On Grace, Truth, Error, and the Legacy of Eugene Peterson
BEFORE READING FURTHER: Two hours after I posted this essay, Eugene Peterson submitted a retraction of his original words, as quoted in this essay, in Christianity Today. You can read his retraction here.
His retraction notwithstanding, Peterson’s original comments represent a shift in viewpoint for a growing number of other pastors and thought leaders nationwide. This shift represented by Peterson’s original words calls for pastoral reflection from those, like me, who are concerned about the shift. So, I will continue to make the essay available as long as it seems helpful to do so.
As I begin this reflection, I do so realizing it may be one of the dumbest things I ever do. If I’m being honest, right now I would rather chew aluminum foil or poke myself in the leg with an ice pick than say the things I am about to say.
And yet, when a known and long-time titan and sage to the evangelical world whom I often quote in sermons distances himself from historic biblical orthodoxy — whether in part or in the whole — pastoral instinct tells me that I can’t sit this one out. Now is a time to resist my inner coward and weigh in, especially for those whom God has placed under my spiritual care.
This reflection is for those who have lined up to ask, “Scott, what do you think about this? What is your take on what seems to be an earth-shaking, tectonic plate-shifting announcement by one of the most esteemed pastors and writers of our time? Do you think it’s time for Christians to rethink a centuries-old viewpoint?”
Since Eugene Peterson is not alone, but is merely the latest (and, arguably, the most significant) in a string of well-known Bible teachers to shift perspective on the issue at hand, these are fair questions to ask.
As a local church pastor, whether I like it or not I am on the hook to provide a response to this news. This is especially true because those who follow my work and listen to my teaching know that there are three people whose work has shaped me most: C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, and Eugene Peterson.
Peterson’s books on pastoral ministry in particular (they are magnificent), his emphasis on ordinary faithfulness over a shallow pursuit of extraordinary experience, his repudiation of Christian celebrity, his inspiration toward “a long obedience in the same direction,” and, of course, his artfully compelling paraphrase of the Bible called The Message have together mentored me, a junior minister in comparison to him, for over twenty years. Ironically for me, the top two books on my shelf when Eugene Peterson’s announcement broke are books written by Eugene Peterson.
The surprising announcement I’m referring to was made in an online interview with Jonathan Merritt (the full piece can be read here). The title encapsulates the story: “Eugene Peterson on changing his mind about same-sex issues and marriage.” As far as I know, this is the first time that the esteemed pastor and author has gone public with this shift, as quoted from the interview:
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.
Then, when asked directly if he would perform a same-sex wedding ceremony, Peterson’s answer was a simple, and to some, astonishing “Yes.”
Now that I have given some context, with a bit of trembling I will share a few thoughts on why I feel compelled to go on record with my own thoughts about Eugene Peterson’s words.
First, this unquestionably is “a right and wrong thing.”
It is incumbent on preachers and Bible teachers especially to renounce anything that collides with Holy Scripture — to “refuse to tamper with God’s word” — but instead to openly state the truth as God has handed it down to us through the ages (2 Corinthians 4:2).
From a Twitter account attributed to Eugene Peterson, the morning after his announcement these words were posted:
When we read Scripture without listening to God, ‘Scripture is sabotaged.’
Sadly, and with all due respect, the reverse is also true…
When we read God without listening to Scripture, ‘God is sabotaged.’
Besides being the Word of God, what gives Scripture its place in the universe…what makes Scripture relevant…is that it shows no interest in being relevant. Rather, it stands above and outside of our popular culture and our politics and our ideas and our feelings and our ways of thinking and affirms that which is good, right, beautiful, and true in our thinking and living, while also confronting that which is not.
So at some point, we pastors and spiritual writers and all Christians must decide where we will hang our hats. Will we stand on the Word of God or under it? Will we tamper with and revise the Word of God, or will we daily invite the Word of God to tamper with and revise us? For the love of God and the safety of our souls, it must always, and with no exceptions, be the latter. Especially for those of us who teach, it would be better to have a millstone tied around our neck and be thrown into the ocean than to misrepresent the Word of God, thereby misleading God’s sheep (Matthew 18:6).
From the very beginning pages of Scripture and all the way to the end, there has been one, single context in which God has blessed and affirmed romantic and erotic expressions of love. That single context is a lifelong, monogamous covenant of marriage between a man and a woman. In every other instance besides this — in any other instance where homo-erotic and hetero-erotic relationships are happening — Scripture not only speaks against it but also warns of dire consequences.
As the Proverb says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12). Isaiah also says, “My ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Likewise, Scripture warns of pastors and teachers who fill their listeners with vain hopes by saying, “Peace, peace” when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14; Ezekiel 13:10). Scripture declares forcefully that if anyone tampers with Scripture by adding anything to it or removing anything from it, he or she will be subject to the judgments written therein (Deuteronomy 4:2; Revelation 22:19). Jesus likens this approach to a house that has been built on sand. If not now then eventually, the house that is not built on his words will come down with a great and devastating crash (Matthew 7:24-27).
