Open Mouth, Insert Pastoral Foot

Communication is hard. It is especially difficult to speak clearly when one has his foot in his mouth, something Eugene Peterson learned a few weeks ago. Peterson is a retired pastor well known in Christian circles for his paraphrase of the bible, The Message. At the age of 84 he is no longer active in ministry on a regular basis but he recently gave an ill-fated interview to Religion News Service. In the article he was asked about his views on homosexuality and gay marriage. It was then that he unwittingly seemed to swallow his toes.

In his answer to the question about homosexuality he said- “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.”

To the follow up question on whether or not he would officiate a gay wedding he replied, “Yes.”

The backlash from the Evangelical Community was both intense and rapid. Respected Christian leaders took to their blogs and other platforms to denounce Peterson, many for his statement that the issue was not a “right or wrong thing.”

His words implied either a dramatic departure from traditional Christian teaching or the reality that Peterson had never held to such teaching to begin with. Whatever one concludes about the morality of a specific human behavior, Biblical faith does not allow for such fuzziness. A religion that teaches about sin and its eternal consequences will of necessity require clear teaching about what is and is not sin.

It seems that Mr. Peterson understands this truth, for he retreated from his doctrinal haziness the next day, saying that he would not perform a gay wedding and that he affirmed “a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.”

Although he did not fully retract his statement, his response was embraced by many religious leaders. Those who believe same-sex relationships are consistent with the Christian faith were not similarly pleased. Some felt betrayed and abandoned. One writer went so far as to say Peterson’s retraction would “be used to fracture relationships, to kick people out of churches and tell them God is disgusted by them,” and that “Peterson's good intentions will not change the destructive impact of his words.”

Peterson’s struggle has implications for all people of faith. As our culture evolves in an increasingly secular direction we will all be required to answer questions about sexuality. We will be invited to gay weddings, we will have gay friends and co-workers, and we will be asked, “What do you think?”

I arrived at my answer years ago. I think the actual question, the important one that underlies the sexual question is, “Where do our values come from?” Do our values come from God, and remain as constant as he does? Or our values based on evolving cultural beliefs and attitudes and thus destined to change?

As a Christian I believe that God’s position on sexual issues is constant. I believe that the teaching of the Bible is meant to be a definitive, enduring and authoritative guide for life and faith. Because of this I believe God’s plan for sexuality is that it be expressed in the context of heterosexual marriage. This belief may be considered oppressive, bigoted and hateful, but for those who profess allegiance to scripture, it is the belief most consistent with Biblical teaching. There is no option but to affirm it. Contrary to the response of Eugene Peterson, it is a right and wrong issue.

What about those who take the other side, those who believe that loving same-sex relationships are consistent with God’s plan for humanity? People have every right to that position, and to express it passionately. If they are honest, they will also declare that they no longer view the Bible as inerrant or God as unchanging in his morality. Further, they will need to abandon traditional understandings of right and wrong, or to put it in religious terms, of righteousness and sin.

What no one can do is find a comfortable middle ground on which to stand, for no such ground exists. Ask Eugene Peterson.