The Agonizing Ordeal of Eugene Peterson — You Might Be Next

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
July 17, 2017

Was he against it, before he was for it? Is he really against it now?

The ordeal experienced last week by popular author Eugene Peterson was agonizing to observe, largely self-inflicted, and virtually inevitable. You should pay close attention to it, for you might very well be next.

The ordeal began with Peterson, one of the most influential authors among evangelical pastors, responding to two straightforward questions about homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service referenced homosexuality and same-sex marriage and then asked Peterson if his view on the morality of same-sex relationships had changed. Peterson was pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland for 29 years, before retiring in 1991. In his answer, however, Peterson said, “I haven’t had a lot of experience with it.” An earlier congregation where he served as associate pastor, included “several women who were lesbians,” but didn’t “make a big deal about it.” The congregation he served as pastor was much the same: “I don’t think we ever really made a big deal of it.”

They had a gay musician, but, “nobody made any questions about it. And he was a really good musician.” His answer was convoluted, but he concluded, “it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.”

Peterson was then asked, “If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?” Peterson answered simply, “Yes.”

That “yes” blew up the evangelical world like a signal flare. The RNS headline on the interview stated that Peterson had changed his mind on the question. A significant number of evangelicals responded with immediate shock and disappointment at Peterson’s answer. The largest Christian bookstore chain said that it was considering whether to continue selling Peterson’s many books, including The Message, his best-selling paraphrase of the Bible.

But, almost as quickly as his “yes” appeared, it was retracted.

The very next day, Peterson released a long statement, published in full at The Washington Post. He retracted his “yes” and said that he would actually not perform a same-sex wedding ceremony. “That’s not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic Christian view and teaching on marriage. That said, I would still love such as couple as their pastor.”

He also stated: “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.”

So, within 48 hours of the original interview, Eugene Peterson had issued a statement retracting his “yes” to a same-sex wedding ceremony. He now affirms marriage as “one man to one woman.”

The brushfire then switched directions. Now, folks displeased with Peterson’s RNS interview were at least partly comforted by his retraction, while those who had been comforted by his “yes” were hurt and infuriated by his subsequent “no.”

Jonathan Merritt ran a story at RNS within hours of Peterson’s retraction, noting that in 2014 Peterson had already told a conference in which he indicated his evolution on LGBTQ issues and looking back on his tenure as pastor, he said “I started to change my mind.” He also spoke of talking to parents whose children had come out as gay saying, “they’ve finally accepted that this is not a bad thing, that this can be a good thing. This can be a flourishing thing.”

What is really going on here? What does Eugene Peterson really believe about LGBT relationships and behaviors or about same-sex marriage? We really don’t know. We will probably never really know.

His retraction allows his books to be sold, but the ordeal has done massive damage to his reputation. One of the best-selling authors in the evangelical world is now, in effect, a giant Rorschach test. You can read him as fully open to LGBT relationships, but forced by political and economic pressure to act as if he isn’t. Or you can read him as basically a traditionalist on the question, who felt under pressure to affirm same-sex marriage and succumbed to the pressure, only to regret and retract quickly. Those do not exhaust the possibilities.

I have enjoyed many of Eugene Peterson’s writings. He is an elegant literary stylist, and he seems never to forget a pithy quote—saved just for the right paragraph. He also knows how to deploy the English language with powerful simplicity. Just consider these sentences from his pastoral memoir, The Pastor“I was astonished to learn in one of these best-selling books (on church life) that the size of my church parking lot had far more to do with how things fared in my congregation than my choice of texts in preaching. I was being lied to and I knew it.” 

He even pulled off what might be the greatest (and shortest) literary achievement of my lifetime, using a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, no less, to redefine Christian discipleship as “a long obedience in the same direction.” His turning of the words of Nietzsche into a definition of what it means to follow Christ was brilliant, clarifying, and unforgettable.

Thus, Eugene Peterson understands the stewardship of words. In another of his books, he stated: “We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.” Indeed.

Several thoughtful evangelicals expressed concern and discouragement that Peterson had basically “shrugged” or “sighed” in his answers, concealing more than he revealed — and about an issue that really did require a yes or no answer.

But there should have been no surprise. Eugene Peterson has never been very clear about controversial questions, or on many crucial biblical and theological questions. His writings were categorized as “pastoral theology,” and there is little explicit doctrine in his books. His background was Pentecostal as a boy, and according to his memoir, he basically became a Presbyterian by accident. “I was not aware of choosing to become a Presbyterian. I didn’t go over the options available to me, study them, interview representative men and women, assess the pros and cons, pray for discernment, and then apply for membership. The Presbyterians needed a coach for their basketball team. I knew how to do that and I did it. . . . I was never self-consciously a Presbyterian. I am still not.”

That says a lot about Eugene Peterson, but it probably says more about the denomination of which he is a minister, the liberal Presbyterians known as the PCUSA. One of that Presbyterian denomination’s most famous pastors says he was never even “self-consciously a Presbyterian.” That just about says it all.

In The Message, Peterson’s best-selling paraphrase of the Bible, he avoided dealing with same-sex behaviors or relationships directly , even when addressing texts like Romans 1:26-27 or 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, where he translates same-sex behaviors simply as promiscuity in general.

Peterson has made his reputation as someone who does not deal with controversial questions. He also seems to be incapable of a clear answer on this question, even now. His “retraction” was devoid of any engagement with the Bible. His concern, he said, was for his congregation and the “historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage.” There was really nothing about the morality of LGBT behaviors and relationships at all. Would anyone really be surprised that Eugene Peterson holds to the PCUSA’s LGBTQ-affirming positions on these issues? If so, why?

Matthew Vines, a prominent LGBTQ activist and author, is absolutely right, by the way, when he argued that Peterson’s answer on the question of same-sex marriage is far less significant than his position on normative morality: “The main dividing line in the church is not whether Christians support same-sex marriages. It is over the more basic question of whether they believe all same-sex relationships are sinful in the first place.”

But Eugene Peterson is also 84 years old. The interview with RNS was actually a valedictory event, of a sort. He announced that he would not be doing any more public speaking or teaching. Peterson had every reason to expect that he would conclude his public ministry without having to answer these questions.

Until that final interview…

Most of his generational colleagues are either dead or safely retired. Peterson’s longevity is a testament to his continued literary production and power. He almost made it home without answering the question, but then it happened.

Consider these lessons from Eugene Peterson’s ordeal.

First, there is nowhere to hide. Every pastor, every Christian leader, every author  — even every believer — will have to answer the question. The question cannot simply be about same-sex marriage. The question is about whether or not the believer is willing to declare and defend God’s revealed plan for human sexuality and gender as clearly revealed in the Bible.

Second, you had better have your answer ready. Evasive, wandering, and inconclusive answers will be seen for what they are. Those who have fled for security to the house of evasion must know that the structure has crumbled. It always does.

Third, if you will stand for the Bible’s clear teachings on sexuality and gender, you had better be ready to answer the same way over and over and over again. The question will come back again and again, in hopes that you have finally decided to “get on the right side of history.” Faithfulness requires consistency — that “long obedience in the same direction.”

That is what it means to be a disciple of Christ, as Eugene Peterson has now taught us—in more ways than one.


R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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