A day after a Religion News Service interview portrayed retired pastor and author Eugene Peterson as shifting to endorse same-sex marriage, the evangelical leader retracted his comment and upheld the traditional Christian stance instead.
“To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything,” he said in a statement Thursday afternoon.
Peterson, best known for creating the paraphrased Bible translation The Message, also regrets the “confusion and bombast” in the fallout of his remarks, which were widely shared and commented on online yesterday.
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.
RNS columnist Jonathan Merritt had asked Peterson, “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 had responded with one word: yes.
The interview was published Wednesday under this headline: Best-selling author Eugene Peterson changes his mind on gay marriage.
In his retraction, the 84-year-old said that in nearly three decades as a pastor and in the years since, “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,” said Peterson. “And to be honest, no is not a word I typically use.”
Peterson went on to state that because of the biblical view of marriage, he would not marry a same-sex couple:
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.
A 2016 LifeWay Research survey found that only 1 in 10 Protestant pastors had been asked to officiate a same-sex wedding. Presbyterian pastors received the most requests, at 1 in 4, followed by Lutheran pastors at 1 in 5.
While mainline pastors were predictably more likely to receive such requests than evangelical pastors (18% vs. 6%), older pastors had been asked more often than younger pastors: 14 percent of those 55 and older, compared to 7 percent of those 54 and younger.
In a post about the retraction, Merritt explained that he asked Peterson about homosexuality after hearing privately that he affirmed same-sex relationships. Their conversation took place last week by phone and lasted about 30 minutes.
“It is possible that Peterson felt he had been placed on the spot and offered an answer that doesn’t reflect his true conviction,” Merritt wrote. “But it is also important to note that in the week prior to the publication of his answers, there was no attempt to clarify or change his answer to these questions.”
He dismissed claims that Peterson was too senile to respond accurately, and added that the author’s views on same-sex marriage “have no bearing on my respect for him or his ministry.”
Merritt later posted links to comments made by Peterson at Western Seminary in 2014, where Peterson said he “started to change my mind” on the status quo of gays being “really bad.” He also says that he “helped several families accept their children as gay,” finding that “this can be a flourishing thing.”
Peterson also addressed the observations he had shared with RNS about the gay congregants he had known and served over the years.
“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,” he stated. “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,” he stated. “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.
Following the RNS interview, Christians on both sides of the LGBT debate cited Peterson as one of the most high-profile evangelicals to publicly change his stance on sexuality.
LifeWay Christian Stores had reached out to “confirm with Eugene Peterson or his representatives that his recent interview on same-sex marriage accurately reflects his views.” A spokesperson said that because of his retraction, they will continue to sell his books, which include dozens of versions of The Message as well as A Long Obedience in the Same Direction and The Pastor. The store stopped selling Jen Hatmaker’s books last year after she also affirmed same-sex marriage in an interview with Merritt.
Peterson’s followup warned against pastors “getting clouded by controversy and cluttered with loud voices” rather than focusing on the specific needs of their congregations.
“I regret the confusion and bombast that this interview has fostered,” he said. “It has never been my intention to participate in the kind of lightless heat that such abstract, hypothetical comments and conversations generate.”
In the interview series with Merritt, Peterson also stated that he will no longer be writing, teaching, or speaking publicly. In his retraction, he reiterated his desire to avoid public statements and to restrict his communication to personal correspondence.