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.”
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.