Thoughts on Eugene Peterson’s change of change of mind

On 6 July, Jonathan Merritt, a journalist at Religion News Service had a 33 minute telephone interview with Eugene Peterson, pastor, theologian and author of many best-selling books including a translation of the Bible, “The Message”. The interview was about a number of topics, including Peterson’s views on megachurches and Donald Trump, his ministry, why he is leaving public life and whether he is scare of death. The interview resulted in a three part series published at RNS (see here, here and here).

The final article of the series covered two questions that were asked at the end of the interview. In Merritt’s own words, here is what was said:

When asked about his views of homosexuality, Peterson shares fond memories of LGBT people he knew during his pastoral ministry. He talks about being proud of his former church for accepting a gay music minister. He said his LGBT friends have just as healthy a spiritual life as he does. And he called it “not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.” Peterson also acknowledged that these are not statements he would have made “20 years ago.”

These statements indicated that he indeed affirmed same-sex marriage as others had claimed. It would be remiss for me not to follow up, so I asked whether he would perform a gay marriage if he were pastoring today and an LGBT couple asked him. Though he always responds with lengthy replies, he opted for a one-word reply: “Yes.”

You can read the full article here and see the exact words of the questions and answers.

When I first read this article, I analysed it carefully. Had the journalist been pushy, tricky or unfair in his questions? Had Peterson been vague, or was there room for misinterpretation? In both cases, I excitedly thought “no”. This was a big deal.

Eugene Peterson had joined a growing list of theologians and respected Christian leaders who are changing their minds on the issue of same sex marriage and homosexuality.

The response from the Christian community was swift and strong. The conservative Christians were having none of this, with many strong voices denouncing Peterson. Most importantly, America’s largest Christian bookstore and bastion of conservatism, asked Peterson to clarify his position, stating clearly that if he did support same sex marriage they would remove his books from their shops (regardless, by the way, of the content of his books).

Sadly, Peterson chose to “clarify” his position a few days later, saying he had misspoken. Christianity Today carried this here.

Eugene Peterson had changed his mind about changing his mind.

Peterson stated:

Recently a reporter asked me whether my personal opinions about homosexuality and same-sex marriage have changed over the years. I presume I was asked this question because of my former career as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), which recently affirmed homosexuality and began allowing its clergy to perform same-sex weddings. Having retired from the pastorate more than 25 years ago, I acknowledged to the reporter that I “haven’t had a lot of experience with it.”

To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.

Here’s the problem.

Peterson has previously stated publicly his support of same sex marriage. The denomination he served in, the Presbyterians in the USA, are an affirming community who permit same sex marriage (although they let each pastor make up his or her own mind on the issue). As long ago as November 2014, Peterson spoke at a conference at Western Theological Seminary and affirmed homosexuality and same sex marriage. I can only find reports of that conference, but there was an extended Q&A session afterwards, which was videoed. The video is available here and I have embedded it below.

chapel 2014-11-08 09 07 44 from Western Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

If you fast forward to 2 hours 22 minutes, you’ll pick up the question about Christianity and culture. Peterson talks about two gay people – one who attended his church when he was a young person, and another as a young person who attended his church. He says, “As I thought about these people, I began to change my mind.” He goes on to say that his views are shaped by his vows of submission to the Presbyterian church, and so whatever the Presbyterian church says is what he believes. He said he didn’t trust himself to make these decisions on his own, and that his own view – which he had said “was changing” – were irrelevant.

The Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) voted to allow same-gender marriages on 19 June 2014 during its 221st General Assembly. This vote effectively lifted a previous ban and allowed pastors to perform marriages in jurisdictions where it is legal. This is what Peterson was referring to, and was therefore affirming that this was now his view too. He made no attempt in this extended interview to distance himself from the PCUSA view – in fact, he spent time defending it.

Around the 2:31 mark, Peterson is asked about how to pastor families whose children come out as gay. He says, “I’ve helped several families accept their children as gay. And they are devastated at first and then with just careful, prayerful conversation, they’ve finally accepted that this is not a bad thing, that this can be a good thing. This can be a flourishing thing.” He then reiterates that he is Presbyterian and abides by what PCUSA believes.

Around 2:36, Peterson says, “I’ve paid attention to the literature that’s written on homosexuality by evangelicals, by mainline people. And when people, a lot of pastors have asked me about this, call about it, and I copy these things and send them to them. Some of them are brilliant. There’s one in the Christian Century right now which is brilliant and masterful.” The article he is referring to is this one: “What is marriage now? A Pauline case for same-sex marriage”, by Gerald W. Schlabach, published on October 20, 2014. Read it, but I think the title says it all.

