Murphy L. Gill
The Nazarene Church chooses to view some difficult issues with grace, liberty and charity, but with regard to full LGBTQ+ inclusion, she refuses to offer the same grace, liberty and charity.
“Oh, if I told them, I’d never have a bed or be welcome at home ever again.” Every time I think of that moment, I find those words continue to hold open a deep and still-fresh wound in the most sensitive parts of my spirit even to this day. That wound initially signaled to me that there was something fundamentally wrong in some aspect of what I was taught to believe about LGBTQ+ people, which I had blindly reasserted at every opportunity. I was convinced in that moment that this precious young woman, a lesbian and a Christian was not the one inflicting the wound, but rather that it was the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in my own spirit, journey and life. I am still as certain of this today as I was that day.
By all accounts, I was a good Nazarene pastor doing what I was supposed to do. I was a lifelong Nazarene, born to parents who met at a Nazarene college. I grew up being active in my local Nazarene church, my youth group, and in district NYI events. As a teenager I felt a clear calling to go into full-time pastoral ministry. I then followed that call into my own Nazarene College experience and then into full time ministry. For the next 3 decades I walked that narrow path and rarely, if ever, questioned things I now realize I should have. But events in the year or so leading up to the moment back in that little Michigan coffee shop began to cause me to question deeply. I began to seriously consider that just maybe there really is an infinitely bigger, vastly more loving, and actually grace-filled God out there, and they are nothing like the one I had been working to follow for over 30 years.
This essay is about why I believe that the Church of the Nazarene, whose culture and ethos were all I ever knew growing up and whose people and community I love, ought to become fully LGBTQ+ affirming. My take on this subject is both experientially and theologically based. As a lifelong Nazarene and a longtime Nazarene pastor, I understand the core and foundational history that went into forming the Church I loved for so long. I understand that the formational days were days of significant compromise between the various contributing church groups who were seeking to become the Church of the Nazarene. That is a beautiful thing, compromise. Being willing to truly listen to the viewpoints of others, and to ultimately believe that even though we disagree on some things which are important to us, they can still be followers of the same Christ which we follow. We can all live and work and breathe and serve and love under the same big tent, as we say.
All my life I have heard Nazarene clergy and lay leaders alike quote a line that is often incorrectly attributed to the Nazarene theological patriarch John Wesley: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity.” But that sentiment is rarely lived out within the Church of the Nazarene. If it were truly embodied in practice, this “issue” and many other “non-essential” things wouldn’t be the litmus test of whether someone can be in the club or not, or whether a minister who holds this view is allowed to serve in the Church. It would simply be another one of the multiplicity of things we intentionally choose to offer liberty and charity for. Certainly, there are other “issues” we find in scripture which have much clearer and stronger admonitions against them which the Church of the Nazarene has chosen to offer liberty and charity for, such as divorce or women serving in ministry and leading men. We also allow for differences in belief concerning other non-essential things like evolution, atonement theory, creation care, or even baptism.
The Church has chosen to view these issues through a lens of liberty and charity, which it certainly ought to. She has chosen to use a lens that takes into account the core Wesleyan interpretive tenants of tradition, reason, experience and scripture in order to choose not to view these issues as deal breakers. However, with regard to the issue of full LGBTQ+ inclusion in the life and work of the Church, She has refused to give the same kind of grace, liberty and charity. She has instead chosen to view the countless millions of LGBTQ+ people as beyond the grace and acceptance of the Church simply because of six passages of scripture that are in no way relevant to the idea or concept of monogamous, covenantal, same-gender relationships and love. This idea was an idea for which the writers of those six passages which the Church consistently uses to bludgeon those in the LGBTQ+ community, could never have even conceived of. None of those six passages were written with a truly loving relationship between two humans who love and care for one another but happen to be of the same gender, in mind.
Having served in countless pastoral counseling roles in the LGBTQ+ community here in Nashville since leaving my Nazarene pulpit in 2018, I am still shocked by the sheer number of these precious LGBTQ+ humans who have been devastated by the rejection of the Church. Even more stunning are the number of them who are pastor’s kids and staff pastor’s kids. The story I referenced at the outset of this paper was the first of countless times I have sat and listened to the wounded but still beating heart of a precious LGBTQ+ person. In this case, it was also the first time to hear a (PK) pastor’s kids’ story. But the story for me, really began much earlier than that day.
