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?”
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:
So disappointing. https://t.co/LCKOdpDoDx
— Russell Moore (@drmoore) July 12, 2017
The way forward for Eugene Peterson is repentance. Denying the created order is no small theological mistake for minister of the Gospel.
— John Stonestreet (@JBStonestreet) July 12, 2017
Truly, how sad that a creative voice like Eugene Peterson would forsake the Scriptures and the Tradition that he so eloquently wrote of.
— Andrew T. Walker (@andrewtwalk) July 12, 2017
And perhaps most significantly, this:
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) July 12, 2017
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.”