Just like Maria in The Sound of Music, “let’s start at very beginning.” In order to understand where we are now, we must look back at our roots, our heritage, our history, and what led our Church, our people, our issues to be ripe at this hour. The story is long and complicated, but it must be told as well as understood in order to understand our present state of being and direct our path into the future.
So let’s go back to 1908 and the founding of the Church of the Nazarene. If you remember from Caravan’s, there was 3 groups that merged to form what we now call the “Church of the Nazarene”. These groups were from the West, East and South. (And they picked Kansas City as headquarters because it was centrally located.)
The Church Founders were a hodge-podge group from about 17 different ‘parent denominations’ and were scattered across the country. But all were motivated by a sense that there ‘parent denominations’ were dropping the ball when it came to social justice and holiness. Chiefly among them was Phineas F. Breese. He knew that there was a better way to be the Church. He sought out similar thinking groups from the East and South in order to create a national church. He understood the meaning of ‘together we stand, but divided we fall’.
In order to get the South on board with the vision of the one unified “Pentecostal-Holiness Nazarene Church” some compromises had to be made. Some were small, such as the consolidation of three periodicals into one. Budgets were too tight back then to support all three. Nazarene Publishing House was moved to Kansas City because it was centrally located. (Headquarters was soon to follow). The Herald of Holiness (now called Holiness Today) was born out of the necessity of getting all three groups on board.
Other compromises had larger ramifications. Such as the view-point on sin. The West and East were ready to merge. They held several “General Assemblies” and met in Chicago to make the merger official. But the delegation from the South was noticeably missing. The South did not attend the meetings in Chicago because it held a very different viewpoint on sin than the West and East held. Whereas the East and West viewed sin more as an attitude or disposition, the South viewed sin as an act (viewable and listable). Even though Phineas F. Breese fought determinedly to change the South’s opinion, he caved on the issue of the nature of sin in order for the Church of the Nazarene to be born. This wasn’t an easy choice to make, but the South had more people, so without them the East-West merger wouldn’t have been strong and it wouldn’t have accomplished the goal of unifying the Holiness Churches in America.
With the South satisfied at this doctrinal change, they were ready to host the 2nd General Assembly in Pilot Point, Texas. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Nazarene: A History
Who were the first Nazarenes? They were humans. Prone to making mistakes, but sought out God’s Will in spite of their shortcomings. They came from 17 different church backgrounds including Methodist, Baptist, Quaker, and yes Catholics.
So church created by outcasts, set out to create a church for outcasts. They were committed to creating social change, and they saw the Holy Spirit as the means to bring about that change. The West saw homelessness and alcoholism as the things they wanted to change in society. These were things that blocked people from being holy, or entirely sanctified. These early Nazarenes, shared common protestant thinking of the era when it came to church buildings and church interiors; they would be plain and simple so people can focus on God. That is why we have a prohibition on alcohol, and why many churches have plain rectangles whitewashed interiors. (However they managed to get all Nazarene Churches to smell the same is a mystery beyond me).
The Next Chapter
The ‘second generation’ Nazarenes inherited the church in the 1930s and would shape the church for the next 50 years or so all based on Phineas’ compromise on sin. The ‘second generation’ Nazarenes led Church into a legalistic era.
This era was characterized by seeking to list all sins, and do and don’ts for the Christian. The idea being if we know all the sin there is, we can avoid them all. As legalism took over it quickly went beyond the scope of pertaining to thing ‘necessary to salvation’ and went into common social issues of the day (originally called Special Issues in early Manuals). It was as if the Leviticus writers where writing our Manual, shaping our Christian lives by listing what style of clothes to wear and what activities to refrain from.
As the Legalism Era began to wane, individual churches that did not like the ‘loosening of rules’ broke away from the parent Church of the Nazarene. Although small these churches mark the first schism in the Church of the Nazarene. The Bible Missionary and Pilgrim Nazarene church (centered in Oklahoma/Texas and Pennsylvania respectively) still bear the marks of early Nazarene Manuals in their current manuals.
