The Church of the Nazarene’s fruit produced by our attitude toward the LGBTQ+ community is rotten; it is time to examine ourselves.
In the mid 90s, there was a popular band named Creed. Scott Stapp, the lead singer, was raised in a Christian home. Creed’s lyrics and videos had images that alluded to the Christian faith. I was a student at Mount Vernon Nazarene University at the time, and everyone wanted to know if this was a Christian band. If they were, it would be acceptable to be a fan. I read articles about them. I watched VH1’s Behind the Music on Creed. They never gave a clear answer. I sought advice from my brother-in-law, a pastor, and he gave me that sage Christian perspective, “Look at the fruit.”
Judging things, people, music, movies, or events based on “their fruit” is the most common advice I have received from Christian leaders and mentors. In other words, we are examining what people are producing with their lives, actions, and even music. I imagine that we are looking for the fruit of the Spirit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23). This seems to be a good measuring tool to decide what is good, and the church is quick to judge others by this standard. However, it is not a standard that we often hold ourselves accountable to.
Throughout the 90’s, the Church of the Nazarene’s Manual statement on same-sex relationships was, “Homosexuality is one means by which human sexuality is perverted. We recognize the depth of the perversion that leads to homosexual acts but affirm the biblical position that such acts are sinful and subject to the wrath of God.” We justified our actions toward the LGBTQ+ community with that statement. We mocked artists like Elton John. We deemed the AIDS epidemic as God’s judgment against gay men. We promoted stereotypes that reflected the worst aspects of the LGBTQ+ community as the norm, not the exception. We coined the phrases “gay agenda” and “gay lifestyle.” We promoted toxic gender roles in order to avoid the appearance of evil. We did all of this in the name of God while pretending we were producing good fruit.
As a middle school teacher, I help lead the “Signs of Suicide” program every year. Without fail, the majority of students that reach out for help are emerging LGBTQ+ students. These children are beginning to understand who they are, and they are afraid. They fear rejection, judgment, bullying and worse from family, friends, and their faith. Recent studies by The Trevor Project showed us that LGBTQ+ students are twice as likely to have experienced bullying, twice as likely to become addicted to drugs or alcohol, and three times more likely to lack a trusted adult. They are at a substantially greater risk of depression and suicide. Yet we sit back in our pews and pretend that our years of hateful rhetoric, disastrous promotion of conversion therapy, and our blatant rejection of our LGBTQ+ children have nothing to do with these numbers. We think we are giving them love and fail to acknowledge our rotten fruit.
I have two queer children; my youngest has only recently come out. As a pastor myself, my children coming out as queer has been a difficult path to navigate. The church tells me my daughter Annie cannot have a girlfriend and say she loves Jesus. She says she can. She says she loves God, has said the sinner’s prayer, has been baptized, and feels a call to preach. So, who is right, Annie or the church? Well, let us examine the fruit. Her girlfriend is the kind of person you hope your child hangs out with. She is kind and considerate. She challenges my daughter to be more conscious of other people and their feelings. They build each other up and speak words of hope when the stress of school and being a teenager has them down. When they are together, they share joy and laughter. In the past eight months they have been dating, my daughter has become more open to discussing the church and God. Her faith has grown deeper. I asked her if she wanted to leave the Church of the Nazarene. She gave me a firm no, replying, “Mom, other kids like me need a safe place. You can be that. You can love LGBTQ+ people in the church so they know that God loves them too.” So, does that fit the criteria of good fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control? It is significantly healthier than many of the heterosexual relationships I have witnessed in church youth groups.
My four children have grown up in a different world than me. They are sensitive to the unnecessary labels we have given that cause division and xenophobia. More than that, they desire to live without the labels that society uses to make sense of the world. My daughter does not want to be labeled gay, bisexual or straight; she does not want the box that labels place her in. She just wants to be seen as Annie. She is not “my gay child;” she is my child. My second oldest is not “my non-binary child;” they are just my child. There is so much more to them than their sexuality or their gender. They are a smart, kind, funny, and talented human. They love hiking, swimming, softball, and music. They are a whole person.
Many of my friends that are gay are in long-term monogamous relationships. Many of them are married with children. They are not the embodiment of the weird gay caricatures that I grew up with in the 90’s. They are just normal people, with normal jobs, and normal families. They are not my gay friends; they are just my friends. They are nurturing parents, excellent teachers, loving partners, and supportive friends. Many times, they are the safe space the church has not been, giving me room to process my own hurt without judgment.
When these friends come to church with me and enter a loving relationship with the Creator, what will our response be as the church? Will we refuse to recognize them as a family? Will we require that they separate? How will their kids react to that? Will they be open to a religion that is responsible for their family breaking up? The world is changing, and the church cannot ignore the changing dynamics.
I do not ask for reflection and change just because it would be convenient for my family; I ask because there is a population of people whose lives literally depend on us getting this right. Our ability to question long held religious beliefs is part of who we are. It is why I, as a woman, can be a pastor. At some point, men in power judged the fruit of women preaching and decided that they could not deny the good fruit. That led to a reversal in policies held by churches for centuries. As a female pastor, I owe it to my LGBTQ+ friends to use my voice to raise the same concern—there is undeniably good fruit from the ministry of our LGBTQ+ Christian brothers and sisters. It is time to reexamine our long-held beliefs.
Buffy Fleece is a bi-vocational pastor in Columbus, OH. During the day she is a middle school Spanish teacher in Columbus City Schools. She has a BA in Spanish Education from Mount Vernon Nazarene University and a MDiv from Nazarene Theological Seminary.