How NOT to Handle a Controversy (Apparently)

A follow-up to the unfolding saga of Eugene Peterson and the confession that never was. Here is what I have been able to discover so far. (All of this can be easily confirmed – I subscribe to Christianity Today online, and all relevant links are embedded in the stories)

  1.  Eugene Peterson was approached about conducting a phone interview by Jonathan Merritt. He agreed, and agreed to having the interview tape recorded. The interview lasted approximately 33 minutes
  2. Merritt had some hints (the language here gets kind of nebulous) that Peterson no longer held the traditional view of homosexuality (if he ever did) and that he now endorsed homosexual marriage. At the conclusion of the interview Merritt posed two specific questions regarding this possibility.
  3. Peterson answered the first question (regarding homosexuality) in somewhat of a rambling answer, basically saying that culture has evolved, the question of homosexuality has been answered, and he had no problem in accepting practicing homosexuals in his church. He even mentioned his acceptance of a practicing homosexual as music minister for the church where he had recently retired.
  4. Merritt then asked if he was approached to perform a same-sex marriage, would Peterson perform the ceremony. Peterson responded with an unequivocal, “yes.”
  5. When Merritt published the interview an instant storm blew up, and one of the largest Christian booksellers threatened to pull Peterson’s books off of the shelves – this was no idle threat. Lifeway Books does not mess around with authors they feel have rejected clear biblical teaching.
  6. A day after the interview went public, Peterson had a strange “Damascus Road” moment of conversion, recanted what he had said about homosexuality and same-sex marriage, claimed to have been distracted by a flurry of hypothetical questions, and concluded with perhaps one of the biggest equivocations in history, “I affirm a biblical view of everything.”
  7. Apparently (I have not viewed the video), Merritt responded to the recantation by providing a video in which Peterson certainly leaves the door open that his views on homosexuality were changing.
  8. Somehow or another, as is so often the case in these situations, Merritt is being made to look like the bad guy, when all he did was report on an interview that was pre-arranged and was in no way coercive or deceitful.

I have some additional thoughts to my post of yesterday.

  1.  Peterson’s mea culpa sounds forced and overly affective. What in the world does “I affirm a biblical view of everything” mean? Why, if Peterson does not accept the traditional view of homosexuality (as being aberrant and a human perversion) would he approve of a practicing and unrepentant homosexual being hired as a congregational music minister? But, why, if he thought the issue was decided in favor of committed, faithful homosexual relationships, would he then so emphatically deny he accepted homosexual behavior as being blessed by God? Why even attempt such a nebulous statement like, “I affirm a biblical view of everything?”
  2. It really bothers me that Merritt has been attacked as being the heavy here. Peterson has such a cult following that, apparently, some people cannot stand to see the altar of Baal being destroyed. Instead of searching their own culpability in the situation, they want to kill the messenger (see Judges 6, also 1 Sam. 5). As I wrote yesterday, it should not come as any shock at all that Peterson accepts the homosexual lifestyle as being compatible with Christianity. Although he may nowhere confess such a belief, it is thoroughly reconcilable with his voluminous writings.
  3. Peterson’s defense that he was temporarily confused or distracted by a hypothetical question has got to rate in the top five of all sophistic statements of all time – right up there with Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman.” If Peterson was a pastor for a large congregation in the Presbyterian Church, he was inundated with hypothetical questions every week, if not every day. He cannot argue that one fairly straightforward question somehow tripped him up – unless he is dealing with the onset of dementia, and that is something that no one is suggesting. I hate hypothetical questions – but I learned how to recognize them a LONG time ago. If I knew that an interview was being taped, and I sniffed out a hypothetical question that was virtually impossible to answer (and Merritt’s question was really very direct), I would have blown it up. If Peterson is only half as intelligent as his defenders claim, that question should have caused no problems at all. And, that is exactly my point. At the time of the interview, Peterson answered with a direct, unequivocal “yes,” indicating he understood the question about conducting a same-sex marriage and his willingness to officiate such ceremonies.
  4. All of this goes to demonstrate how NOT to handle a controversy. Peterson’s original answers have caused a tidal wave of accusations, counter-accusations, recriminations and other fall-out that directly relates to the esteemed position he holds in the minds of many. His recantation sounds forced and artificial. Merritt’s motives and his integrity have been impugned. He has further angered many with his attempts to defend his initial reasons for asking Peterson the questions he did.