My part of the story began in the fall of 2015. In September of that year, the world finally began to watch what was being called the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Bashar Al-Assad was massacring his own people. The ensuing exodus was massive as millions fled their own country while millions more were slaughtered in the streets. Then one day, it happened. A photo began to circulate of a little three-year-old boy, named Alan, who was lying face-down on a beach on the coast of Greece, dead. His face became the face of the atrocities being carried out on innocents in Syria. I remember how horrible it was to see that sight, but what followed was equally as horrible. There was a great cry from many in our country for America to begin taking many more of the refugees in as the European countries were simply overwhelmed. The position of our political leaders recited on the evening news was that we couldn’t take in many more of these refugees because there might be “terrorists” that could sneak in and hurt us. That was shocking enough, but then came the response by the Church, which was… nothing.
The Church went right along with the politicians. It was okay with the response of not taking in strangers and aliens who were being slaughtered in their own country because there might be a bad guy who sneaks in. My mind immediately rejected that idea because—as a good pastor ought to say—that is the exact opposite of what Jesus would say or do. It was wrong. And a thread began to be pulled out of this mosaic tapestry that had been woven throughout my whole life. I began to ask myself, “if the Church could be so desperately wrong about something that should be so simple to respond to, what other things is it wrong about that need to be dealt with?” I was pastoring a small Nazarene congregation in southern Michigan at the time, and my preaching became more focused on the idea of Social Holiness. John Wesley explained it like this “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.”
I am a pretty social person, and I thrive working around people. So, my practice was to not work on sermon prep or other study at the church itself. I wanted to be around people and sense their energy and creativity, so I would generally take my computer and my other materials to the local Starbucks. I became very familiar with all the staff and the regulars, so much so that they began to refer to me as the pastor of the chapel at St. Arbucks. They would often come and chat with me during their breaks in a sort of informal counseling session. I even did weddings and baby dedications for some of them. I soon learned that many of the staff at the coffee shop were members of the LGBTQ+ community, and some of them were also Christian. Of course, in the Nazarene world, those two things, Christian and gay weren’t supposed to be a thing that could exist. But there it was right in front of my face, and all of a sudden, I had found another thread to tug at.
One day, while working on an upcoming sermon at the coffee shop, one of the baristas, a precious young woman, who I knew to be both a lesbian and a Christian came and sat at my table as she had done many times before. We chatted for a while, and then without thinking too much about it, I asked about her relationship with her parents and how they took it when she told them she was gay. I knew from our previous conversations that her dad pastored a small independent Baptist church a couple of hours away and I was curious how they were handling the situation. Her response, which you have already read at the beginning of this paper, was stunning. It was a response that I have now heard more times than I wish to recount from other traumatized young LGBTQ+ people, but that was my first time hearing it; it was real, and it was raw. She said “Oh, if I told them, I’d never have a bed or be welcome at home ever again”, and that broke me. I sat at that table, and I cried. I cried for her, and simultaneously my anger boiled toward her parents.
But soon, I began to come to the realization that while her parents were indeed to blame for the truly un-Christlike environment they had fostered in their home (so much so that the very identity, heart, and soul of their precious daughter had to be kept hidden from them), it dawned on me that the fault truly lies at the feet of the Church. The Church was ultimately to blame. The Evangelical Church’s choice to not look at full LGBTQ+ affirmation and inclusion with the same grace, liberty, and charity that they choose to look at other “issues” is fundamentally the root of all the trauma inflicted on so many in the LGBTQ+ community.
The question of LGBTQ+ full inclusion and affirmation is certainly not easy, nor without its unknowables. But for many Christian denominations and their theologians, it’s not an issue to argue over. It is, as Wesley would say, a non-essential. But unfortunately for denominations like the Church of the Nazarene, many have dug their heels in and have refused to even give an ear to the matter. To these I say: please—on behalf of the children, grandchildren, and future members of the Church who come to the realization that they are gay and don’t know who will accept them—take a moment to reconsider this issue now rather than later. Remember that the person you choose to exclude and reject just might turn out to be someone you love, and who loves you.
Murphy Gill is a realtor in Nashville, TN and serves on the pastoral staff at GracePointe Church. He is a 1988 graduate of Trevecca Nazarene University and was an ordained Nazarene elder until 2018. Murphy and his wife Michelle spent over 30 years in full-time ministry in the Church of the Nazarene and now work to advocate on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community.