Controversy hit the internet this week when in an interview, Eugene Peterson (the best-selling author behind The Message) appeared to endorse same-sex marriage. Peterson the effectively retracted the comments a day later.
I just want to have a little look at the comments and the retraction here because there are some important and challenging lessons to draw out about pastoral care and faithful Christian living.
The focus centres around two questions
- Peterson’s view on homosexuality in general
In the first interview Peterson was asked:
“You are Presbyterian, and your denomination has really been grappling with some of the hot-button issues. I think particularly of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Has your view on that changed over the years?”
This was his response:
“I haven’t had a lot of experience with it. But I have been in churches when I was an associate pastor where there were several women who were lesbians. They didn’t make a big deal about it. I’d go and visit them and it never came up for them. They just assumed that they were as Christian as everybody else in the church.
In my own congregation — when I left, we had about 500 people — I don’t think we ever really made a big deal out of it. When I left, the minister of music left. She’d been there ever since I had been there. There we were, looking for a new minister of music. One of the young people that had grown up under my pastorship, he was a high school teacher and a musician. When he found out about the opening, he showed up in church one day and stood up and said, “I’d like to apply for the job of music director here, and I’m gay.” We didn’t have any gay people in the whole congregation. Well, some of them weren’t openly gay. But I was so pleased with the congregation. Nobody made any questions about it. And he was a really good musician.
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.”
Now leaving aside the first sentence which is a little confusing given that he goes on to list some significant experience of the issue -maybe a lot more than many pastors of his generation will have knowingly encountered here are a few comments.
First of all, there is a level of ambiguity through the whole comment which makes it difficult to be clear about what was happening. By the way, that’s not a judgement, we are dealing here with a quick comment from an elderly gentleman not a planned statement but as with the recent debate about Tim Farron’s views on same-sex marriage during the UK General Election, we are missing some vital details and distinctions. Specifically, in the case of the “lesbian” members of the congregation and the music director who came out as gay does Peterson mean that they were actively engaged in same-sex relationships or is he saying that their sexual orientation was same-sex attracted.
This is important because we want to distinguish between someone saying that they experience same-sex attraction and someone committing to a homosexual relationship. For example, our friends at Living Out are very clear in their view that whilst they experience same-sex attraction, they desire to live obediently to Scripture’s teaching that sexual relationships are to be enjoyed exclusively within the context of marriage between one man and one woman.
Here’s the second question. In what spirit did the applicant for the music director’s job say “I’d like to apply for the job of music director here, and I’m gay.”? I suspect he didn’t say it quite like that and that the sentence is summarizing a longer discussion but a statement like that could have been made:
– Defiantly: “What are you going to do about it?” In that context the person could have been daring the church leaders to make an issue of it in order to prove a point
– As a question: “Is it a problem that I am gay?” I mean that in the sense that he may not have been sure. Now you might think that he would already know what the Bible’s position on sexuality was after being in the church for some years but if the church has effectively operated a don’t ask, don’t tell policy and tried to keep this issue below the radar, it is possible that he genuinely didn’t know.
– Just as a statement of fact. This links to the point above and again assumes we only have a heavily paraphrased summary of the conversation (which is likely given the author of the comment). In other words, it may have been in the context of a conversation about where he was in terms of relationships “What commitments do you have to others?”
– As a form of confession: “I would love to be the music director but I really struggle with this thing. How will that affect things?”
This is important not just in terms of understanding the point Peterson was making but because at some point or other -and not just with reference to same-sex attraction- in church life you are going to be faced with people making statements about their lives using each of those tones. How would you respond in each situation?
This leads on to the next point. My biggest concern with the comment is the sense of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” which is justified positively as “we never made a big issue of this.” However, for those people this meant that a significant part of their lives potentially was off limits in terms of pastoral care and discipleship. Now, there are things to consider carefully in terms of the right people to talk to and a balance between appropriate pastoral concern and prying and poking. But although they did not make a big deal about it does not mean that it wasn’t a big deal. A few years ago an elderly lady shared with me that she had always longed to meet someone to share her life with and that even at a grand old age she still found this hard. Now in her case, she was talking about heterosexual longing but the point is this, she did not make a big deal about it but it was a big deal.
