It is time to soften our gaze; we must stop seeing LGBTQIA+ people as “Other.”
Steve K. McCormick
We See as We Breathe
For nearly 40 years, I have been teaching in our Nazarene schools. I have been gazing into the faces of my students and listening to their hearts. They are the freshest faces from the future, and I have had a front row seat watching the God of our future arrive in them. Our future from God depends on them, and we are for them the signposts of God’s faithfulness in years past. As I would glance into their faces, I would see the promises of the promise keeper made surprisingly present in the most novel ways. New Creation keeps coming in them and through them, and because of them my hope of future glory is strangely renewed. What I have seen in them I cannot unsee, and what I have heard from them I cannot unhear. So, pay close attention to the Spirit, the God of our future that keeps coming through these new faces. Through the Spirit’s respiration, they will touch you deeply. And I promise they will take your breath away and give back to you your future.
What does this mean for the Church of the Nazarene? When the future hope of glory breaks in, the present moment of glory passes away. We must breathe deeply from our future hope, or we will die! We must change or we will die! Faith without hope from the future is not a faith that can see what God has promised: “future glory already begun.” (Wesley)
Our past faith with all its moments of glory and failure is not permanently fixed, because our promised future hope of glory is not yet finished. We must breathe out our past and breathe in with our future. It is that simple. Breathe deeply with the inbreaking of New Creation by breathing out passing moments of glory. The Spirit that came from the future to raise Jesus from the dead is the same Spirit that breathes future hope into Christ’s living Body—the Church catholic. We live and move and breathe from creation to New Creation. With every breath we take a new way of seeing from the future emerges.
If our Nazarene doctrine and faith does not see as it breathes, it will not evolve and change in the ebb and flow of life to see the next 100 years of holy life together. If we do not grow and change in our faith along life’s way, our tradition will become the kind of traditionalism that Jaroslav Pelikan called the “dead faith of the living.” When Love, Almighty Love determines the content of the Church’s Faith, then of course our faithful doctrines will change over time. Our doctrines must change, or our love together as a community of faith will die.
From our inception, the founders of the Church of the Nazarene never expected Nazarene doctrine and faith to remain permanently fixed. How could faithful consensus for the sake of unity in our ecclesial body be reached without the necessary space for faithful tension between our growing convictions of faithful seeing and breathing to live alongside our past formulations of doctrine, episcopacy, and yes, our thorny codes of conduct? How could our faith not change if the heart of our faith and life and its doctrinal language is derived from the love of God?
A careful reading of Phineas Bresee and John Wesley’s sermons will bear this out. In practice, the wisdom of our founders expected the denomination to hold in the Body, the faith of the tradition as it is expressed through the Manual with the growing convictions of faithful love. They expected us to hold the tensions of faith and doubt, until the Church reaches faithful consensus at the General Assembly to change the Church’s Articles of Faith, episcopal forms of governance, and various codes of conduct, etc. If there is no space in the denomination for faith and doubt, there will be no room for a faith filled with the energy of love to grow and expand.
What is contradictory to the nature of living faith and illogical to sound reason is our blatant refusal to engage in discussion and exploration over the sexual equality and identity of LGBTQIA+ people. At this juncture of our history, we have become so fearful of losing our ecclesial identity that we have defiantly censored or removed ordination credentials from anyone expressing a desire to hold the tension in holy conversation for the sake of ecclesial consensus. The inconsistencies at all levels of denominational leadership are glaring and revealing! Stubborn blind “dead faith of the living” persists.
In the past, we have managed to hold the tension until consensus could be reached to change or add to Articles of Faith, our position on divorce, and numerous other historical and social positions written in our codes of conduct. May we hold faithful tension to let the Spirit, the God of our future make some “good trouble” for us by disrupting our long-held assumptions.
At this place in our short history, we presume to stand on the side of God’s holiness with a particular understanding of righteous sexual purity that exists between a man and a woman, because we have found seven little texts in Holy Scripture (Genesis 19:5,13; Lev. 18:22; Lev. 20:13; Judges 19; Romans 1:26-27; 1Cor. 6:9; 1Tim 1:10) to justify our Nazarene position on the sexual equality and identity of LGBTQIA+ people in the Church.
Gender is a social, religious, political and cultural construct of our making. And now, the Church of the Nazarene is “certain” that gender is absolutely and universally fixed as consisting of men and women, and that holiness is sexually pure when it is between a man and woman in marriage. This is the criteria that is used to faithfully exegete those seven little “wounded texts” of Holy Scripture that groan for God’s redemption.
We should have learned by now that we cannot restrict or prescribe authentic human experience of the Spirit’s deeper work in us. We forced everyone to fit their experience into a particular narrative and doctrine that was reduced into a formula for how one will experience the second work of grace subsequent to regeneration through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. That narrowing of human experience has effectively killed what was good and right about biblical holiness. Once again, that pattern of control and certainty regarding the absoluteness of what constitutes gender is once again gutting the very essence of biblical holiness.
