Eugene Peterson is one of the most respected authors in American Christianity. His books on pastoral ministry and spirituality have sold in the millions and are required reading in seminaries and Bible colleges. His paraphrase of the Bible, “The Message”, is one of the most popular versions of the Scriptures in the Western world. And today, in an interview with Jonathan Merritt at Religion News Service, Peterson undramatically answers “Yes” to the question of whether or not he’d perform a same-sex wedding.
Peterson in 84 years old, and this week has declared that he would be stepping out of public ministry, feeling “fulfilled” with what he has been able to accomplish in his life. When Merritt asked Peterson about his position on LGBT+ inclusion in the church, the pastoral theologian responded in an almost nonchalant manner, saying:
“In my own congregation — when I left, we had about 500 people — I don’t think we ever really made a big deal out of it. When I left, the minister of music left. She’d been there ever since I had been there. There we were, looking for a new minister of music. One of the young people that had grown up under my pastorship, he was a high school teacher and a musician. When he found out about the opening, he showed up in church one day and stood up and said, “I’d like to apply for the job of music director here, and I’m gay.” We didn’t have any gay people in the whole congregation. Well, some of them weren’t openly gay. But I was so pleased with the congregation. Nobody made any questions about it. And he was a really good musician.”
His tone truly reflects that of a Christian pastor, someone who takes seriously his charge to love and welcome all people. While his language will be critiqued by some on the left for not being overwhelmingly affirming, the reality is that this pastor in his mid-eighties reflects the change of heart that has been emerging not just among millennial Christians, but in the hearts of Christians across generations.
Peterson doesn’t go in to his “theological rationale” for his affirmation and acceptance- because he doesn’t feel like he needs to. If the gospel of Christ is truly “good news of great joy for all”, then there isn’t even a question about whether or not LGBT+ people can attend, serve, or lead in a church. For Peterson, it seems, it’s just common sense. He affirmed, years ago, openly gay music ministers and lesbian couples in his congregation without ever making it a huge controversy. He see’s LGBT+ people as people and not issues, and he welcomed them into the life of the church that he pastored.
Inevitably, Peterson’s statements will cost him a good portion his evangelical readership. We can expect that fundamentalist evangelical publications like Charisma, The Christian Post, The Gospel Coalition, and Christianity Today will condemn Peterson’s remarks, and many churches and schools will stop using his books. The ironic part of this all is that Peterson has clearly been affirming for many years, if not decades. Yet now his books and writings will become anathema. He will be declared “unorthodox” or “apostate”- yet nothing about him has changed.
This is just a taste of what so many LGBT+ Christians face in the church. When we’re in the closet, we’re welcomed and affirmed for our callings and gifts, but as soon as we step out into the light, embracing who God has made us to be, our gifts and contributions become “dangerous” and “invalid”. Just ask my Christian musician friends Vicky Beeching or Trey Pearson, who receive hate mail on a daily basis from Christians who believe they have now become forces of “darkness”, whatever that means.
Moments like today, when leaders step out and declare their support for LGBT+ people are important and contribute greatly to the shift in Christian attitudes towards LGBT+ inclusion. Peterson’s words might not be perfect, but they will certainly be enough to cause many evangelicals on the edge to be freed to begin rethinking their own positions and practices relating to sexual and gender minorities. And speaking as an LGBT+ Christian pastor, his words are healing to me, not because I need his affirmation, but because they reflect a steady and sure movement of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, calling for greater inclusion of all people, including people like me.
Today is a great day in the history of American evangelicalism. The Spirit of God is moving and the tides are changing. May more and more pastors and people be empowered to step out and declare that in Christ’s Body, everyone, including LGBT+ people, are more than welcomed, but fully embraced.