(RNS) — The evangelical world shook this week when the Rev. Eugene Peterson, a noted Christian pastor and writer, publicly supported same-sex marriage.
In an interview with my colleague Jonathan Merritt, Peterson said he would perform a gay Christian couple’s same-sex wedding.
A day later, Peterson backtracked, clarifying that he affirms “a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.”
In his original interview with Merritt, Peterson grounded his change of heart in admiration and concern for LGBT Christians. “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.”
But the ensuing anger and confusion on both sides proves that the debate is, in fact, far from over.
So what happens next?
First, we need to see that Christians who “evolve” on sexual ethics and marriage tend to follow a predictable pattern.
They usually swear off the evangelical label and immerse themselves in the fight for LGBT affirmation in church and society.
Peterson was never on this trajectory. Even though activist LGBT Christians and their allies welcomed Peterson’s reported change of heart, they ultimately want nothing less than full-throated support for secular LGBT issues, and the requisite adaptations to Christian theology and ethics to accommodate it.
Second, there is an identity and boundary-maintenance issue that affects evangelical and mainline Protestants in different ways. Peterson is a pastor in the mainline Presbyterian denomination, not its conservative split-off. He is popular among evangelicals, but evangelical gatekeepers can’t excommunicate him because he isn’t one of them.
A very real question remains about whether someone who affirms same-sex marriage, nonmarital sex, and modern gender ideology can be an evangelical at all. But on the flip side, another important question is beginning to emerge: In mainline Protestant circles, how long will clergy and everyday Christians who believe marriage is between a man and a woman and sex outside marriage is forbidden be welcome in their own churches?
In other words, we need to be aware of the kinds of pressures Peterson is getting from the left and the right. I want no part in impugning his integrity and making accusations about financial motives, as I have seen both conservatives and liberals do following the interview. But I am mindful of the institutional and accountability mechanisms that affect preachers’ and teachers’ thinking on LGBT issues.
A third issue concerns the untold millions of believers who are not certain where they stand on questions of marriage, sexuality, gender, and identity. For opinionated elites, Peterson has simultaneously been a hero and a villain in the same week.
But for everyday Christians reading about the controversy, Eugene Peterson is exactly where they are: confused, conflicted, and torn between fidelity to beliefs that are important to them and compassion for people they know and love.
And while leaders on the Protestant left and right attack Peterson for his sloppy reasoning and timid statements, many clergy and lay people see him giving expression to their own struggles with the most vexing ethical issues of our time.
Considering that Peterson is a widely admired pastor and teacher who has written thousands of sermons and dozens of books, they are in pretty good company.
A final consideration and, I believe, the most important one: So often lost in the theological battles over “LGBT issues” are actual men and women whose souls and bodies are at stake. Preachers and bloggers and activists may lose an argument. But real people lose their families and sometimes even their lives over these “issues.”
LGBT Christians longing for affirmation deserve to be acknowledged and heard. Celibate gay Christians who accept their churches’ long-standing teaching on marriage and sexuality are often made to feel invisible.
Eugene Peterson reminds us that the Christian debate over marriage and sexuality is far from over.
And while institutions and leaders fight, the pastoral care of souls should not be neglected.
Wherever Protestants stand, there is a church where their views will be affirmed. But we are going to be fighting about this for years to come.
In the meantime, I recall the words of the great liberal preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick: “Opinions may be mistaken. Love never is.”
(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)