Paul says it this way: “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). Then, he forcefully repeats himself for emphasis.
Even if we — meaning even if an apostle or a pastor or a sage or a Bible translator or a writer of Christian books — furthermore, even if an angel from heaven.. should contradict the grace of the gospel or the truth of the gospel, it will not fare well in the end.
Gospel truth without gospel grace is religious oppression.
Gospel grace without gospel truth is cowardice and codependency.
So Paul continues, “If I were still trying to please men (that is, in this case, to soften biblical truth so as to appear more ‘inclusive’ and ‘affirming’ than Scripture itself), I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
Just as the rigid Pharisee within must resist becoming more rigid and restrictive than Scripture, so the Sadducee within must resist becoming more broad and affirming than Scripture. The latter, if I may say so, appears to be the case in Eugene Peterson’s words concerning sexuality.
A helpful test for any new and presumably “evolved” view regarding what is truly good, beautiful, life-giving, and blessed by God would be as follows:
Does the “evolved” view on __________ sound more like an echo of Scripture or an echo of popular culture?
If the answer is the latter, we should tremble.
Second, Jesus did in fact talk about these matters.
A common statement I hear from friends who profess a high view of biblical authority while also affirming or engaging same-sex relationships is, “Well, this shouldn’t be treated as a watershed issue because Jesus never talked about it.”
Except that Jesus did talk about it.
For starters, Jesus reaffirmed the male-female marital union as the context for romantic and erotic love when he reminded his disciples that “In the beginning, God made them male and female.” According to Jesus, we are a gendered humanity — designed to complement one another sexually as revealed by the designs of our bodies, and also by the process of procreation. Additionally, there is an undeniable narrative arc throughout the Scriptures and embedded in Jesus’ teaching as well as his Person — A bridegroom who is united with his bride, always presented in the language of a he and a she. History begins with a groom and a bride (Adam and Eve, as in Genesis 1-2), and will end with the same (Jesus and the Church, as in Revelation 21). These are not insignificant things, but rather are declarative and illustrative of not only where we all come from (a he sperm and a she egg), but also where the whole universe is headed — a New Heaven and a New Earth, ushered in by a glorious Bride beautifully dressed for her Husband.
Even though Jesus did not directly address romantic and erotic same-sex relationships in his recorded teaching, Jesus has spoken of these things in great depth through the rest of the Scriptures. As we are told in Luke 24:27, “Beginning with Moses and the prophets,” Jesus explained how all of the Scriptures — including the repudiations and warnings about playing with erotic fire outside the man-woman-marriage context — were about him.
Lastly, the apostles who wrote the New Testament were appointed and inspired by the very Spirit of Jesus to do so, thus making their words — including the ones about erotic same-sex behavior — as binding and true as other words that came straight out of Jesus’ mouth. With Jesus, there are no red letter distinctions in the Bible, because if Moses or the prophets or Paul or Peter or John said it, then Jesus said it through them, his chosen and infallibly appointed, Holy Spirit directed messengers.
Third, this is not “the new slavery.”
As long as these matters have been a point of discussion among those who profess to revere the Bible, the stated go-to parallel for the gay affirming view has been the issue of slavery. Specifically, the conversation shifts from responsibility in our personal ethics to responsibility to set captives free from oppression.
This calls for a much longer conversation, so I will say it simply. There is no biblical Christianity without both personal ethics and a deep, resilient commitment to set captives free. But the question must be posed, is the person or community in question captive to the sins of others, to her/his own sin, or to both?
In this particular instance, the thinking for gay affirming men and women, as I have understood it, is that today’s LGBTQ community is the modern equivalent of those who were once oppressed by the African slave trade, thus being held back from the flourishing and freedom and identity for which God created them.
The argument also appeals to history, to times when the church has shifted and reformed in areas where the church had historically gotten it wrong. Reference is made to Martin Luther’s reform of corruption in the Medieval Roman Catholic Church, or to Bonhoeffer’s reform of the evils of Nazism in his confrontation of Hitler, or to King’s reform of racial injustices through the Civil Rights movement, or, more to the point, to Wilberforce’s and Lincoln’s reform of the injustices of slavery through abolition.
But when we compare today’s sexuality conversation to historic shifts regarding the evils of slavery, we are comparing apples with oranges. In all of the instances above, the reforms led by courageous souls were counter-popular culture and politically in-correct movements that pointed the world and the church back into Scripture. Conversely, the affirmation and championing of romantic and erotic relationships outside of the biblically sanctioned context — whether homoerotic or heteroerotic or otherwise — is to steer the world and the church out of Scripture.