The Legalism Era ended as gradually as it began. Starting in the 1980s the three General Assemblies revisited the “Contemporary Social Issues” and advised Nazarenes to “use discretion”. (Even though they have been ok for near 30 years, Nazarene dancing and movie joke still dominate Nazarene culture). But more importantly, even though the Use Discretion Era has begun, legalism is rears its ugly head in the Church.
The Use-Discretion Era
The Use-Discretion Era created a rift.
Over time it has widened. One side sees the end of legalism as a good thing, because the things being addressed were not effecting salvation, and thus did not affect holiness. This group focuses on restoring Nazarenes to the essentials of faith. A move towards Phineas’ Western view of sin.
The other side, saw the shift as a watering down of the faith, and thus focused on restoring the Nazarenes to what they perceived to be ‘fundamental’ and ‘traditional’ beliefs. Still keeping the South’s view of sin.
These two forces would square off in a series of battles starting in the late 90s and early 00s. This was known as the Worship Wars. One the surface it was simply about musical tastes. But scratch the surface and you’ll see the true cause was resistance to change, and fear of abandoning tradition. Fearing more schism, pastors opted to have two services; same message, different music.
During the Use-Discretion Era (1980-2001), the Church was becoming larger, and more international (a very good thing). But it was also becoming more and more involved in the United States political realm (God & Country Theology, a very bad thing).
After the attacks of September 11th, Evangelical-Protestant denominations across the country had a new religious fervor. The Church of the Nazarene was no different. It was beginning to reap the God & Country roots it sowed years ago. The rift continues to drive people apart, now time two services can’t fix this.
From 2001-2010 there was an onslaught of issues that were perceived as a threat by the people standing on the more ‘traditional/conservative’ side of the rift. This issues ranged from homosexuality, to emergent theology, to postmodernism, to abortion, to prayer in school, to communion.
So here we are in 2010. There are groups on both side of the rift. Both sides have used scripture to back up their claims (when in doubt proof-text). I’m sad to report the rift is widening. Promoted by cultural conservatism in reaction to the rapidly changing culture, the dialogue between the two camps is all but extinct. And so I fear schism is not far away. Without a healthy dialogue there can be no way to close the rift. As I stated previously, this is a long and complicated story.
This brief history still doesn’t explain why homosexuality became the flagship sin (that has another history all its own).
What would Peter and Paul do?
One issue, circumcision, became quite the touchy subject for the early Church Fathers. Peter was adamant that in order to become a Christian you must be circumcised first. Paul said it didn’t matter because Jesus came and changed everything.
Growing up, pastors would also preach against Peter. How stupid he was for being so narrow-minded; how clearly wrong he was in his thinking. Peter is vilified because of his thinking. But Peter wasn’t wrong in his thinking, he was just stuck in a paradigm. Peter’s thought process is this: “This path worked for me, so all must be on the same path.” But his paradigm of thinking would have limited the goals of Church. The book of Acts documents the first rift in the fast growing early church. What is important is that spat between Paul and Peter did not cause a schism! (Surprisingly the Church held together until 1054.)
Likewise I firmly believe that dialogue between the two groups can heal the rift between the those think the Church and Christianity is for heterosexuals only, and those who think sexuality doesn’t matter for salvation.
I humbly present to you today that homosexuality is the Church of the Nazarene’s circumcision issue. Do people need to convert from gay to straight in order to be Christian or belong to our Church? Absolutely not. Why then does the Church force that heterosexuality on us? As if to say heterosexuality is a de facto ticket to heaven. The Paul-Peter spat put to rest any and all ideas of a litmus test prior to salvation. Look at Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (TNIV).” Is it not safe to say that Paul didn’t think labels mattered in the Church? So is it not safe to read it like this too: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither rich nor poor, neither gay nor straight, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (TNIV).”?
God sees us for who we really are. God is the one that separates the weeds from the wheat. That’s not our job. Our job is to love. When we love God, we end up loving everyone. Funny how that works out. So labels like drunk, rapist, gossip, shy, lonely, handsome, tall, coward, or liar fall away as we start to see people the way God sees people. We begin to see rifts that formerly divided us start to heal.
Schism is heresy.