Eugene Peterson, Homosexuality, and Theology from 30,000 Feet

Edit: Today the good journalists at Christianity Today did what good journalists do and followed up on this interview, publishing Eugene Peterson's clarification and affirmation of a "Biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman." Deeply grateful for that, though it changes almost nothing of my position below on the theology of marriage based on Scripture—which is how, I think, our theology ought to be. 

This morning a religious site published the conclusion of their three part interview with Eugene Peterson, in which he said he would perform the ceremony of a same-sex couple. The Internet has responded predictably since the voices on it are made up of humans and humans are predicable. As for me, predictable as well.

I'm sad for a few reasons, none of which I'm going to talk about much today. Eugene Peterson has been an example of a pastor who walked faithfully, steadfastly, and humbly in quiet places for the past fifty years and I want no less for my own life. I know thousands could have opinions on how each of us does that, but if I reach the end of my life with a quarter of the humble faithfulness Pastor Peterson has, I will die happy. 

It does occur to me, though, that speakers, teachers, and writers who endeavor in faithfulness and yet do not lead in issues like these (and many others) will fail in some respect. There may have been clues along the way that Peterson would capitulate in this way, but his voice never landed too strongly on one side or another. I mourn that in some ways because if I am honest with you, I struggle, deeply, with this issue and I need to know where to look sometimes. Many conservatives lack empathy and many liberals lack theology. I want both. 

I am a relational person and high on empathy, so my natural inclination is to side with marginalized. My natural inclination is to listen, hardly speak, love those who are struggling and  love those who are happily indulging. My gay friends are happy people mostly. They love their partners, they seem to feel at peace with them, they enjoy them—much in the same way that I love, feel at peace with, and enjoy my husband. It's hard to argue with joy. It's actually impossible to argue with joy. And when that joy is accompanied by a certainty that their relationship is God-blessed and God-ordained and within the bounds of Scripture as they understand it, well, it's even harder to argue with that. I'm just being honest with you, friends. It is hard to argue, disagree, and draw a hard line here while at the same time loving, laughing with, and enjoying my very human friends who also happen to happily identify as gay.

But, when I read Scripture saying things like, "In this life you will have sorrow," and "Deny yourself and take up your cross," and "He must increase, I must decrease," I remember, "Oh, it is hard. We were warned it would be. But we still endeavor on in loving people all the way through even though it's hard, even when the source of their joy is rooted more in earthly fulfillment than it is in God's good design and the point of it all: the gospel." 

In the moments when I've found my faith in these things weak, I've found it so helpful to redirect my heart and mind back to original design and gospel implications for marriage instead of centering my theology and love in experience. I don't know if that will be helpful for you, but here's where I'm meditating today: 

Because we are human, and God gave us a full gamut of emotions and experiences, we will always be tempted to build our picture of the gospel and marriage on those things. Experiences are real, tangible, and felt. And emotions are raw, deep, and inexplicable. The union of these two can produce a powerful force when it comes to theology and it's easy to do it. I do it all the time. It's why slogans like "Love is love," and "How can something that feels so good be wrong," are invented. How can my experience coupled with my emotion toward something be considered wrong? 

I'd argue you're right, actually. The problem is the experience and emotions to which you refer are only the tiniest tip of the iceberg—there is something far greater and far better and far more profound to be both emoted and experienced below, and this is the Love of God toward his creation and the act of Christ on the cross. 

The whole work of creation is a symphony of harmony. Two very different entities, coming together, making one, and this is a picture of the gospel: God and man, reconciled, united, together for eternity. Tim Keller said this,

"In Genesis 1 you see pairs of different but complementary things made to work together: heaven and earth, sea and land, even God and humanity. It is part of the brilliance of God’s creation that diverse, unlike things are made to unite and create dynamic wholes that generate more and more life and beauty through their relationships. As N. T. Wright points out, the creation and uniting of male and female at the end of Genesis 2 is the climax of all this.

That means that male and female have unique, non-interchangeable glories—they each see and do things the other cannot. Sex was created by God to be a way to mingle these strengths and glories within a lifelong covenant of marriage. Marriage is the most intense (though not the only) place where this reunion of male and female takes place in human life. Male and female reshape, learn from, and work together. 