Most striking about Eugene Peterson’s words of affirmation regarding same sex relationships is his appeal to personal experience and feelings, versus an appeal to Scripture itself. The reason why he included no appeal to Scripture is that this is not possible, because Scripture provides zero support for his words.
Slavery was abolished not in spite of what Scripture says about slavery, but because of what Scripture says about it. For starters, biblical references to the institution of slavery are descriptive versus prescriptive. In other words, nowhere does the Bible say, “People with money and property should be able to own other human beings, who will serve as their slaves.” But there is an entire book of the Bible called Philemon, which is a letter that Paul sends to a Christian slave owner named Philemon, by the hand of an escaped slave named Onesimus. In no uncertain terms, and with the authority of Christ undergirding him, Paul commands Philemon to welcome back his escaped slave, Onesimus, not as a slave, but instead as a brother.
To say it succinctly, there is no book of Philemon in the Bible whose message is to emancipate men and women sexually, thereby granting them a new freedom to explore romantic and erotic involvement outside the divinely created and sanctioned “In the beginning, God made them male and female,” he and she, husband and wife context.
It is also no small thing that Eugene Peterson’s words stand against the universal, worldwide, at all times and in all places consensus of Bible-believing Christians and churches everywhere. Regarding slavery, there never was universal consensus among Christians that slavery was a good thing. As a student of African American and Asian Christian thought, for example, I have never come across a single person of color, or heard of any non-white church leaders, who have affirmed white ownership of black people as a biblically supported thing.
Recently, a friend who is a black pastor expressed bewilderment that “the white church” is even having this conversation. He proceeded to tell me that you would never see this conversation happening in a Bible-believing black church. I have heard the same from Latino and Asian friends…not to mention Christian brothers and sisters outside of the western American context. In other words, judging from who the key voices are that champion the view reflected in Peterson’s words, this seems to be chiefly a twenty-first century white western thing.
Indeed, there has been no time and no place in history where Christians who embrace biblical authority have also affirmed romantic and erotic relationships outside the context of a man and a woman inside marriage. And so, to suddenly start affirming and embracing such relationships (and by ‘suddenly’ I mean in the last few years…it’s that recent) is to say that we are the uniquely enlightened ones, and that everybody else in the history of biblical Christianity is wrong on this one. It is to say that Moses was wrong, the Apostle Paul was wrong, Jesus was wrong, the church fathers were wrong, Calvin and Luther were wrong, the church in today’s East and Middle East are wrong, today’s African American and Asian and Latino churches are wrong, the Roman Catholic Church is wrong. If I may say it bluntly, the message being sent to the rest of the Bible-believing Christian world is, “Only we, the uniquely enlightened, mostly western American twenty-first century white educated and affluent LGBTQ affirming Christian pastors and authors and bloggers and journalists, are getting it right on the matter of Christian sexuality.”
The last sentence of that last paragraph, I dare say, is also a description of where the cultural pressure is felt most on this particular issue. It is a description of modern western popular culture, which is precisely the place where it is most tempting to bend away from the Bible in order to protect ourselves from cultural pressure and personal rejection from those who are beholden to the spirit of the age.
This strikes me as supremely bold.
It also strikes me as supremely reckless.
Fourth, this is not a conflict between people who prefer God’s love versus people who prefer God’s law.
God’s love ceases to be God’s love when you separate it from God’s law.
Likewise, God’s law ceases to be God’s law when you separate it from God’s love.
Christians are called to a narrow path, to be sure. It is a costly path. It is a path with a firm code of ethics that sometimes must part ways with the prevailing views and ethics of popular culture. It is a path that has been passed down from the outside — from above and beyond us and not from inside us — by our sovereign, cosmic, infinitely wise Creator, a Father who knows best who also loved us and gave himself for us.
The narrow path of Christ is contrary and counter-culture to the spirit of our age, for the spirit of our age demands inclusion at all costs (except, ironically, those suspected of being less “inclusive” are often viciously excluded). But inclusion and adoption into the family of God came at a great cost. It cost the Son of God his life. It cost him inclusion and belonging among his own to whom he came, but his own did not receive him. Instead of being included, he was exiled from the rich fellowship of the Trinity, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The answer to Jesus’ cry of “Why…?” is that his exclusion purchased the inclusion of all who would put their trust in his grace, a trust that is never separated from a new life trajectory that treats God’s law as life-giving versus oppressive. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, and the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
God’s law, just like God’s grace, is an expression of God’s love. It is like water to a fish. We can’t thrive without it, neither can we truly live without it. God knows this to be true, so he insists on telling us…not because he wants to hold us down but because he wants to set us free. Free to roam and dance within the life-giving, safeguarded boundaries of his image-reflecting law.
