In the Image of Perfectly Cis-Het Rule Followers

Michael Joseph Brennan

The Nazarene Church is harming people with homophobic rhetoric and exclusionary practices. The world does not know us by our love, but by our bigotry and hatred.

There are too many stories I could tell of students, colleagues, friends, and family members of people who want nothing to do with Christianity because of the destruction it caused. They were rejected while trying to talk to a Christian about their identity or their experiences. This is not a weeding-out of bad eggs, it’s a crisis. And representative figures and peace-makers are not representing Christ or making peace. They are wreaking havoc on those who are trying to survive.

Of the cross and pride flag, one of these symbols represents nationalism, bigotry, and hate against marginalized communities, and the other represents belonging, inclusion, and acceptance. Churches that fly the rainbow flag encourage safety, belonging, and decision-making. Christians are losing a battle they shouldn’t be fighting. Nazarenes should be listeners, defenders, affirmers, and encouragers.

Christians should be working to make sure the cross represents love. My church in Florida made bumper stickers that shows the cross equals a heart, because on its own, it’s difficult to know which cross is being represented: the cross where Jesus sacrificed his life for the world, or the cross on fire in someone’s front yard. I do not want to be misunderstood: the cross is a powerful symbol, and if we wear it or display it, it should mean that we are good representatives of agape and shalom.

Nazarene doctrine emphasizes the importance of Christian living, holiness, and social justice. Historically, Nazarenes have defended and served the oppressed and marginalized people in their communities and sought global opportunities to show compassion through service missions. John Wesley said, “Do all the good you can, in all the ways in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” With this in mind, we should be making sure our churches and congregations are safe, and they can only be safe when they are affirming.

When Evelynn, who loved being part of the worship team, hasn’t been able to tell anyone what she has been experiencing because of her fear of being rejected or attacked, we need to take inventory. We need to decide that churches should not be less safe than therapist offices, schools, and police stations. There are people who are hurting that need a place to turn for safety.

Why would I want to be part of a denomination that doesn’t want me? Nazarene theology can be loving and logical. This is the denomination of my closest friends. I admit that I don’t like a lot of arbitrary rules, and Nazarenes have been capitalizing on arbitrariness for a long time. (For more on this I encourage you to read Our Watchword and Song)[1]. If being a Nazarene means following arbitrary rules like not dancing, then I can’t be a Nazarene. But where else could I go to find similar doctrines about God, love, and humanity? I don’t want to shop around for other churches and denominations. I love this one. I’m invested.

I became a Nazarene because I admired and respected my professors and pastors while attending ENC. They were brilliant people that loved God with their hands and their brains. While it seemed that initially my mission field would be elementary schools, it eventually became the adults that were “too smart for Christianity.” I didn’t want to be written off by people that thought I didn’t believe in vaccines or dinosaurs.

I am a Nazarene because we believe in sanctification. We believe that we have been chosen to represent God’s love and creativity in the world.

I am a Nazarene because I believe in holiness. I believe that we are to mature as peace-makers and bring shalom to places of chaos, broken places where people need help and healing.

Queer people are not the enemy, and even if they were, Jesus commands us to love our enemies. In Matthew 5:44, Jesus says “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” But queer people are the ones being persecuted. They do not persecute us for our faith, they respond to our rejection with fear and hiding. Churches that fly pride flags are trying to make clear that queer people do not need to be afraid at that church. John Wesley says “though we cannot think alike, may we love alike.” He goes on to say “herein all the Children of God unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.” These may not seem like small differences, but in the brevity of life, we should be remembered for how we loved each other rather than harmed each other. How we treat people impacts our witness in the world. At present, queer people know us by our harshness, hatred, and rejection; and not by our love.

“Loving the sinner” is a phrase used to justify discrimination and mistreatment toward queer people. A more loving and compassionate approach is to understand that people are complex and multifaceted, and that their actions are often rooted in a variety of factors, such as systemic oppression, mental health issues, and personal experience. By focusing on the sin rather than the person, it is easier to dehumanize them and miss the opportunity to understand them and offer compassion. This is especially true when harmful remarks are made from the pulpit.

The traditional language of sovereignty often causes a judgment-based response from Christians in relation to queer people. But the language of open and relational theology offers a foundation more conducive to truly understanding the individual person—by loving them, hearing their stories, and affirming their identities. Phoebe Palmer claims that “the love of God is impartial and universal…it embraces all [humanity] without distinction.”

The process of sanctification must also acknowledge the process of emerging sexuality and the fluidity of identity. Personality, orientation, and gender are not fixed constructs. They exist in the realm of possibilities.

Nazarenes have been demonstrating that they are more concerned with the teachings of scripture rather than the relationship with God. Phineas Bresee relied on the work of the Holy Spirit to convict people of sin, rather than rules. Rules create a line where people feel that it is easier to leave than to suffer under the weight of shame—and sometimes people would rather die than experience the suffering of shame.

The Holy Spirit calls us in rather than calls us out. The Holy Spirit changes our desires from within to create shalom for the community and the individual, so that both can experience peace, joy, wholeness, and well-being. The church must speak out against all forms of oppression. For me, this means being patient with non-affirming Nazarenes and helping them to find a posture that allows them to listen to the stories from queer people.

