Can I Trust the Message Bible?

July 27, 2017

 

Summary: The religious world was recently shocked by the words of Eugene Peterson as he spoke affirmatively of gay marriage. Yet, in a matter of hours the tables had turned and Eugene Peterson had changed his mind. What can evangelicals learn from these troubling events? Click here to subscribe to future posts.

The Eugene Peterson Scandal

 

In a recent publication of Religious News, writer, Jonathan Merritt, wrote an article bearing the headline: “Eugene Peterson Changing His Mind About Same Sex Issues and Marriage.” [1]

 

Eugene Peterson is the bestselling author of the widely-used paraphrase, the Message Bible. He is also the creator of several notable books including “The Pastor,” and “A Long Obedience In the Same Direction.” His various works have recently been characterized as possessing tremendous “pastoral imagination.” [2] Commenting on his impact, prominent evangelical spokesman, Russell Moore stated: “I can’t erase from my mind all the things he has taught me.” [3]

 

Peterson’s recent comments regarding homosexuality, therefore, come as a blow for numerous individuals holding traditional views. Many have ventured to speculate on what this means for the broader face of evangelism today. Jason Kovacs, for example, of Austin Stone Church has referred to Peterson’s shift as being no less substantial than that of Christian novelist, Wendell Berry. [4] And noted Baptist figurehead, Andrew Walker, has also lamented that Peterson has forsaken the tradition he once so eloquently described. [5]

 

For reasons such as these, Lifeway Christian Bookstore recently announced that it was prepared to cease carrying Peterson’s books. [6] Speaking of the retired pastor’s “revisited views,” it specifically noted that the chain might no longer carry the Message paraphrase. [7] Christianity Today writer, Kate Shellnut, reported that Lifeway was nevertheless open to altering its stance, adding that the choice would ultimately depend on Peterson’s response to the messy controversy which has occurred in the wake of his comments. [8]

 

Perhaps not surprisingly, in just a matter of hours, eminent writer, Eugene Peterson, had again changed his tune. Affirming a “biblical view of everything” (whatever that means), the author hastily attempted to retract his previous comments. [9] “I’ve never performed a same-sex wedding,” Peterson noted. “I’ve never been asked and, frankly, I hope I never am…” [10] In response to questions of why he recently answered as he did, Peterson said: “…to be honest, no is not a word I typically use.” [11]

 

It therefore seems that Christians (and especially evangelicals) are finding themselves in a position to learn some valuable lessons. What might be gleaned from the recent example of Peterson’s “flip-flop” may very well be a matter of discussion for leaders for month’s to come. As Religious News writer, Jacob Lupfer, has recently noted: “[T]he ensuing anger and confusion on both sides proves that the debate is far, far from over.” [12] And Time Magazine also recently drew what is perhaps the most obvious lesson: “Don’t say anything you don’t mean.” [13]

 

Learning From Mistakes

 

So how should Christians feel about the “Peterson Controversy?” Better yet, how should church leaders process the recent news? In light of the fiery comments pouring from both sides of the debate, here is how the family at Ben Fischer Ministries, through early dialogue, is seeing the issues.

 

First, we have felt led to turn to the word of God. We have remembered the sobering ruling of Scripture on such matters. Of particular relevance to our discussion were the words of Saint Paul, who wrote: “…if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Gal 6:1; ESV) At the same time, we have also pondered the seemingly opposite council which proceeds from the pen of the very same biblical author: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge.” (1 Cor 5:12; ESV)

 

Rendering a clear verdict on such matters is biblically praiseworthy. Offering an “intelligible” response is in keeping with the way of love. (see 1 Cor 13, 14) As Paul himself rhetorically questions his readers: “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” (1 Cor 6:3; ESV) At the same time, Scripture cautions against being high-minded. It warns those who see themselves as righteous in their sight. To quote the skeptic’s favorite passage of the Bible, Christian’s should “Judge not lest [we] be judged.”(Matt 7:1; ESV)

 

What is therefore important is clarity merged in gentleness; faithfulness to the scriptures which Christ himself so vividly lived. Simply put, we need to bear in mind things like the blunder of Peter at Galatia, which serves as part of the backdrop for Paul’s charge to restorative love. (see Gal 2:11-14) Nevertheless, we should also recall that the very same epistle is unmistakable in its stance with respect to the issues the Galatians faced. How much more then should we be inspired by the very same example, speaking our message boldly in a Spirit of love.

 

Leaders should therefore be confident to address the core issues. They should openly identify the root causes for Peterson’s recent stumble. Dennis Burk, in particular, seems to have done well in being frank here, noting, “Anyone familiar with Peterson will probably not be surprised by this interview.” [14] As justification for his comments, Burk notes Peterson’s affiliation with the PCUSA (that is, the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America). The Huffington Post recently stated that just two years ago: “…the Presbyterian denomination…allows for a more inclusive definition of marriage.” [15]

 

Looking to scripture, Paul therefore warns believers, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’” (1 Cor 15:33; BSB) Yoking oneself to a church body holding a low view of scripture, apart from exercising rigorous caution, can be harmful to ones faith. Returning to Burk’s comments on the recent interview with Religious News: “[the interviewer] points out…that Peterson doesn’t use the [word] ‘homosexuality’ in The Message….[P]erhaps Peterson’s views aren’t so new after all.” [16] Indeed, it would certainly seem difficult to resist such speculation.