No one knows how this whole sordid affair will end. Quite possibly it will dissipate as does a little tempest in a tea-pot, with everyone going away licking their wounds and vowing never to trust the “enemy” again. There may be some residual damage to either Peterson or Merritt or both. But it does illustrate that the best policy is to state what you believe with conviction, defend your convictions with the facts you hold to be true, and when challenged, answer with grace and humility.

Arrogance, Humility, and Institutional Memory

We are living in a time in which the disease of arrogance is approaching pandemic proportions. Humility, never in the history of man something that was found in over-abundance, has disappeared from all but the most remote corners of discourse. Humility is now considered to be the chief deadly sin. It used to be that mud was only thrown after all facts were depleted. Now, the storehouse of facts remains untouched, while the mud has all but been expended.

While far from being alone, the Churches of Christ have long been accused of arrogance – “You people think you’re the only ones going to heaven” is a refrain oft repeated – and not without some justification. Some members do hold such a belief. However, even among those who do not hold such exclusionary beliefs, there is a sense that, if the Bible is inerrant, and if I believe the Bible teaches something, then my understanding of what the Bible teaches must therefore also be inerrant.

Like I said – we are not alone in harboring such members, but it seems to me that we do have more than our fair share.

This is so peculiar to me, for one reason. The early leaders in the Restoration Movement did not hold such exclusionary beliefs, and the exact opposite concept is enshrined in one of the founding documents of the Restoration Movement.

In the Declaration and Address, Thomas Campbell (father of Alexander), wrote this as his sixth proposition explaining the desire to withdraw from the evils of denominationalism:

6.  That, although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they see the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God. Therefore, no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the Church. Hence, it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the Church’s confession. (Thomas Campbell, Declaration and Address, Mission Messenger, 1978 printing, p. 46)

The target that Campbell had squarely in his sights was the numerous creeds and Confessions of Faith that were used to divide Christians in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. It is significant to me, however, that the very language he used “deductions…inferences…formally binding” are those that are used with a reckless abandon by his 21st century spiritual heirs.

Today you let some preacher or blogger infer something from Scripture, and it automatically becomes enshrined as a binding truth for the confession of the Church.

There is a key phrase in the middle of that paragraph is is, to me, astounding – incredible even. Thomas wrote, “. . . for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God.” Here we have a statement that could come from the pen of virtually any “postmodern” theologian, and it was written almost 200 years ago!

If you convert someone to a deduction or an inference of man, all you have done is to create a follower of a denomination. If you convert someone to Jesus Christ, you convert them to the power and veracity of God. Anytime you tell someone (or anytime someone tries to tell you), “you have to believe the Bible plus this book” or “you have to accept the Bible and this confession of faith” or “you have to believe in the Bible and this creed” understand that person is trying to get you to accept the deductions and inferences of men as equal to that of Scripture! I wish I could say that such things do not happen within Churches of Christ, but I am wise enough to know otherwise. Preachers and members of the Churches of Christ may not have a written creed, but far too many of them have just as binding and just as distinct unwritten creeds, and those are probably more dangerous than the written versions. At least you can object to a specific written statement. Trying to pin down the unwritten creeds of some members is virtually impossible.

I will not back down one inch from the truths clearly taught in Scripture. I will not easily back down from my deductions and inferences, because God gave me a brain to use and legitimate tools to help me understand his word. But – and this is critical – I cannot bind my deductions on you as a matter of Christian obedience any further than you can agree to my deductive skill and resulting conclusions.

Humility demands that we approach our deductions, inferences, and conclusions with the greatest of reticence and care. As Campbell said, they may well be rock-solid biblical doctrine. But, just as easily, they can become tainted and be less than pure.

