RNS Best of 2017: Eugene Peterson backtracks on same-sex marriage

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Eugene Peterson. Screenshot from YouTube

EDITORS’ NOTE: New Year’s Eve is a time of reflection. This week, Religion News Service is proud to highlight several top stories by our staff and columnists, including Jonathan Merritt’s July post on a best selling Christian author’s shifting views on same-sex marriage.

(RNS) — “The Message” author Eugene Peterson says he regrets telling me he would officiate a same-sex wedding if asked to do so today by a gay couple who were “Christians of good faith.”

“On further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that,” the evangelical author said in a statement.

Since we published the interview at RNS on Wednesday (July 12), the internet has caught fire. The article was the last of a three-part interview series that addressed a range of topics: why Peterson was stepping away from public life, what he thinks of Donald Trump, his view of megachurches, and whether he is afraid of death.

But nothing sparked more conversation than two questions I asked Peterson about same-sex relationships and marriage.

RELATED: Eugene Peterson had this to say about same-sex issues in 2014

Some have asked why I would ask these questions at all. There were two primary reasons. First, he is one of the most influential Christian thinkers in the world and homosexuality is one of the most contentious debates in the church today. What Peterson believes about this topic matters, which is more than evident in the reaction it generated.

Second, and perhaps more interesting, I had spoken with several prominent pastors, authors and theologians who intimated that Peterson had told them privately that he was affirming of same-sex relationships. This prompted my curiosity about his views. If true, I knew my readers would be interested.

I spoke to Peterson on July 6 at 3 p.m. by phone for about 33 minutes, in an interview arranged through his publicist. It was recorded with his permission.

My questions were pointed, as any serious journalist’s should be. They were respectful and in no way pushy. When asked about his views of homosexuality, Peterson shares fond memories of LGBT people he knew during his pastoral ministry. He talks about being proud of his former church for accepting a gay music minister. He said his LGBT friends have just as healthy a spiritual life as he does. And he called it “not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.” Peterson also acknowledged that these are not statements he would have made “20 years ago.”

These statements indicated that he indeed affirmed same-sex marriage as others had claimed. It would be remiss for me not to follow up, so I asked whether he would perform a gay marriage if he were pastoring today and an LGBT couple asked him. Though he always responds with lengthy replies, he opted for a one-word reply: “Yes.”

The condemnations from conservatives were swift. LifeWay, America’s largest Christian book chain, threatened to ban his books if he didn’t affirm a traditional view of marriage. The heat rose quickly, and then Peterson retracted his remarks, claiming he was put on the spot. While he said a same-sex couple would be welcome in his church today, he would not perform a same-sex wedding “out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching.”

It is possible Peterson felt he had been placed on the spot and offered an answer that doesn’t reflect his true conviction. But it is also important to note that in the week prior to the publication, there was no attempt to clarify or change his answer to these questions.

Some people have claimed that perhaps Peterson is “senile.” Quite frankly, this smacks of ageism to me. And it doesn’t align with either his cogent state during the interview or the eloquence with which he answered my questions.

To all the LGBT Christians who read Peterson’s words and felt a sense of hope but today feel like deflated tires: I am sorry if today feels like yet another church-induced bruise. Regardless, you are sons and daughters of Almighty God and the object of God’s love. In fact, God is obsessed with you. There is nothing you can do today to make God love you less or more. Trust that these statements are true of you and that their truthfulness is not dependent upon the statements or beliefs of any leader.

As Peterson himself once wrote, “God’s love is meteoric, his loyalty astronomic, His purpose titanic, his verdicts oceanic. Yet in his largeness nothing gets lost; Not a man, not a mouse, slips through the cracks.”

Those of us who follow these kinds of conversations and care about what a leader like Peterson thinks must now sort out what this means for this debate, if anything. All I know is that Eugene Peterson is a man of deep faith who has lived, in his words, “a long obedience in the same direction.” His life and ministry bear witness to his love for God, love for people, and his love for the Bible. Peterson’s views on same-sex marriage — whether he supports it or opposes it — have no bearing on my respect for him or his ministry.

I have nothing negative to say about Peterson today, and I wish many of the outraged conservative Christians had taken a similar posture yesterday.

(RNS senior columnist Jonathan Merritt writes the “On Faith and Culture” column)