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Eugene Peterson and same-sex marriage: What the Bible really says

Author of The Message reveals what he really thinks

Update

A day after making the statements reported below, Eugene Petersen reaffirmed traditional marriage. Eternity reported his new statement here.

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Introduction 

Eugene Peterson, who has captivated the Christian audience with his freely translated version of the Bible, The Message, has gone public with his view on same-sex marriage. When veteran religion journalist Jonathan Merritt sought an interview with the 84-year-old author, he thought an edgy question would be about whether Peterson feared death. Instead, the short exchange that follows has gone viral in the Christian web.

“I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do.” – Eugene Peterson

Merritt asked if Peterson’s view on same-sex marriage has changed. He responds: “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.”

Merritt is a seasoned journalist, so he digs deeper: “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?” And he gets a response from Peterson: “Yes.”

Peterson was a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in the US, the larger and more liberal of the churches of that tradition. Many more conservatives have broken away to form the Presbyterian Church in America (home of Tim Keller), or the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. So, in the US, Peterson revealing his viewpoint may not be a surprise. The satirical site Babylon Bee’s headline says this “Three People Shocked As Eugene Peterson Comes Out In Favor Of Same-Sex Relationships”. But the rest of the world may well be surprised at the public revelation of Peterson’s views.

But as David Bennett, a celibate gay Christian man points out below, there could be more stories like this to come. John Sandeman, Eternity editor

David Bennett writes

Eugene Peterson, the beloved interpreter of scriptural inflection and meaning in his ‘Message’ version of the Bible, announced that he would perform same-sex weddings in the church for loving gay couples. As a celibate gay Christian, seeing a man of such stature in the Christian community and a voice I admire betray the God of scripture that he interprets to the world was beyond harrowing. But it was unsurprising. In the US particularly, there is an ugly culture war, and many pride themselves on finding the next domino to ‘fall.’

And there will always be stories of this happening in a wedging world of pressure that I, and many traditional or orthodox Christians, inhabit daily. Christians are constantly vilified for not conforming to the pattern of this world. In such a world of polarisation, the negative mental health of so many LGTQI teens is largely due to this nasty sense of choosing between liberal and conservative worlds, not a safe exploration of Christian faith where they can really understand what same-sex desire means.

We, as Christians, must not confuse acceptance with affirmation.

Beyond the grave mistake Peterson is making, I admire his compassion and love for LGBTQI people, but his desire to twist scripture for us is the most deeply unloving thing he could ever do. We, as Christians, must not confuse acceptance with affirmation. Right now, there is a barrage of pressure from ‘revisionist’ groups like The Reformation Project, headed by Matthew Vines, on a crusade to ‘reform’ the church to accept gay marriage. What such a movement needs more than anything is for Peterson to stand up for what the Bible really says. Anything less is a truthless love, which is no love at all.

So, what does the Bible really say on the subject that Peterson has responded to? Much of the research I have been doing at Oxford University (and will be presented in my upcoming book, A War of Loves) has focused upon marriage and same-sex relationships – and is summarised below.

Jesus and Genesis

Jesus in the Gospels clearly teaches that marriage is, in and of itself, between a man and a woman. When quoting directly from the ‘creation’ narrative in Genesis 1-3, Jesus does so by rendering what appears in the Hebrew original text as the narrator’s voice, to be coming directly from the Creator’s own mouth. In Matthew 19:4, he states: “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” Jesus does so in light of the distinction between “nature” and “creation” – the distinction between our bodies now and our bodies before death marred all of creation.

… how God has made them and explicitly wishes them to be understood

It was necessary for Jesus to emphasise the word of the Creator in addition to the mere act of creating, or the result of it. He reminds his hearers of the significance of sexual difference, and marriage between one man and woman, which had ceased to be morally apparent. Jesus is clarifying that for a male and a female to become husband and wife – by leaving their families behind and becoming sexually one body in forming a new family – that is not just ‘how things normally go’ (the ‘norm’ as average), but how God has made them and explicitly wishes them to be understood (the ‘norm’ as ought to be).

Also, Jesus, as the one who fulfilled the whole Torah and moral Law of Moses, says that not one ‘tittle’ will pass from it, including such keenly relevant passages as Leviticus 18 and 20. In this sense, when Jesus, as a Jewish Rabbi, uses the Greek term ‘porneai’ (which means sexual immorality) in what he says in Matthew 19, it would have referred in his Jewish context, to these Leviticus passages.

Leviticus 18 and 20

So, what about shellfish and mixed fibres which are often the attention-grabbing elements of Leviticus 18 and 20? The Levitical Code of Israel was designed to set the nation apart from the gentile nations, but also to morally instruct God’s people. In the New Testament, the division between Gentile and Jew was undone by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, ‘making one humanity out of the two.’ (Ephesians 2:14-15) This provided a new means of putting people in right relationship with God, which meant those purity laws listed in Leviticus had been fulfilled.

