Thursday, July 13, 2017

How Many More Petersons Are Out There?

Written by: Jared C. Wilson

petersonIt was the "yes" heard 'round the evangelical Twittersphere, at least for the day. In an interview with Religious New Service's Jonathan Merritt published yesterday, evangelical stalwart Eugene Peterson professed what appeared to be a reversal of his views of homosexual relationships, saying, among other things, "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."

When asked by Merritt whether he'd personally officiate the wedding of a same-sex couple, Peterson answered simply, without equivocation: "Yes."

Depending on your perspective — a fondness for or a skepticism about Peterson and his work — reactions in social media streams ran the gamut. Some admirers of his ministry expressed shock. Critics complained that "only people who weren't paying attention" to his "trajectory" could be shocked. Close followers of Peterson's work, including a few who have attended some of the rare public events at which he's appeared over the last few years, mentioned that this isn't a new position for him, that he has been making these same affirmations in smaller group settings for a while.

There are many others, however, who were not shocked, but nevertheless saddened. Count me one of them.

I am old enough to remember when it was unfashionable to like Eugene Peterson's work simply because his work had become so fashionable. Cutting my ministry teeth during the rise of the seeker church movement of the 80's and 90's, I had grown weary of the misuse and over-use of Peterson's Bible translation The Message. But as my generation aged, we found so much more depth in Peterson's writing than we were previously led to believe. Where The Message had been used to make the Scriptures more palatable for modern worship, to make it more up-to-date, it was Peterson's work on pastoral ministry (mostly) — that became increasingly relevant to many of us precisely because he was eschewing modernity as an ecclesiological virtue.

I have never pastored a very large church, and I've always resonated with thinkers and writers who championed the smallness and ordinariness of faithfully shepherding a local congregation. For many like me, Peterson became a kind of patron saint--a defender of the institutional church while also a critic of the professionalization of the pastorate, a dismantler of the spiritual racketeering so many in our day pass off as Christian ministry.

Yes, he tilted leftward. We saw that. Many just dismissed this as an affectation, an impression left of his being artsy or contemplative. But he had never clearly embraced that which the Bible calls us to reject. He hadn't gone the way of the Rob Bells or the Brian McLarens or of numerous other thought leaders who'd followed their hearts right into religious liberalism. At least, we didn't think he had.

Whether Peterson had been sharing these convictions for a while or not, yesterday's RNS piece has clearly been his most public admission. What is most curious about the interview, assuming it was published verbatim (or close to it), is how much is missing. Peterson offers no defense for his position, no biblical rationale, no theological reflection. There may be a variety of reasons for this. Peterson is notoriously "out of the loop"--it's possible he didn't know or quite understand the reach and impact his statements would have on social media. It's possible he knew that his interlocutor was a sympathetic ear to this position. (Jonathan Merritt routinely publishes articles and editorials offering support for ministers, writers, and other leaders who have rejected the traditional teaching on biblical sexuality.) It's equally possible, I suppose, that he simply doesn't care, that he doesn't think he owes anyone an explanation.

Knowing the careful and introspective thought that has gone into his writing on Christianity and the Christian ministry, I'd be surprised if Peterson could make no attempt at exegetical reasons for his views. But the reality is that he offered none. He only offered that he has over the last several years met gay folks who "seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do," and this has changed his mind.

Certainly knowing gay people--spiritually-minded or otherwise--will change the demeanor and tenor of many people's speaking and thinking on same-sex attraction and their ministry toward the LGBTQ community, but as a justification for rejecting traditional views on sexuality it hardly seems to suffice. And it actually seems to undercut what Peterson has been carefully teaching so many of his devotees all along--that God's word holds the wisdom that runs counter to the seasonally shifting whims of the world, that faithful ministry means, among many other things, enduring steadfast while the trends and fads of the culture swirl around us, that what really and ultimately counts is "a long obedience in the same direction."

Lately, each day in evangelicalism seems to bring with it a new watershed. A few months ago, popular author and conference speaker Jen Hatmaker made waves with her public affirmation of same-sex marriage. Even after the backlash, which has cost her not just readers and fans but also speaking engagements, Hatmaker has not disavowed her views. Peterson may be in a different position, as he is not a frequent conference speaker, nor is his publishing reliant largely on the typical evangelical customer base. He has been somewhat of an outlier all along, drawing devotees from multiple Christian traditions and tribes. But the fallout of his announcement pushes us to face a cultural crisis in evangelicalism many have not yet faced. For instance, how many more Jen Hatmakers and Eugene Petersons are out there?

