Eugene Peterson

July 13, 2017

What in the World is Eugene Peterson Thinking on Marriage?

In possibly the quickest change of direction in Evangelical Christianity since World Vision USA reversed its employment policies concerning same-sex marriage, The Message author Eugene Peterson has endorsed – and then opposed – same sex marriage in the span of one day.

Peterson made news on Wednesday when Religion News Service columnist Jonathan Merritt published an interview in which the retired Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor was asked about his views on same-sex marriage. Peterson responded:

“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.”

Just in case that wasn’t clear enough, Merritt circled back for a follow-up:

“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: “Yes.”

That seems clear and unambiguous.

But just as World Vision reassessed a newly-announced policy of allowing employees to enter into same-sex marriage in 2014 after significant protest from donors – reportedly more than 3,000 monthly sponsors cancelled in a single day – Peterson also seems to have had a few conversations.

Seemingly World Vision had not been fully prepared for the 2014 uproar. Southern Baptist leaders, representing America’s largest Protestant body, strongly denounced the initial policy change. The head of the 3 million member Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination, urged members to reroute funding away from World Vision, later urging support after the relief organization reversed its policy. Franklin Graham had very publicly lamented that World Vision no longer believed in the Bible.

There were signs of disappointment on Wednesday, too:

And perhaps most significantly, this:

Fast-forward to today, and Christianity Today’s Kate Shelnutt reports the evangelical author retracted his response and upheld the traditional stance on marriage instead:

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

That was fast.

Shelnutt also reports on this telling tidbit:

LifeWay Christian Stores had reached out to “confirm with Eugene Peterson or his representatives that his recent interview on same-sex marriage accurately reflects his views.” If he had indeed shifted on the issue, the chain would no longer carry his books, which include dozens of versions of The Message as well as his titles A Long Obedience in the Same Direction and The Pastor.

LifeWay, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, bills itself as “One of the world’s largest providers of Christian products and services.” Readers of this blog may recall when the chain chose to remove books by now-liberal Episcopalian Rachel Held Evans and blogger Jen Hatmaker after those authors staked out positions not in accord with its doctrinal standards.

While Peterson says that he has concluded writing books and is only engaged in correspondence, his final book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, came out in May and would certainly have its sales affected. You can view Peterson’s full statement via his publisher by clicking here.

We at IRD are not always on the same page as Jonathan Merritt, but he was direct in his questions. Deception or misrepresentations are not apparent here, but if Peterson was misrepresented, he should be commended for quickly making his real view known. Is that what actually happened? What will RNS and Merritt say about this challenge to their writing?

UPDATE [7/14/2017]: Merritt has a follow-up piece posted on RNS, in which he explains how the interview took place (yes, it was recorded with permission) and about why he asked questions about same-sex marriage:

“Some have asked my why I would ask these questions at all. There were two primary reasons. First, he is one of the most influential Christian thinkers in the world and homosexuality is one of the most contentious debates in the church today. What Eugene Peterson believes about this topic matters, which is more than evident in the reaction it generated.

Second, and perhaps more interesting, I had spoken with several prominent pastors, authors and theologians who intimated to me that Peterson had told them privately that he was affirming of same-sex relationships. This prompted my curiosity about his views. If true, I know my readers would be interested.”


13 Responses to What in the World is Eugene Peterson Thinking on Marriage?

  1. Chip says:

    I think Peterson’s been (to his credit) very detailed in his response. He didn’t charge Merritt with misreporting anything, but instead said that after a substantial amount of time reflecting and praying over it, he felt that he needed to correct himself. Merritt says that the interview was conducted on July 6, so that does allow for much more than a 24-hour reflection time on Peterson’s part. The author’s reversal is a qualified one, with one of the main emphases being that he would not change the Church’s teachings. This might be a case of a difference in personal feelings and public commitments, but it’s impossible to know for certain without more information. I wish that Merritt had asked a followup question regarding marriage to clarify more of what Peterson meant (under what circumstances, etc.).