Therefore, in one of the great ironies of late-modern times, when we celebrate diversity in so many other cultural sectors, we have truncated the ultimate unity-in-diversity: inter-gendered marriage. "

I wrote this a few years ago, 

"God, in beautiful ways, makes it clear to His people that He and they are wholly different from one another. Though man was created in God's image—a likeness in part, a reflection—intrinsically they are not the same. This is not a simple love story, though, here is the most sacrificial love possible: this is two entities, completely distinct, absolutely different, and intrinsically separate—brought together to form an eternal union.

A homosexual union cannot be, by its nature, a reflection of Christ and the Church because Christ and the Church are intrinsically and holistically different from one another. For the Christian, the bride of Christ, a homosexual marriage cannot reflect that which marriage is intended to display: their union with Christ.

It is not about biology or parts fitting together, or feelings of love, or a fullness of emotion, or unalterable attraction—it is the definition of a love story, legislated by God, for the good of all men. It is the greatest love ever known. Earthly marriage between a man and woman is meant to be a profound mystery, but it is meant to be a mere illustration of what happens when two holistically different entities are joined together.

The kingdom is made complete."

In order for me to love all my friends with disordered loves (and to know myself with all my disordered loves), I have to return again and again to two things: The original design of marriage and the mystery of marriage. The design was to take two different entities to illustrate the love between Christ and his bride, the Church. The mystery is that a man and woman preach the gospel over and over and over again simply by being married to one another. 

Seeing how this is God's original intention with marriage helps me to see it from 30,000 feet, enabling me to better love my friends and our world, while still saying, in full faith, that two people of the same sex cannot participate in the mystery of marriage to one another as God intended marriage. They might be partnered, they might live together, they might engage in sexual activity, but it is not marriage as God designed it: complementary and mysterious

I felt a little sad today, all day, having read the article from Peterson this morning. I know he isn't deity. He's not God. He's been an inordinate help to me through the years and my shelves are full of his books. He's not infallible, though, and I'm not surprised by his answers. But here's what I'm most sad about: it seems that if we're at all inclined to be like he is and like what I've admire him for: empathy, gentleness, a listener, one who practices compassion, one who aches and joys with those who ache and joy, it seems, at some point, there is a great temptation to so enter into that mourning or joy, that we believe it is the most true thing about a person. I don't believe that. I believe the most true thing about a person is that they were created in the image of God but also they are not God, and, as much as possible, I want my mission to be mourning with those who mourn with a sorrow that leads to life without regrets, and joying with those who rejoice with a joy that lead to life. And I can't do that if my eyes are on them instead of on God. 

I don't know where you are today in this whole discussion. I used to write about this a lot more years ago and for the sake of my soul had to take most of these conversations offline. But I didn't know if you're where I find myself a lot: aching with my friends who are attracted to people of the same sex, and wanting to ache with them in a way that gives them what they want. I find it helpful to remember again and again and again, that my beliefs about God and man come from the greatest emotion and greatest experience of all time: the Love of God and the sacrifice of His Son, and these are found in Scripture alone, giving us all we need for life and godliness. 

If you'd like to read some of the archives on this subject, start here: 

What God Has Joined Together

Delaying Marriage and Same-Sex Attraction

Bearing the Burdens of Brothers

Why Sex Isn't the Best Thing Ever

One of the best blessings to me in my singleness were friends who did not make marriage an ultimate thing in my eyes by only telling me the beautiful parts of their marriage, but who told me the difficulties of it as well. They also prayed for me actively to someday have the gift of marriage. I hope I am doing the same for my still single friends who desire the gift. I want them to know its not all romance and intimacy and good feelings and great conversation. But I also want them to experience the gift themselves so they can both see it and minister out of it. One thing it is very easy to believe during the long fast from sexual intimacy that is godward singleness, is the option to have sex will make things better. Most of us wouldn't be so foolish to say having sex makes things better, but it's darn easy to believe the option and permission to will make it better.

But sex doesn't make things better.

Not in the way you think it will.

Sex is good, God created it, he blessed it. He made it the integral piece in the procreation of humanity—science thwarts it and succeeds it but even science admits the masterful design of two humans making more humans. Sex is great, but it does not make all the angsts of longing for intimacy before marriage go away. All those angsts still exist within marriage, they just take different forms.

I know it's easy for the married person to say this, you protest, because at the end of the day I can still have sex. But what I wish I could tell every unmarried person I know is until we realize our issues are much deeper and more profound than a sexual itch for satisfaction, we will still find our desires unmet. Within marriage and without.

