A Narrowed Way : American Christianity, Eugene Peterson and LGBTQ Christians

Eugene Peterson’s answers to Jonathan Merritt’s questions on gay marriage and Gay and Lesbian Christians didn’t read to me like a resolute advocacy for LGBTQ Christians and their full inclusion in the life of the Church. His retraction the day after the RNS interview was published, would appear to confirm this reading. Peterson’s answer to Merritt’s questions, fit with the measured tone and local pastoral focus of his writing. He spoke not from the place of moral theology but from his pastor’s heart. His retraction is disappointing and disheartening for many LGBTQ Christians. Yet, given his celebrity and Lifeway Books threat to remove his entire body of work from their stores, the retraction isn’t surprising. Currently, for many in American Christianity, both progressives and conservatives, this is where the Gospel stands or falls. Merritt’s question, Peterson’s answer, the reactions to Peterson’s answer. and Peterson’s retraction, tell us what pastoral and theological postures are no longer possible within American Christianity.

Merritt, reveals a hermeneutic clue: in his prefatory remarks he said he asked Peterson the questions about gay marriage because he couldn’t find anything on the subject matter either in his published works or in any public remarks. Peterson in his long career has been silent on the subject. This is significant in and of itself. The silence already positioned Peterson within the American Christian landscape, but the position is one currently unavailable (for good or ill) to Peterson (or anyone). This position is one of neither viewing LGBTQ Christians as sinners whose sin is beyond the pale and must be denounced, nor viewing LGBTQ Christians as those in need of active universal affirmation and advocacy in the church. As a former professor of mine said 22 years ago when asked about LGBTQ Christians in the Church: “It is a local pastoral question to be dealt with on case by case basis”. Peterson’s answer is an example of this position, as he accepts the scenario Merritt presents, with a simple “yes.”

I’ll unpack this more in a moment: Peterson’s retraction is from this same position, his retraction is in part motivated by his remarks being taken as global moral theology, and not local pastoral theology.

In the interview, Peterson is careful, he knows he’s walking a tight rope, he knows LGBTQ and affirming Christians read him and he knows evangelicals and Fundamentalists read him. Peterson answers the question within the context of his “brand”, the careful thoughtful pastor who is above the fray of the American Christian culture complex. He speaks first of not having awareness of gay Christians in the early periods of his ministry, but then tells a personal pastoral story of young gay man and musician who seeks to take up the position of organist and music director after the music director stepped down.  The young adult gay man comes out to the congregation in the process and the congregation embraces and doesn’t prevent the out young gay man from serving in this leadership position. He concludes that he was very proud of his congregation.  In the polarized moment we are in, in which there is only two possible places one can occupy, this story and Peterson’s answer was read as advocacy.

Peterson’s answer was also taken as a “change of mind” (an assumption Merritt and the RNS editors make). Peterson didn’t intend to convey a change of mind, but of a consistent pastoral approach, which was neither LGBTQ ally nor viewing LGBTQ Christians as unrepentant sinners. I’m not claiming this is or was a middle ground, rather I’m claiming it was a position one could take, and one can no longer take up this position in the American context. Both Fundamentalists and Progressives now demand you take their position or you have sided with the other side and have abandoned the Gospel. It may be true that this is that serious, but we must recognize viewing it as such is a recent development within American Christianity.

Peterson’s retraction in part is his attempt through the use Evangelical code to both assuage the conservatives and take back the terrain in which he has lived on this and, most other moral theological questions. 

Peterson affirms the Biblical view of marriage one man one woman. But it is noteworthy that he follows up that Evangelical code language with “I affirm everything that is Biblical”, which for a pastoral theologian of his attentiveness is either strangely naïve or intentionally meaningless and ironic. He is a Biblical pastoral theologian, his entire career has been about getting pastors and their congregations to be confronted and transformed by engagement with the Scriptures, so of course his positions are “Biblical”, that’s the entire point of his life’s work! To think otherwise is to misunderstand “Eugene Peterson”, and to have never read him.

Significantly he doesn’t talk about homosexual sin or that we need to love the sinner or hate the sin. Like a cranky old man irritated by a commotion outside, he’s irked that he is drawn into a dispute he has avoided his whole career. “I’ve said my piece! Now get off my lawn, and leave me in peace!”. We should also recall that is in this same interview with Merritt, that he announced his withdrawal form public Christian life.

In his retraction, Peterson says that he assumed Merritt was asking the question in relation to the pastoral situation in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A (PCUSA), so he answered the hypothetical scenario in which he was once again a Presbyterian Pastor of a PCUSA congregation. Since his approach is local and pastoral and not globally moral theological, he took the situation within the PCUSA in which “the question was settled.” And people either were going to be in the congregation because they accepted the position of the PCUSA, or if not, they would have left. Since Peterson doesn’t see the question of LGBTQ inclusion as a Gospel question nor one upon which pertains to orthodoxy, he can contemplate the situation within the PCUSA and the cultural context in which gay marriage is now legal marriage, answer with integrity of his pastoral theology that yes in the PCUSA today he would marry a gay Christian couple.

The reactions to his pastoral local answer to Merritt’s “hypothetical question”, draw his answers into a camp, that made him out to have “changed his mind” and sided with one position within the American Christian landscape. (A position he does not share , as he holds a different position) The reactions both rejoicing and condemning took his comments as global moral theological statement about LGBTQ inclusion in the Church and the moral and ethical status of homosexuality. As his retraction shows this was not his intent (and why would “Eugene Peterson”, speak outside pastoral theology). However, the position shown by Eugene Peterson’s silence on LGBTQ Christians his entire career is no longer a position available within the American Christian landscape especially if you are a celebrity and have a Brand threatened by being forced to “change one’s mind”. Eugen Peterson speaks on local pastoral theology, not global moral theological questions. When he thought he was speaking to the pastoral situation within the PCUSA he could speak in affirming terms. However, “Eugene Peterson” won’t (can’t) speak in global moral theological terms.  His affirmation is local pastoral, his retraction is a refusal of the global moral theological pronouncement on Homosexuality and gay marriage. But, within American Christianity, the only positions available are “affirming” or “Biblical view of marriage.”

At work in all of this, as I’ve alluded to throughout, is brand and celebrity. These were also in play in Merritt’s question, Petersons answer, people’s reactions , and Peterson’s retraction, but this exploration is beyond the scope of this post.