One’s belonging to God was no longer through markers like not eating shellfish, but through obedience and faith to Israel’s Messiah.

The Law still remained a guide, teaching where the markers were for … sins of the heart.

External purity was no longer of concern because, as Jesus reflects in Matthew 8:11, the Kingdom of God had come and Gentiles (non-Jewish people) are coming into it.

In Acts 15, the early church met to rule on Paul’s view that the Jewish purity laws were no longer applicable to Gentile believers, nor the source of the Christian’s right standing before God. They ruled that all ‘porneai’ or sexual immorality was wrong which, given their Jewish identity, would have referred directly to Jewish custom and law. The Law still remained a guide, teaching where the markers were for moral or internal transgressions and sins of the heart. In this sense, then, Leviticus 18 and 20 reveal what is still sexually immoral as reflected in some of Paul’s letters for Christians today.

Romans 1

The consensus of the vast majority of biblical scholars, from both the more critical and orthodox sides, confirms that homosexuality was understood implicitly but never represented as a kind of identity in the ancient world. Such a view of unnatural sexual acts was present in the Greco-Roman and, most directly in the Jewish Law. Whilst it is true that there was an understanding of homosexual affections as predominantly virile expressions of power over another, there were also many counter-examples of loving gay romances and gay love poetry that would echo and resemble a gay marriage. This included love affairs during the time of Emperors such as Caesar and Augustus, and throughout Greco-Roman history.

To say that Paul would never have conceived of a loving, erotic, gay relationship is historically inaccurate and a desperate clutching at straws.

He is not describing ‘gay people’, but the effect of sin’s entry into the world.

In verses 25-26 of the first chapter in Paul’s letter to the early Christian church in Rome, Paul uses the terms ‘kata physin’ (‘according to nature’) and ‘para physin’ (‘against nature’). These terms refer to a definition of human nature that isn’t determined by innate desires (like philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche describes) or power and identity politics (like fellow philosopher Michel Foucault promotes).

For the Jews, human nature was related to the image of God and thus God’s own nature. For the Greco-Roman world, ‘proper use’ sums up their approach to human nature. In such contexts, Paul uses same-sex acts as the counter-analogue to the image of God (which is male and female in Genesis): ‘where they exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.’ (Romans 1:26-27) Paul gives a theological account of the fallen world ‘out there’, which inverts and exchanges the image of God (given by the Creator as male and female) in a system of broken worship that leads to improper use. He is not describing ‘gay people’, but the effect of sin’s entry into the world. One such effect was the production of desires for the same-sex but also, more generally, broken sexuality was another effect of sin.

Paul uses same-sex acts as a description of universal human or ‘gentile’ sinfulness precisely because the Jewish understanding assumed, within the Law, that such acts were not on the table ethically. As New Testament scholar Richard B Hays states, “in sharp contrast to the immediate recollections of the creation story, Paul, portrays homosexual behaviour as a ‘sacrament’ of the anti-religion of human beings who refuse to honour God.”

1 Corinthians 6:9

As apostle to the Gentiles, Paul transliterated the Hebrew terms mishav [‘one who lies with’ – koitēs, in ancient Greek] and zakur [male – arsēn, in ancient Greek] from the Greek translation of the Jewish Torah (LXX) from Leviticus 18. He then invents a term in 1 Corinthians 6, forming a brand new word arsenokoitai to describe homosexuality more generally. Words did exist in Greek language to describe homosexual partners; however, Paul takes the next step from the Torah, translating this Jewish sexual ethic to the Gentile world. E.P. Sanders, a more liberal biblical scholar states that “Paul himself condemned homosexual activity and warned his converts against the pleasures of the flesh,” even though Sanders disagrees with Paul’s view.

Hold God’s word out to the world but, by all means, don’t reinvent it.

As a celibate gay Christian, having leaders of the faith like Eugene Peterson yield on his approach to marriage is a deep betrayal of not just LGTQI Christians who need truth and love, but of our Lord Jesus Christ. Arguments from silence in scripture and faulty context are unworthy of greats such as Peterson.

For these reasons and many others, I write to ask Eugene Peterson to reconsider and to side with what the Creator really said in the beginning. Hold his word out to the world but, by all means, don’t reinvent it. Please don’t give us love without truth. We have been unloved enough in the past.

David Bennett will be telling his personal story from being an anti-Christian gay rights activist to meeting God in a pub, in “A War of Loves” (published by Zondervan next year). He is completing postgraduate studies in theology this year in Oxford.

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Pray that the truth of God’s word on subjects such as relationships will be heard and upheld around the world.

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