There are some who think that gender exists on a spectrum with multiple variations. And there are some who oppose such thinking. According to emerging neuroscience, gender identity is as complex and mysterious as our individual experience. No definitive answer to gender can be given. Not even the mapping of the genome can make definitive claims about gender. It is possible to generalize and make approximations about gender on the basis of genetic markers associated with sex chromosomes, but ultimately, gender is a social and cultural construct attempting to determine male and female binary bodies. Moreover, 1.9% of the world’s population has been identified as having non-binary bodies that do not fit the typical male (XY) or female (XX) chromosomes. And if this is not stunning enough to take in, think about this: the number of non-binary bodies in the world far exceeds the membership count in the global Church of the Nazarene. To stubbornly ignore the mystery and complexity of neuroscience will be to our own peril.
At best, neuroscience and faith are merely stammering as pointers to the mystery and wonder of being made in God’s image. Binary (either/or) and non-binary (both/and) bodies are mere constructs of our own making that could never capture the full mystery of original, unique and most definitely unrepeatable persons made in God’s image. Our faith cannot grow unless it lets go of old patterns of consciousness for new patterns of conscious knowing.
The seven “gotcha” texts of scripture regarding homosexuality must be reconsidered in light of both their ancient historical context and in the wake of modern-day science. If there are more non-binary bodies in the world than there are Nazarenes, we should at least begin to see these seven texts of scripture as no longer holding absolute universal claim. Groaning for redemption, these seven “wounded texts” have been weaponized as “texts of terror” to “close the loop” (those are your words used in District Advisory Board meetings) and keep out of our Nazarene tribe those that we fear will compromise our denominational identity. We will not solve ancient views of human sexuality that live on in the present by refusing to see in the evolution of time and science what the Spirit, the God of our future is trying to tell us about the sexual equality and identity of LGBTQIA+ people.
Oh, the irony of our blind stubbornness when we fail to see the future hope of God’s promises contained in our scriptures. Not only do we fail to see that all of scripture is a “means of God’s grace” that speaks to us and through us from our historical, religious, political, cultural and circumstantial contexts, but we fail to see the Spirit, the future of God coming to us in and through these Holy Scriptures. Not one aspect of scripture is untouched by these perspectives. Ignore them and you deny the nature of Holy Scripture as the Incarnate Word. That is to say, scripture is not only a divine Word, but it is also a human Word. God is truly and definitively revealed in scripture. The fullness of God has been spoken and revealed in Christ and the most definitive and explicit revelation of God has been recorded in Holy Scripture.
What we fail to see from scripture, however, is that the Almighty Vulnerable Loving Creator is not completely contained nor exhaustively revealed in Holy Scripture. There is more, much more to the infinite love of God and God’s promise of New Creation than scripture could ever contain. The future coming of God for us, and our salvation remains open while God awaits our responsive participation in the future glory that has already begun. Jesus taught us as much. Scripture was never meant to be an end of our faith, just a means of grace for its journey.
The greatest pushback to the Nazarene interpretation of these seven “wounded texts” has come from my female students seeking ordination in the Church of the Nazarene. Their reasoning is as follows: If the Church of the Nazarene applies an unchanging, strict, literal and universal application of these seven “wounded texts,” groaning for redemption regarding the sexual identity and equality of LGBTQIA+ people, what is to stop the Church from applying the same hermeneutic on the “wounded texts” of scripture that speak against women holding such authority as ordained ministers in the Church? After all, the full embrace of women in ordained pastoral ministry has not been practiced in full step with its doctrine on women in ordained ministry.
This inconsistency has not been lost on my female students. Many are fearful that it is just a matter of time before a male-dominated Church sees the inconsistency of their own hermeneutic and corrects their glaring inconsistencies. My female students seeking ordination in the Church of the Nazarene have expressed concern that the Church may weaponize those “wounded texts” that speak of women keeping silence and not teaching with authority in the Church in the same way they have weaponized the seven “wounded texts” to control and protect a denominational identity that is pure and holy. Dead faith lives from fear to protect a Nazarene identity that has ignorantly reduced holiness to a particular understanding of sexual purity. Fear of the “Other” weaponizes scripture as a message of holy terror!
Dead faith of the living no longer lives faithfully into the future of New Creation. It presumes that there is nothing new to learn from the Spirit who brings an open future that awaits our participation for its fulfillment. Dead faith is dead on arrival because it has long stopped seeing and breathing from the Spirit who brings God’s promise of future glory.
Hard Words of Love in Truth-Telling
Allow me to tell you with a heart of deep compassion for the sexuality and equality of LGBTQIA+ people what I have been seeing and hearing from these young icons of “future glory already begun.” From this place of deep compassion and growing theological conviction, I have some hard and even unfamiliar words of truth that I am compelled to voice in love to our Nazarene episcopal leadership. Board of General Superintendents, District Superintendents, Regional Directors, ordained deacons and elders, I pray that my earnest and unswerving convictions of faith will be received with my sincerest respect, humility and most certainly with my unwavering love that seeks Christ’s Peace not only for the Church of the Nazarene but for the life of the world. After all, I am convinced that the energy of God’s love that lives in me also lives in you. May we all breathe deeply from the Spirit who is the Lord and giver of Life, and may we see and hear what the Spirit who is the God of our future is bringing to us.