Last month, Stan Mitchell, pastor of Gracepointe Church announced his congregation's plans to move from Franklin, Tennessee to Nashville. Self-describing as a "progressive pastor," Mitchell shared with USA Today Network's Holly Meyer that he felt Nashville's marketplace might be more accepting of Gracepointe's recent adoption of sanctioning same-sex marriages. One line in the interview stood out the most to me, the part where Mitchell says, "There are pastors all across this country who call me weekly that are thinking the same thoughts, trying to find the courage to do the same thing in evangelical churches."

I have no doubt this is true, and I have long suspected this is the case.

One hallmark of the attractional ministry so dominant in American evangelicalism is the reluctance to speak out on many cultural hot topics. The attractional paradigm is a populist strategy, so its ministers rarely if ever speak up about, for instance, government corruption or civil rights abuses. Perhaps they consider those matters too political. And yet the Bible speaks to them. Fewer and fewer will venture anything about abortion. Perhaps for the same fear of seeming political. And you would be hard pressed to see them offering much of anything on the Bible's teaching about homosexuality. Tackling that or any culturally controversial matter would violate one of the attractional church's cardinal rules: Keeping the customer satisfied.

A few years ago one of our nation’s leading evangelical voices, Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in Atlanta, caught flak for mentioning in a sermon that a same-sex couple had been serving in leadership at one of the North Point campuses. In his illustration, he did not mention any approval or disapproval of same-sex marriage per se, but only that one of the partners was not fully divorced from their (opposite sex) spouse. Given opportunities to clarify his views on homosexuality, Stanley has not exactly done so (that I could find).

Stanley and other leaders of similar and even lesser platforms realize this is a hugely controversial subject and likely to cost them something. If they come out for same-sex marriage, they risk alienating their traditionalist evangelical customer base. If they come out against it, they risk alienating many progressives and “spiritual but not religious” devotees who have been drawn to their ministries precisely because they seem “non-judgmental.”

I suspect if any of these folks were to voice their opinion, for or against the traditional teaching on homosexuality, they'd be surprising a significant portion of their audience. Think of the criticism Joel Osteen received from those who felt betrayed by even his apparently embarrassed support for the biblical teaching. He later softened his views in response.

The question isn't going away. Gay rights advocates care. Evangelical traditionalists care. The option not to show your cards will eventually not be an option at all.

The distant popularity of The Message notwithstanding, Peterson has never shared much in common with the leadership-industrial complex of attractional Christianity. And his public admission comes at a time when he’s consciously winding down in life and ministry. He's never sought popularity or a big platform; those things were, in a way, thrust upon him. But one thing I hope his statements and those from leaders like Jen Hatmaker and Rob Bell will have in common is in emboldening others to admit their stances and let the chips fall where they may. Not because I think that's a good thing, but because I suspect there are plenty of influential pastors operating in cowardice and hiding behind the naivete of their congregations. For the good of the church, and for the sake of their own consciences, I hope, as Mitchell says, they will find the "courage" to make the admission.

Will they lose their platforms? If the response to the interviews with Peterson (who at this time has already lost his publishing outlet with LifeWay) or Hatmaker are any indication, they are likely to lose some favor. Many congregants may leave. Mitchell's church has shrunk sizably since his shift. This is the trend of liberalizing Christianity. But many attractional leaders are likely to maintain their popularity and their profitability. Many have built their ministries on sentimental religion and pop-spirituality; echoing the cultural zeitgeist on homosexuality isn't likely to feel so jarring to their most ardent supporters.

History has shown that cultural appropriation is always crouching at the church door. Many times it holds sway in the pews and in the pulpits. We grieve rightly when our ministerial heroes show themselves susceptible to the spirit of the age.

But when all gets shaken out, orthodoxy always remains, perhaps rattled but not undone. James Merritt, a pastor and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention (and also, incidentally, Jonathan Merritt's father), tweeted shortly after the news broke: "I’ll change my mind when God changes his. His is the only opinion that matters and on this issue God neither stammers or stutters." Or, as Eugene Peterson has said, "No truth is ever out of date." It is good that our hope is not in pastors or pundits, but in the glorious Redeemer in whom there is no shadow of turning.



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