Why Don’t You Just Leave?

jr. forasteros

When I came out as a queer-affirming pastor, I was asked, “Why don’t you just leave the denomination?” But I’m affirming because I’m Nazarene, not despite it.

It wasn’t long after I had first announced publicly that I’m an LGBTQ+ affirming pastor that my District Superintendent texted, asking if we could meet. I grinned; I had known this was coming when I posted. He had been contacted by the General Superintendent who oversaw our district and instructed to listen to the podcast episode I had posted. He was told to inquire as to why, if I disagreed with our denominational position, I didn’t hand in my credentials and seek out an affirming denomination.

It’s a fair question, and one I’ve been asked by a number of individuals in the last few years. The Church of the Nazarene is openly homophobic; why would an affirming pastor remain in the denomination? Aren’t I violating my ordination oaths by staying?

In short, no.

I wasn’t raised Nazarene—I grew up Southern Baptist (and was originally ordained in the SBC). I came to the Church of the Nazarene by choice, after leaving the SBC over disputes about penal substitutionary atonement and ordination of women. I chose to be Nazarene, and I’m a Nazarene with the zeal of a convert.

As I was considering my new denomination, I couldn’t escape the so-called ‘Special Rules’ (cue dramatic music drop). As a long-time movie buff and critic, the idea that I might not be allowed to go to the movies (or the circus!) was troublesome; the prohibition against dancing—against which I have a genetic ­predisposition—less so. But still—the Baptists are famously a people of no creed—all their rules are unspoken. The idea that we Nazarenes have a stated list of rules was fascinating to me. I had to know more.

I dove into the Manual to discover we have two separate documents—the Articles of Faith and the Special Rules, which are now called the Code of Christian Conduct. The difference between the two lists was immediately clear, as was the wisdom behind having two distinct documents.

The Articles of Faith are our timeless doctrines—belief in the Trinity, the Second Coming, Entire Sanctification. These are our creed, the hallmarks of Nazarenes across time and cultures. As such, they change very little from manual to manual, with the majority of the changes being to update language.

The Special Rules, on the other hand, change every assembly. And they’re reactive—we didn’t have a special rule on the sanctity of life until the first manual published after Roe v Wade. We’re allowed to go see movies now (and the circus!). Even dancing is mostly fine. And of course there’s the big debate about this section of our manual becoming regional.

All of this points to a reality that’s been baked into our denomination since the beginning: the Special Rules/Code of Conduct interpret the Articles of Faith. The good thing about the articles of faith being so broad is that they’re timeless. They don’t change from year to year. We’re always going to believe in the Trinity and anticipate Jesus’ Second Coming.

The drawback, though, is that they’re abstract. What does it mean that we believe in the Trinity? How does our eschatological hope shape our present moment? This is a particular problem for a Holiness people who believe deeply that the Holy Spirit is living and active in our present moment. We should look different in tangible, noticeable ways from the world around us.

The Special Rules are our way of feeling out what those tangible differences might look like. They’re applied holiness.

But culture isn’t static; it’s constantly shifting—not just from year to year, but as we move around the globe, through a country or even within a city. This means that what holiness looks like, what holiness requires of us is going to look different for different churches in different places and at different times. It’s messy. It’s complex and complicated.

And that’s why our manual is designed to be updated. It’s why the Special Rules are constantly changing—because we’re changing them. We recognize that, while the Articles of Faith are mostly static, the Code of Conduct/Special Rules are mostly in flux. They’re supposed to be. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

By virtue of the fact that our Special Rules are culturally contingent, we’re essentially guaranteed to get them wrong. They’re likely to be out of date by the time the latest edition of the Manual has been updated, printed and delivered to our churches in the wake of the latest General Assembly.

As such, to insist on strict adherence to the Special Rules is ludicrous. They’re not a document that was designed with such in mind. They’re the beginning of a conversation—what holiness looks like in our time and place—not the end of one. And by virtue of the fact that we’re collectively working out our salvation, we’re going to get it wrong sometimes. Again, that’s not the worst thing; with appropriate humility, it’s not even a bad thing. Imagine that we, as a denomination, model a radical commitment to live out our holy calling publicly, mess and all.

And while it should go without saying that we as Nazarenes are not required to agree with the Special Rules, certain reactionary groups in our denomination are working to require just that. But if we’re never allowed to disagree with the Special Rules, then how could we possibly ever change them? If disagreeing with the Special Rules was grounds for revoking ordination, then surely anyone who’s ever authored such a change should be brought up on charges. Obviously, such an idea is ludicrous, and those who insist on mindless adherence to the Special Rules either fail to understand what this document is or are pursuing a decidedly unholy agenda by working to make our denomination’s governing documents something they’re literally (and literarily) not designed to be.

Which brings me back to my public stance for LGBTQ+ affirmation: yes, our statement on human sexuality is homophobic. But that statement is in our Special Rules. In other words, those who authored this statement (and who voted it into our Manual), believe that a homophobic stance on queer identity is the most faithful way to embody holiness in this time and place.

I deeply disagree with these siblings. I believe that God created, calls, and honors queer individuals. I believe that a faithfully Wesleyan holiness church will be queer (in that we reject whole-heartedly and full-throatedly the cis-heteronormative patriarchy in our churches and in our world). I believe that, to be consistent with our Articles of Faith, the Church of the Nazarene must be fully LGBTQ+ affirming.

We’re disagreeing about polity, and I believe those who are ‘Side B’/non-affirming/homophobic are committing the same kind of sin as our Baptist siblings who deny God’s call on women to preach and pastor. It’s the same kind of sin as the preachers who used the Bible to uphold chattel slavery in the US as God’s will for America.

I love the Church of the Nazarene too much to pretend this issue doesn’t matter. And I love my queer siblings and neighbors too much to pretend this issue isn’t urgent.

I’m affirming because I’m Nazarene; not despite it. And I’m not going anywhere.

jr. forasteros lives in Dallas, TX with his wife, Amanda. He pastors Catalyst Church and is the author of Empathy for the Devil from IVP. He is a columnist at Sojourners and writes about horror for TOR.com. He plans to die historic on the Fury Road, but until then, he’s probably either preaching or announcing roller derby.

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