 

Equally as pertinent, would be the question of motivation. Why we might ask, did Peterson choose to “flop” after “flipping?” Famous modern worship leader, Vicky Beeching, seems to offer us one plausible and very likely explanation. After recently “coming out” regarding her own homosexuality, Beeching suggests one option that may, in fact, be not far from the truth. In regard to Peterson’s retraction before the Washington Post, she tweeted: “In the American Christian world, opposition to LGBT equality is deeply interlaced with finances…” [17]

 

Sadly, it may be impossible for Peterson to battle such suspicions. Accusations that his retractions were financially motivated will likely strengthen. This is only further aggravated by the fact that another recent Religious News article offered several more relevant (and yes, provocative) pieces of information. For after interviewer, Jonathan Merritt, told Christianity Today why he questioned Peterson regarding his views on homosexuality, he later released a statement showing evidence that the famous pastor had, in all likelihood, altered his stance on the issue some years ago.

 

Quoting from that article, Merritt reveals in 2014 that Peterson had roundly claimed: “I’ve…changed my mind.” [18] Citing one video (which I’ve personally taken the time to view), Merritt quotes Peterson’s words: “I have helped several families accept their children as gay.” [19] Peterson goes on to confess, entirely unambiguously, that he had convinced parents in such cases to believe that this is “…not a bad thing.” [20] Such plain admissions leave us with few other alternatives but that Peterson is generally affirming of the homosexual disposition.

 

Strong critics of the evangelical figurehead, therefore, appear to be justified. Comparatively, as Paul warned Peter at Galatia, he stood condemned. “For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he…separated himself, fearing the circumcision.” (Gal 2:12; ESV) Leaders who want to flag such comparisons as unmerciful or unkind should remember Paul’s haunting comment: “…even Barnabas was led astray.” (vs. 13) Proneness to the gift of encouragement in this case can actually be a liability and can prevent Peterson (like Peter) from returning to the truth.

 

Growing Past the Scandal 

 

On a personal note, I, as a leader, know what it is like to be publicly opposed. As hard as it is was to admit, my detractors were correct. Now I feel grateful to have been the subject of such scrutiny which lead to a much needed (and long over due) change of heart. I thus plan to continue to enjoy reading the Message Bible, even as Lifeway contemplates pulling the volume from its shelves, knowing that we may not be seeing the last of Eugene Peterson, but that the message may now, in fact, be rescuing a dear brother from death. (see James 5:20)

 

In conclusion, I want to thank those of you that support our ministry in prayer and finances. Please continue to keep our immediate and spiritual family lifted up. Pray also for my leaders who have the privilege of speaking into my life and offering, at times, their priceless spiritual direction. I owe them of a debt of gratitude I will never be able to repay. So let’s remember to make their job easy, and not burdensome. Remember also that we ourselves should be cautious in judgment, lest, as Paul warns, “we too be tempted.” (Gal 6:1; ESV)

 

[1]. http://religionnews.com/2017/07/12/eugene-peterson-on-changing-his-mind-about-same-sex-issues-and-marriage/

[2]. http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2017/july/lifeway-prepared-to-stop-selling-message-over-eugene-peters.html

[3]. ibid.

[4]. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/wendell-berry-backs-gay-marriage/.

[5]. http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2017/july/lifeway-prepared-to-stop-selling-message-over-eugene-peters.html

[6]. http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2017/july/lifeway-prepared-to-stop-selling-message-over-eugene-peters.html

[7]. ibid.

[8]. ibid.

[9]. http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2017/july/eugene-peterson-actually-does-not-support-gay-marriage.html

[10]. ibid.

[11]. ibid.

[12]. http://religionnews.com/2017/07/14/eugene-peterson-reminds-us-the-christian-lgbt-debate-is-far-from-over/

[13]. http://time.com/4859620/eugene-peterson-bible-homosexuality-gay-marriage/

[14]. http://www.dennyburk.com/eugene-peterson-will-always-exist/

[15]. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/17/pcusa-lgbt-book-of-order_n_6885966.html

[16]. http://www.dennyburk.com/eugene-peterson-will-always-exist/

[17]. http://www.christianpost.com/news/vicky-beeching-american-christians-gay-marriage-eugene-peterson-192086/

[18]. http://religionnews.com/2017/07/13/eugene-peterson-had-this-to-say-about-same-sex-issues-in-2014/

[19]. https://vimeo.com/120184195 (note: start time: 2:31:15)

[20]. ibid.

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