Being open and affirming of LGBTQ+ people opens up the possibility for a more vibrant and robust theology that is both faithful to the Wesleyan tradition and speaks from and to the lives of queer Christians.
Since its origins in the Azusa Street revivals and on Skid Row, the Church of the Nazarene has always prioritized theology and practice that centers care and liberation of the poor and the marginalized. The earliest Nazarenes welcomed and lived in solidarity with the addicted, the homeless, and others who had been scorned and discarded by society. The church has leaned into the teachings of Jesus and of John Wesley to build a community marked by the holiness that is perfect love of God and neighbor. Much of the Covenant of Christian Character stemmed from considerations of how to best love each other as siblings in God’s family. This central ethos does not preclude the affirmation and inclusion of LGBTQ+ people. In fact, it requires it.
One benefit of such affirmation and inclusion is it opens a way for the development of a queer Wesleyan theology. Queer theology is a way of thinking about God and faith that brings to the fore questions about how we experience the divine as embodied creatures with the socially constructed trappings of gender and sexuality. It helps us talk about desire, uncertainty, pleasure, ambiguity, relationality, autonomy, and power. It helps us interrogate, critique, and process the messy actualities of life instead of building up aspirational orthodoxies that not only have no basis in our current reality but also are actively harmful.
To have a queer theology that is explicitly and self-consciously Wesleyan means we can take the insights from both queer theology and the Wesleyan tradition and see how they might interact to speak both from and to our specific ecclesial context. However, because the Wesleyan denominations, including the Church of the Nazarene, have heretofore ignored (at best) or attacked (at worst) the lives and work of queer congregants, ministers, and theologians in their midst, such a theology has been slow to emerge.
One of the best models for developing a fresh but faithful constructive theology is Nazarene theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop.
With her 1972 book A Theology of Love, Wynkoop undertook to shift the Wesleyan, and especially the Nazarene, conversation about holiness from individual pietistic purity to a relational-ethical morality based on love. The basis of this “new” hermeneutic was actually a resourcement, a return to Wesley’s work itself, and an interpretation of that work in light of the contemporary and historical theological questions that always led back to love. “Wesley’s thought,” Wynkoop said, “is like a great rotunda with archway entrances all around it. No matter which one is entered, it always leads to the central Hall of Love.” Ultimately, she reframed the traditional thinking of Wesleyan doctrines, arguing that “rather than Wesley representing a theology of holiness it would be more faithful to his major emphasis to call it a theology of love.” This change in thought opened up a whole new stream of Wesleyan-Nazarene theology that focused on relational, communal, social holiness and the lived-out ethical engagement that Wesley saw as the true embodiment of the Christian life.
In what remains of this chapter, I will take a figurative page out of Wynkoop’s book, and explore the well-known Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace, reframing it in a contemporary context that has acceptance of queer life as its central impetus and celebration of queer love as its key touchstone. Thinking along these lines should result in an introduction to what could be a faithful queer Wesleyan theology, whose focus is, as ever, the corresponding outward activity of perfect love of God and neighbor.
Affirmation as a Prevenient Grace
Wesleyans believe in the doctrine of prevenient grace, that is, a grace poured out by God on all people, without exception, that precedes and enables any response of conversion, repentance, or holy works. In the Nazarene Manual, it is asserted in the seventh Article of Faith: “We believe that the grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed upon all people, enabling all who will to turn from sin to righteousness, believe on Jesus Christ for pardon and cleansing from sin, and follow good works pleasing and acceptable in His sight.” Similarly, in the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline, it is defined as “the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our ‘first slight transient conviction’ of having sinned against God. God’s grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith.”
What’s more, this prevenient grace is experienced by way of what Wesley called the means of grace, or the practices in which Christians participate that function as a conduit of God’s grace, which is always already at hand. In other words, God’s grace is always before us, and we can see and receive it in our lives in a variety of activities.
What I want to suggest is that the Church’s being open and affirming to the lives of LGBTQ+ people can be a means of grace. This act can be proof positive of God’s love, surrounding LGBTQ+ people, freely bestowed, and open to any and all response. Just like God’s prevenient grace, an open and affirming position holds arms outstretched and says, “I love you, no matter what.” Just like God’s prevenient grace, it takes seriously individuals’ freedom to respond, in any way or not at all. It is not coercive. It is not manipulative. It is a love that accepts fully and seeks toward righteousness.
The first of John Wesley’s General Rules for the Christian life was “Do no harm.” It is clear, as demonstrated in much social scientific research, that non-affirming churches are indeed harmful to LGBTQ+ people, especially youths. They directly contribute to homelessness, physical abuse, and myriad negative mental health outcomes. Wesleyan churches like the Church of the Nazarene have a clear injunction against such harm. They also have easy doctrinal support for its opposite. To do good, in this case, is to become explicitly affirming of LGBTQ+ life and love in both word and deed. To support the spiritual and material growth and flourishing of LGBTQ+ people is to care for the poor and marginalized in the way the Church of the Nazarene has throughout its history; in the way Wesley promoted in his holiness evangelism; and in the way Jesus Christ modeled in his life on earth and in his continued sustenance of the Church through the Holy Spirit.
Just as Mildred Bangs Wynkoop rethought Wesleyan theology in terms of her own 1970s context, we now can rethink it in ours. That means opening up to the holy possibilities that arise when we welcome into our communities LGBTQ+ people and their lives and loves and ways of considering the divine. A reframe and application of Wesley’s prevenient grace as LGBTQ+ affirmation shows both how this kind of recontextualization can be faithful to the Wesleyan doctrine and how the doctrine itself can be hospitable toward queer people.
The Church has a responsibility to respond and adapt to the reality and needs of the marginalized, just as Jesus addressed those he encountered in his ministry. True acceptance and affirmation in the Church of the Nazarene will result in the encouragement and flourishing of queer Nazarenes to live into both of those identities, and the result will be a fuller, more complete church that will reap the benefits—one of which being a robust, thoughtful, and faithful queer Wesleyan theology that helps us consider our tradition in new ways.
Keegan Osinski is the librarian for Theology and Ethics at Vanderbilt University Divinity Library and the author of Queering Wesley, Queering the Church. She is a member of the Church of the Nazarene.
. See, for example, Eric M. Rodriguez, “At the Intersection of Church and Gay: A Review of the Psychological Research on Gay and Lesbian Christians,” Journal of Homosexuality 57, no. 1 (December 31, 2009): 5—38, https://doi.org/10.1080/00918360903445806.