Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Eugene Peterson fracas. How wide is our biblical tent?

Image result for eugene peterson
At a Communications Team meeting of Chain of lakes Church last week I shared that I would come back to blogging.  My initial goal is to blog three to six times a month. 

Last week Eugene Peterson was interviewed by Jonathan Merritt, award-winning columnist for the Atlantic and Religious News Service.  The interview was shared in three parts.  Peterson was asked questions about why he was stepping away from public life, his thoughts of Donald Trump, and whether he is afraid of death. 

Peterson is the author of “The Message,” a translation of Scripture that is widely used and sold.  I have a copy of the Message in my library and refer to it almost every week I preach.  Peterson has written many books.  One of my favorites is his memoir called “The Pastor.”

Eugene Peterson is one of my heroes.  I regret that I haven’t read every word of what he’s written.  I would change my schedule to hear him speak.  I have tremendous respect for him as a person and for his writings.   If I’m in a tricky situation in my work I have asked myself the question of how Eugene Peterson would respond. 

The last part of the interview became controversial and prompted many responses on the Internet.  This part of the interview can be found here:  http://religionnews.com/2017/07/12/eugene-peterson-on-changing-his-mind-about-same-sex-issues-and-marriage/

The following is an excerpt of that interview:
Eugene Peterson:            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.

Question:                            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?

Eugene Peterson:             Yes.

The fallout from this comment was immediate and swift.  Lifeway Books, the publishing arm of Southern Baptist Convention, immediately announced they would stop selling his books.   See more: http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2017/july/lifeway-prepared-to-stop-selling-message-over-eugene-peters.html

The next day Peterson came out with the following statement.  It’s worth reading the statement in its entirety.  I found this at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/07/13/popular-author-eugene-peterson-heres-what-i-actually-think-about-gay-marriage/?utm_term=.d4c0601986aa

I included the statement at the bottom of this blog.

The bottom line of this statement is Peterson shared that he would not officiate a same-sex wedding.

Many excellent blogs have been written about what happened. 
Here is one written by an Irish pastor who worked with Eugene Peterson.  Thanks to Neil Craigan for sharing the blog.

Here is one written by Dennis Sanders that I found helpful.

This is a complicated story that illustrates the fracture of the church.

Because of my respect for Eugene Peterson I give him the complete benefit of the doubt on the shift of his position that was reported.

My hunch of what happened is Peterson was surprised by the initial question, wasn’t comfortable with his first answer, reflected some more, and shared his belief.   I would call this this discernment.

Peterson lands at a different place on his willingness to officiate at a same gender marriage than me.  But his position doesn’t diminish my own respect for him.

A question I haven’t seen asked about this controversy is how large is our biblical tent?  Can we accept that some people look at the Bible differently on issues that each of us care deeply?  And does another person’s different biblical views make the person any less of a Christian?  And who am I to judge another person for their view?  I believe judgment is left to God.

I get that the idea “come let us reason together” is not guiding us.  The sense of coming together to pray, talk, and ask hard questions about how the biblical witness and ultimately Jesus Christ guides each of us rarely takes place.  

One reason I love the Presbyterian Church (USA) is we are not a subscriptionist denomination.    Ever since Jonathan Dickinson helped develop the Adapting Act in 1729 religious leaders have the freedom to develop their own views.  This freedom comes under the authority of an appropriate governing body, but nonetheless the freedom is essential.  The issue in 1729 was whether Dickinson was going to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith; the issue in 2017 is whether Eugene Peterson is going to subscribe to someone’s view of same-sex marriage. 

I’m glad that both have had the freedom to their own views.  How wide is our biblical tent?

Here is the statement from Eugene Peterson:
“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 29-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.”

No comments: