What the Denomination Said When I Asked If I Could Include LGTBQ+ People

Jonathan J. Foster

I will never forget how uncomfortable I was as the church deemed me “out of alignment” for expressing my concerns about their (our) posture toward LGTBQ+ human beings. But even more compelling, I will never forget how comfortable I was with Jesus. In the end, the hardest/easiest decision I ever made was to follow Jesus rather than the church.

I want to tell you a little story. It’s a story about what The Church of the Nazarene said in the last few moments of my denominational life. 2019.

The outset of Holy Week.

The outset of a week we reflect upon the unjust scapegoating of our Lord.

The outset of the rest of my life.

I sat with three men representing my denomination: a fellow pastor, a District Superintendent, and a General Superintendent. Decent people. I have no need to suggest anything otherwise. I didn’t know them well, but they probably loved God as best as they knew how, fasted and prayed, gave of their time and money, and maybe even recycled.

Was it a heresy trial? I don’t know. Come to think of it, I doubt the word trial was used, and given the pleasantries exchanged, I’m not sure the word feels appropriate. I mean, imagine Galileo, Giordano Bruno, or Martin Luther getting a handshake from the powers that be right before being arrested, burned, or excommunicated. (And imagine putting myself in the same paragraph as Galileo, Bruno, or Luther). Hmm, maybe we’ll call it a conversation. Yes, a heresy conversation. A kinder, gentler kind of trial. No need for stoking fires around stakes; let’s do this in a more civilized way.

Our “heresy conversation” centered around my approach to matters regarding LGTBQ+ human beings. Specifically, I had asked our district for permission to treat these people with respect such that they would be welcomed and included in my church. Even more, that we gain clarity around the issues present before we assume such human beings as reprobate.

I wasn’t demanding answers. I was asking for space to walk with people, to not single them out, not suggest that their issues were different than anyone’s issues, and to walk with them in the midst of questions. Questions they have. Questions we all have.

For example, when a baby is born with unformed reproductive organs or is intersex, how would the denomination have me support the parents? As that child grows into a teen and adult, what is the expectation? What if, despite being raised as a man, they realize, years later, that they are a woman? What if this person, whom the church has always known as a man, begins to have affection for other men? What if this person feels a calling to serve on the church board? What does the denomination expect of the pastor in this situation?

Or how would the denomination like me to reference someone with an X and Y chromosome but who also has ovaries and not testicles? What if this person is experiencing frustration about their sexuality? What if we don’t know this person’s biological or physical makeup? How would we even gain such information? What if someone comes to me, expressing gender dysphoria? What exactly should I ask before I agree to baptize, bring into membership, or allow them to teach?

Or what’s the proper response to a young lady who, after disclosing stories of being abused by her father, stepfather, then a high school boy, rushes to tell me that she found a girl in college whom she feels safe with and loves? Does the denomination expect me to suggest that the only way for her to experience romantic love is to place herself back in a heterosexual and unsafe relationship?

I had already brought several of these questions to my district superintendent. Again, he was a kind man, but someone who, by his own admission, wasn’t prepared to have nuanced discussions around sexuality. I don’t say this to cast doubt upon this individual’s integrity or lack of mental capacity—though I certainly hope to cast doubt upon the integrity of a system that promotes such people to the role of a superintendent. Pastors desperately need more than someone whose only recourse is to point to static, black-and-white words in a manual. Pastors need a mentor to join them in a dynamic, flesh-colored world.

My questions that I’d like to think were formulated with an awareness of human complexity, were met with one of two simplistic responses:

1.  Are you in or out?

2.  You are not in alignment with the theology of The Church of the Nazarene.

My response to the coercion of the first question went something like… Wait. What? I’m “in.” For good or for bad, I’ve been “in” my whole life. I’m a third-­generation Nazarene pastor; someone who has done all the camps, retreats, colleges, seminaries, and ordinations; someone whose every memory in one way or the other was colored Nazarene. There’s no reason for me to be out now. Why would you resort to requesting blind allegiance in matters so complex?

My response to the theological pronouncement went something like… Wait. What? Are you sure? Can you tell me more about our theology? Does it speak to everything? Do we have the definitive truth? Even if we had the definitive truth in this area, why would we treat these human beings any differently than anyone else? And, given that Jesus was nothing less than inclusive with people from all walks of life, would he have been in alignment with our theology? How do I stay in alignment but treat those outside heterosexual norms in a gracious way? By the way, who created heterosexual norms? Did non-heterosexuals have a say? Does the Bible speak infallibly to this issue? Are there any gray areas in the Bible? Is our theology 100% clear on all matters concerning sexuality, and if so, why is there such widespread disagreement?