Arrogance will not allow that we be mistaken, in any way, shape, or form, in our “human wisdom.” Arrogance demands that everyone bow their knee to our special insight and judgment. When all the facts are used up, arrogance has no fear to start throwing mud. Arrogance is always self-righteous, but never quiet.

I would so much rather be quietly correct, than loudly wrong.

Jury Duty?

I suppose of all modern problems, serving on a jury rates pretty low on the list. Never-the-less, the envelope that carries my jury duty summons has to rate at the very top of my least favorite to receive. The entire process of jury duty selection and service is among the most distasteful, and in my humble opinion, spiritually vexed problems that I face.

Many Christians view serving on a jury as a sacred honor – a privilege second only to active service in the military or law enforcement. I am thoroughly ambivalent. I understand all the flowery defense of the need for juries and the responsibility we have to serve. I just cannot get away from a nagging question – can a Christian participate in a flawed system and not thereby share in its guilt? To what extent is the cog just as guilty as the entire machine?

The jury summons that recently crossed my desk contains the following paragraph:

The right to trial by jury is guaranteed to all persons by both the United States and ********* Constitutions. The success of the jury system depends upon citizens performing their solemn duty to serve as jurors, while acting with integrity in discharging this responsibility.

Pretty high commendation. Just two questions – Is it true? and Is it Christian?

Let’s start phrase by phrase. A trial by jury is guaranteed to all persons. Check. No doubt, and no problem with that at all. Second, the success of the jury system depends on citizens (note the distinct lack of any qualifying adjectives) performing their solemn duty. Okay, well that one is a little more slippery. The trial of a racial minority by a racist jury is no success at all – it is a travesty and a crime itself. A trial involving a complicated legal question by an uninformed and basically ignorant jury is an equal travesty. So – the success of the jury trial system depends upon an educated and completely dispassionate jury. Such are rare, if not completely extinct. Third, the jurors must act with integrity. Here is where you lose me completely. Judges are not compelled to act with integrity – only to correctly apply the law. The suppression of critical evidence, the permission to allow certain witnesses – all may be legally correct, but integrity goes far and above legality. Defense attorneys are especially exempt from acting with integrity – it matters not at all to a defense attorney if his or her client is actually guilty, only that he or she be defended to the fullest extent of the law. And what about the state – can anyone say with a straight face that the state is required to act with integrity? It seems like every month, if not every week, a prisoner has been released after serving years, if not decades, in prison for crimes they did not commit. How many innocent individuals have been executed? All of these variables are somehow mitigated by a jury that acts with integrity? In many trials the only way a jury could act with integrity is to throw the entire court into jail for 30 days.

You see, the entire purpose of a legal system is to adjudicate truth and responsibility. If judges only have to dot “i”s and cross “t”s from a legal standpoint, if defense attorneys have to aggressively defend a client regardless of their guilt or innocence, and if the state’s attorneys can massage and/or withhold exculpatory evidence – how in the world can a jury be said to “act in integrity”?

Of course the rejoinder is that the jury is not responsible for the judge and his or her decisions, the jury is to weigh the merits of the case and not pay attention to the defense or prosecution attorneys. But, if the jury is misled, if the jury does not get to hear all of the pertinent evidence, if the jury is manipulated by high-sounding but vacuous rhetoric – how can the end result be said to have integrity? If the jury acquits the guilty, or if they convict the innocent – is it not thereby guilty of a gross crime, regardless of whether they acted “in integrity” according to some vague regulation?

The justice system must be based on a search for the truth, and as a protection for the immediate victim and for society at large. Our system is upside down. The entire system is designed to protect the rights of the accused; and the victim and society be . . . well, you get the picture.

As I said – I am utterly ambivalent. I know the importance of our legal system. As someone once said, it may not be perfect, but it is the best we have. But because of my experience both as a participant in the system and as a more than casual observer I see how bent and broken the system is. I also know that I am utterly powerless to effect any kind of change.

So – by law I am required to show up for jury duty, and to obey the law of the land I will comply. And if forced to serve, I will serve as dispassionately and with as much integrity as I can muster.

And, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer so eloquently argued, I will pray with all my heart and soul that God’s mercies can forgive the sins of those forced to do what their conscience objects to.