The kerfuffle over Jonathan Merritt’s phone interview with Eugene Peterson was predictable. The back-and-forth, including threats of recrimination from the likes of LifeWay, followed by an apparent stream of retractions from Peterson and, yes, LifeWay, only muddled the core issue.
Religious News Service seemed to have been wounded by the tempest and sought to offer some tea time for the combatants as a way to deflect any taint of one of their writers taking advantage of an old man. RNS defended Merritt’s question about same-sex marriage and, then, attempted to document Peterson’s drifting toward an acceptance of same-sex marriage from a 2014 interview.
And, too, RNS highlighted Peterson’s decision to absent himself from any future interviews or public statements, ostensibly to avoid any future kerfuffle spawned by a climate of suspicion and doctrinal defensiveness under the umbrella of a lingering culture war.
The core issue is not the position or stature of an icon like Peterson.
The core issue is not doctrinal stability in the face of continual cultural shifts.
The core issue is not even about the flexibility of hermeneutics that identify historical eras.
The core issue is the willingness of the church in every age to be clear and honest about how the questions of “now” demand a reconsideration of the answers of “then.”
In the Merritt interview, Peterson said, “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.” He continued, “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.”
Peterson is probably correct. The questions and answers of 20 years ago rarely have the same relevance today. Let’s give Peterson credit for being clear and honest about the waning relevance of same-sex questions now, despite its apparently settled status then, in most of the 20th century.
In the same way, let’s salute the clarity and honesty of those women and men a generation ago whose convictions were that neither scripture nor doctrine could hinder the egalitarian spirit of the freedom found in the gospel as it is lived. Baptized girls became preaching and teaching women who gradually set new expectations and new standards for what a minister looks like.
The clarity and honesty that fosters the courage to live in the now rather than the then burst forth at least three generations ago when the issue of race was the challenge de jour for the church and society. The shoulders of Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr. continue to be the solid foundation upon which contemporary prophets stand.
What all those whose clarity and honesty about the injustices of prejudices rooted in race, gender and sexual identity have in common can be traced to the teachings of Jesus who, according to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, found a pointed refrain in the words, “You have heard that it was said, … but I say to you” (NRSV).
Jesus seemed to understand the challenges of the priority of now over then.
Peterson’s critics, perhaps, were blinded by the perceived offensiveness of his pastoral response — with a one-word answer, “yes” — that indicated he might agree to celebrate a same-sex wedding. In his retraction Peterson rightly noted that he was asked a hypothetical question, and elaborated on what that means:
“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.”
Peterson’s critics wanted a simpler one-word answer. They wanted “no.” Two letters, not three.
The core issue is not merely mouthing a yes or no.
Peterson is probably correct with what he said and has not retracted: “I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over.”
The core issue is whether or not the church can and should continue to seek and celebrate liberation from the cultural oppression of people of color, the relegation of women to second-class status, and the demonizing of same-sex partners in marriage.
Peterson is probably correct: the gay marriage issue will fade away, mostly, in the same ways so-called biblical defenses of racial purity, slavery, patriarchy and classism are fading away.
What is emerging is a healthy hermeneutic that is free from its cultural bondages of rigid identity, role and function.