Eugene Peterson and the Difficulty of Message

In this May 16, 2009, file photo, Eugene Peterson gives a lecture at the University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Wash., sponsored by the Seattle Pacific University Image Journal.

By Travis Dickinson Published on July 15, 2017

Two days ago, an article was published declaring Eugene Peterson had come to affirm same-sex issues and marriage. Then there was the blow up. Eugene Peterson is an iconic luminary type of figure for many Christians and this affirmation was either a big problem or a reason for celebration depending on, of course, where one stood on these issues. Then comes a retraction by Peterson, who said he was put on the spot and, in his words, “I haven’t had a lot of experience with [navigating same-sex relationships issues].”

But his retraction leaves many questions unanswered. In the original interview, when asked whether he would perform a same-sex wedding ceremony, he answered with a one word “yes.” He’s retracted this and said:

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.

But why did he say “yes” in the first place? It’s a bit hard to believe that, as thoughtful a guy as Eugene Peterson is, he doesn’t have his views on this worked out. Again, he’s a hero of pastoral ministry, and the issue of whether pastors should perform same-sex weddings has been a central issue in pastoral ministry for at least a decade or more. Has he not had young pastors who have come to him for wisdom and insight on this question?

 It’s a bit hard to believe that, as thoughtful a guy as Eugene Peterson is, he doesn’t have his views on this worked out.

He was also very positive about the fact that the church he pastored was accepting of a music minister who was gay and said, seemingly referring to being gay, “it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.” So far as I know, Peterson has not addressed or clarified these things in his retraction.

So there are a lot of questions here. And what he has said publicly is, at least, a bit confusing. And I’m of course going to let Peterson speak for himself.

The Message is Hard to Articulate

This does, however, highlight a difficulty of message. My sense reading less than 1000 words of Eugene Peterson’s thoughts about same-sex issues is that he is clearly affirming of the person with same-sex attraction. Peterson says “they’d be welcome at my table, along with everyone else.” And, as he’s now made clear, he affirms biblical teaching on marriage and sexual ethics. (I won’t argue for this here, but a wide majority of Bible scholars see the Bible as clearly prohibiting any same-sex sexual relationship, which precludes affirmation of same-sex marriage.)

I imagine this is where a lot of us are at. We have friends and family members who are same-sex attracted and we think, as people, they should be able to pursue Jesus too. And yet we hold to biblical views about these things and think the practice of homosexual relationships is morally wrong.

We need to make clear that all people, no matter what they have done or what sorts of things they deal with, are accepted as people.

But it is VERY difficult to articulate this without either sounding affirming of homosexual practice or coming across as rejecting the person who is same-sex attracted.

Both Sides Ready to Pounce

It doesn’t help that both sides seem ready to pounce depending on which side we lean. My sense is that Peterson was trying to emphasize that he accepts and would love a person who is same-sex attracted (even to the extent of momentarily being willing to perform a same-sex wedding), but it came across as he was affirming of same-sex marriage and sexual ethics.

This, it seems, is especially difficult for a church in its messaging. As a church, we want to say that everyone is accepted. “Come as you are” is a familiar refrain. But does that make a church an LGBT accepting church? If a church is “LGBT accepting” does that mean they accept same-sex attracted people who can pursue Jesus and biblical holiness (I hope so), or does that mean that the homosexual practice is morally acceptable (I hope not)?

Difficult But Not Impossible

It is difficult to message but I think it’s not impossible. I think we can and have to maintain both the acceptance and love of the person who is same-sex attracted and our convictions about biblical teaching on homosexual practice.

We also have to make clear that Scripture teaches a particular way of living one’s life.

We need to make clear that all people, no matter what they have done or what sorts of things they deal with, are accepted as people. All people should be welcome at your table (and your church) too. We can be friends and remain family members with people whose lifestyles are contrary to biblical teaching. It may limit the relationship some, but it shouldn’t, in principle, disqualify it.

Many of us can and do have friends and family members who sleep around, or who, from time to time, take recreational drugs, or who don’t parent well, or who engage in legal but immoral business practices. Just to be clear, I’m not referring to womanizers, drug addicts, child abusers, or the mob. I’m just saying there are likely people who have “attractions” to practices that are out of step with Scripture and those are not typically grounds to disassociate. And these things are certainly not attractions that put them out of the reach of the gospel. Same goes with same-sex attraction issues.

Scripture Teaches a Way to Live One’s Life

But we also have to make clear that Scripture teaches a particular way of living one’s life. There are some things (a lot of things, in fact!) that are generally accepted, but are morally prohibited by Scripture. There’s of course room for lots of discussion. It’s not always obvious how to apply the claims of Scripture with the thorny issues of politics, economics, business, and morality. By and large, though, it seems to me that Scripture is clear on sexual ethics.

Jesus and the writers of the New Testament epistles seemed to see how crucially important it was to live sexually pure lives and in God intended ways. It is, by definition, an intimate issue and one that can have effect on the rest of our lives. In a word, the biblical view is that sex is intended for marriage and marriage is in its very essence is a man/woman union.

Virtue is not easy and we shouldn’t expect it to be.

There are many things in the Christian way of life that is difficult. I have an exceedingly difficult time loving and serving my wife as Jesus loved and served the church (Eph. 5:25). I also rarely succeed as loving my neighbor as myself (Matt. 22:39). Likewise, the sexual ethic is not easy. I imagine those who take themselves to be polyamorous (non-monogamous) will find it burdensome. It is difficult for almost everyone in the post-adolescent years. And it is going to be a hard word for those who are same-sex attracted.