Holiness detached from love is not holy. If holiness defines how we love, then we are neither loving or holy. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:30 that “it is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.” We cannot be holy or righteous on our own. We need to be reliant on God’s love and grace. Wynkoop says “love takes the harshness out of holiness.”

In 1 Corinthians 1:11, Paul writes, “be imitators of me as I am of Christ.” As evidence of this discussion, the Nazarene church, like many denominations, are hung up on the superficiality of the Christian life. Jesus healed on the Sabbath because the person was more important than the rule. God makes accommodations for us. This is grace. We need to be vessels of love and grace.

Nazarenes believe in prevenient grace, which means that God provides opportunities for humans to respond to love, and God also enables us to respond. The implication for queer people is that if God desired to change a person’s orientation or desires, then God would provide a means for that change. Instead, cishet people are enabled to show agape to everyone; therefore, Christians should be demonstrating love in every situation to every person.

The Holy Spirit is at work in each of us, so there is no reason to be judgmental about that process in other people unless it is dangerous or hateful—which leads me to my most important point. The judgment, attitudes, sly remarks, exclusions, and rejections harm people. It causes emotional damage for those people longing to be loved. Queer people should not be mistreated because of whom they love or how they express their love.

I saw two posts recently, both from Nazarenes. One read: “I think the tragedy of modern Christianity is this: that we’re more afraid of holiness than we are of sinfulness. We can tolerate sin, but boy, we get our hackles up when we talk about holiness.”

We get our hackles up because the word “holiness” is too often misused. Rather than loving God and others more and better every day, we try to manage sin. Now while love might make us want to change behaviors, the behavior we should be looking at is blessing others. Queer identity and sexual orientation is not sinful.

This leads to the second post I saw, which stated, “The question is not, ‘Do I approve of your lifestyle, your choices, your relationships?’ The question is, ‘How can I be a blessing in your life?’”

We need a doctrine that affirms queerness and challenges traditional and antiquated beliefs about gender and sexuality. Queer and affirming Christians look to scripture to support a more inclusive understanding of God’s love for humanity.

Behavior management is a poor use of time, and you will fail. You’ll feel a weight that eventually you won’t be able to bear because of shame. Jesus says His burden is light and His yoke is easy. But it’s only light and easy when we rest in who He is, and not on our own power to stop people from sinning. People over thousands of years have tried to figure out how to define sin. I think sin is the antagonist to love. Sin means that we intentionally cause harm. It keeps people from flourishing. From the upside-down translation of 1 Corinthians 13: Sin is impatient, sin is mean. It is envious, it boasts, it is proud. 5 It dishonors others, it is self-seeking, it is easily angered, it keeps a record of wrongs. 6 Sin delights in evil but fails to rejoice with the truth. 7 It never protects, never trusts, never hopes, never perseveres.

Nazarenes can love in a way that helps others to thrive, with love that frees the spirit, and love that protects others.

The days of thinking God is holding us like spiders over a pit of fire to make us behave better is a strange kind of manipulation and coercion. Should we go on sinning? “By no means.” But how do we stop sinning?

If the Nazarene manual discussed doctrine and polity, then being a Nazarene would make logical sense for those people that believe in a loving God. But it also addresses orthopraxy in a way that excludes membership and goes so far as to cause shame. The foreword of the Nazarene Manual states, “Because it is the official statement of the faith and practice of the church and is consistent with the teachings of the scriptures, we expect our people everywhere to accept the tenets of doctrine and the guides and helps to holy living contained in it.” Then in the next sentence it states that “to fail to do so, after formally taking the membership vows of the Church of the Nazarene, injures the witness of the church, violates her conscience, and dissipates the fellowship of the people called Nazarenes.” Nazarenes seem to believe that conviction of undesired arbitrary behavior like dancing and certain movies is the role of the denomination, and therefore people can and should be excluded from voting, ministry, and teaching. Orthopraxy should not be defined in a way that shames people for their behavior rather than helps people to love God and others more fully.

Every day love the Lord your God, love others, love yourself. Some of your behaviors and attitudes will change. It will take time. The Holy Spirit will convict you of sins if you want.

Stop making up rules against people who are trying their best. Get to know the people you’re opposing. Listen to their stories. Learn their language and eat with them before you criticize them. Stop calling out and start calling in. Invite people and be a good host.

Queer people have been mistreated by religious conservatives that insist on forcing those they perceive to be outsiders to follow the letter of a law which is ambiguous and mistranslated. Queer people are the victims of institutional and ecclesiastical homophobia. Accommodation does not reduce scripture or sovereignty, but Christians are better peace-makers when they view both through agape.

[1] Cunningham, Floyd, Ed. Our Watchword and Song : The Centennial History of the Church of the Nazarene. Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2009.

Michael Brennan is the Dean of Students at Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach and an editor for The Weight Journal. He received his BA from Eastern Nazarene College. He has earned a Master of English from the National University in LA Jolla CA. He was working toward Nazarene ordination in the Eastern Michigan District before his divorce derailed his goals. Brennan is currently working toward earning a Doctor of Ministry and Theology at Northwind Theological Seminary.

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