The blessing of sex between a husband and wife is not to relieve stress, to make me feel desirable, or to make my husband feel strong and manly. It is not even to conceive and bear children. These are all benefits, but none of them are guarantees. God doesn't owe us relief from stress apart from him, the guarantee I will always feel desirable (I don't), my husband will feel capable and sufficient (he doesn't), or children will be borne. God doesn't even owe us sex within marriage. None of the things we think sex will accomplish (and indeed try to chase inside and outside marriage), are guarantees.

When I hear those who are not married say "But at least you get to have sex! And live with your best friend!" Well, first, I'd warn against saying at least in regard to much. But second I want to say your words betray a much, much deeper need and the fact that you think sex or living with your best friend fixes it tells me you don't see your need as clearly as you think. If you think I'm just saying this because I'm married, trust me, I've been saying things like this for years and years as a single.

I've heard the illustration of the gift of sex for a man and woman in marriage like this: it's glue holding you together. But in my limited view sex is more like a reminder: I am not my own anymore, I am part of someone and sex is a tether to remind, seal, and strengthen the binding. Outside of marriage there would actually be no reason or benefit for sex because union with this specific person—my husband—doesn't exist. What I mean is, until he was my husband, he wasn't my husband and sex wasn't necessary (1 Corinthians 7:2).

I know this sounds very pragmatic but I want to be a bit pragmatic if I can. Our view of sex has been so colored by films and imaginations and images, and in many ways I want to sit down and say: sex just isn't as great as you think it is, and we don't need it like we think we do. It's greatness is not in how it makes us feel or how it destresses us or how awesome our orgasm is. It is only truly good in relation to the person with whom our body is intended by God to be joined with. Can sex outside of marriage feel good? Yup. Can masturbation curb the itch? Yup. But do either of them express worship of God with the gift He's given in the right context of covenant? No. Therefore, outside marriage it is not good. And inside marriage it is only good if it points to our incompleteness apart from God.

Unmarried friends, the sex you desire and think will satisfy your longing will not. Married friends, you still feel unsatisfied? Like your longing for something is never fully realized? All of this emptiness points to a greater need and a greater longing. Sex within marriage, if anything, makes the lack of complete culmination even more profound because no matter how perfect it is, it still isn't enough to still the longing in our hearts for God. Fasting from intimacy outside of marriage is preparation for how even within marriage we are still apart from our Groom until the culmination of all things.

My need is for Christ. In marriage and out. Sex is a gift from God but it isn't the ultimate gift and it certainly doesn't come without baggage of its own. We live in a broken world, my friend. If it doesn't feel perfect it's because it's not, and it's okay. Christ, our perfection, knows our longings and knows we are dust.

And that's better than sex.

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A Soiled Bride He Will Not Have

lovesaves This morning I tweeted a link to an article I thought was written in a heartfelt, honest way. It was the raw feelings of one young man when he found himself in a roomful of a thousand other similarly feeling people. He and I disagree on a myriad of things, not the least of which was at the heart of the conference at which he found himself. I shared the article because he made one point we do agree on: the need for the Church to hear people out.

A few people responded, pushing back mainly against the article's thesis (that hope for the future of the church is found in the love and affirmation of all people). I disagree with his thesis. The hope of all people is found in the cross, the Savior who died on it, and the resurrection that followed. All implications fall from that hope, regardless of how loving we are with anyone else. Love does save the world, but Love's name is Jesus and not the Church. The reason I shared the article is because occasionally it is good for the Church to hear others out—not to reach an agreement on the issues at hand, but simply to walk alongside hurting individuals, offering them water that satisfies.

One pushback came from one of my dearest friends, though, and she said, "A believer has to wade through some messy theology to reach the conclusion you're aiming for [by sharing the article without a caveat]."

I responded, "And more believers should wade through messy theology, I think."

. . .

A few weeks ago a guy came up to me after church, knowing I write about cultural issues sometimes, asked me my advice on how to walk with a friend of his who identifies as a gay Christian. "Does she believe the bible is inerrant?" I asked. "No," he responded. "Does she believe the gospel as we understand it?" "I think so," he said. "Well then my answer to you is the same answer I give to myself when I walk alongside those struggling with—or those embracing—same-sex attraction: The whole point of the gospel is that we are intrinsically distinct from God. The gospel wouldn't count if we had the righteousness of Christ on our own. We needed someone wholly righteous to pay for our absolute unrighteousness. If the design of marriage is to reflect the gospel, two members of the same sex cannot mirror the intrinsic picture of the gospel." That is perhaps a simplistic argument, but it is the only one, I've found, that cuts through all the messy theology and gets to the heart of the issue at hand.

