, telling Christianity Today,

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.

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Peterson’s abrupt flip-flop raises some legitimate questions, especially, as Merritt claims, he made “no attempt to clarify or change his answer” in the week prior to publication of their interview. For instance,

Was his “flip” the result of a lack of conviction in the biblical standard or a lack of courage defending it?

Was his “flop” the result of market pressure from threats to ban and boycott his books, or in the realization that he had experienced an unfortunate “senior moment”?

Most importantly, what does Eugene Peterson really believe about marriage and homosexuality?

According to Merritt, “several prominent pastors, authors and theologians” he had talked to beforehand, “intimated that Peterson had told them privately that he was affirming of same-sex relationships.” Their intimation was confirmed not only by Peterson’s unqualified, three letter response, but also by his praise of his former congregation for hiring an openly gay man as music director, suggesting his approval of non-celibate gays as church members and leaders.

Perhaps, most telling is what Peterson has to say in the popular version of the bible he authored, The Message. In contrast to standard bible versions in which injunctions against homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27, 1Timothy 1:10-11, and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 are plain-stated and unambiguous, The Message wags at those who “use and abuse sex,” live irresponsibly, and are “all lust, no love.”

Peterson does not give a rationale for these positions, other than say:

“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… but [as to homosexuality and same-sex marriage] it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.” I wonder if that applies to non-marital heterosexual relationships, as far as he’s concerned.

Peterson’s comments remind me of Seventh-Gay Adventists, a documentary about homosexuals in the Seventh Day Adventist community. Like the gays of Peterson’s acquaintance, the film’s homosexuals are all “good” people: they pray, read their bibles, and serve in their congregations. They love their families, community, churches. But they love up to a point, short of agape, sacrificial love. Instead of denying themselves for the sake of others, they make choices and pursue lifestyles contrary to the feelings, needs, and even well-being of people they love.

They tell of wanting to change, trying to change, and pleading with Jesus to make it happen, all without effect, then concluding that God must be okay with their homosexuality and the church should be also. It is an argument that could play equally well for the alcoholic, substance abuser, compulsive gambler, sex addict, pedophile, or person with [fill-in-the-blank] pathology.

Absent is any notion that Our Lord’s call to repentance might apply to them. Or that “denying self” might include retraining desires contrary to the law of Nature and Nature’s God. Instead, their choice, their longing to be accepted “just as they are,” trumps all other considerations.

Sheri and Jill chose to become mothers, because, as Sheri says, they wanted children. Consequently, their daughters are denied a relationship with their biological father, parents who can credibly teach them how to understand their sexuality and relate with the opposite sex, and a family structure that is best suited for their nurturing and well-being.

David, after years fighting against his homosexuality, took a lover, moved in with him, then got “married” which caused heartache for his parents. During the “wedding” ceremony, David’s parents—who are prominent leaders in a conservative denomination—are seen valiantly trying to balance supporting their son against condoning his lifestyle and the transmogrification of a sacred ceremony they are obliged, as loving parents, to attend and witness. Of the film’s central characters, David, at least, is shown considering those costs. Yet, in the end, like Sheri and Jill he deems his own needs more important.

Then there’s Marcos who, after an adulterous affair with a man, chose to leave his wife and family, denying his two children an intact family headed by their natural parents. Ironically, toward the end of the film Marcos is shown grieving over the breakup of his own childhood family, wondering why his parents couldn’t have stayed together for the sake of him and his siblings. Why, indeed?

Not surprisingly, the film promotes a revisionist exegesis of Scripture—namely, that biblical injunctions against homosexuality refer to temple prostitution, pederasty, forced sex, and the like, not what goes on between “committed” same-sex partners. It is a fashionable reading based on a contrived contextualization that goes against the plain meaning of the text, 2000 years of church teaching, and millennia of moral norms and social tradition. What’s more, it fails to consider what Jesus had to say about sexual morality.

In one “red letter” passage, the sin of adultery is expanded to include lust—entertaining sexual desire for someone other than one’s spouse, which includes all unrestrained homosexual desire.

On another occasion, Jesus reaffirmed the heterosexual design of marriage and went on to say that, for reasons of nature, nurture, or the kingdom, it is not for everyone. Although he mentioned eunuchs specifically, the exception would apply to homosexuals who, like eunuchs, can form emotional attachments, but cannot fulfill the purpose, nor conform to the design, of marriage. Which brings us to what nature says.

Considering the design of sexuality, uniquely suited for life’s most essential function, reproduction, we are left to conclude that: 1) homosexual orientation is abnormal, 2) homosexual sex is dysfunctional, and 3) same-sex “marriage,” as it originates from the mind of man rather than the design of nature, is unnatural.

The Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature are in total agreement on the nature of homosexuality—a truth that Eugene Peterson apparently ignores or rejects.

As Christians grapple with how to receive homosexuals redemptively and Christianly into their congregations, a few questions are in order:

If homosexuals should be eligible for church membership and leadership without regard to their lifestyles, what about: polygamous and polyamorous individuals, man-boy couples, cohabiting heterosexuals, transgenders or any of the 54 gender identities that Facebook, for example, acknowledges? Once the biblical standard is jettisoned, is there a criterion by which a church should, or could, exclude people for indulging in any lifestyle that man can imagine?

Should we love people by affirming them in choices that conflict with their design, or by helping them live in accordance with it, however imperfectly?

Finally, as the Church’s failure to properly address heterosexual sin has contributed to the “tearing asunder what God has joined together,” should we become equally culpable for “joining together what God has left asunder?”


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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