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Eugene Peterson and Same-Sex Marriage: Why the Reformation Must Continue

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UPDATE (3:36 pm, July 13, 2017): Before you read the article below, know that further developments have taken place. Mr. Peterson has released a statement that sheds more light on the original RNS article. Yet this topic remains one of the largest areas of debate within American culture. Both sides need grace to navigate this issue well, and as Dr. Hartman says in this article, “As Christians, we can reject bigotry without denying Scriptural authority.” — Editor

In what was intended to be an interview about his publishing world swan song, Eugene Peterson sent shockwaves through the evangelical world with his affirmation of same-sex marriage. Young pastors (myself included) who have benefitted from Peterson’s wisdom were immediately dismayed by his abandonment of a Christian sexual ethic.

His position on same-sex marriage is nothing new. The parade of self-professed evangelicals affirming same-sex unions are increasing at a pace that is commensurate with the mounting cultural pressures to capitulate to the prevailing sexual ethic of American society. However, Peterson’s reasoning behind his change of conviction is incredibly troubling. Speaking to Jonathan Merritt, Peterson stated the following:

…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 went on to ask Peterson if he would be willing to conduct a same-sex ceremony. Peterson simply replied: “Yes.” Peterson’s evolution on this issue ought to be concerning for a few reasons.

First, it is grounded in his experience not biblical exegesis. Experience can help us understand the nuanced application of biblical truth, but experience is never the determiner of truth.

As Christians, we can reject bigotry without denying Scriptural authority.

Second, Eugene Peterson understands better than most that the Christian definition of the male-female union is intrinsically tied to the Christian gospel (Ephesians 5). The relationship between a husband and wife pictures the relationship between Christ and his church. To redefine that union is in essence to redefine the gospel to which it is pointing. According to the Apostle Paul, Christian marriage is sacred precisely because the male-female union tells us of good news and points our hearts to hope in Jesus.

Third, Peterson’s capitulation to the culture around him is an issue of authority. On this 500th anniversary year for the Reformation, evangelicals all over the landscape are asking “Is the Reformation over?” Peterson’s entire exchange with Jonathan Merritt demonstrates that the Reformation continues. Why? Because Peterson’s positive affirmation of same-sex unions is a denial of Scriptural authority. This entire debate is proof-positive that the Reformation must continue. In making his experience the defining influence for his sexual ethic, Peterson has made himself the final arbiter of inerrant truth.

While I applaud Peterson’s compassion for those in same-sex relationships and people who are same-sex attracted, his position is wrong. To state it succinctly: Peterson’s compassion is correct. His position is wrong. As Christians, we can reject bigotry without denying Scriptural authority.

The man who defined pastoral ministry for many (in fact, my next book is largely inspired by his text The Pastor) has given us all an impetus to reclaim the legacy of the Reformation by saying once again: Scripture Alone.

Semper Reformanda.

Image Credit: Clappstar / Wikimedia Commons

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Dayton Hartman

Dayton Hartman is lead pastor at Redeemer Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He has a PhD in church and dogma history from North-West University (South Africa), and serves as an adjunct professor at both Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Columbia International University. He is the author of Church History for Modern Ministry: Why Our Past Matters for Everything We Do. Learn more at

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