EDITOR’S NOTE: One day after Eugene Peterson told an interviewer he supported marriage equality — comments which brought fierce criticism from conservatives — he retracted his statement (see stories here and here). On Friday, BNG will post a story on Peterson’s retraction. We think the responses reported below remain relevant to this developing story.
Southern Baptist fans of a best-selling Christian author are questioning his salvation after he said in an interview he thinks it is possible to be both Christian and gay and, if asked, he would be willing to officiate a same-sex wedding.
Eugene Peterson, best known for his 2002 translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew titled The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, told Religion News Service senior columnist Jonathan Merritt that he has changed his mind about same-sex marriage and homosexuality over the years.
“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,” Peterson said in a Q&A interview published July 12.
Peterson, 84, said he thinks the debate about gays and the church might be over. “People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church,” Peterson said. “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.”
LifeWay Christian Resources, publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said if Peterson stands by his comments, the chain is prepared to stop selling his books.
“LifeWay only carries resources in our stores by authors who hold to the biblical view of marriage,” a spokesperson said in statement. “We are attempting to confirm with Eugene Peterson or his representatives that his recent interview on same-sex marriage accurately reflects his views. If he confirms he does not hold to a biblical view of marriage, LifeWay will no longer sell any resources by him, including The Message.”
Denny Burk, professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said people are asking him in light of the revelation whether he believes Peterson “is a bona fide Christian.”
“The best way I can answer that is to say what I would do if he were a member of the church where I pastor,” said Burk, who also serves as associate pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville.
“We wouldn’t immediately presume that he isn’t a Christian,” Burk said in a blog. “He would be given the opportunity to repent and to come back to the truth of scripture. If he refused to repent and persisted in this false teaching, we would eventually excommunicate him and treat him as an unbeliever (Matthew 18:17; Titus 3:10). This is what we believe our Lord teaches us to do in dealing with false teachers, so we would do it.”
Owen Strachan, who has read and appreciated Peterson’s books for years, said on Patheos the RNS interview “troubled me greatly.”
“These are not sound words,” said Strachan, associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.
“We are called not merely to abstain from sin but to avoid giving approval to those who indulge in it,” Strachan said, referencing the apostle Paul in Romans 1:32. “None who practice homosexuality, and who take it as their identity, will inherit the kingdom of heaven,” he added, citing Romans 6.
Strachan said division over homosexuality in the church is not going away, but “division is not caused by the truth.”
“Division is caused by departure from the truth,” Strachan said. “Nothing is more loving, therefore, than to rescue those who are pulled away by unbiblical teaching.”
“Let us therefore preach the bloody cross of Christ and call for immediate repentance,” Strachan wrote. “In deep compassion for fellow sinners, let us tell of the wrath-absorbing crucifixion of Jesus, and help the lost discover the kindness of repentance. Let us not lose heart. And let us pray for Eugene Peterson, that he may return to the old paths, and let us instruct the younger generation of Christians, for the pressure upon them is great, and there is only one way to God: the way of repentant faithfulness.”
Russell Moore, president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said he wouldn’t suggest throwing away Peterson’s books, but he probably will no longer recommend them to a new Christian.
“I wouldn’t now have him speak at my church or event — for the same reasons and for the fact I would never want to confuse anyone about the call to repentance,” Moore said in a Gospel Coalition blog.
Moore said he considers Peterson “a wise, gentle Christian,” and he hopes he will rethink his views on homosexuality.
Colin Smothers, executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, described the RNS interview “alarming, disheartening and altogether sad.”
“After Eugene Peterson dies — and we wish him long life — he will face judgment,” Smothers, a Ph.D. candidate in biblical theology at Southern Seminary said in a CBMW blog. “And God will hold him accountable for everything he has ever said or done, including this interview that very well could lead many astray.”
Merritt, son of former SBC president James Merritt, said going into the interview he felt pressure “to pick the perfect questions” to ask Peterson, who says his latest book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, will be his last.
In addition to questions about Donald Trump, the state of American Christianity and if he is afraid of death, Merritt said there was one more topic he wanted to cover: same-sex relationships and marriage.
“It’s one of the hottest topics in the church today, and given Peterson’s vast influence among both pastors and laypeople, I knew his opinion would impact the conversation,” Merritt wrote. “Though he has had a long career, I couldn’t find his position on the matter either online or in print.”