    Regarding the Lifeway flap, other than The Message, I sincerely doubt that many copies of Peterson’s books get sold from that outlet. Peterson appeals mainly to a mixed crowd of pastors, seminarians, and evangelical (and other Christian) intellectuals, so I’m sure his non-Message books mostly get sold elsewhere. Still, The Message is his (and NavPress’s) runaway success, and that could have been hurt by Lifeway’s decision (particularly since it’s the only remaining national Christian bookstore chain).

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      The authority of scripture — and human sexuality — have been at the center of disputes in the PCUSA for at least 40 years. As an ordained clergyman from that denomination, Peterson’s claim that he never gave this much thought is surprising to many of us.

  2. LukeinNE says:

    Putting aside what Peterson does or does not believe, I think it’s asinine for LifeWay (or any distributor) to yank someone’s works because the author – not the works themselves, the author – crosses them on something. It comes across as the same small-minded pettiness that has defined the culture wars on both sides for 30 years. A book’s content either advances the kingdom or it does not. Those that do should be made available by Christian book distributors.

  3. Joe M says:

    Sorry but lifeways small mindedness is hardly an issue compared to one of the leading Christian writers of the era waffling so transparently on homosexuality. “A long obedience in the same direction… And love the one you’re with!” That is the story and that alone. The rest is posturing… OMG, please let’s not appear small minded!

  4. Richard Bell says:

    According to the report, Peterson backed off by saying “he would not perform a same-sex wedding ‘out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching.’” His statement does not imply he believes same-sex wedding forbidden by God. To the contrary!
    The historic biblical Christian view and teaching are mistaken, but God will not let his people remain in error and eventually respect for the Church body will be manifested only by celebrating same-sex marriages. Peterson believes that.
    I pray that my fellow conservative evangelical Christians who disagree with Peterson will learn the truth about God’s will for same-sex marriage, and I repeat an offer I made previously in this forum:
    I have written an essay proving, with traditional techniques of interpretation and none of the pseudo-arguments offered by liberal revisionists, that God reveals in the Bible his will that the Church celebrate homosexual marriage just as it celebrates heterosexual marriage. I make not only an affirmative case for my thesis but refute all the conservatives’ arguments to the contrary — all that I know of.
    My essay has been read and criticized by many learned and mature Christians, including seminary professors. Their criticisms have helped me improve it, but not one has refuted any of its main arguments.
    Do you have interest in the subject, an open mind, and time to peruse a rather scholarly essay? If so, ask me by email for a copy of the latest version. I will send it in reply with only one request — that you give me your severest criticism of it. As a conservative evangelical, I am unhappy to advocate same-sex marriage by the Church; doing so has alienated me from many of my fellows. So, in seeking correction, I have a social motive besides my devotion to truth and to pleasing God.
    Richard Bell, rsbell@ameritech.net

    • Shelly Buchanan says:

      I’m a Chassidic Jew, and you’re totally wrong about the Bible and G-d’s word. G-d makes it clear that homosexual sex is sinful.

  5. Joe M says:

    Furthermore, what galls is the fact Peterson would be so oblivious to his primary audience… Except for the fact he is 84. Anyway he just shows himself to be no different than the current crop of Catholic clergy who is far more liberal than they’re hard-core supporters

  6. Penny Bagby says:

    His retraction does appear to indicate that he is backtracking solely because he stands as a representative of Christianity, and not because he personally feels he has to take a biblical stand. I notice that Richard Bell has included his stock comment.

    • Richard Bell says:

      Not one of my comments, stock or otherwise, matters nearly as much as God’s Word. If you agree, and if you think God’s Word implies that he forbids same-sex marriage by the Church, ask me by email for a copy of my essay: rsbell@ameritech.net

  7. Thi is a movement (gay marriage) moved by 1) a love for family members who are gay, 2) money, authors who want to be on the side of culture, 3) culture informing us, not scripture. Simple deconstruction for all the wrong reasons.

  8. Mike Ward says:

    He was thinking like the typical Presbyterian Church USA pastor.

  9. MikeS says:

    When prospects of a collapse in your book sales looms, your heart and mind will follow.

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