Shortly after this article was published, Eugene Peterson retracted his statement and affirmed a biblical view of marriage instead. More information can be found here.
In an interview published yesterday with Jonathan Merritt at Religion News Service, Eugene Peterson announced his willingness to perform same-sex weddings and his general support for same-sex couples in churches. While the headline says Peterson has “changed his mind” on the issue, it would be more accurate to say that he simply has become willing to speak about the issue and his relative indifference to it.
Multiple times he clarifies it isn’t a big deal to him. The churches where he served have always had gay members. “People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church,” Peterson concludes. “So we’re in a transition and I think it’s a transition for the best, for the good. 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.”
Peterson’s response is not quite what you have in others who really have changed their mind about the issue of same-sex relationships, such as David Gushee, Rob Bell, or Julie Rodgers. Gushee argues that supporting same-sex couples is in keeping with the biblical command to love one’s neighbor, and Rodgers argues that marriage itself is a school of virtue and same-sex couples should be allowed to marry so they too can have access to that resource.
They are making arguments about which we can disagree—we can talk about the end toward which Christian love is directed or the meaning of marriage and have fruitful or at least clarifying debate. It’s much harder to do that with someone like Peterson. His interview is not so much an attempt to argue for full inclusion of LGBT people in the church, but simply to brush aside the issue as being mostly unimportant.
In fact, this theological indifference is a far more pernicious approach than the straight-forward progressivism of Gushee, Bell, and Rodgers. While progressivism at least allows for a more direct theological debate, indifferentism banishes matters of significant theological concern to the margins.
A History of Indifferentism
At his best, Peterson has recognized the dangers of heterodoxy and warned his readers against them. In his 1982 book Traveling Light he wrote, “It is wicked to tell a person a lie about God because, if we come to believe the wrong things about God, we will think wrong things about ourselves, and we will live meanly or badly. Telling a person a lie about God distorts reality, perverts life and damages all the processes of living.”
But the overall approach of his work has been chiefly focused on the individual’s practice of piety and relationship to God and his community. While this approach can be enormously helpful, it can also inadvertently marginalize theology proper and fail to reckon with the ways that dogmatics and Christian piety intersect.
In its origins, this error is simply a perverted form of a classic Protestant idea. In the aftermath of the break from the Roman church in the 16th century, many Protestants rightly emphasized the idea of adiaphora—Greek for “things indifferent.” It meant that there are many matters on which Scripture does not speak explicitly. The church should therefore not attempt to order a specific practice when Scripture itself fails to do so. This prevents pastors, for instance, from forcing their congregants to fast on a random saint’s feast day.