My D.S. could not answer my questions. Our conversations usually ended with a smile, a shaking head, and a request to reconnect at a later date. This back and forth continued for a few months, all of which led up to the “heresy conversation” and the church’s remarkable confession.

So, there we were. In the board room. Around the board table. The denomination growing bored of me and the entire conversation.

“You know this issue isn’t going away, right? Are you sure you want to take this kind of stance?”

These are our rules; every organization has rules.

“True, but we’re an organization that rallies around Jesus, someone who died because the religious people wouldn’t rethink their rules.”

That’s not us though. We can rethink our rules. It would just have to go through the proper channels with the proper committees.

“You want me to form a committee and wait until the next district assembly to make a motion that certain wording in our manual be edited? Even if there was approval for this idea, we’d have to wait three more years for the general assembly. And even if by some miracle it passed, it would still take months or years for the vocabulary to be ironed out. Meanwhile, what would you have me do with friends who are carrying the shame of our religious system because they identify as gay? When they disclose suicidal thoughts, what would you suggest? Should I let them know that in four to six years, the church will have some sexuality statements completed, and then they’ll know what to do? When the religious people dragged the woman ‘caught in adultery’ to Jesus, did he form a committee?

No, but he did tell her not to sin.

“Do you think the moral of that story has to do with us telling people they are sinning? Or does the moral have to do with us organizing our practices around scapegoating?”

Sure, scapegoating is wrong, but the Bible is pretty clear about homosexuality.

“The Bible is clear? Really? Do you know what Jesus said about the eunuch? Are you sure we know exactly what the four passages (out of 31,000 verses in the Bible) that mention homosexuality are saying?”

I’m sighing as I retell the story thinking about how much I sighed when I was in the story. I imagined the gentiles in the 1st century making their case to be accepted by Jews, the African slaves in the 19th century trying to change the attitude of white southerners, or the women in the 20th century trying to reason with men about their right to vote. But apparently, none of those sitting around the board table with me that day were thinking of such things.

The more I attempted to move the conversation away from “individual personal sin” and into “denominational systemic sin,” the more the discussion bogged down. It just went ’round and ’round… like being on a merry-go-round… like a dog chasing its tail… like a dog chasing its tail on a merry-go-round.

Finally, the General sat up and tapped both hands on the table. “Jonathan,” he said with no shortage of conviction, “if you want me to say that I don’t know how to answer every question you have raised or that the church cannot definitively interpret all these issues… then yes, I will say that: I don’t know.”

As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted him, the two others, the district, the North American region, and the entire global denomination to say what everyone already knew: No one has exact answers to anything, least of all to every question dealing with sexuality.

“Great,” I responded, “so we are all in agreement: We don’t know. Therefore, our default position could be love. We could create spaces where people are welcomed and loved irrespective of who they are and what they are going through.” I leaned back in my chair and said, “I think our work here is done.”

In the wake of my admittedly somewhat sarcastic but no less truthful attempt to make a point, an uneasy silence filled the room. It was interrupted only by fingers tapping, seats shifting, and my future compressing. Surely, they sensed grace when they admitted to not having answers, right? Surely, they wouldn’t force me, my young church, with all of its LGTBQ+ loving parishioners, out, right? Surely, they knew the table was big enough for everyone, right?

Alas, institutional thinking is formidable. To build upon Upton Sinclair, getting an organization to change its mind is impossible, especially when so much rides on an organization’s not changing its mind. You’ve probably already guessed the ending. The D.S. turned to me and said, “Jonathan, you are out of alignment with the theology of the Church of the Nazarene.”

It was a remarkable confession The Church of the Nazarene made in the last moments of my denominational life. They told me that I was out of alignment with a theology that they did not understand.

What absurdity!

Confused people telling someone that they are too confused to belong?

Uncertain theologians being so certain about getting rid of someone?

Purveyors of grace lacking the grace to allow a pastor to build a gracious community?

I will never forget that moment; how uncomfortable I was with the church, but strangely, how comfortable I was with Jesus. What could I do? Ultimately, I had to agree. I was out of alignment with that kind of theology. What a sham(e). What a power-loving-religious-sham(e) I experienced in 2019.

The outset of Holy Week.

The outset of a week we reflect upon the unjust scapegoating of our Lord.

The outset of the rest of my life.

Jonathan J. Foster is the author of Questions About Sexuality that Got Me Uninvited from My Denomination and other books including his doctoral dissertation through Northwind Theological Seminary entitled Theology of Consent: Mimetic Theory in an Open and Relational Universe. Learn more at jonathanfosteronline.com.

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