How Many More Petersons Are Out There?

One hallmark of the attractional ministry so dominant in American evangelicalism is the reluctance to speak out on many cultural hot topics.

But many attractional leaders are likely to maintain their popularity and their profitability. Many have built their ministries on sentimental religion and pop-spirituality; echoing the cultural zeitgeist on homosexuality isn’t likely to feel so jarring to their most ardent supporters. History has shown that cultural appropriation is always crouching at the church door. Many times it holds sway in the pews and in the pulpits. We grieve rightly when our ministerial heroes show themselves susceptible to the spirit of the age.

 

It was the “yes” heard ’round the evangelical Twittersphere, at least for the day. In an interview with Religious New Service’s Jonathan Merritt published yesterday, evangelical stalwart Eugene Peterson professed what appeared to be a reversal of his views of homosexual relationships, saying, among other things, “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.”

When asked by Merritt whether he’d personally officiate the wedding of a same-sex couple, Peterson answered simply, without equivocation: “Yes.”

Depending on your perspective — a fondness for or a skepticism about Peterson and his work — reactions in social media streams ran the gamut. Some admirers of his ministry expressed shock. Critics complained that “only people who weren’t paying attention” to his “trajectory” could be shocked. Close followers of Peterson’s work, including a few who have attended some of the rare public events at which he’s appeared over the last few years, mentioned that this isn’t a new position for him, that he has been making these same affirmations in smaller group settings for a while.

There are many others, however, who were not shocked, but nevertheless saddened. Count me one of them.

I am old enough to remember when it was unfashionable to like Eugene Peterson’s work simply because his work had become so fashionable. Cutting my ministry teeth during the rise of the seeker church movement of the 80’s and 90’s, I had grown weary of the misuse and over-use of Peterson’s Bible translation The Message. But as my generation aged, we found so much more depth in Peterson’s writing than we were previously led to believe. Where The Message had been used to make the Scriptures more palatable for modern worship, to make it more up-to-date, it was Peterson’s work on pastoral ministry (mostly) that became increasingly relevant to many of us precisely because he was eschewing modernity as an ecclesiological virtue.

I have never pastored a very large church, and I’ve always resonated with thinkers and writers who championed the smallness and ordinariness of faithfully shepherding a local congregation. For many like me, Peterson became a kind of patron saint–a defender of the institutional church while also a critic of the professionalization of the pastorate, a dismantler of the spiritual racketeering so many in our day pass off as Christian ministry.

Yes, he tilted leftward. We saw that. Many just dismissed this as an affectation, an impression left of his being artsy or contemplative. But he had never clearly embraced that which the Bible calls us to reject. He hadn’t gone the way of the Rob Bells or the Brian McLarens or of numerous other thought leaders who’d followed their hearts right into religious liberalism. At least, we didn’t think he had.

Whether Peterson had been sharing these convictions for a while or not, yesterday’s RNS piece has clearly been his most public admission. What is most curious about the interview, assuming it was published verbatim (or close to it), is how much is missing. Peterson offers no defense for his position, no biblical rationale, no theological reflection. There may be a variety of reasons for this. Peterson is notoriously “out of the loop”–it’s possible he didn’t know or quite understand the reach and impact his statements would have on social media. It’s possible he knew that his interlocutor was a sympathetic ear to this position. (Jonathan Merritt routinely publishes articles and editorials offering support for ministers, writers, and other leaders who have rejected the traditional teaching on biblical sexuality.) It’s equally possible, I suppose, that he simply doesn’t care, that he doesn’t think he owes anyone an explanation.

Knowing the careful and introspective thought that has gone into his writing on Christianity and the Christian ministry, I’d be surprised if Peterson could make no attempt at exegetical reasons for his views. But the reality is that he offered none. He only offered that he has over the last several years met gay folks who “seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do,” and this has changed his mind.

UPDATE: Since the original RNS interview was published, Peterson has (thankfully) retracted his statements.

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