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Eugene Peterson, The Message Bible and homosexuality

I had the pleasure of meeting Eugene and Jan Peterson in the later years of their lives at The Glen Eyrie in Colorado Springs, the headquarters for the Navigators. I was invited by my friend Don Pape, who at the time was the senior acquisitions editor for NavPress.

Kelly Williams
Kelly Williams is co-founder and senior pastor of Vanguard Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. |

I, along with about forty or so other Christian leaders from across the United States, got to hear from Eugene and Jan, ask them questions, and celebrate the achievements of their lives and ministry for Jesus. It was a joyous occasion.

Afterwards I had the privilege of meeting Eugene briefly and then being prayed for by Jan. In this season, my wife and I were going through a particularly difficult time, and Jan prayed the most beautiful prayer for my wife, Tosha. I am eternally grateful for her kind words and generous nature of her heart, energy and time that she gave me and my bride that day.

Since that time, Eugene and Jan have both gone on to be with the Lord Jesus but the legacy of their ministry lives on. Recently, a former Dallas Theological Seminary classmate of mine, Winn Collier, was asked and tasked with writing the memoirs and biography of Eugene’s life and ministry.

This past summer I read ABurning In My Bones. I was inspired by the faithfulness, honesty and determination of Eugene’s life to live the calling God had placed on his life. The honesty of Eugene and the willingness of him to allow Winn to tell the delicate details of his and Jan’s life were truly life-changing for me personally as a pastor. I am one that has been impacted greatly by having read this book and experienced his life through the written page.

As I continue on as a pastor, in this new and ever-changing world post-COVID, I find it harder and harder to see a unifying way forward for Christians. Each year, I read through the Bible three times, I am currently on my 93rd reading of the Bible. Periodically, I post verses I read in my devotions from my daily reading.

One such verse among many that I have posted this year was Leviticus 18:22, “Do not practice homosexuality.” (NLT) If you ever wonder if anyone reads your social media posts, just post a Scripture about homosexuality and you will quickly find out. Immediately the back and forth began, some applauding me and some condemning me. This issue remains a very decisive issue among Christians in the evangelical church today as it was during Eugene’s time.

Eugene spent his life interpreting the Bible into a language that was understandable for the common person. I appreciated this about him. He wanted people to experience God’s Word, I do too. If we as Christian leaders can get people to consume God’s Word, then God can speak to them directly.

Eugene said in his memoirs that he chose to leave out the word “Homosexual” in his translation of The Message Bible because he found the word in his words, “No longer treated in terms of an immoral behavior but as an immoral identity which is then attacked as an enemy. The term has been used so frequently in mean, dehumanizing ways, that it is difficult to use it in the spirit of Paul and Jesus in our culture.”

I found his explanation helpful and for the most part, I could understand why he chose not to use the English word “Homosexual.” It doesn’t appear from this explanation that Eugene was trying to say that the practice of homosexuality is not a sin. He translated Leviticus 18:22 like this, “Don’t have sex with a man as one does with a woman. That is abhorrent.”

Some have argued that this verse is not directed toward gay sex but toward male prostitution. But for a second, let’s agree, even with Eugene’s gracious interpretation it is difficult to see how this verse condones bi-sexuality. And the Christian LGBTQ community is firmly committed to the lifestyle of not only the gay community but the bi-sexual community as well. At some point, it seems one must explain away completely this verse in order to embrace the entire LGBTQ community.

Now let me state for the record, as a pastor, I believe the Bible teaches in both the New and Old Testament that homosexuality is a sin. But with that said, it is not the sin. It is one of many sins listed in Scripture. And even though I believe the Bible teaches it is a sin, I have people in my life whom I love that see it differently. It appears Eugene did too.

In the summer of 2018, Jonathan Merritt interviewed Eugene and asked him the question, “Would you marry a gay couple?” His short answer was, “Yes.” You can read the larger details surrounding this interview and response in A Burning In My Bones.

Suffice to say here, it set off a firestorm and Lifeway threatened to remove all of Eugene’s books if he didn’t clarify his comment. Eventually, he released a statement affirming the biblical view of marriage between a man and a woman. But this confusion and seemingly double-speak left the door open to what Eugene’s intent was for not using the word “Homosexual” in his interpretation of Scripture in The Message Bible.

I admire much of Eugene’s life, work and ministry. I am forever grateful for Jan’s prayer for my wife that day. But I must be a voice that says, “The Bible does not approve of people practicing homosexuality in their lives.” It is possible to love people and not accept their behavior. God does it with me every day. We don’t need to change the definition of sin to experience God’s love. But if we do, we will lose the grace of God’s forgiveness.

May we live in the tension of truth and love with our gay loved ones today.

Kelly Williams is co-founder and senior pastor of Vanguard Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  His books include: The Mystery of 23, Friend of Sinners and Real Marriage. He also maintains a blog.  

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