Patti L. Dikes
The Nazarene church has lost members over its LGBTQIA+ stance. This LGBTQIA+ proposal to fix the church manual could start bringing them back.
The decline in membership of the Church of the Nazarene in the United States and Canada has been attributed in part to its stance on LGBTQIA+ issues. For the church to reconsider its stance, it is important to understand the stance and how and when it came about. A review of church manuals was undertaken to determine whether and how the church can respond to LGBTQIA+ believers with love and justice. This article provides a broad overview of these topics, finds answers in the church’s Manual and its preceding manuals, and offers a proposal.
The Church of the Nazarene was founded in 1908 under the influence of John Wesley and the American Holiness movement of the 19th Century. There are 2.6 million members worldwide; fewer than 600,000 are in USA/Canada. The organizing document for the denomination is the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene, which includes its doctrine, history, constitution, governmental structure, policy and procedures, and stances on moral and social issues. The Manual is published approximately every four years when the church meets for its General Assembly. The oldest manual available on the church’s website was published in 1919; the most recent is dated 2017-2021. The first one has 137 pages. The current one has 426. Every one of the 24 manuals is different. Some of the revisions can be attributed to the church’s growth and institutionalization over its 115-year history. A few adjustments reflect a maturing of Nazarene theology. The most dynamic activity has occurred on moral and social issues and ethical standards and guides to holy living in a section now entitled the Covenant of Christian Conduct (Covenant). Amendments to the Covenant require a 2/3 vote of the members present and voting at a given General Assembly.
The Nazarene Church believes the Holy Spirit is “ever present and efficiently active in and with” the church, sanctifying believers, and “guiding into all truth.” Great emphasis is placed on biblical holiness. The church sees its role as relating “timeless biblical principles to contemporary society.” Older manuals included general membership “rules” on faithful practices of holy living, evils to avoid, and participation in the church, and included special “advice” on matters such as financial stewardship, temperance and prohibition, marriage, and divorce. In later manuals, the rules, special advice, and certain positions expressed in the appendices on a variety of subjects, eventually all became part of the Covenant. The succession of church manuals illustrates how church perspectives on society and holy living shift and change. You might have difficulty guessing how many years rules or positions on each of the following remained in the Manual, and which ones are still there: communism, school drama programs, college athletic intramurals, comic magazines, dancing, using church buildings for recreation or entertainment, movies, vaudeville shows, intoxicating liquors, women wearing jewelry and braided hair, and the circus.
There may be Nazarene church members who are under the impression that the church has always held a stance against the LGBTQIA+ community and fear reconsideration would mean a paradigm shift so heretical as to permanently alter the fundamental character of the church. Those members should know that neither of these things is true. There has never been an official position taken by the Church of the Nazarene on the “LGBTQIA+ community,” or transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual, and other people. As its manuals reveal, relative to its history, the church only recently adopted stances directed toward LGBTQIA+ believers.
The topic of homosexuality first made its way into a church manual as a position asserted in a short paragraph of an appendix in 1972. Understanding the historical context for this entry is crucial. Countless sermons may have been preached about homosexuality as a mortal sin in the history of Christianity, but the Church of the Nazarene had existed for almost 65 years without ever creating a rule, offering advice or guidance, or taking a stance against it in any of the 13 previously-published manuals.
The 1960s and 1970s were a tumultuous time in the United States. Those two decades represented the civil rights movement, antiwar demonstrations, and the anti-gay movement. In June 1969, a three-day riot broke out at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village after police officers attempted to raid the popular gay bar. A 1969 Harris poll showed the public believed only communists and atheists were more harmful to America than “homosexuals.” In June 1970, on the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots, thousands of LGBT community members marched through New York City into Central Park in what is now considered America’s first gay pride parade. A cultural rebellion was underway. “Hippies” defied parental authority and college officials. “In ‘dropping out’ of conventional society, they grew long hair, wore eccentric clothes, gathered in urban or rural communes, used mind-altering drugs, relished “hard” rock music, and engaged in casual sex.” (W.W.Norton) All of this civil unrest felt threatening to many Christian families, who looked to church leaders to save their traditional values.
Back then, anyone who today would identify as a part of the LGBTQIA+ community likely had nothing to do with a church or, if they did, hid that part of themselves in the “closet.” LGBTQIA+ believers had no place as whole persons within the church. Most church leaders did not truly know any LGBTQIA+ believers well enough to discern the holiness of their lives or the ethics by which they lived. All they had were the caricatures and stereotypes portrayed in books, magazines, movies, and television, and by the news media, televangelists and religious leaders raising money or seeking political power and influence, and others with self-interested agendas.
It was under these circumstances that the church issued a brief statement in 1972 asserting that the “depth of the perversion” leading to homosexual acts affirms the “biblical position” that such acts are “sinful and subject to the wrath of God.” The church urged clear preaching and teaching concerning “Bible standards of sex morality.” It deplored any action or statement that implied “compatibility between Christian morality and the practice of homosexuality.” In 1976, the church’s stance moved out of the Appendix and into the rules.