In this video, he also positively references Henry Nouwen who changed his mind about homosexuality and same sex marriages. It is clear that he is attempting to tell his audience that there are many good Christian leaders who support same sex marriage, in the light of the PCUSA change of policy, and that this is his considered position too.

In the recent interview with Merritt, he indicated that he had dealt with gay people during his time in ministry. If he is now against homosexuality and has a “biblical view of marriage/everything”, how does he explain admitting practicing gay people into church membership and bringing openly gay people onto his ministerial staff? These are the pastoral practices of a person who affirms homosexual relationships, not of one who opposes them.

Peterson has not, to my knowledge, written about this topic. Nor has he made formal public statements. But the above video, and references from people who have heard him over the past few years seem to indicate that his first comments made to Jonathan Merritt, which affirmed same sex marriage, are his own actual convictions. Merritt, in a follow up article after Peterson’s “retraction” of his comments adds this very important insight: “it is also important to note that in the week prior to the publication, there was no attempt to clarify or change his answer to these questions.”

So, for whatever reasons, Peterson seems to now be going against his own personal convictions by stating that “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.”

I don’t even know what “I affirm a biblical view of everything” means. Everything inside me wants to speculate on his reasons, but none of those thoughts are honourable. Everything inside me wants to be angry at the conservative, Reformed Christian machine, which has once again brought extraordinary pressure to bear – in this case on an old man who has given his life in service to the church – in order to whip a “heretic” into line. To think that Eugene Peterson could even be imagined a heretic boils my blood. And to think what he must have gone through this past week, to such an extent that he is now forced to “clarify” his position, and in doing so seemingly go against his own Presbytery vows and personal convictions. I want to scream, and attack and fight.

But it is Eugene Peterson himself who taught me not to do this. His books imprinted themselves on my soul as a young man studying for the ministry, and Eugene would tell me to love, to endure, to seek peace. He would also remind me not to judge.

So, I will leave you to ponder on what must have happened this past week. And on the real reasons for the Peterson’s change of change mind.

But I want to point out just three things to you.

Here is a full version of Peterson’s statement:

Recently a reporter asked me whether my personal opinions about homosexuality and same-sex marriage have changed over the years. I presume I was asked this question because of my former career as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), which recently affirmed homosexuality and began allowing its clergy to perform same-sex weddings. Having retired from the pastorate more than 25 years ago, I acknowledged to the reporter that I “haven’t had a lot of experience with it.”

To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.

It’s worth noting that in my twenty-nine year career as a pastor, and in the years since then, I’ve never performed a same-sex wedding. I’ve never been asked and, frankly, I hope I never am asked. This reporter, however, asked a hypothetical question: if I were pastoring today and if a gay couple were Christians of good faith and if they asked me to perform their wedding ceremony—if, if, if. Pastors don’t have the luxury of indulging in hypotheticals. And to be honest, no is not a word I typically use. It was an awkward question for me because I don’t do many interviews at this stage in my life at 84, and I am no longer able to travel as I once did or accept speaking requests. With most interviews I’ve done, I generally ask for questions in advance and respond in writing. That’s where I am most comfortable. 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.

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.

I regret the confusion and bombast that this interview has fostered. It has never been my intention to participate in the kind of lightless heat that such abstract, hypothetical comments and conversations generate. This is why, as I mentioned during this interview, I so prefer letters and will concentrate in this final season on personal correspondence over public statements.

Firstly (and I must give credit to Matthew Vines for this), Peterson says he’s changed his mind and would not perform a same-sex wedding. He says that he would take this stand “out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage”. But he doesn’t mention his own beliefs – and most people who personally oppose same sex marriage would be very quick and clear to do this. Apart from a perfunctory-sounding assertion that he affirms a “biblical view of everything”, including marriage between a man and a woman, Peterson gives no indication in his statement that he believes that same-sex relationships are morally wrong.

As Vines says: “The main dividing line in the church is not whether Christians support blessing same-sex marriages. It is the more basic question of whether they believe all same-sex relationships are sinful in the first place. Peterson has made multiple statements in recent years that are simply incompatible with holding the belief that same-sex relationships are inherently sinful. None of them were publicized before now, but even his statements from this week alone are incompatible with that belief. No pastor who is opposed to same-sex relationships would ever say he would perform a same-sex wedding in his church. That just doesn’t happen, no matter how little time he has to respond to the question. And Peterson had a full week to clarify or retract his comments before they were published, but he did not.”

I believe there is clear evidence that what Peterson said in the original interview is his actual view. But the might of the conservative Christian empire has whipped him back into his box.

Secondly, I sense a genuine sadness in this statement. There is something defeated, broken and hurt in these words. The church has hurt so many LGBTQ people over the years. Now it is hurting its beloved leaders. A time will come when these hurts will be accounted for. For now, I simply ask you to look for the evidence of the fruit of the Spirit, and see if you can find it in the church that opposes homosexuality. I ask you to look for the cause of pain in the lives of LGBTQ people and those who speak out on the issue, and I ask you to consider what it means that it is the church and Conservative Empire it supports that is causing the pain.

