Ecclesial Theology and Cultural Self-Preservation
I have been a member of the Church of the Nazarene since I was old enough to join. I do not come from a “Nazarene family.” When I was growing up, my parents were nominally Baptist, mostly devotees to American civil religion, with a little spooky radio evangelism in my mom, both generally non-churchgoing. My mom had promised God that if I survived a very difficult first few days after my birth, she’d dedicate my life to God. So, Mom had Dad dropped me off at a little Nazarene church in Chicago Heights every Sunday morning. That church was chosen largely arbitrarily. But, in any case, for one bad reason after another, I grew up attending Nazarene churches, in Chicago, in Indianapolis, in Belleville, Illinois, in Hobbs, New Mexico. I joined that last church and was baptized there. I’ve been an official member ever since. I attended one of the denomination’s universities and it’s seminary. I was eventually ordained by it. I taught for 24 years at a total of three of its other universities (giving me a pretty good idea of five of its educational institutions). I also taught for 14 years at a nominally Wesleyan university outside Nazarene institutional control, though the denomination officially “assigned” me there. All this is to say that if I don’t have a pretty good idea of the way the Church of the Nazarene operates, I have no excuse.
Here’s what I’ve found: The Church began as an association of diverse groups from quite different theological trajectories. There were former Methodist, Quaker, Presbyterian, and other
groups. They were urban and rural. They were conservative and progressive. They were strongly supportive of the ordination of women. They were prohibitionists, when that was a “progressive” movement. Their rural members often belonged to one or another socialist workers party. It was a very diverse collection of members. What they had in common was a deep compassion for the poor and a commitment to “the doctrine of entire sanctification,” which was understood as a kind of life lived as and toward martyrdom.
As time went by, diversity became less desireable to the institution. That is not surprising. Institutions have an inherent conatus, a drive to survive, that does not sit well with diversity’s complications. As I found myself more and more in the midst of the dominant Nazarene institution, I discovered that there was a great tension between those who were committed to “sanctification” as a life to be lived and those who were committed to “sanctification” as an abstraction to be enforced, an “experience” and a “testimony” bindingly to be accompanied by a very easily articulated, itemized list of regulations and psychological phenomena. There was a similar tension between those, on the one hand, who were committed to theological education, to probing the doctrines of the church, that they might be more vital and humane and holy, and those, on the other hand, who feared ambiguity and even temporary confusion or uncertainty, and suspected that theological education would douse the fires of spiritual enthusiasm.
The Church of the Nazarene was from the beginning a very “White” institution. That is not to say that its members were racists. It is to say that ethnic diversity was not common among its mainstream American congregations. As was the case with other “White” denominations in America, the Nazarenes had some African American congregations, too. Most of them were in
the South and all of them, regardless of location, were put in the Gulf Central District. Certainly, by the time I came along, White Supremacy was easily encountered in Nazarene congregations, even if no one would ever use such strong wording to describe it. And so, it was common during basketball games at Bethany Nazarene College, where I attended in the late 60s, to hear the “N- word” shouted at the persons of African descent who played for opposing teams—and with no intervention by the university to stop it. Bethany’s team was all-White.
Where things stand now is that the culture of the Church of the Nazarene is very rapidly changing. Those who are committed to the Church as a culture, one that was established decades ago, are very disturbed by that change. Some Nazarenes who are deeply immersed in the theology of the Church are also disturbed, but anyone immersed in a theology that is truly concerned with “dying out to self,” with “dying out to the world,” with loving God with one’s whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, with bearing witness to the good news that it is Jesus, crucified and raised, who is to be our sovereign and guide, with loving our neighbors as Jesus loved his—and that means always to the point of cultural insecurity—anyone who thinks lovingly, will be open to theological conversation, open to listening to positions other than either “time honored” ones or currently fashionable ones.
The Church of the Nazarene will one day be an “open and affirming” denomination. That will happen, because the institutionally devoted members of the church are, by and large, insignificantly touched by theology. They think, but they think institutionally, within the dynamics of power and fear. They do not think, by and large, theologically, even if theological terms are very often on their lips. The broad cultural trajectory of America (and the rest of the
world, including “the third world”) is at the very least moving into acceptance of LGBTQIA+ persons. The only chance that trajectory might be altered is if there is a more serious engagement with theology. It will not be enforceable by the institution. The institution will cave to the culture, even if only out of fear and the opportunity to gain more power. But there is no reasonable chance that the Church of the Nazarene will become more seriously and conversationally and publicly theologically engaged.
When Hebrews 10:10 declares that “it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all,” it is giving an account of what theological faithfulness looks like. Jesus’s death on the cross is not chiefly an act of conforming to the OT method of expiation by animal sacrifice. Jesus’s death on the cross is an act of solidarity with the crucified people of the world. We, too, are to be crucified as he was, in solidarity with the crucified people of the world. That is, “sanctification” looks like martyrdom. It looks like standing and falling with the faithful, standing and falling with the outcasts of the world, standing and falling with “saints and sinners,” standing and falling with our siblings in Christ, even if those faithful, loving, devout siblings do not match the prescriptions laid out in abstractions in an oft-changing ecclesiastical handbook. Entire sanctification is about standing and falling with Jesus, fully human and fully God, and he stood and fell with crucified people. Whenever a question like, “Should we admit an LGBTQIA+ person into church membership and ordination?” is asked, the answer has to be given with open eyes and a discerning ear, sensitive above all to those who are being crushed by the institutions of the world, who have, say, the highest suicide rates and are most bullied and who are treated badly by the world’s principalities and powers, ones that sadly have among their cohorts ecclesiastical ones.