Wednesday, July 19, 2017

When Trusted Teachers Stray

Eugene Peterson has blessed and edified more believers than I ever will. As a much younger pastor, his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, had a profoundly encouraging impact on my sanctification--even the title has been a powerful reminder of what following Christ is like. Similarly, other books--all named so creatively as to stay in my head--have blessed me and countless others: Under the Unpredictable
Plant, Eat this Book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, are just a few. Of course, many of you have enjoyed reading The Message, Peterson's paraphrase/translation of the Bible that was a bit too casual for my regular reading, but certainly an insightful and generally faithful and accurate interpretive reading. I have an autographed copy of The Pastor: A Memoir, that is valued gift from a dear friend.

So you can imagine my profound disappointment when, in an interview with Religion News Service's Jonathan Merritt, Peterson said he had come to know many more gays and lesbians than he had in the past, felt that the current societal and church "transition" on this issue was good, and that he would perform same-sex "marriages." You can read the entire interview here; it is not long, even though it is painful. Then, just as I had finished the original draft of this essay, news came that Peterson had recanted his previous change of mind--that is, he said he was wrong in his answers in the interview, and on reflection, he wanted to make clear that he held the biblical view of marriage only being between one man and one woman. The retraction is a just a little confusing, but you can read Christianity Today's report of it here. His own statement is here.

The initial interview and the position revealed were disturbing for any number of reasons. It is true that Peterson has always had some other positions and conclusions with which I (and more importantly, many solid biblical scholars) have disagreed over the years, and perhaps these later years of retirement and ministry in the larger context outside of a local church have heightened a move further from constraints he felt there. He has stayed within a large, apostatizing mainline Protestant denomination with ease, while other evangelicals have largely given up and moved elsewhere. But the hallmark of Peterson's writing, as creative as it has been, was its thorough commitment to examine and explain the Scriptures. That is what the interview lacked. He based his shift on knowing "good" gays and lesbians. While the retraction goes back to a biblical view, there isn't any explanation given as to how he wound up affirming so much that was so bad, except to say it was an interview with a lot of hypothetical situations. And his retraction lacked any interaction with Scripture, either.

But the temporary defection from truth was based on a commonly expressed way of thinking--there are such good people who believe and/or live in ways I've held were wrong. What about all these good people?
Let's set aside the fact that no one is "good"--even if we accept and acknowledge that there are LGBTQ people who are kind, humble, generous, and other "good" attributes, should that change our theology? Should "good" Buddhists cause us to abandon the idea of a personal God or future judgment? Should "good" atheists lead us to dismiss the necessity of faith in God? My relatives who are Mormons are very good--in some cases much nicer than I am. Should I let go of the necessity of believing in the co-equality and eternality of Father and Son, and the orthodox conception of the Trinity?

Our faith's content can be testified to by a person's life, but it cannot be erased or altered by it. Peterson, like others before him, found himself surrounded by the culture's shifting currents and felt the urge to move with them. At no point did he cite any scriptural warrant for his change, and almost incredibly rested his argument with "'s not a right or wrong, as far as I'm concerned."

Unbelievable. I'm so grateful he changed his mind. Even if the change seems less than robust. [After originally writing this, I came across a number of sites saying that this had not been his first affirmation of same sex attraction as potentially good.]

But that leaves us with the question that comes when a teacher we have trusted goes wrong, "What about all I've learned from him? What about his books?" As a Christian, and as a pastor, let me offer some warnings and encouragements.

First, don't make the mistake of deciding that when Peterson, or any other teacher you know shifts on an important topic, this is immediate grounds to rethink your own position. We often grant too much authority across the board to human teachers and assume that, because they are "smarter" than us on a number of issues, they must be being "smart" when they change their minds about something. A similar problem occurs when we discover a teacher or writer who is excellent on a subject. We then tend to give him credence across the board, coming to any new things from that teacher with a pre-disposition to accept them. Yes, there are many people in this world smarter than I am, and some of them who once held views I do have abandoned them. If I've not paid attention to an issue, that may cause me to examine their arguments, but don't be easily moved from confidence in teaching that is longstanding within historic Christian thinking and preaching. In this case, the clear expression of biblical truth on human sexuality witnessed to by two millennia of faithful teaching, must win out.

Second, Peterson temporarily joined an, unfortunately, growing list of writers and teachers that I will no longer recommend without much caution. I do not want anyone to be confused by reading an author, then discovering his or her erroneous views on an important issue, and consider the source "safe" on the subject because I recommended a book written before taking this position. When a teacher goes bad, his previous good books must only be offered to more discerning readers, and then with caution.

Third, I'm so grateful he has come back to a good position, but even if he had not, I cannot forget what I have already read and learned, nor would I want to. I appreciate the multitude of insights I have received from Peterson's writings, and wherever they amplify scriptural truth, they are still helpful and worthwhile. Don't go throwing away an erring teacher's books or forgetting all the ways in which he has enabled us to understand truth if you have been blessed by his past works. On this point, I would simply remind you that a number of our old hymns and our current worship songs were or are written by people with very deficient (and sometimes heterodox) views on God, the Scriptures, the Trinity, Hell, the atonement of Christ, human sexuality, and the nature of the church (to name a few areas). The particular songs we sing are not teaching error, even if the authors believe and teach error elsewhere, and I would suggest that truth can (and has been) taught by people who were not changed by it themselves. That does not negate truth.

Fourth, Peterson's admission of what drove his wrong thinking is instructive to us. It's hard to be on the cutting edge of culture and hold tightly to biblical truth. That hold was undermined, in his case, not just by the constant drumbeat for "acceptance" generally in the culture, but by meeting "good people" who were "spiritual" and also gay or lesbian. But that shows two errors--the first being the assumption that anyone is really good. David, Isaiah, and Paul all weigh in on that question. The second is more subtle--judging gays, lesbians, and other sinners to be inherently incapable of doing things in this world that we would admire. We are all sinners, and all of us fall short of God's glory. But all of us, through the grace of God, are not as bad as we could be, and to be surprised that a gay person might be "good" or have spiritual interests is as wrong as assuming that your atheist neighbors cannot have a good marriage. There are many people who do not believe truth who are, nevertheless, admirable. We must see that, even as we acknowledge it does not change God's evaluation one bit.

 [Note: this is as it was written before the announcement of his change of mind--but I leave it because it's important to remember] Fifth (and I'll stop here), it may be a long shot from a human perspective, but I pray that Eugene Peterson will let the Scriptures that he has loved, expounded, and made clear to so many become the authoritative voice in his mind and heart on this issue once again. I'm praying he changes his mind, and does so soon.
Make no mistake--I consider him a Christian who is in error on an issue that is currently leading many people into destructive and soul-destroying sin by calling what is sinful "good." As a teacher of Scripture, James tells us in his epistle that there is a stricter standard of judgment that he (and I) will be held to. But I consider him a Christian, and one who has shown a long, consistent testimony of love and faithfulness to Jesus. As we age, we are not always careful to make sure that we finish well--holding on to the patterns, the attitudes, and the practices that have gotten us this far. I say to those my age and older--if Eugene Peterson, who has lived and served and thought and written so wisely over so many years can go off the rails on a big, important issue, then so can we if we are not careful to stay anchored to the Scriptures. Take heed.[Prayers answered! To God be the glory! But the warning still stands!]