I suspect it would have been a big deal for those ladies. If they were not in relationships, then there may have been huge issues in terms of loneliness and struggle. If they were in relationships then there would have been issues in terms of secrecy and not being able to talk about an aspect of their lives, guilt and shame. It would have meant that in one very significant area of their lives, the pastor was unwilling or unable to challenge them about sin and godliness. This meant that pastoral care and discipleship was denied to them because they missed out on a conversation about what grace and forgiveness, the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification and how to grow godly friendships.
Again, there is the broader pastoral question here: “Is there anything that we treat as ‘off-limits in pastoral conversations and preaching?”
Then I want to come back to this comment
“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.”
I would suggest that this is to miss the point badly. Note again that we have woolly language “as good a spiritual life…” and the relative comparison “as I do.”
Let me make a few comments on this.
- When seeking to encourage people in their walk with God, then subjective, relative comparisons between them, myself and other believers are profoundly unhelpful. Yes they may seem to have a better spiritual life than me but does that mean that they are right with God?
- Again, there is the ambiguity here about whether we are talking about orientation and practice. Might it be that it is in the very heart of a fierce battle that they are experiencing blessing and encouragement from God that will challenge other Christians who are sitting back with their acceptable sins.
- There may be something to the point that “that kind of debate…might be over.” You see I think one of the dangers in how we’ve talked about homosexuality in the church is that we’ve come from a point where homosexuals were treated almost as monsters, beyond the pale, unredeemable because of one specific sin. We may at times have done that with this sin in a way we would never have with others sins. The result of this is that when someone meets a homosexual in real life and they are not a monster but a kind, loving, gentle, humble person then in shock they may re-evaluate their view but they will be doing against a caricature rather than against what the Bible actually teaches about sin. It may be that God is at work in someone’s life and dealing with all kinds of sin not just their homosexuality.
- What exactly is a spiritual life and how do you assess it? This brings me back to the first point about subjective and relative comparisons. It’s a bit of a slippery phrase isn’t it. The risk is that I can make assessments that are really about how they express their emotions not about where they really are with God. It’s possible to be able to give good answers in Bible study, pray beautiful prayers and lift up your hands and weep during sung worship whilst harbouring deep seated sin. No, what really matters is “Are they right with the Lord? Have they come to Him through the Cross, have they received forgiveness? Are they justified by faith alone? Are they seeking to follow Him in obedience to all that he has taught?”
In his retraction, Eugene Peterson said:
“To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.”
That’s good to hear. I wish he had simply said that at the start. The point then is if we believe the Bible’s teaching then we need to make sure that all congregation members are loving pastored in the light of that teaching.
This means that we must not put barriers up to people who are same-sex attracted hearing and responding the Gospel. We must not put up a barrier of fear or hatred. It also means that we must not, out of fear of opposition or of hurting their feelings or losing them, hold back from sharing the whole counsel of God with them as we seek to disciple them so that they can grow in godliness.
- Would Peterson marry a same-sex couple?
Eugene Peterson was then asked
“A follow-up: 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?”
He responded with a one-word answer: “Yes”
In the follow up interview he gave this retraction:
“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,” said Peterson. “And to be honest, no is not a word I typically use….”
“…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.”
Now, I think loving grace means that we should recognise and allow for people to change their minds and admit that they got it wrong. I am pleased that Peterson has retracted. So just one simple point here. We need to be careful as pastors that we are not so desperate to be liked that we find ourselves saying “Yes” to everything. Sometimes the right and loving answer is “No.”
NB You can read a fuller paper outlining our understanding of what the Bible teaches on this subject called “Same-Sex Marriage” available from our Publications page.