Those of you who read or write here are well aware of the fact that I am a huge, huge disciple of Eugene Peterson. Not in any sycophantic or worshipful way, but in the sense that he has been my pastoral mentor since I first ordained as a preacher nearly twenty years ago. When Eugene Peterson speaks (or mostly writes) I have a tendency to listen well. I trust his judgment because he is wise, learned, and has been a pastor all of his life. He understands people, especially those in Christ, and he listens well to what they say before he opens his own mouth. (One trait of Peterson’s that I have yet to master perfectly.)
When he endorses someone or something, it is not because he made a snap judgment, but because he has prayed through it. Peterson is not afraid to learn and grow (as is evidenced in writing his latest book, a memoir simply called The Pastor.)
So I happened to chance upon a short interview with Peterson here. And if we are willing to listen to what he says in the interview (only two small paragraphs or so), we might find he is saying something rather profound about the church–the church he has been a pastor in all his life. The interviewer, Timothy Dalrymple, asks Peterson: “What are your thoughts regarding Rob Bell’s book and the controversy it ignited? What inspired you to endorse the book?” Peterson’s response is nothing short of beautiful:
Rob Bell and anyone else who is baptized is my brother or my sister. We have different ways of looking at things, but we are all a part of the kingdom of God. And I don’t think that brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God should fight. I think that’s bad family manners.
I don’t agree with everything Rob Bell says. But I think they’re worth saying. I think he puts a voice into the whole evangelical world which, if people will listen to it, will put you on your guard against judging people too quickly, making rapid dogmatic judgments on people. I don’t like it when people use hell and the wrath of God as weaponry against one another.
I knew that people would jump on me for writing the endorsement. I wrote the endorsement because I would like people to listen to him. He may not be right. But he’s doing something worth doing. There’s so much polarization in the evangelical church that it’s a true scandal. We’ve got to learn how to talk to each other and listen to each other in a civil way.
Now I fully realize that this conversation will be ruined because all we will want to talk about is whether Rob Bell is a heretic or not. Or we will find a way to mince Peterson’s words until he is saying something utterly different than what he is saying. But I want to make a larger point that may otherwise go unnoticed: There is something wrong with the church.
That is Peterson’s point. The church is not the place where we arrive. The church is a collection of misfits who do not fit into this world–who have been brought together by love. The church is a people who worship and rejoice and cry and struggle and hurt and suffer and live and love together. The church is a collection of people, ragamuffins, on a journey (which is one reason why I think the Bible constantly portrays God’s people on the move), but too often the church is seen as a place from which kings and queens pontificate. And Peterson is right about how such an attitude affects the church.
We get so caught up in the ‘who is right and who is wrong’ and the ‘who is in and who is out’ that we totally miss the struggle and the beauty of church. Who can scream the loudest? Who are the power-brokers? I laugh at the words ‘Farewell, Rob Bell’ because I don’t know that Bell was ever invited in in the first place. I never cease to be amazed at who believes they are the arbiters of inness and outness in the church. Maybe Rob should have tweeted back, ‘Farewell, John Piper.’ But I suspect, given what little I know of Rob, that he probably would have tweeted something like, ‘Grace and Peace, John Piper.’
Peterson said, “I Don’t think that brothers and sisters should fight.” I agree. That’s the way the world does things, not Jesus; not the church.
There may come a day when the church will become what it was born to be, but I suspect until that time comes, there will be a segment of the church that will continue to guard the doors with AK-47’s and M-16’s. They will welcome some and dismiss others; they will hire some and fire others; they will talk about grace and live by the sword; they will act like they are the head of the church, and not Jesus. They will say as much that they want to hear from God, but when he speaks they will cover their ears.
And those who want a simple church where they can hurt and suffer together, question and dialogue, journey and struggle, will be left out because they simply do not have it all together. And in today’s church, where aesthetic beauty triumphs over filthy catacombs, no one wants the ugly to mess up the pretty.