Virtue is not easy and we shouldn’t expect it to be. But I remain convinced living a life according to biblical teaching is the way of human flourishing.

So I don’t know what Peterson has in mind on these issues. I have a very deep respect for the man. He’s a really thoughtful guy and suspect what comes next will be good and we’ll be led to love others better in light of the way of Jesus. Perhaps the author of The Message will lead us towards how to message loving acceptance with biblical conviction.



Originally appeared at Republished with permission.

Print Friendly
Comments ()
The Stream encourages comments, whether in agreement with the article or not. However, comments that violate our commenting rules or terms of use will be removed. Any commenter who repeatedly violates these rules and terms of use will be blocked from commenting. Comments on The Stream are hosted by Disqus, with logins available through Disqus, Facebook, Twitter or G+ accounts. You must log in to comment. Please flag any comments you see breaking the rules. More detail is available here.
  • Gary

    I believe his views were accurately expressed the first time, when he said he endorses ssm and would perform one. I think his “retraction” is not something he wanted to do, but was pressured into it.

    He made up his mind about this years ago. And he made the wrong choice.

  • john appleseed

    Peterson was a great author in the 1980s. Times have changed, & so has he.
    On homosexuality, he said last week: “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 if he would officiate a wedding ceremony for a homosexual couple, he said “Yes.” Then he backtracked because of public pressure.

    Peterson has been awful for many years. His “The Message” is a horrible paraphrase of the Bible. He admits that he was “playful” rather than careful while writing it.
    From the “gotquestions” website:

    As far as the negatives are concerned, there are numerous websites and articles devoted to the translation errors in The Message, too numerous to reiterate here. Suffice it to say that The Message has engendered more criticism for its lack of serious scholarship and outright bizarre renderings than just about any other Bible version to date. One common complaint from many who read The Message or hear it read aloud is “I didn’t recognize it as the Bible.” Other critics declare The Message to be not a paraphrase of what the Bible says, but more of a rendering of what Eugene Peterson would like it to say. In an interview with Christianity Today, Peterson described the beginning of the creative process that produced The Message: “I just kind of let go and became playful. And that was when the Sermon on the Mount started. I remember I was down in my basement study, and I did the Beatitudes in about ten minutes. And all of a sudden I realized this could work.” Aside from the impossibility of doing justice to the Sermon on the Mount in ten minutes, one wonders whether playfulness is the appropriate demeanor for those who attempt to “rightly divide the word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Awe and reverence for a holy God and His holy Word, yes. Playfulness? No.

    • john appleseed

      And Peterson endorsed the blasphemous “The Shack” film.
      The Shack portrays God as three lovey-dovey, very un-glorious people (two females & one male). The kind of deity you can feel comfortable swearing in front of (as one character repeatedly does). It says Jesus is the best way to God, but not the only way. Many other lies are told, not only about God, but several lies are told BY “God,” that is, the character in the story, not the real God.
      I’m concerned with the massive wave of hyper-love theology in the Church. Saints use the phrases “the love of God” & “God’s love” 100X more than “the holiness of God” or “the wrath of God,” yet in my opinion the Bible emphasizes his holiness at least as much as his love. The Shack rides this tidal wave.
      This film drags weak believers as well as unbelievers into awful deception.
      Satan has been lying about God from the beginning. It was his first tool against mankind, & it’s still his favorite tool.

      • SurrogateReader

        I’m always confused when brethren would rather envision the Father as angry and unapproachable rather than supremely, ridiculously, outrageously loving. That’s the only kind of love that would send a beloved Son to die in place of sinful creatures with only chance that they might turn to Him. It is this outrageous kindness that brings men and women to repentance (Romans 2:4). It’s not that sin need not be corrected. It’s that until Love has made itself known, the seeds of truth fall on dead soil.

  • Patmos

    Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus to give no place to the devil, and here we are in 2017 with many Christians giving place to the devil. They don’t really understand that the while to door of grace is open to all, and that God is no respecter of persons, it does not mean that anything goes. For if it did, then there would be no need for his grace in the first place.

  • Paul1234

    The Message version should tell you all you need to know about Mr. Peterson. I’m not surprised.

  • m-nj

    the drug addict, the thief, the mobster, the murderer, AND THE OUT AND ACTIVE HOMOSEXUAL who want to confess Christ as Lord and be part of God’s family all need the same response…

    1 Corinthians 5 – 9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.

    THEN, we must continue to evangelize the person (essentially treating them as unsaved), call them to faith and repentance from their evil ways. That may involve various levels of interaction, but it surely should not include full fellowship or allowing them to serve in the church as long as they are living in open sin, lest that give the impression that their “lifestyle” is somehow OK.

    • LYoung

      I agree, though after evangelism and believing in Christ comes discipleship, Bible Study and accountability to Jesus in the Word and to one another. A lot of Pastors drop everything after evangelism resulting in weak and ineffective Christians. Not all, of course, but many churches are steeped in traditions that do not counsel the full Word of God.

      • m-nj

        i can’t argue with the discipleship, but my point was that the active homosexual who claims to be a christian falls under the guidance that Paul gave in 1 Cor 5… he is to be treated as an unbeliever and evangelized until there is clear evidence of repentance and saving faith… we don’t disciple unsaved people (applying the word “disciple” as generally understood to apply to believers/followers/saved people, not unsaved people).

  • Dean Bruckner

    “Where there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who holds his lips is wise.” – King Solomon

    Old age/senility setting in, perhaps. Or just the Jimmy Carter effect, which is not pretty.

I Am No Angel, He Said
Bobby Neal Winters
More from The Stream
Connect with Us