And yet, the narrow path of Jesus also speaks of a broad embrace that sounds like this:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
The words “you were…” indicate that while wildly inclusive — in Christ, your history will not be counted against you! — the broad embrace of Jesus’ narrow path also calls for a new life and a new ethic. It also calls for courage to speak words of warning when our friends and family members and parishioners and readers are at risk of traveling down any path that Scripture declares to be ruinous and toxic, and that encourages us to flirt with the serpent’s cunning question, “Has God really said…?”
It is a fierce cruelty to withhold cosmic truths that, if never spoken, could potentially wreck a soul. Likewise, it is an act of courage and love to speak up, for “If anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).
Interestingly, the atheist magician, Penn Jillette concurs:
I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward — and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself — how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.
While Penn Jillette’s focus is not sexuality, per se, the principle applies across the board. Grace without a willingness to tell the truth is the furthest thing from grace. Love without a willingness to uphold the law is the furthest thing from love.
When we read God without listening to Scripture, ‘God is sabotaged.’
Finally, I will keep learning from Eugene Peterson and I hope that you will too.
The state of Eugene Peterson’s soul is ultimately God’s concern. I cannot and will not pass ultimate judgment on him any more than I would pass ultimate judgment on Luther for his anti-Semitism, Jonathan Edwards for owning slaves, Calvin for participating in burning a man at the stake for incorrect theology, Wesley for being an absentee husband, King for committing serial adultery, Abraham for subjecting his wife to potential gang rape, David for abusing his power to get another man’s wife into bed with him and then committing murder, Solomon for becoming a womanizer, Peter for his chronic xenophobia and abrasiveness, Paul for his ongoing battle with coveting, or the church at Corinth for being comprehensively jacked up in their adulteries, their disdain for the poor, their lawsuits against each other, their materialism and greed, their selfish ambition, their pride and their hateful ways.
If grace is big enough to reach and recover these misguided souls, grace is also be big enough to reach and recover the misguided souls of today. This includes Eugene Peterson and those who embrace his words. It also includes you. And it includes me.
Only eight years ago, I realized that I was a racist. Up to that point, even though I had been a committed Christian for many years, I was completely blind to my racism and have been repenting ever since.
And you? You may hindered by some spiritual blinders of your own. There may be a log in your eye that is much bigger than any speck in Eugene Peterson’s eye.
Did you read the passage from Corinthians above, the one that talked about those who will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Yes, it spoke of those who practice homosexuality. But right alongside that, it spoke of those who are materialistic and greedy, who manipulate, who speak insults over fellow human beings and who gossip, who love something or someone more than they love God, who take what is not theirs, who eat or drink to excess, and so on. According to Scripture, these more ‘acceptable’ and commonplace and sometimes churchly sins are just as fearsome as a departure from the biblical sex ethic. If we allow ourselves to settle into any of them, and not just select ones that we assume don’t apply to us, then we are doomed to be damned.
So go ahead. Knock yourself out. You who are without sin, throw the first stone.
But before you throw that stone, you should realize that God will not send anyone to hell for being gay any more than he will send anyone to heaven for being straight. We know this, right? Our only pathway into the Kingdom and into God’s family is adoption through grace. Grace for our known faults, grace for our past and present and future faults, and grace for the faults that are hidden to us but are no less there.
“Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12).
So, if grace is this big, I am holding out confidence that Eugene Peterson is not an evil man by any stretch, but rather, a sometimes misguided man just like me. I hold out confidence that he is also a man who — by the same grace and mercy of Christ that never let go of Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Luther, Peter, Paul, Abraham or David in their selective blindness — is, like them and like me, nevertheless an adopted son inside the fold.
Lord of history and Lord of hearts, you and you alone are the Judge. As for me, and regarding this man who has taught me so much and whose writings I will not boycott because of his words from this interview any more than I would boycott the literature of Tolstoy or Hemingway, the music of Mozart or the Indigo Girls, the genius of Einstein or Hawking, or the Psalms of David and the Sons of Korah. Should there be faults that remain hidden to his eyes, I pray you remove them. And until such time, would you consider him as you did King David — and as you did me in my blindness to racism — innocent from hidden faults. Yet not my will, but yours be done.
Lastly, in light of my disagreement with Eugene Peterson’s words on these matters, I am going to drain the bathwater. However, for my own good, I plan to continue holding on tightly and fiercely to the baby.
Because the baby — namely, The Message, Run With the Horses, Five Smooth Stones, The Pastor, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Leap Over a Wall, Practice Resurrection, Tell It Slant, and so on and so on and so on —
Yes, the baby…still has a beautiful face.
Original Eugene Peterson Interview with Jonathan Merritt
Peterson retracts his original comments in Christianity Today
Should We Read Eugene Peterson? by Russell Moore
My personal favorite: That Time I Said “Yes” When I Really Meant “No.” One Last Thought on Eugene Peterson’s Interview by Rebecca Reynolds