Eugene Peterson, a theologian and writer who is widely respected among Christians pastors and laypeople alike and is best known for writing “The Message Bible,” recently gave an interview over the phone that caused quite a stir. You can find the interview, published on Religion News Service by Jonathan Merritt, here. He also went on to give another interview that retracted and/or clarified some things he said in the first interview, and that caused another stir. You can read that article here.
The question and answer that caused the firestorm came near the end of the interview when Merritt asked, “If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?” Peterson’s answer?
Peterson’s internet-breaking answer?
His answer later?
When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that. That’s not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage. That said, I would still love such a couple as their pastor. They’d be welcome at my table, along with everybody else.
Now, I understand the shock waves that are caused by those answers, and I’ll let the people who love to debate this stuff have at it. That’s not the focus of this post.
What I do want to point out is that, as shocking as Peterson’s answer was to that question, it wasn’t the most surprising thing he said in the original phone interview with Merritt. His most shocking statement came when he answered the last question, “You’re entering the final stage of your career, your ministry, and your life. One, day, as with all of us, Eugene Peterson will be somebody who existed once. When that moment comes, how do you hope people will remember you?”
As far as interview questions go, this one was brilliant. And Peterson – a man who pastored for almost 30 years and has written more than 30 books – said this:
I don’t know. I tell you, I’m still getting used to it all. I’m still getting used to being noticed. People write to me. Boy, the stuff that comes in my mailbox is just enormous, so I do a lot of letter writing and telephoning. And I’m just amazed, really.
I haven’t been part of anything big. I’ve never been a big church preacher. I’ve never been on the radio or anything like that. I’m so pleased that people care about what I’ve done and support it because these are difficult times for the church. I’m quite aware of that. Anyway, I guess I’m just surprised that anyone would remember at all. (emphasis added)
A man who helped people understand the scriptures through a modern-day paraphrase that has sold over 16 million copies would say he’s never “been a part of something big?” A man who poured himself into the same congregation for nearly 3 decades and into 30+ books that have sold multiple millions of copies would be surprised “that anyone would remember [him] at all?”
I would submit that humility in such an influential leader is more shocking than the error and retraction. It’s a humility that Peterson’s critics would be wise to emulate. After all, if God gives grace to the humble (James 4:6), perhaps we should, too.