The very things that attracted many to the Church of the Nazarene should be the very things that allow us to lean into the LGBTQ community with open arms.
The first idea that attracted me to the Church of the Nazarene was that I believed their theology was progressive and not rooted in dogmatic fundamentalism. I believed this to be the case in part because of the denomination being on the forefront of allowing women to be members of the clergy. From the founding of the denomination, Nazarenes have affirmed women and men as being “equally called” to ministry and historically all ministry positions have been open to both women and men, including the position of ordained elder. This was not the case for many denominations when the infant Church of the Nazarene began ordaining women in 1908. In fact, it was considered heretical and went against the teachings of the Bible according to many of the denominations at the time.
Why did the Church of the Nazarene go against the flow of traditional churches at the time and seemingly turn their backs on the “proof texts” that were recited against women in ministry? I believe the answer is twofold. First of all, there was experience. Phineas Breese had experienced the power of strong women throughout his life. He was witness to their outstanding preaching and exceptional leadership. He wrote about Amanda Berry Smith, an African-American evangelist: “She preached one Sabbath afternoon, as I never heard her preach before, in strains of holy eloquence and unction…The Lord opened heaven on the people in mighty tides of glory.” Secondly was an examination of the text in question and the determination that it was for a specific time and place and not something to make a dogmatic statement of for the ages.
The second idea that attracted me to the Church of the Nazarene was that I believed their theology to be dynamic. The denomination was not afraid to make changes to their theology and the wording of their Manual. The Hiram F. Reynolds Institute research group and the Board of General Superintendent Thought Partners were recent think tanks put together to help guide the Church of the Nazarene to be pragmatic, mission focused, and futuristic in thinking. Dr. Thomas Noble, when writing on the Nazarene Theological Stance, says, “To be ‘conservative’ in theology therefore does not mean to embrace right-wing politics (although some of us may wish to do so). It means rather to accept the necessity of this legitimate kind of doctrinal development. The world does not stand still and so our presentation of the gospel (including ‘holiness by grace’) must adapt to cultural change through the decades.”
“Change” is a word largely feared by the religious right. To them “change” means you must have been wrong the first time and therefore slaps biblical infallibility right out of the equation. The Church of the Nazarene, however, is not afraid to admit, in light of recent textual and historical criticism and scientific discovery, that they could have been wrong. There are plenty of examples in the history of the denomination’s Manual of change in an effort to get key ideas right and be more culturally relevant.
Therefore, in light of my two biggest attractions to the Church of the Nazarene, I believe it is time to open our arms wide to the LGBTQ community.
I met Joshua at the gym. I had an inkling right away that he was a gay man—even though he persistently denied it, until we became good friends after working out at the same time for several weeks. We eventually became workout partners, and he became friends with my wife and children. It was only natural, considering I was a pastor at the small local Church of the Nazarene, that I would invite him to come to the place of worship where I pastored. Reluctantly, he finally agreed. The congregation accepted him and loved him. He became a pillar of the church and helped in many different ways. When it came time for Vacation Bible School, I thought he would be an excellent team leader. I took the recommendation before the church board and they absolutely agreed.
Vacation Bible School came and went with great success. Children learned about God’s love and forgiveness and had fun doing so. Although, a regular family with three children was surprisingly absent. They also were missing from Sunday morning services the next couple of weeks. It was not long before I heard from the powers that be that there was some concern that I had let a gay person work with our children. Apparently, this family went to the much larger Church of the Nazarene on the other side of town and complained about who I was letting work with our children. My heart broke.
Joshua was kind and compassionate. He loved Jesus and he loved others. He, despite being busy at work, made time to serve the Lord. He gave faithfully. He was a model Christian, but the denomination saw him as an abomination because he had spent his whole life attracted to members of the same sex. Here was a faithful child of God that my denomination, built on holy love, rejected from being a member and insulted by their wording in the Manual. Experience told me he was worthy, just as it had told Phineas Bresee that women, despite the proof texts, were worthy some one hundred years prior.
I decided to use the latest textual and historical criticism and the latest scientific research to see if perhaps the denomination that I loved was wrong about their strong stance against what we now define as same-sex attraction.
There is not nearly enough space in a short essay to do justice in presenting why one proof text is misleading, much less the four or five long standing arguments against homosexuality. I will simply conclude that I was shocked at the number of resources that made very strong arguments that condemning homosexuality and even calling it an abomination was misleading at best. It seems that the word “homosexuality” became a blanket word to describe abusive relationships, pederasty, and out of control sexuality. It absolutely does not appear that the biblical authors were ever referring to same-sex attraction between two adults.
In my studies, I found that many of the preconceived ideas about homosexuality are just not true. One of the long-standing mantras is that being gay is a choice. In my friendship with Joshua, I met and became friends with many people in the LGBTQ community. In every one of those friendships, I concluded that the person was not gay by choice, but it was simply who they were and what their attraction was. They were attracted to the same sex in the same way that I am attracted to the opposite sex. They could no more be straight than I could be gay. I looked into the science of it and discovered the overwhelming research evidence that that sexual orientation is likely caused, in part, by biological factors that start before birth. I also discovered that trying to “turn” someone from their sexual orientation is a dangerous and destructive practice.
The more research I did, the more I became convinced that ostracizing a people group based on five or six biblical texts that could have multiple interpretations was not right. I added in that it was not a choice for the individuals but who they were; and I felt the need to repent for every way I had ever expressed prejudice behaviors based on someone’s sexual orientation. In a denomination based on holy love, how could we ever see a people group who many love the Lord as an abomination? Have we allowed holy judgment into our hearts because holy love has proven too difficult?
It is time to right the ship and admit we were wrong. It is time to love one another just as Christ has loved us (John 13:34).
Dr. Terry Clees has several degrees including a Master of Divinity degree from Northwest Nazarene University and a Doctor of Ministry degree from George Fox University. He currently works as a bereavement coordinator where he has seen daily the destructive nature of unreconciled relationships due to sexual orientation.