An excerpt from my conversation with the late Eugene Peterson
The late Eugene Peterson—poet, Presbyterian pastor, and parser of Semitic-language verbs, who died in 2018—was best known for The Message, a paraphrasing of the Bible into modern American English, complete with idioms. But he also authored some deeply wise books on ministry, some of which—like Under the Unpredictable Plant—number among my favorites. Dr. Peterson was a founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Bel Air, Maryland, where he served for twenty-nine years before becoming a professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. During his time at Regent, 1992–1998, I had the pleasure of interviewing him as part of a seminary internship assignment (an assignment that I proposed as an excuse to interview him) at Glen Eyrie Conference Center. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation, which later appeared in the student paper at Dallas Theological Seminary and was recently featured in Fathom Magazine.
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.” One woman there was really irate. She said I should be praying. And 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 have friendships with women. I touch them. I’ve been more careful in school than I was in the parish, where everyone knew 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.
My friend Kelley Mathews was with me for this wonderful conversation, during which we also talked with Dr. Peterson at length about rest and writing. And we dove deep, as if we had known each other for decades. Eventually he said he had to go. But a few minutes later he returned to deliver a fatherly hug. “Touch is human thing,” he said.