Hey, Nazarenes! Why Can’t Everyone Be in Your Big Tent?

Michelle Gill

For a denomination that proclaims the Holy Spirit moves among them, there doesn’t seem to be room for the revelation of the Holy Spirit to queer Christians and their allies.

Why should the Church of the Nazarene become fully LGBTQ+ affirming? Let’s start with the Manual Statement 31 on Marriage and Human Sexuality. “As the global church receives and ministers to the people of our world, the faithful outworking of these statements as congregations is complex and must be navigated with care, humility, courage and discernment.” That is a worthy goal. It is not, however, the reality of the Church of the Nazarene.

Despite beginning with the statement that we are all created in God’s image, the statement goes on to say that LGBTQ+ people are marred or broken. It does not just come right out with that, but it prefaces its condemnation of LGBTQ+ relationships with a discussion about how sin entered the world, and the world is fallen. Being queer is not a choice. Who would choose to be marginalized by society and especially the church? If you take the time to talk to a queer person, they will tell you they have known they were different from early childhood. It may have taken them a while to determine how it is they were different, but they have always felt it. Different does not mean broken, though. I have heard many say that people are gay because they were somehow parented errantly or abused by their parents or other adults. But many queer people had perfectly safe, normal, happy childhoods. They are not broken. The fact is they were born queer. It is not a trauma or mistake. It just is how they were made. Rachel Held Evans wrote, “These people were not ‘broken.’ Far from being ‘unnatural,’ homosexuality has been widely documented in the animal kingdom, and far from being a product of American culture, variations in gender and sexuality have been observed in hundreds of cultures around the world from those that embrace variance in gender and sexuality (like the Navajo, or the Bugis of Indonesia), to those that make them punishable by death.”

When you look at the diversity of God’s creation, how do you put humans into a binary and not a spectrum? Again, quoting Evans, “I affirm LGBTQ+ people because they are human beings, created in the image of God. I affirm their sexual orientations and gender identities because they reflect the diversity of God’s creation, where little fits into rigid binary categories.”

One of the more distressing parts of this statement on human sexuality is the complete omission of transgender people. It is tantamount to erasing their existence. It is an incredible oversight. Trans people exist and want to worship the God that created them, yet no guidance is offered by the denomination on how to treat them and interact with them. It is as though they do not exist. Thankfully, there are no directives to restrict them from participation and membership, but there is also no directive to love and accept them. Given the treatment of trans people by society in general and by conservatives, especially in recent days, this is an egregious omission.[Editor’s note: This chapter of Why the Church of the Nazarene Should be Fully LGBTQ+ Affirming was written and published prior to the 2023 General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene at which a statement on transgender people was added to the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene. The text of that statement can be found here.]

The statement indicates that being homosexual is not in and of itself a sin and on this I agree with the church. I find it unfathomable that God would declare this to be a sin knowing full well that people are born this way. It is just part of who they are. There are six verses that reference same-sex relations. There are no verses that reference loving committed same gender relationships, which is the subject at hand. The verses refer to violent rape for purposes of humiliation of military conquests or to assert alpha masculinity. Some of these verses are about pederasty or using slaves for sexual gratification. Others reference people who were not drawn to the same gender, none the less participating in these relations. The word homosexual did not appear in translations until 1946. A letter has been discovered pointing out the error. Because of what appears to be an administrative oversight, not malicious intent, the error was not corrected. The rest, I am sad to say, is history.

I know that it is easy enough for the theological gatekeepers of the church to understand and see that there is disparity in the hermeneutic applied to matters of LGBTQ+ inclusion and affirmation. I am an accountant, who is a pastor’s wife and I figured it out. I do still consider my husband to be a pastor because God called him and ordained him. He is no longer a Nazarene pastor because he saw the disparity. More than just seeing the failure to apply consistent hermeneutics, he saw the damage being done to the LGBTQ+ community. I was admittedly shocked when he told me that his change in understanding of these scriptures was a deal breaker and he would have to resign and surrender his credentials. The Church of the Nazarene sanctions a variety of beliefs about creation and evolution, atonement theory, military service (contentious objection to military service) and infant baptism. However, the tent is not big enough for varying views on LGBTQ+ inclusion and affirmation.

The current non-affirming position of the Church of the Nazarene does not stand up to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The four sources of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral are scripture, tradition, reason, and Christian experience. As already stated, the scripture references to LGBTQ+ relationships are scant and flimsy at best. There are six verses and Jesus never mentioned it. Those verses are about pederasty, sexual excess, and violence. A little cursory research into the historical context will uncover at the least doubts about these verses addressing loving LGBTQ+ relationships. As mentioned earlier, research has uncovered an error in the translation and combination of the two Greek words arsenokoitai and malakos into one word, homosexual. Letters between a seminarian and the team leader of the 1946 RSV translation team, Dr. Weigle, have been uncovered. The seminarian drew attention to the error and Dr. Weigle agreed with him. There is no evidence the mistranslation was maliciously left in the 1946 RSV. But it appeared in print errantly, none the less. There is enough doubt surrounding the context and translation of the scriptures to give pause to condemning these people based on this evidence.

