Eugene Peterson: On the Role of Women

Sandra Glahn's picture

Eugene Peterson, best known for The Message, was a pastor for thirty years before becoming professor of spiritual theology at Regent. He's also written some excellent ministry books including my favorite, Under the Unpredictable Plant.  Some years back I interviewed him, and here's what he had to say on "the woman question." 

 SG: Many are still formulating their views about where women fit into the theological world. Would you care to comment?

  EP: Yes, in fact I would like to comment on that. It comes out of my history, too. I grew up in the Pentecostal church where [women preaching] was not unusual. It was pretty common. But my mother struggled with it from time to time because sometimes somebody would come through and read her the verses from Corinthians or Timothy. At one point she quit preaching and teaching because somebody had done this to her. But then she just couldn’t quit. And she told me once, “I don’t feel disobedient when I’m doing this. I don’t feel like I’m grieving the Spirit. It’s when I’m quiet and silent and shut up that I feel like that.” So I don’t know. I have colleagues who are world-class exegetes. Some affirm equality of women in ministry and others don’t. They’re all master exegetes; they’re all working with the same text. So I have a lot of respect for these people in their attempt, their determination, to honor the Word. I can certainly respect them. For some, at least the ones I know, it comes out of no sense of male chauvinism or superiority or ego, but an honest attempt to honor the Word of God. I know not everybody comes out of this, but some do and I honor that. Yet my personal experience is so different, and the shaping of my life has been so different. I could read these verses I think just as accurately exegetically. So I guess it’s one of the things we’re involved with in [this] century that’s different.  

 SG: What about marriage? I spoke with a woman whose husband is a righteous man, but he is uncomfortable leading a formal devotional time with her. She wanted to know what a couple’s spiritual life should look like. What would you tell her?  

EP: I don’t think there’s any picture. At a pastor’s conference I told those in attendance that at noon on Mondays (our Sabbath/hiking day) Jan prayed for lunch. In fact I think I said, “I pray all day Sunday. I’m tired of it. She can do it on Monday.” There was one woman there who was really irate. She said I should be praying. Jan should not be praying because I’m the priest in the family and she’s not the priest. That’s silliness. You are brother, sister, man, wife, friends in Christ. You work out the kind of relationship before the Lord that is intimate. And no, I don’t think there’s any kind of picture you have to fit into, that you have to produce. That’s oppressive isn’t it? After all, this is freedom in the Lord. 

 SG: As a Christian leader, how do you handle friendships with women?

EP: I’ve not lived cautiously. I have friendships with women. I touch them. I’ve been more careful in school than I was in the parish, where everyone knows me. It’s different now because someone can come to my office and we can have a deep talk and the next day I won’t know his or her name. That didn’t happen in a church setting. So I’m more careful now. But I’m not obsessive. These are my friends. Touch is a human thing, not just a sexual thing. It is dehumanizing to deny touch. Is sex a contagious disease? Sex is a danger, but money is a danger, too. Do you refuse to take a salary because money is a danger? I am convinced that the so‑called failures in ministry are not motivated sexually. For both men and women, they’re motivated by arrogance, pride, power and a hunger for intimacy. It doesn’t happen overnight. They have long histories before them. The failures don’t happen because you touch somebody. They have to do with character development—part of learning to be a man and learning to be a woman. It’s part of spiritual maturity and spiritual formation. 

  If you pour all your energies into trying to avoid sexual sin, you will fail in another area. There are other failures which are terrible, too. Life is messy. One of the things that usually happens to people in leadership is that we get lots of affirmation from people we don’t know. When I go speak somewhere (I usually don’t do conferences any more) I get lots of affirmation. For three days you’re immersed in a de‑personalizing world. That will take away from you. You don’t know anyone. So you habitually do things that are less characteristic of yourself. It’s easier to lose your identity. When I leave, I feel less myself. Suddenly a woman tells you who you are and you believe her. You accept a role and live it—both men and women do this. It’s easier to live that way. When I do conferences, I don’t have to be nice to anybody. There’s no context. I always sound better than I am. 

Comments

Gwynne Johnson's picture

What a privilege to read and hear Peterson's heart for women.

Thank you for this interview.

His perspective is infused with humbleness, and I appreciate that. I think he gives us a great guide in his attitude as we discuss this issue.

you know what I love to do? vacuum. and dust. just tonight I cleaned the kitchen and did the dishes. without being asked.

you know what I don't enjoy doing? mowing the lawn. painting the house. fixing things.

I think it's utterly ridiculous that anyone could argue that it's a "man's job" to do "manly" things. if the gifts of the Spirit are gender-neutral (and they are), how much more are the domestic duties? why not use the divine design of each spouse (or single person) to accomplish the shared tasks, according to what each person enjoys and at which they excel?

and EP has a point - much the same point of Dr. Sue Edwards and Kelley Matthews in their book, Mixed Ministry. I make a regular practice of interacting physically, albeit appropriately, with my staff. all of them. high-fives, arms around shoulders, a pat on the (upper) back. it's crucial for healthy relationships.

I'm sick of evangelicals being motivated, ney, driven by fear, instead of faith. we must look pathetic to observers, sometimes.

Before giving my life to Christ, I had three sisters of whom I love and respect very much. They're all blessed with their own unique gifts that I've always admired. I don't believe anyone would have ever labeled me a sexist in the slightest.

Since giving my life to Christ I've been studying the Bible endlessly. I like to study the Bible with a question in mind, this way I'm motivated to discover an answer. The thing I hate is when I don't have a question so I'll search other sources for questions. The Internet and discussion boards are great resources for questions.

Of course I ran across the subject of Women Pastors. I set out to discover exactly what the Scriptures have to say about this and discovered that Scripture never supports the role of women as Pastors presiding over a congregation of men. The difficult part comes in figuring out exactly what roles were those of a Church leader or overseer?
Is a Deacon a church leader? No.
Is a Prophet a Church leader? No.
Is a Ruler a Church leader? No,
Evangelist? No.
Minister? No.
Helper? No
Preacher? No
Teacher? No
Priest? Yes.
Pastor? Yes.
Bishop? Yes.
Elder? Yes

Our Churches today have difficulty with placing the proper title in accordance with what a particular office or position is. Because of this many people have become confused as to what the responsibilities are of a particular office. It's in this confusion that corruption occurs.
If there is an instance in the Bible that depicts a woman in a position of Church leadership and it is mentioned as favorable or acceptable to God, then I have no issue with women Pastors. I honestly believe that some women sitting among the congregation have a greater ability than the Pastor who is currently presiding over the congregation. That being said, I would leave the church immediately if a woman was ever to stand up to lead the congregation.

Since becoming saved I didn't become sexist, I never lost respect for my sisters or any other woman. I did learn however to respect His Word.
Isaiah 3:12 & Deuteronomy 22:5 are interesting verses that aren't often brought up in relation to this discussion, but should not be overlooked in this context.

Sandra Glahn's picture

Thanks, Anonymous, for your comments. I appreciate much about what you had to say, and I share your desire to hold

I really appreciated this, thanks.

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