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Hebrews 10:5-10

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 pers