In 1973, Pew Research Study found 73% of the public said same-sex sexual relations were “always wrong” and only 11% said it was “not wrong at all.” For more than a decade, the United States and the World faced the HIV/AIDS crisis with fear and anxiety. Many within the church believed the epidemic was a sign of God’s wrath against gay men and the victims somehow “brought this upon themselves.” We learned later that was not true but public opposition to homosexual behavior remained strong until the early 1990s.
In 1989, the church renamed its rule on homosexuality, “Human Sexuality,” which it described as “one expression of the holiness and beauty” that God intended for Creation and “one of the ways by which the covenant between a husband and a wife is sealed and expressed.” Instructing further, “husbands and wives should view sexuality as a part of their much larger commitment to one another and to Christ” and marital sexuality “ought to be sanctified by God.” The manual explains that, “Sexuality misses its purpose” when treated as an end in itself or by using another person to satisfy “perverted sexual interests.” Homosexuality, the church affirmed, was “one means” by which human sexuality was perverted. The only other means mentioned was pornographic images.
In the 2017-2021 Manual, this section expands exponentially and incorporates within it the church’s positions on marriage and divorce. The view that marriage is between “one man and one woman,” which had entered the Manual in 1928, is moved into this section to complement a prohibition on same-sex marriage. A new stance valuing singleness is expressed without comment on asexuality or masturbation. The Manual adds seven paragraphs discussing at least 24 deep philosophical, theological, ecclesiastical, and practical concepts ranging from beauty to the nature of God and the fracturing and twisting of desire by sin in the Fall. For members to “resist adding to the brokenness of sin,” the church provides a comprehensive list of “areas of sexuality” to avoid. The descriptions include unmarried sexual intercourse and other forms of “inappropriate sexual bonding,” and sexual activity between people of the same sex, which specifically call out homosexual and bisexual attraction and the practice of intimacy, as contrary to God’s will. In addition, the Manual lists at least 15 other sexual practices to avoid, including hate speech and bestiality, with narratives explaining why these are problematic. This section then adds three more paragraphs affirming holiness themes already throughout the Manual on God’s healing grace, conformance to God’s will, and congregational obligations to act with care, humility, and discernment.
More than 50 years have passed since that little paragraph launched what has become 1/3 of the Covenant. Yet today, according to a 2022 Gallup Poll, roughly 21% of Generation Z Americans who have reached adulthood—those born between 1997 and 2003—self-identify as LGBTQIA+ or something other than heterosexual, as do 7.1%, of all adults in the U.S. According to Pew, about six in ten adults (61%) express a positive view of the impact of same-sex marriage being legal, including 36% who say it is very good for society.
Today, LGBTQIA+ believers are no longer hiding. Some of them may be wounded or scarred by how the church and its members have treated them. But they know God loves them and Jesus lives within their hearts. They live holy lives. Sadly, not because of the Nazarene Church, but in spite of it. As I Corinthians 12:21 teaches, the church body does not consist of one member but of many parts and each part has something to contribute: “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you, nor again the head to the foot, I have no need of you.” All believers in Christ are indispensable members of the church body. In the words of Reuben Welch, “We really do need each other.” LGBTQIA+ believers are boldly petitioning for full affirmation as worthy members because they desire the fellowship of the church and the church needs them.
For purposes of this article, I am assuming the Holy Spirit has been at work in the hearts and minds of church members on this issue. They know and love enough LGBTQIA+ believers to evaluate the holiness in their lives and recognize their relationships are just as healthy, loving, and committed as their own. Their hearts ache for the LGBTQIA+ believers who have been alienated, abused, or rejected by the church. They want to be inclusive and affirming despite challenging scriptural passages and the latest church manual more than doubling down on its condemnations. I am assuming those hearts and minds are open to possible solutions.
To change official policy in the Manual, the Holy Spirit will have to move at the next General Assembly to obtain the 2/3 vote necessary to amend the Covenant, but church members should be ready with a proposal. Preceding manuals show stances have been changed, even in the face of problematic biblical passages not unlike the ones commonly asserted to condemn homosexuality. Two helpful examples are divorce and women’s ordination.
With divorce, the Bible is very clear: God “hates divorce.” (Malachi 2:16) Certain of its obligation, the Nazarene Church maintained a harsh stance against divorce for more than 50 years. The 1919 Manual declares that anyone who obtains a divorce for any reason other than adultery, and subsequently remarries, is “unworthy of membership” and ministers are “positively forbidden to solemnize the marriage of persons not having the scriptural right to marry.” In 1964, the church’s position softened slightly to state that divorced persons were “ineligible” for membership. Then, in 1972, the church recognized that “many in our society fall short of the divine ideal” and decided previously-divorced marriage partners could become members after giving evidence of their “regeneration” and an “understanding of the sanctity of Christian marriage.” However, failure to prayerfully attempt to save an unhappy marriage and seek guidance from their pastor would make “one or both parties subject to discipline.”
