On Wednesday, Religion News Service published an interview with Eugene Peterson, the author of the
bestselling Bible translation “The Message”, in which Peterson clearly and plainly said that he would perform a gay wedding and allowed openly LGBT+ people to serve and lead in the churches he has pastored. This statement from Peterson was hailed as a minor victory for LGBT+ Christians who are fighting for our place in the Church, considering that Peterson is 84 years old and such a prominent international Christian figure.
As many LGBT+ Christians and our allies celebrated, conservative Christians took to the Internet with one of two general responses. The first response was “Yawn, we all knew Peterson was a liberal.” The other response was “We’re disappointed and hope that he changes his mind, but if not, he’s just another one the walked away from the faith.”
Both responses could have been predicted beforehand, because it is true that Peterson, as a pastoral theologian, has always erred towards the side of love, grace, and acceptance, rather than to rigid dogma and doctrine. The latter response is the response of those who have been impacted by Peterson, but are just as happy to dismiss him as a heretic and move on.
Later Wednesday evening, Lifeway Christian Bookstores, the largest Christian bookstore chain in the country announced that they were prepared to stop selling Peterson’s books if his remarks were really where he stood, and that they had reached out to Peterson for clarification. Likewise, behind the scenes as NavPress, the conservative publisher of The Message, there were similar conversations about how to proceed with selling the Bible translation of a man who didn’t condemn same sex relationships.
One can imagine that both groups, and many others, frantically reached out to Peterson and detailed the financial ramifications for Peterson and his publishers, as well as the impact it would have on his legacy. If NavPress couldn’t sell The Message, they likely couldn’t survive as a publisher. And many seminaries, colleges, and denominations that use Peterson’s books would likely cease selling and buying them. Conservatives would see Peterson as one who could not “faithfully endure to the end” and his reputation would be forever tarnished.
With this as the background, Peterson and his representatives had a choice. Either they would stand by the quotes that he gave to Religion News Service and face the consequences, or they would retract the quotes and declare that Peterson was opposed to same-sex marriage and would not support LGBT+ inclusion in the Church.
On Thursday afternoon, Christianity Today reported that it had received an official retraction from Peterson, in which Peterson allegedly wrote:
“To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman…. I’ve never performed a same-sex wedding. I’ve never been asked and, frankly, I hope I am never asked… When put on the spot by [Religion News Service], I said yes [I would perform a same-sex wedding] in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that…That said, I would still love such a couple as their pastor. They’d be welcome at my table, along with everybody else.”
While we may never know what the behind-the-scenes conversations with Peterson looked like over the past twenty-four hours, this retraction reveals to us all that Peterson is not a credible Christian leader as we once thought. Whether he was forced to retract his statement or he did so of his own accord, Peterson’s actions display a great deal of moral cowardice, both on his part and the part of his publishers and booksellers.
No matter what side of the debate you fall, it should be incredibly concerning to all Christians that someone like Peterson could say two diametrically opposed things publicly in less than a week. Which is the truth? What does he really think? What is his motivation behind the two interviews? These are questions that we should all be asking ourselves. Whatever the answer to these questions might be, Peterson is still shown to be deceptive and inauthentic.
Again, I am fully aware that Peterson was likely pressured to make this statement that flies in the face of what many have heard him say in private setting and of his statement to RNS. I am fully aware that this saga could be far from over, and Peterson could release another statement in the days ahead. But none the less, the actions of Lifeway, NavPress, and Peterson reveal less-than-Christian motivations behind this all, and any discerning follower of Christ should respond accordingly.
Todays events yet again reflect the sorry state of American Evangelicalism. Evangelical Christianity today has nothing to do with proclaiming the good news of Jesus to the world, and everything to do with preserving power, wealth, and privilege, regardless of who must be abused to maintain it. This so-called “Christian” tradition continues to reveal itself to be anti-Christ, and must be opposed by all those who claim to follow the renegade Rabbi from Nazareth.
Today, the Christian Right rejoices in the face of progressive and LGBT+ people. Today, many national leaders like Russell Moore are declaring their gladness that Peterson has retracted his statement of support for the LGBT+ community. Today, thousands of LGBT+ Christian youth are watching this scenario unfold, reinforcing the message that they are not welcome, accepted, or included in the family of God or the table of grace. And the damage of that message cannot be underestimated.
According to Christian theology, Peterson, the folks at Lifeway, and all those who rejoice at the exclusion of sexual and gender minorities will one day give an account for the actions that have unfolded over these two days, and I for one believe they will be met by a weeping Christ whose heart has been broken by the damage this unfaithful behavior has caused.