Editor’s note: The following day, Eugene Peterson retracted the comments he gave Religion News Service that concerned LifeWay Christian Resources.
The Message Bible, The Pastor, and the rest of Eugene Peterson’s catalog may no longer be sold at America’s largest Christian retail chain due to the retired pastor’s revisited views on same-sex marriage.
In an interview published Wednesday, Peterson told Religion News Service columnist Jonathan Merritt that the “debate about lesbians and gays might be over” and that he would perform a same-sex wedding ceremony if he were pastoring today.
As Christians on both sides of the LGBT debate acknowledged Peterson as one of the most high-profile evangelicals to publicly change his stance on sexuality, LifeWay Christian Stores stated that if the popular author indeed supports same-sex marriage, its stores can no longer sell his books.
“LifeWay only carries resources in our stores by authors who hold to the biblical view of marriage,” stated a spokesperson for the affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). “We are attempting to confirm with Eugene Peterson or his representatives that his recent interview on same-sex marriage accurately reflects his views. If he confirms he does not hold to a biblical view of marriage, LifeWay will no longer sell any resources by him, including The Message.”
The LifeWay website currently lists 135 titles by Peterson, including dozens of versions of his Message Bible, his memoir The Pastor, and his popular book on discipleship and the Psalms, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
The 84-year-old served for decades in the Presbyterian Church (USA), which now permits same-sex marriage and openly gay clergy. But Peterson has been widely read, celebrated, and respected among generations of evangelicals, including pastors.
After Christian author Jen Hatmaker affirmed same-sex marriage last year, also in an interview with Merritt, LifeWay stopped carrying her books, citing “significant changes in her theology of human sexuality and the meaning and definition of marriage … which contradict LifeWay’s doctrinal guidelines.”
As CT previously reported, LifeWay, which draws in 2.7 million customers a year, has chosen not to stock or to discontinue several prominent Christian authors, including Joel Osteen, William P. Young, and Joyce Meyer, due to its doctrinal standards. The chain has pulled titles from Mark Driscoll and books about heaven tourism. And despite remarks from Rachel Held Evans, it does not ban all books with the word vagina.
When influential evangelicals change their beliefs—or, in a different context, betray them with ethical or moral failures—followers who disagree are left wondering how it affects their relationship with the leader’s past work.
Will evangelicals who support traditional marriage still read The Message? Sure, some never got on board with Peterson’s paraphrase in the first place. But his evangelical fans will have to decide how much this shift impacts his overall teaching and body of work.
“I love Eugene Peterson. He’s a pastoral hero of mine. I disagree with him on the issue. I grieve how he’s being slandered,” tweeted Rich Villodas, pastor of New Life Fellowship, a multiethnic evangelical congregation in New York.
Jason Kovacs, pastor of care and counseling at the Austin Stone church, said he will continue to read Peterson, seeing his shift as a humble reminder that people inevitably change their minds for reasons good and bad.
“I also take it as a sobering call to think seriously about how to hold onto orthodox biblical truth while care well for the souls of people in our churches and cities in this day and age,” he said. “We cannot afford to lose the kind of pastoral imagination and practice that Eugene Peterson has blessed us with.”
Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), addressed Peterson’s legacy for The Gospel Coalition, likening his news to Wendell Berry’s shift on the same issue.
Moore said that to avoid confusion, he probably wouldn’t give Peterson’s books to a new believer or invite him to speak at his church. Still, “I can’t un-highlight or un-flag my Peterson books,” he said. “I can’t erase from my mind all the things he has taught me.”
When asked about his views on same-sex marriage and homosexuality, Peterson said, in part:
I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over. People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church. 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.
Some evangelical leaders stated they were not surprised by the news; others were sad and disappointed at his remarks.
“How sad that a creative voice like Eugene Peterson would forsake the Scriptures and the Tradition that he so eloquently wrote of,” tweeted Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the ERLC.
In the interview series with Merritt, Peterson also stated that he will no longer be writing, teaching, or speaking publicly.