But the presence of the gospel doesn't change the presence of messy theology. In fact, the presence of the gospel sets us free to work all things out in submission to a singular reality: broken beyond repair in our sinfulness, the Father sent the Son to suffer, die, resurrect, and leave the perfect love of the Holy Spirit with His children in order that we might have a helper to bring us into all truth.

The gospel is the whole picture, and the messy theology is sometimes the way we get to the gospel (it was for me), and the messy theology is sometimes the thing we find after we've gotten to the gospel (it is for me). But either way, sorting through theology, saying what we believe, why we believe it, opening ourselves up to critique and correction, getting things out of our heads, making them sayable (the whole point of this site!)—this is the working out of our salvation that must happen.

Too often we're parrots of a status quo instead of wading deep into the pool of muddied water, and letting what is sometimes dirty and always messy do the healing work in us it must. Jesus used mud to heal a blind man's eyes and I never want to be above both allowing mud to be put on my eyes, and being a healing handler of mud for the eyes of others. It was not the mud that healed, it was Jesus. The mud was just the mechanism He used.

If we believe God is sovereign over all (and God, I hope you do), then we have to believe that He is protecting the Bride, purifying her, setting her apart, and presenting her spotless, without blemish. No messy theology will cling to her when she is at last presented to her Groom. Not one bit. This sets us free to worry less about articles we disagree on and think more about the messy ways God brought us to Him—and how we are all other beggars along that path for someone else.

Humanum, at Vatican City

Religious leaders (including Russel Moore, N.T. Wright, and Rick Warren) are at the Vatican City this week for Humanum. Here's the first of a six part piece on The Complementarity of Men and Women. Don't miss it.

Also, if you're interested, here is Russel Moore's address (which opens with Wendell Berry, so you know it's good).

Healing Handlers of Mud

I told someone recently it is my nature to trust easily, but, like Mr. Darcy, “My good opinion, once lost, is lost forever.” That is not the posture of a disciple of Christ, this I know, and I work hard on this aspect of my nature. Forgiveness is not the problem, trust is. The bible doesn’t command us (ever) to trust people. We’re called to trust the Lord, and to honor others, to, as much as it’s possible, be at peace with all men. But trust them? Trust is nothing less than a miracle, astounding wherever it rises.

In the discussion on marriage, homosexuality, and the gospel happening at the ERLC Conference, it occurs to me how the rhetoric the two sides of these subjects use are so often similar: take off your masks, live transparently, be who you are. In some ways we are fighting for the same thing, but instead of using the words to administer healing, we have flung mud-clods at one another.

I think about the blind man, blind through no sin of his own, but for the sake of God’s glory. Jesus knelt, spit on the ground, and placed mud on his eyes. Who of us trusts mud will do anything other than soil us further? Especially a blind man, who lived on the same dirt that would heal him?

We are all a little bit like Mr. Darcy, aren’t we? Hoping all things, but losing our good opinion once we’ve been on the receiving end of a particularly wicked clod of dirt. How do you have a conversation, though, with someone you cannot trust?

We are mud-dwellers, like the blind man. All of us. Doing our best with our portion, our history, our nature, our blindness, our prejudices, our limited scope of the dirt in which we live. It can be tempting for all of us to place the blame of our circumstances on so many things—but, Christ, sweet Christ, the second Adam—made of dust—takes the blame off of all that, points to His Father and says, “For Him. For His sake.”

And then he kneels, mixes spit from his mouth with dust from the earth, and does the unlikely thing: presses it to the blind man's eyes. He makes what is dark, even darker. Makes what is dirty, even more dirty. Covers what is closed, even more closed. Good hope, once lost, now seemingly lost forever.

Darkness.

And then.

Light.

It can be tempting when we speak about polarizing subjects to use mud as a weapon instead of a healing agent. To use rhetoric and lost trust to increase the divide instead of close it. But Christ is a reconciling agent and nothing is beyond his ability to change and heal.

Let us be healing handlers of mud.

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