Have you ever spent much time talking with a three-year old? They tend to ask this same question over and over, no matter how great your answer was. You’re always pushed to find another answer to satisfy their question of “Why?” This banter goes back and forth until you run out of answers and in frustration, you simply say… “Because.”
Human beings are born with this internal curiosity. We are people born into a specific place and time and are products of the places, times and events that occur prior to our existence. We constantly wonder what happened before we were around and what will things look like after we are gone. Without our history, we have no stories. We have no way to shape our actions or shape what we stand for. We are left living in the “Because.” And that life is a desolate purgatory of a life.
As an institution, the Church must also ask those very same questions to “Why?” The answers we get are found in our sacred texts, they are forged through our experiences and aged with tradition and refined by reason. Through that process is how we, as the citizens of the Kingdom of God, find and re-find our identity. (We also must ask, “Who are we?” and “Where we are going?”) Simply put, the Church’s identity must be Christ. We are to look like Him. Each denomination in the Christian faith expresses this a somewhat differently, but peel back the layers of mission statements and creeds and one common element is clear: The Church’s identity is in Christ.
In our darker moments as the Church, we violently protested against other expressions of the faith that weren’t our own. We used violence, manipulation and power as if to prove that our expression of that identity was not only correct, but in fact the only way. All this did was prove how much we weren’t identifying with Christ, but instead with the world. History is filled with many examples of the Church not living up to the ideal. Too often we fall short, but our true identity as the citizens of the Kingdom, is still Christ.
Two Forms of ID Please
We, Nazarenes, similarly find our identity in Christ. As an expression of that identity, aligning ourselves with Christ, we have attached another identifying marker from Christ’s character and nature, holiness. This helps us to more specifically express the Christlikeness to which we as a Church are called. Holiness is often used as an identifying marker that differentiates us from other denominations. It is our defining expression of the Christian faith, yet we are not the only people who are called unto holiness, and we are not the only caretakers of what it means to live a holy life. Because we express our identity in Christ through the lens of holiness, every Current Moral & Social Issue and every Article of Faith every Pastoral Perspectives, needs to stem from that call of being a holiness people.
The Church of the Nazarene is a product of events that took root long before our first General Assembly at Pilot Point in 1908. The story is a long, complicated and detailed story to tell, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth telling; that makes the story better. That story needs to be told. In the process of telling and re-telling that story we find answers to who we are and why we even call ourselves Nazarenes to begin with. Given that our identity is in Christ and we express that through living a holy life, how do we express that to the multiple cultures and traditions around the world? This is an age-old question that churches have been trying to wrap their doctrines around for centuries.
Who To (Or Is It Whom To?)
In 1908, we established not only what we want to look like, but also whom we want to hang around. Our Founding Father Phineas F. Breese has a strong call to the impoverished people of Los Angeles. He sought to create a church that was focused on the poor and underserved members of society. Today we call that social justice. Breese would call that doing the obvious. (The Breese Institute in downtown Los Angeles bears his name and gives witness to the fact of his commitment to the disenfranchised of LA.) Breese was simply mimicking the actions and patterns of Christ. He saw that Christ was holy and did social justice actions. Maybe parts of what it means to be a holiness people is engaging in a broken world and a broken system, and in faith seek to be a part of God’s redemptive mission in our world.
We, Nazarenes, find our identity in Christ expressed through the lens of holiness and use social justice as a way of acting on that expression.
Q: “Why holiness?” A: “Because Christ embodied holiness.”
Q: “Why social justice?” A: “Because Christ embodied social justice.”
Taking all the above into consideration, shouldn’t that be our standard for how we frame our Current Moral and Social Issues stances?
Newton’s Third Law
As a denomination we haven’t always expressed our identity in Christ as holiness. (And we haven’t always focused on social justice either.) Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t burning people at the stake or invading the Holy Land, but there was a time when we “missed the mark” so to speak, on expressing our identity. As discussed in previous articles, we replaced our holiness with legalism. Or rather we changed the process of how we expressed our identity in Christ. We did this by formulating that which has no formula. (i.e. Not square dancing in physical education class does not make one holy.) We developed a reactionary approach to the pressing moral and social issues of the day. When faced with a new moral or ethical idea, technology, problem, solution or situation, people look to the Church for a solution. So our Manual slowly began to acquire more and more Special Rules now known as Current Moral and Social Issues.
By 1972 the Church of the Nazarene was already defining itself by what it was against. Although done with the best of intentions, the strict adherence to the rules made us begin to judge others who didn’t express their faith exactly like we did. Whatever the trend of the day was, the Nazarenes were likely to write a resolution for the Manual against said trend. We made our identity that which we were not, instead of that which we are. Our reaction against a trend is based out of fear and ignorance rather than out of love and wisdom. For where there is fear there cannot be love. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears in not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4:18…
The Church of the Nazarene first addresses the issue of homosexuality in 1972. It was a reactionary response to the changing American cultural view of sexuality that surrounded the church. Instead of writing a policy about what we are, it was a definitive statement about what we are against.
As time went on and the cultural issues waxed and waned the idea of keeping up with all of them, the era of personal and spiritual discretion arrived. Many of the line-item prohibitions were removed, replaced by new versions. The more things change, the more things stay the same. Such is the case with our homosexuality clause, now the final paragraph of P37 Human Sexuality; it has quietly remained unchanged from its original wording in 1972. We don’t live in the same kind of world the Nazarenes of the 1972 Manual were in. Our understanding of sexual orientation has changed. We have made attempts to adjust it with Pastoral Perspectives I (c. 2005), but church politics won out and Pastoral Perspectives II (2011) was written to clarify that we still don’t want openly gays and lesbians in our community of believers. I suppose at any rate history and time will be the judges on how important these issues truly are.
Simply put, our policy on gays and lesbians does not align itself with what we really want to be identified. When pressed, our policy is very vague and has not a single iota of practicality (or orthopraxy). Two Pastoral Perspectives have been written about the subject but they do not have the authority to replace P37 Human Sexuality, nor do they clarify the vagueness of our stance. And Pastoral Perspectives II seems to contradict the progressive spirit and intent and positive direction the first one was taking us in. In both cases (PP I & PP II), no gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender members were asked for their input on a policy that deeply affects not only them but their friends and families too. (For more on my suggestions to tweak this, see my blog on The Manual).
What We Are
We cannot be a people defined by what we are against. We have to be a people of holiness. And this holiness is for everyone. The light on the hill was on the hill so that all could see it; we do not hide our light under a bushel. We are called unto holiness. Nothing more, nothing less, simply holiness. That is our watchword and song. When we are holiness people who is a very attractive thing. It attracts the ugly and the pretty. It attracts people you never thought you’d sit next to on a Sunday morning.
Because when we are holiness people, totally focused on being holiness people and not being against the American-cultural flavor of the week, we are doing what Jesus the Nazarene did. Jesus expanded that table, He let the obvious and the obscure people come and dine. He made room at the table for those who shouldn’t be there by the religious standards of his day. He made room for them, and invited everyone to take his body and his blood and pick up his cross daily. We find our identity in our name… We are the Church of the Nazarene. We should do as Jesus taught us to do and expand the table. Yes it’s messy, yes it doesn’t make sense, yes it might go against everything you’ve been taught to believe about gays and lesbians, yes it makes you feel uncomfortable; yes it is indefinable and not formulaic. But it is who we decided to be back in 1908, and the Church of the Nazarene will not leave its calling.