The man who wrote ‘The Message’ fueled a fiery debate this week with comments he made to a journalist about same-sex marriage.
On the topic of same-sex marriage, Eugene Peterson, the 84-year-old retired clergyman and author who wrote The Message, a modern-language interpretation of the Bible, along with dozens of other books, raised a huge controversy.
A reporter asked him about the issue of same-sex marriage.
His response prompted Lifeway Christian Book Stores to consider no longer selling his books. It prompted other Christians to race each other to publish blog posts on whether they should toss out all Peterson books they own.
What on earth could this man have said to cause such controversy?
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. People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church. So we’re in a transition and I think it’s a transition for the best, for the good. 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.
But wait — it gets even more “shocking.”
There was his one-word answer — “Yes.” — when asked if he would officiate a same-sex marriage if “a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith” ask him to.
The Gospel Coalition asked, “Should we still read Eugene Peterson?” The author of that post, who referred to Peterson as “a wise, gentle Christian,” was himself targeted by a commenter who said that if he thinks Peterson is wise, he should have another look at Proverbs for the definition of wisdom: “Because you cannot use that word for someone who endorses out and out sin.”
To be fair, another commenter lashed out against the lashing out, suggesting such criticism is “why so many people are bailing on evangelicalism,” and calling Peterson a “giant in evangelical circles until he disagreed with one controversial topic that the Bible is mainly silent on:”
Jesus was silent on this issue and so was the entirety of the english volume until the late 1940s. It’s terrifying that all someone has to do is disagree with an insignificant interpretation of scripture and we have to ask if we should start burning their books.
To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.
He was sure to mention that in his 29-year career as a pastor and the years since, he never performed a same-sex wedding. Nope. Not one. He added that he’d never even been asked to do so and that he hopes he never is. He then explained that the reporter’s question about whether he’d officiate at a same-sex marriage was the kind of “hypothetical” pastors don’t have the luxury of indulging in, and that because he was put on the spot by the question, he “said yes in the moment.”
Though that seems to have put out the worst of the fire, he ended his statement with this:
When I told this reporter that there are gay and lesbian people who “seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do,” I meant it. But then again, the goodness of a spiritual life is functionally irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.
We are saved by faith through grace that operates independent of our resolve or our good behavior. It operates by the hand of a loving God who desires for us to live in grace and truth and who does not tire of turning us toward both grace and truth.
There have been gay people in a variety of congregations, campuses, and communities where I have served. My responsibility to them was the work of a pastor—to visit them, to care for their souls, to pray for them, to preach the Scriptures for them.
This work of pastoring is extremely and essentially local: Each pastor is responsible to a particular people, a specific congregation. We often lose sight of that in an atmosphere so clouded by controversy and cluttered with loud voices. The people of a congregation are not abstractions, they are people, and a pastor does a disservice to the people in his care when he indulges in treating them as abstractions.
He ended the statement saying he will “concentrate in this final season on personal correspondence over public statements.”
I hate he ended the statement so quickly. I would really have liked to hear him elaborate a bit more on the notion of being responsible to “a particular people.” What, exactly, does that mean?
If he affirms a Biblical view of “everything,” what difference does it make which “particular people” he is responsible for? The Bible, it would seem he is saying, is the only acceptable view. So why would it matter to whom he makes the comments, and why would the audience possibly have any effect on his position?
Beyond that, I’d have been curious to know more about how he thinks pastors don’t have the “luxury” of engaging in hypotheticals. When given basic axioms in the Bible and being expected to apply those axioms to everyday life in the 21st century, a believer’s faith walk is an endless stream of hypotheticals: How should I respond to this? What would God have me do in that situation? If I’m supposed to love my neighbor, but my neighbor does this thing, how do I handle that? If I’m supposed to be truthful about sin, how do I state it with love when that happens?
Peterson may, as he said in the statement, prefer to have questions in advance before an interview. I would imagine nearly everyone would like to meet every aspect of life with the knowledge of any surprises waiting around the corner so that we’re prepared with the perfect answer well in advance.
But that’s not how life works. It’s not how faith works, either. Even when the topic of the moment has absolutely nothing to do with same-sex marriage.
Those who are believers but not clergymen face surprises every single day, and if we’re fortunate and well-grounded, we meet those unexpected challenges with calm and grace and do our best to respond in the way we feel God would want. We do our best. We try.
We may often fail to make what our faith might label as the best choice, but sometimes, it’s not because they didn’t try to make the best choice to begin with.
To put it another way, particularly for those who insist that spiritual warfare is a very real thing and that Satan is always waiting to ensnare us, we all have to be on our toes so that whenever the challenge happens, we’re ready.
Questions in advance? Seems a bit too easy, doesn’t it?
The people who are now experiencing “relief” that Peterson issued the statement to walk back his earlier statements don’t seem to be taking too deep of a dive into those remarks. They’re happy, it would seem, that Peterson has reaffirmed the “us vs. them” stance too many seem to want to take these days.
Unfortunately, it would seem that for some, particularly those who are returning Peterson’s books to their shelves, that’s all too often all that matters.
Patrick is a Christian with more than 26 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.