Thirdly, the truly rabid Reformed conservative Christians are not going to be happy with this retraction from Peterson. They are going to demand more from him. They’re going to ask him how he could say (even in his retraction) that he would welcome gay couples into his congregation. They’re going to ask if he genuinely allowed an openly gay person onto his staff. They’re going to hound him for even more. It’s going to get nasty. I ask you to watch and judge for yourself where Jesus is in their reactions.

My final thought is with those who are not able to claim the concealing cloak of old age, and sneak off quietly into the dark night of their soul, like Peterson says he will now do. For my friends and family who are in ministry and spiritual leadership positions, this incident with Eugene Peterson shows once again how dangerous and damaging any kind of comment on this issue can be. And so you may be tempted to continue to stay quiet, stay “undecided”, stay “out of it”. You are doing a disservice and a damage to the LGBTQ people who are seeking their Saviour in your community. You are causing more hurt. And you will be destined to cause yourself deep hurt and pain, just as Peterson has clearly done. Please don’t. Speak up. Speak out. Proclaim the truth of God’s love.

As Peterson himself once wrote, “God’s love is meteoric, his loyalty astronomic, His purpose titanic, his verdicts oceanic. Yet in his largeness nothing gets lost; Not a man, not a mouse, slips through the cracks.”

To Eugene, if by some fantastical chance, you should happen to read this: it’s not too late. Speak the truth in your heart, have the courage of your convictions, make this right. If you’re still alive, it’s not too late, and you’re not too old.

7 thoughts on “Thoughts on Eugene Peterson’s change of change of mind”

  1. Why are you so keen for EP to affirm same sex marriages? Do you need his affirmation to support your own view? I hope not! Therefore grant him (and other Christians) the right to make up his (their) own mind(s) and don’t put pressure on him (others) to decide your way if he (they) choose(s) not to affirm same sex marriages.

  2. Graeme, thanks for sharing this. I hadn’t heard about this at all. And I live in the Southwest U.S.A
    Did you notice what he said. We are saved by faith through grace ? To me , that is s red flag. We are saved by grace through faith.. There’s a huge difference. In the former, its OUR faith that that takes front and center. In the latter its GOD’s love and His decision that is front and center. For decades I was trusting in MY FAITH in Christ to save me not in Christ HIMSELF to save me.
    Thans for sharing this article with us. I’m SO weary of the Reformed machine. But I also see God raising up people like you and my friends Paul Ellis and Andrew Farley to clearly and articulately show that their positions are not Biblically tenable.
    For the last nearly 35 years I have read and meditated on the Scruptures to literally survive as a same sex attracted man. I haven’t done it as a theological exercise as the Reformed machine has done : )
    I wrote this on my phone so apologize for any spelling errors beforehand ;- )
    Thanks again , Graeme.
    Don

  3. A few verses on in Ps36…
    “Keep on loving your friends; do your work in welcoming hearts. Don’t let the bullies kick me around, the moral midgets slap me down. Send the upstarts sprawling flat on their faces in the mud. “

  4. Thanks, Dave, that’s a great quote. I feel so desperately sad for Eugene. He must be in a horrible place right now.

  5. Alfred, I am happy with Eugene Peterson to have any position he wants to on same sex marriages. What concerns me is when someone has two different positions – one private and one public. This is my experience now, as I know many pastors who privately think there’s nothing wrong with same sex marriage, but won’t affirm this publicly for fear of losing their jobs and careers. I find that unhealthy, ungodly and unacceptable. I am concerned that this is where Eugene Peterson finds himself. I am saddened by this, and exceptionally sad for him to find himself in this position.

  6. Ok then. So to just examine the matter some more, the LGBT issue still strikes me as misguided; please can you explain the following, You say that since Jesus and the Bible only mention marriages between one man and one woman and nothing is said about same sex marriages this does not automatically mean that same sex marriages are wrong; therefore we should allow them in the church. Yet, the Bible has several references about polygamy, and there were a number of significant Bible characters in polygamist relationships (Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, all had multiple wives), but this is still wrong and has to be rejected in the church? (The same is true of various country’s laws – i.e. same sex marriages are being allowed but polygamy is not!) Why the double standards? If you feel so strongly about same sex marriage you should feel equally strongly (if not more so, armed with the many biblical references) about polygamy to also be accepted in the church!? Jesus after all does not speak out against it anywhere! So, you cant use the same argument to draw different conclusion, which is why I believe, after re-examining his response and position, Eugene affirms a “Biblical view of everything”.

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