Open and Affirming or Closed and Condemning?

Monty Jackson

I don’t think the Nazarene church can become LGBTQ+ affirming fully. It takes a theology that sees inclusivity as a prerequisite to the mission.

I grew up in the Antelope Valley, a place in the high desert of Southern California. I am traditionally Seventh Day Adventist (SDA). The SDA church has over 21 million members worldwide, and in 2015 Pew research found Seventh Day Adventists to be “among the most racially and ethnically diverse American religious groups: 37% are white, while 32% are black, 15% are Hispanic, 8% are Asian and another 8% are another race or mixed race.” I was baptized at age 10, and that day in Sabbath School, the teacher made a claim that touched my heart and caused my mind to question. The teacher congratulated us on our decision to be baptized and invited the other children to consider being baptized and joining the Seventh Day Adventists church.

She said those who do not accept the seventh day as the day of worship would “bust hell wide open.” I was stunned. On the ride home in the station wagon, I asked Dad (a devoted First Elder in the SDA Church) if what my Sabbath School teacher said about people worshiping on the right day was true. Dad said yes. During the rest of the trip home, all I could think about were my friends who lived down the street from our house who I played ball with after school.

They were welcoming people. Their mom made the best lemonade and always invited us in. I questioned how a loving God could condemn these beautiful people for choosing the wrong day to honor and worship the Deity. Before reaching our driveway, in my silent monologue with God, I said, “God, if you would burn up my friends, then you can burn me up too.” A god who would burn people for failing to choose and practice the Hebrew Sabbath law should be resisted. All earthlings should agree to revolt against any force or entity that thinks so little of the human.

Why I think the Church of the Nazarene should become fully LGBTQ+ affirming? Well, I’m not sure the Nazarene Church can. Before I took the call to pastor an open and affirming UCC Congregation, I sought the counsel of a friend, Rev. Scott Weiner, who asked me a simple question: “What group of people do you want to spend your time with, people who are open and affirming or closed and condemning?” Inclusivity is a prerequisite to the Christian mission. If the Nazarene Church adapted the label open and affirming, would the Church be more inviting for the right reason? What role does Nazarene theology play in creating the need for LGBTQ+ inclusion? How is it that those who claim prevenient grace do not assume prevenient grace for all? How can people claim a second work of grace, entire sanctification, and lack the spiritually mature act of welcome? Does Nazarene liturgy contribute to the need for being open and affirming? Is the Nazarene Church too insular?

Is this culture capable of progressing? I ask these questions because a shift to becoming an open and affirming people must be authentic, not just another church retention or numerical growth plan. What kind of work should be done before becoming this new “accepting” Nazarene Church? We know today most Americans support gay rights. Springtide survey shows that 71% of Gen-Zers care about LGBTQ+ rights. Many see evangelical Christian practices as hypocritical and harmful. The Church of the Nazarene’s current sectarian views need a theological sea change and a cultural shift from a theology and theopraxis that promotes puritanical philosophy and dogma. In this religious practice, Holiness people are an exclusive club.

Before “affirming” the image of God in people who have been othered by the Christian faithful, maybe a conversation with the LGBTQ+ community should be a step in the process. How do we know if categorizing them with the gateway term “open & affirming” is not another way of Othering the splendid spectrum? The idea that a religious organization approves of a people group’s humanity is problematic at best. The white American Church has a poor record of standing up for people different from them. Remember, there was a period in the south that after church service on Sunday, the “church picnic” often ended with the hanging of enslaved Black people:

“In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.”      —James H. Cone

Here is an example of how the Nazarene church has been welcoming. In the late ‘90s, I was invited by Rev. James Baughman to be the worship pastor at Lewiston First Church of the Nazarene. I accepted the offer and moved from the Antelope Valley to the beautiful Lewis Clark valley in Lewiston, Idaho. Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Washington, are divided by the lovely Snake River. Pastor Baughman’s forward-thinking leadership invited an Afro-American who he thought was the right person to lead his all-white congregation in worship. On my first Sunday, before getting out of the car, my wife Patti, our children, who were toddlers at the time, and myself were greeted in the parking lot by the pastor and a couple of lay leaders. The police were there because someone shot the stained glass window out, and church leadership were concerned for our safety.

They wondered if I should lead worship that morning because there was concern that the stained glass shooting was racially motivated. Of course, that only made it clear to me that I was called to the right place at the right time. I sent my family home and led worship that morning with the covering of glory, with the fire of the spirit, and we got off to a great beginning. Together we sang a song I wrote, “Keep the Glory Down,” inspired by the primary founder of the Church of the Nazarene, Phineas Bresee.

It should not take more than biblical truth to be an inclusive church. However, if it does, one of our early church fathers, St. Augustine, a Bishop in a North African town called Hippo, spoke about two books. He believed that God gave us two books that revealed God to us: first, the Book of Nature (the natural world) and second, the Book of Scripture, the Bible. These two books support one another, and Scripture and Nature reveal the splendid spectrum of God’s truth. Both show God’s handiwork. The saving image of God resides in all humanity. I choose to be open, affirming, and relational.

Rev. Monty Jackson, MDiv is the Pastor of Christ Church Maplewood UCC. He earned his Master of Divinity from Eden Theological Seminary. Jackson is an award-winning singer songwriter, music arranger and record producer.

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