Thirty-five years later, the 2017-2021 Manual includes no consequences to membership; it merely says that divorce “falls short of God’s best intentions” and the church should offer “counsel and grace to those wounded by divorce.” In this example, the church never sought to engage the Bible as its position softened, and it took almost 100 years to develop a compassionate response to believers today. The urgency of this moment for LBGTQIA+ believers does not allow the church the luxury of wasting even an extra quadrennium; it must act at the next General Assembly.
The second example is women’s ordination. The Bible contains strong opposition to women preaching: “Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but should be subordinate [to men]…For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” (1 Cor. 14:34-35). Many conservative evangelical churches point to these passages to prohibit women from preaching and becoming ordained.
In the most recent manuals, the Nazarene Church directly confronts scriptural passages opposing women’s ordination in a section entitled, “Theology of Women in Ministry.” The church explains that the purpose of Christ’s redemptive work is to “set God’s creation free from the curse of the Fall.” Those who are “in Christ” are new creations. In this redemptive community, “no human being is to be regarded as inferior on the basis of social status, race, or gender.” The church acknowledges what it calls the “apparent paradox” created by certain Pauline epistles. However, interpreting these passages as limiting the role of women in ministry presents “serious conflicts” with passages of scripture that “commend female participation in spiritual leadership roles,” and “violates the spirit and practice of the Wesleyan-holiness tradition.” Finally, the Manual declares, “it is incompatible with the character of God presented throughout Scripture, especially as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.” In this example, the Manual boldly challenges biblical passages antithetical to what has been reclaimed as a central tenet of Nazarene faith. This approach has had a profound impact not only upon the lives of the women called by God into ministry but upon all the lives touched by the love of God through their ministry.
The dramatic shift in society, not only in public opinion but in the spiritual confidence of LGBTQIA+ believers in bringing their petitions for change before the church, portends a head-on collision with the judgmental stances taken in the Covenant. The dynamism of the Manual and preceding manuals is providential for the Church of the Nazarene to become inclusive and affirmative toward LGBTQIA+ believers in the following ways:
- Preceding manuals show the church’s views on what it means to live a life of holiness shifts and changes over time as society changes, and as our knowledge and understanding of ourselves, one another, and the world we live in, grows and changes under the guidance and correction of the Holy Spirit.
- The examples of divorce and women’s ordination offer precedence for movement of the church toward stances in the Manual supportive of believers pursuing holiness even in the face of difficult biblical passages used to condemn them.
- Relabeling the section on homosexuality as Human Sexuality and inserting ideas about marital sexuality in 1989 deescalates the incendiary nature of the former title and the focus that had been exclusively limited to a segment of the LGBTQIA+ community.
- Reorganizing the Covenant in 2017 to incorporate previously-independent sections on marriage and divorce into the Human Sexuality section further reorients this section to focus on the role sexuality plays in more than one type of human relationship.
- The movement to expand and itemize areas and practices covered by this section affords the church the option of either simply removing stances condemning LGBTQIA+ believers as it had with divorce or directly confronting scriptures used to condemn them as it did with women’s ordination.
Therefore, church members at the next General Assembly are positioned to propose:
- Condensing the discursive narrative within the Human Sexuality section to a plain account of holiness and sexuality in all human relationships, including one’s self, hospitality toward strangers, friendship, familial, and covenantal marriage, and the importance of seeking guidance “transcending the mere letter of the law” from the Holy Spirit, developing critical thinking skills and discernment, and participating meaningfully in the body of Christ.
- Removing the laundry list of “areas of sexuality,” including but especially areas condemning the lives and relationships of LGBTQIA+ believers.
- Avoiding the laundry list does not mean a person is living a sexually healthy, holy life. As acknowledged in another section of the Covenant, “no catalog, however inclusive, can hope to encompass all forms of evil throughout the world.”
- With or without confronting difficult scriptures, removing the list affirms the church’s trust in the Holy Spirit and restores a relationship of mutual love and respect, rather than judgment and condemnation, between the church and its members, although it only begins to restore relationship with LGBTQIA+ believers.
- Affirming the participation of LGBTQIA+ and heterosexual believers in the Sacrament of Marriage.
- The church may choose to remove the “one woman and one man” language and simplify the biblical principles on marriage to focus on the blessing and covenant between two people before God without mentioning gender. Similar moves were used not only with divorce but with the mysterious removal of the marital prohibition against being “unequally yoked” with unbelievers in 1928.
- Alternatively, the church may decide to directly confront passages confining marriages to heterosexual couples.
Given the damage its LGBTQIA+ stance has inflicted, the Nazarene Church must ask forgiveness and seek reconciliation with LGBTQIA+ believers. More will be required, but this proposal is a start.
Patti L. Dikes, JD is a child welfare policy attorney whose work impacts LGBTQIA+ foster youth. She was raised a 3rd-generation Nazarene. Her nieces and their cousins have no relationship with the Nazarene Church and a few identify as LGBTQIA+. An ally, she supports same-sex marriage and loving, healthy, sexual relationships outside of marriage.