The second leg of the quadrilateral is tradition. According to The Reformation Project, church tradition does not address same-sex relationships. For reference, Christian tradition held that the earth was the center of the universe for the first 1600 years, until it was proven that it was not. Christians today have more information about homosexuality than our church mothers and fathers. The most interesting information the Reformation Project offers us is that before the 20th century, there were no writings or tradition concerning LGBTQ+ people. There was no tradition of requiring lifelong celibacy for LGBTQ+ people.

Reason is the next leg of the quadrilateral. What kind of loving God would declare a group of people sinful or condemn them to a life of loneliness and celibacy? Nowhere in scripture does God command celibacy. Love the sinner, hate the sin defies reason. It is also a soul crushing and traumatic way to treat a human created in God’s image. Reason also beckons us to look at the issues of translation and context. Ignoring this body of evidence is not the care, humility, courage, and discernment that the statement calls for.

Christian experience is the last leg of the quadrilateral. There are queer Christians, full stop. Their experience is real, whether the Church of the Nazarene recognizes it or not. Since we left the Church of the Nazarene and became affirming, I have come to know many LGBTQ+ people. The grace that they exhibit in the face of belittling, shaming, and othering at the hands of “church people” is inspirational. I have become involved with a group of women called the Mama Bears. We go to events and give out free mom hugs. It is quite an experience to hug someone who has been deprived of a mother’s love. I have gotten to know may gay young people whose parents have turned their backs on their children when they came out to them. I met Kelsey though Mama Bears. Her parents first tried to change her and then rejected her when she could not change who she was. They simply told her that their faith informed them that she was hell bound and they felt the best way to deal with her was to cut her off. That message came from the pulpit. She started writing a blog to process what she was going through. I learned so much from this young woman about grace and kindness. Although her parents turned their backs on her, she continued to love them and try to understand them. She continued to try to repair the breach. Her story is a happier story than most. She and her mom have recently been talking and are trying to reestablish their relationship. Not all stories end so happily. My friend Daniel, whose family has also abandoned him, is alone in this world because of who he is attracted to.

Still discussing experience, let’s discuss what the experience of LGBTQ+ people have with the church. They hear themselves condemned from the pulpit and from their youth pastors. They are told by the church that they are broken and falling in love with someone is sin for them. According to the Trevor Project, nearly half of all LBTBQ+ youth have seriously considered suicide. Is the Church of the Nazarene fine with that? According to the Reformation Project, LGBTQ+ youth are twice as likely to attempt suicide if their parents pressure them to change their orientation. They are three times as likely to attempt suicide if they are encouraged to change their orientation by religious leaders. In addition to telling people they are bent and broken and very likely hell bound, the church has imposed the burden of celibacy on them if they are to have any chance of escaping eternal damnation. Is not the mission of the church to promote human flourishing? This non-affirming stance is the opposite of that. It is a spiritual and sometimes a physical death sentence. Let me again emphasize that this is not navigating the issue with care, humility, courage, and discernment.

The church must revisit this subject with the humility to consider that we have not gotten it right. The writings of Mildred Bangs Wynkoop and J.K Grider point the church toward love and affirmation. There are many reasons the church should reconsider its position and contrary to popular argument none of those reasons are because the Bible expressly prohibits same-sex marriage or because the church is “caving” into cultural pressure. It is not because the church has changed a position. You need look no further than prohibitions on jewelry or makeup. Or divorce. There was a time that divorce was acceptable only in cases of “biblical grounds” (adultery).

There was a time when even if a pastor’s spouse were to commit adultery and divorce that pastor, they would still have to step down from leadership and surrender their credentials. Today, there are current District Superintendents that have suffered a divorce. Now the church evaluates these issues on a case-by-case basis. There are board members in most Nazarene Churches that have experienced a divorce and have remarried. They may or may not have biblical grounds for divorce. Did the church abandon scripture or simply take note that their former hardline position on divorce was harmful both to those dealing with that reality and the church herself, by disqualifying qualified, gifted ministers? I am sure some church historian could educate me further on the whys, but the fact is that divorce is no longer dealt with in the same way by the Church of the Nazarene.

On a final note, the Church of the Nazarene is actively doing harm to LGBTQ+ people with this non-affirming position. The church is pushing away some of its best and brightest pastors and candidates for ordination by making this a litmus test for service. It is time to take a long hard look at this and start making amends.

Michelle Gill is a former lifelong Nazarene. She graduated from Trevecca Nazarene University with a B.S. in Accounting. She is married to another TNU grad, Murphy, who was a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene for more than 30 years. Michelle is an advocate for LGBTQ+ community and is a member of the Mama Bears organization.

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