As a “son of the Church of the Nazarene” who was educated in two of your academic institutions (SNU and NTS) and taught for nearly 40 years in 4 of them (EUNC, ENC, MVNU and NTS), I must ask some hard questions of you: When did you start cleansing the Temple with your authoritative whip of episcopacy by “closing the loop” to keep out those that you have deemed to be “Other” than us? Do you see LGBTQIA+ people as “Other” because they do not fit your strange way of defining holiness as “sexual purity?” “Either we see Christ in everyone, or we hardly see Christ in anyone,” says Richard Rohr.
When we Nazarenes identify ourselves as the pure and the righteous and see our holiness mostly in terms of sexual purity, we begin to see everyone that is not like us, as simply “Other” than us. Purity of any kind without love is never holy because the essence of holiness that is derived from God is perfect love and the purity that is derived from God’s holiness is always perfect love.
To be clear, I am not advocating for sexual promiscuity; I am advocating for lifelong, covenantally faithful and monogamous relationships between two people. No, I am pushing back against a view of holiness that is so embedded in a purity culture of sexuality that it has morphed into an impenetrable shell of indifferent love that seeks to protect the Church and its “elusive identity” by excluding the unholy and impure, the sexually impure. And to be clear, to welcome LGBTQIA+ people without affirming them is to push them out the door. Remember, the Church catholic is only holy because Christ is holy. The Gospel that Christ declares, and the Church serves is the Good News that all belong to God and are made holy by God’s love. The unity of God’s perfect holy love desires to unite everyone into God’s family.
Simply put, no one made in God’s image is “Other.” No one! When we see humankind as “Other” because we see them as unholy and sexually impure, we become the exact opposite of God’s declared justice and righteousness and redemption in Christ’s Good News for the whole world. We no longer see as God sees! We no longer love as God loves! Blindness and callous indifference to those we deem as “Other” have made us idolatrously certain of our holiness and purity and woefully deficient in love for one another.
When we “close the loop,” we cordon off ourselves into an ecclesial tribe that works from the top down towards the removal of those “Other” than us. As we see ourselves as holy and pure, especially sexually pure, and then use that tribal criteria to deem LGBTQIA+ people as “Other” than us because they do not fit our Nazarene defined criteria of holiness, we will begin to grow idolatrously unaware of the ways that we begin to “exclude” the “Other.”
Once we are comfortable excluding the “Other” we will not have trouble “killing” the “Other.” A long sordid history of institutional Church and Christianity will bear this out. A doctrine of holiness that is defined by a particular understanding of sexual purity and is driven by cold indifference will burn hot with righteous anger and idolatrous certainty to justify the exclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community because they are deemed “Other.”
A Proposal for Hopeful Change
It is time to soften our gaze. We must stop seeing LGBTQIA+ people as “Other.”
Can we grant enough space and time to listen to one another in close proximity to hear and see what the Spirit is bringing to us from the future through LGBTQIA+ people?
The Quaker practice of holding faith and doubt in tension offers a way to faithfully “correct and fulfill” what the Spirit, is bringing for our future. To wait on the Spirit for consensus echoes the same wisdom and condition of the human heart and predicament that was expressed by John Wesley. The best way to navigate our convictions that threaten to “breach our love” and divide the Church is through the faithful practice of the Great Physician: “Do No Harm.”
How do we hold theological convictions that go against the grain of the Church of the Nazarene’s teachings? How do we make space for honest conversation about such matters if they are not in that space of holy conversation? As long as we see them as “Other” we fail to fulfill what God has entrusted to us with the Gospel and the promise of New Creation.
We live by faith to see from our future hope with every breath we take. God is infinite love and that means God’s love is everywhere. God is not “exclusively” present anywhere. This means that no religion, tribe or cult, nation, political party, denomination, etc. can claim “exclusively” that their rendering of God is the “only” true one. God cannot be named, and God certainly cannot be tamed to fit our narrative. And our denominational holiness narrative is not our ecclesial identity.
Our ecclesial identity is found in God’s infinite love. Let God’s Story be God’s Story that “includes” all of creation into God’s Story. God is no respecter of persons or religion, but a God who loves all. Christianity cannot claim a monopoly on truth because God is not a Christian. God is infinite love making infinite space for all things of creation to share and participate in the promise and mission of New Creation. The convictions and contradictions of our Nazarene tradition run deep and now they threaten to “breach our love” and divide our family. May God’s perfect holy love pierce our impenetrable hearts of indifference, so we stop seeing with fearful hearts LGBTQIA+ people as “Other.” Let us keep looking over the horizon to the Spirit who is the God of the future making good on God’s promises in all of creation. For such a time as this, the best practice and habit that I can offer the Church of the Nazarene is to: See No One As “Other.” I am convinced that the love of God that lives in me is the love of God that lives in you!
Rev. K. Steve McCormick, PhD: NTS Faculty Emeritus Professor of Historical Theology. William M. Greathouse Chair for Wesleyan-Holiness Theology. Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Eastern Nazarene College. Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at European Nazarene College. Ordained Elder in the Church of Nazarene.