The Curious Case of Eugene Peterson
A man in his mid-80s has retired from the pastorate in the upper northwest part of the United States. He’s lived a quiet life, he would tell you, preferring the quiet solitude of his lakeside home to the hustle and bustle of today’s social landscape.
He’s never been on the radio. He doesn’t headline conferences as a plenary speaker. In fact, aside from his introspective and imaginative writings on God, the Bible and other spiritual topics, Eugene Peterson likely never would have entered the public view.
It’s also not entirely uncommon for Peterson’s lake house to be visited by the likes of U2’s Bono. His translation of the Greek and Hebrew texts into modern day vernacular (delivered in The Message) graces countless bookshelves. His books are endorsed by such high-profile evangelical voices as Russell Moore and J.I. Packer.
Despite his influence, and aside from the pastoral narrative of his books, not much is known about Peterson. This is by design. He is a quiet man, a humble man, a man unattached.
// Merritt’s track record on the SSM issue
Jonathan Merritt is a controversial reporter with a large platform. Having grown out of orthodoxy, Merritt is a blogger, speaker and writer who has recently taken aim at virtually every aspect of orthodox Christianity and the Bible.
Merritt seems to revel in opportunities to elevate a voice from the Christian culture that chooses to deviate from the road of historical Christianity and biblical authority (i.e. Rob Bell, Jen Hatmaker).
Jonathan Merritt is also an admirer of Eugene Peterson. Merritt recently posted an article on the website Religion News Service in which he interviewed the retired pastor.
Under the alleged purpose of curiosity about legacy and faith, Merritt took the opportunity to out Peterson on a topic in which Peterson seemed to have little interest or thought.
Such a small pebble, however, has created tremendous waves.
Merritt asks, “If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?”
Peterson’s reply: Yes.
// Peterson retracts and clarifies
Peterson has since retracted this comment and made clarification of his views.
However, in the article as presented, this question follows a string of anecdotes regarding Peterson’s pastoral experience with professing gay and lesbian Christians in his past.
“They didn’t make a big deal about it,” Peterson said. “I’d go and visit them, and it never came up for them. They just assumed that they were as Christian as everybody else in the church.”
Regarding the topic in his congregation, Peterson simply states, “we (never) really made a big deal out of it.” He goes on to detail how their church hired a music director who professed to be gay. “Nobody made any questions about it. And he was a really good musician.”
Peterson concludes, “I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but 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.”
Unfortunately, as voices on every side of the discussion began to loudly express, the debate is far from over.
// Personal take
I like Eugene Peterson. I have found his written works to be thought-provoking, soul-nourishing and filled with biblical wisdom and insight. When I read the article yesterday morning, I was both forlorn and yet somehow not surprised.
To be fair, Peterson did not affirm the embracing of a homosexual lifestyle by these individuals, nor did he seem to presume the gravity of the questions being asked.
Most of his comments just as easily could have been taken to affirm the church’s need to embrace those who wrestle with same-sex attraction rather than treating them like they have some greater level of sin or struggle than the rest of us in a fallen world.
Like any good pastor would, he talked about embracing those who are open about same-sex attraction in the same way he would talk about embracing the man who wrestles with finding his identity in work or materialism apart from identity in Christ.
However, Merritt was quick to point to other associations and ambiguities regarding Peterson in order to make his case for yet another evangelical leader choosing to leave the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality in favor of the culture’s shifting tide.
Peterson is a member of the PCUSA (Presbyterian Church of the United States of America), which is known for its liberal leaning regarding social and doctrinal issues.
As noted in Merritt’s exposé, The Message does not use the words “homosexual” or “homosexuality” even in passages where the terminology is explicit (1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Tim. 1:10). To be fair, however, neither does the King James Version.
It is clear Peterson does believe in sexual right and wrong. That’s a true and good thing. But what has not been clear is whether or not Peterson reveres the Bible as the authority over sexuality as much as he does other matters.
This question blew up across multiple platforms as shots rang out from vocal leaders in the LBGTQ and Christian evangelical communities. Peterson’s entire orthodoxy, writings and impact were placed in the dock for questioning, and the demands were rapid-fire.
Only a little more than 24 hours after Merritt’s article hit the interwebs, Peterson posted a clarification of his views regarding biblical marriage.
“I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything… When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that. That’s not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage. That said, I would still love such a couple as their pastor. They’d be welcome at my table, along with everybody else.”
// What now?
So was Peterson merely duped by the agenda of Jonathan Merritt and those like him who seek to tear down biblical authority – even in the name of Christianity?
We do not know.
What is more revealing than Merritt’s agenda, however, is Peterson’s lack of clarity and vocal affirmation of the Bible’s authority in matters of culture.
Why has Eugene Peterson faithfully served the church for decades, yet his view on biblical sexuality could not be affirmed or disaffirmed even by the most insatiable critics rifling through decades of material? Why would Peterson even need further reflection and prayer on the topic? Shouldn’t this already be decided in his mind?
To a degree, Peterson’s lack of clarity on sexual issues is more likely a result of his time than his theology. In light of his other writings and contributions, I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. He has never sought social battles and has largely served in a time in which sexual questions were either not asked or of little concern.
Unfortunately, what the fallout from Merritt’s article explicitly shows us is that none of us are exempt from the sexual revolution and its cultural whirlwind. The walls of culture, comfort and community – even ignorance – that many have tried to safely hide behind have been shown to be built of straw.
// Be prepared, be equipped
As Christians in the age of sexual idolatry, we must ask ourselves some questions.
Is your church ready for the discussion on homosexuality and biblical marriage? Is your pastor?
Do you know what the Bible says about sex and sexuality? Would you be able to articulate biblical sexual morality and its importance in the grand scheme of salvation history? Can you explain to someone without hesitation why sexuality is distinctly more tied to the glory of God than the feelings of man?
What the past few days have shown us is that we must always be ready to give an account for biblical orthodoxy. In the plea for truth and joy found in biblical fidelity, if our voices are silent or uneasy, they may as well be shouting against us.
Our lack of biblical doctrine is easily exposed with far-reaching consequences.
Yet we should also take a cue from Peterson that our love for all people (regardless of sexuality) should be what defines the way we treat, interact with and value others in light of the Imago Dei (Image of God).
In our day and age, it is our duty as Christians to know the truth concerning the Bible’s words on sexuality. We must speak that truth in love. But we must also be ready. If the wolves in modern Christian culture can sink their teeth into an 84-year-old retired pastor, what makes us think we will be spared?
“…do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame” (1 Pet. 3:14-16).