Why We Must Never “Agree to Disagree” on Homosexuality and Same-Sex Marriage
[The issue of whether or not homosexuality is a sin] is a gospel issue. When so-called evangelical leaders argue for affirmation of gay relationships in the church, I’m not saying they’re not my kind of evangelical, I’m saying they are no kind of evangelical. This is not an easy position to hold, for I have friends who hold to different views on this subject. But it is the right position to hold.…[W]e must never allow ourselves to think of this as just another issue Christians are free to differ over.
—Sam Allberry, a Christian leader who himself struggles with same-sex attraction—
Unless the LORD builds the house,
They labor in vain who build it.
Key point: Marriage is so woven into the fabric of the gospel that to compromise on marriage is to compromise on the gospel itself.
Eugene H. Peterson is a former pastor. He was influential in the founding of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Bel Air, Maryland in 1962 before serving there 29 years and retiring in 1991. He then became Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College, located in Vancouver, British Columbia. He held that position until 2006. Currently, Peterson resides in Montana. He is best known for the best-selling Bible paraphrase titled The Message (also go here), which he translated over a period of years. The entire Bible was published in 2002. Peterson also has written around thirty other books.
Eugene Peterson is now 84 years old. Jonathan Merritt, senior columnist for Religion News Service (RNS), interviewed him on a variety of subjects, including his final book, his departure from public life, whether or not he fears death, Donald Trump, and Christianity in America today. RNS released two articles carrying portions of Merritt’s interview on Monday and Tuesday, July 10 and 11. Then, on Wednesday, July 12, RNS dropped a bombshell—Merritt’s report of the portion of the interview relating to homosexuality and same-sex “marriage.” Peterson said,
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.
On the heels of this statement from Peterson, Merritt 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?” Peterson responded with a simple Yes.
The Evangelical Community Responds
Reaction in the evangelical world, not surprisingly, was “swift and immediate.” Here is a Christian leader who, especially through his Bible translation project, has touched millions of lives. On the heels of the backlash, Peterson quickly issued a retraction. Christianitytoday.com (CT) carried it. According to Peterson,
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.
Taken together, Peterson’s statements in the interview, then his retraction, effectively muddy the water and raise more questions than the retraction itself answers. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote,
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.
CT published a statement by Jonathan Merritt in the article containing Peterson’s retraction, but it, too, left many unanswered questions. Merritt said, “It is possible that 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 of his answers, there was no attempt to clarify or change his answer to these questions.”
Merritt later released a report of his own on the same day Christianity Today published Peterson’s retraction. In it, he cited a 2014 video in which Peterson said he was raised in a culture in which homosexuality was “really bad,” and “accepted the status quo” on the matter. Yet recently, Peterson added, reflecting on the hardships of two homosexual men in his church had caused him to begin to change his mind.
Apparently Peterson has been giving the matter thought for some time. It is difficult to fault an observer for fearing Peterson really believes what he told Jonathan Merritt in the interview and hoping he does not.
Sadly, Eugene Peterson Is Not Alone
- who clearly have come out in support of same-sex marriage,
- who have softened their opposition to homosexual behavior, or
- who have made statements that leave people to wonder what they really believe about this issue.
Perhaps because so much of this discussion is celebrity-driven, the impression prevails that the church at large is changing its views on sexuality and marriage. This, however, according to evangelical leader, cultural observer, and BreakPoint This Week cohost Ed Stetzer, isn’t the case at all.1
The trend still is extremely disturbing, as is the nature of the arguments often given in support of marriage redefined. John Stonestreet declares, “Peterson’s original statement appealed, not to biblical teaching or theological argument, but to people and experiences. He echoed others like David Gushee, Senator Rob Portman, and Reverend Stan Mitchell, all of whom say relationships with gay friends or family changed their views.”
Rooted in Emotions Rather than in Bedrock Truth
Previously we have noted how knowing someone who is gay heavily influences people, even those in the evangelical community, to soften their positions on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. We also pointed out the flaws in this perspective. John Stonestreet summarized some very pertinent statements made my Tim Keller about this phenomenon. Here is the summary. All of us need to take these words to heart.2 “[I]f you change your mind about homosexuality because you meet a friendly and intelligent gay person, your views probably weren’t based on a biblical theology of marriage to begin with. Feelings are no substitute for an informed Christian worldview.”
In First Things, Samuel D. James offers additional keen insights.
[T]here is no safe corner of the Christian story that is completely intuitive or unfailingly neighborly. Every element of the Gospel can and will grate against our modern sense of “real life.” If the doctrine of marriage is untenable in “real life,” what doctrines are tenable?…
You cannot boil down Christianity to the parts that you are unashamed to speak about in the presence of your intelligent gay neighbor or your prayerful lesbian church member. There will always be someone you love who tells you with their soul in their eyes that that leather-bound book you carry just cannot apply to them. A collision between real life and revelation is guaranteed. What we must figure out is how much of real life we will look at through the lens of truth, and how much we will not.
In 1984, Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer lamented the trend, evident in evangelical circles even then, to compromise and cave rather than stand on biblical truth. His final book, published in 1984, was titled The Great Evangelical Disaster. What is this disaster? It is “the failure of the evangelical world to stand for truth as truth.” Schaeffer added, “There is only one word for this—namely accommodation: The evangelical church has accommodated to the world spirit of the age.”3
The Call to Uphold Biblical Truth
Again, not everyone is compromising, and that is very good news. Still, too many are, and their actions are of great concern. Just three days after Eugene Peterson’s initial comments about homosexuality and same-sex marriage were made public, Dr. Michael Brown of The Line of Fire released a letter in which he pled with his fellow Christian leaders to uphold Scripture with both their words and actions. He didn’t mention Eugene Peterson in it, although elsewhere he addressed the question of whether Bible-believing Christians should continue to use The Message.
In this piece, Brown urged leaders to speak the truth about homosexuality forthrightly and directly, yet with compassion and love. Today, he wrote, is a “critical time in history.” The issues we face serious and urgent. Life and death—and not just physical life and death—hang in the balance. We cannot afford to sugarcoat our presentations to avoid offending people; nor can we afford to avoid controversial subjects altogether. Where God’s Word is clear, we also must be clear. Yet, as ambassadors for Christ, we absolutely must demonstrate Christlike love as well. Love comes with truth. It’s a package deal. If it weren’t, it would be counterfeit love.
Love comes with truth. It’s a package deal. If it weren’t, it would be counterfeit love.
As Brown states in another article,
[W]e are called to exercise compassion towards brothers and sisters who struggle with same-sex attraction and gender identity confusion, walking together with them as they seek wholeness and pursue holiness. But those who claim that you can follow Jesus and engage in homosexual practice must be lovingly corrected and, if they refuse to repent, put out of the fellowship, in particular if they are living this out themselves. That’s what love requires.
The church is at a crossroads. As we indicated in a previous post, “if it doesn’t speak now, it may be forced to forever hold its piece.” Believers must unfailingly uphold the truth of God’s Word, just as a lighthouse beams its light consistently in the dark of the night. In our culture, the night is very dark, indeed.
North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Significantly, there are specific words from Jesus recorded in the New Testament that will challenge us and help us follow through on representing Him and His good news to a world that desperately needs both.
We’ll examine those words next time.
Part 8 is available here.
Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture has been taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1Also go here and read the portion after the heading “Where We Are Now.”
2You can read Keller’s original statement here.
3Francis Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster, in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer (2nd Edition), Vol. 4: A Christian View of The Church, (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985), 320.