If we were to follow Kenneth Grider’s counsel, we would be running to help, to hear, and love LGBTQ+ people.
Anyone with even a little familiarity with the history and lore of Nazarene Theological Seminary knows the name of a rather colorful theologian who taught many hundreds of students there for nearly four decades. That theologian was J. Kenneth Grider (1921-2006), and the stories of his quirky “absent-minded professor” ways have been spread widely, primarily by oral traditions, throughout the Nazarene tribe.
I was his student for a two-semester, yearlong sequence called History of Christian Thought in 1978-79. I have my own Grider stories. He was delightfully odd and unpredictably unusual. He had a reputation for being the champion of a more conservative tone in Wesleyan theology, such that it was not difficult for seminary students (nor for him!) to pit his convictions—always kindly—against the likes of Mildred Bangs Wynkoop and Rob Staples, his theological colleagues at NTS during my time there as a student. Being thoroughly captivated by the relational commitments of Wynkoop and Staples, my default position was to be respectfully leery of Dr. Grider. Nonetheless, over that year of study I came to love this gruff yet gentle man.
It is precisely in the light of his decades-long role as a kind of guardian of holiness teaching, particularly of the American holiness movement variety, that we ought not and cannot let his final years be conveniently swept under the rug. To do so is to dishonor the man and his thinking. Yet those last years provide a great deal of discomfort for many in the Wesleyan-holiness traditions. For in the dusk of his life, J. Kenneth Grider became a tireless advocate for the Church of the Nazarene’s full welcome and inclusion of gay people. I daresay our leaders would find it far more convenient to erase this chapter from Grider’s legacy.
Sometime early in this century I became aware of a monograph Grider had written, entitled “Wesleyans and Homosexuality.” He had written it for presentation at the 1999 meeting of the Wesleyan Theological Society; however, he informs his readers that he was prevailed upon by leadership at Olivet Nazarene University, where he was by this time serving as Distinguished Visiting Professor of Religion, not to publish his views. A year later he plunged ahead. Here is his paper’s opening line: “We Wesleyans, with warmed hearts made about three sizes too big, have enjoyed a long history of running to help when almost any group has not been getting a fair shake.” It was time, he continued, for us to run to help gay Christians who certainly were not (and are not) “getting a fair shake.”
To be honest, I was not terribly impressed with Grider’s essay despite my strong inclination to be in his corner on this issue. My regret then was that his monograph took what I thought to be an overly simplistic approach to the matter; my regret now is that I stayed conveniently silent while he was sticking out his neck in ways that he knew would tarnish his name and reputation in Wesleyan-holiness circles. But there he was, coming running to help, to lend his voice, for Christian people who experienced (and yes, interpreted) themselves to be attracted to people of their same-sex.
What I propose to do in what follows is to highlight some of the strongest passages in Grider’s monograph, and lend my voice to his. It’s the least one can do for one’s teacher. “He being dead yet speaketh” (Heb. 11:4).
Grider was often blunt in expression. “Born as gays? Yes. We used to suspect it. Now we know it most especially from a study of DNA strips” (3). Grider cites the research of the widely-known, sometimes controversial, geneticist Dean Hamer (1951-), who was an independent researcher at the National Institutes of Health from 1976 till his retirement in 2011. Of the study to which Grider refers, Hamer had written in 1993, “This study provided the first concrete evidence that ‘gay genes’ really do exist and narrowed the location of one of them to a few million out of several billion bits of information that make us human” (cited by Grider, 4).
Grider understood well that homosexual attraction is deep and enduring. “Cures, failed so-called ones, have been as varied as have the theories of its origin—hypnosis, exorcism, injections with male hormones, prayer and support groups, you name it” (8). Nothing has changed in this regard over the past two decades-plus since Grider wrote these words. Indeed, the evidence continues to mount: same-sex attraction is a fundamental aspect of existence for a small but significant percentage of human beings.
Grider also cited numerous studies of same-sex behaviors among non-human animals such as rats, primates, and sheep. In the light of this evidence he suggested, “One matter…is most clear, as it relates to homosexuality in animals as it might relate to human same-sex proclivity: that perhaps same-sex attraction is not unnatural. If it obtains in animals, who make no moral decisions, but simply act according to their nature, perhaps acting on such interests, in humans, is natural, based on an orientation, and is not unnatural”(13). This suggestion flies in the face of arguments based on Romans 1 that same-sex relations are contrary to nature (vv. 26-27). If the natural sciences offer strong evidence that in fact the world of nature includes creatures (human and otherwise) whose “natural” sexual attractions are toward partners of the same sex, then we might seem to be at an impasse.
But are we really? For decades now leading biblical scholars and theologians, both from within the Wesleyan tradition and without, have insisted that we do not read the Bible for scientific information. It would be an exceedingly rare Nazarene scholar, for instance, who would argue against evolutionary theory on the grounds that Genesis 1 gives us differing scientific information. (Never mind Genesis 2, which offers a whole different array of “information”!) We don’t expect the Bible to provide us with scientific data regarding the world’s age or details about its long distant past; rather, in the words of Article IV of the Church of the Nazarene Manual’s Articles of Faith, we hold that the scriptures are “inerrantly revealing the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation.” For further treatment of this matter, see my All Things Necessary to Our Salvation (San Diego: Point Loma Press, 2004), available free online: https://tinyurl.com/Lodahl-All-Things. That salvation, ultimately, is bound up in the dual command / promise that we shall love God with all of our being and energies, and love all neighbors as our very selves (Matt. 22:34-40; Lk. 10:25-28). If the Bible’s function is to lead us toward, and to nourish us in, such love as this, then we need not assume that its function is to provide us scientific information—including, of course, scientific information regarding human sexual attractions.
And this indeed seems to have been Grider’s assumption (as it is mine). In his words, “Do the Bible’s authors know that the world is round, or that the earth spins one round each day, or that it circles the sun every year? Did they need to know such facts of science in order to direct us, as Wesley says they do, on how to make it to the celestial city?” (26). Of course, there were those theological luminaries who resisted these “facts of science” precisely because they were convinced that the Bible told them so. Martin Luther comes immediately to mind. Today, such facts of our solar system tend not to bother many Bible readers at all. Similarly, we are now generally dismayed that apparently well-meaning Christians once believed that the Bible gave them permission, even encouragement, to enslave other people (indeed, other Christians!) largely on the basis of a divine curse involving skin color. This was a horridly damaging theological anthropology based on particular (and peculiar) interpretations of biblical passages. Might we not suspect that a similar process is in play nowadays with regard to prejudice against people who experience and interpret themselves as queer?
This is not an insignificant point. Biblical interpretation must be undertaken within the contexts provided by reason and experience—meaning, in this case, all the evidence that the natural sciences may provide us. For the fact is, if we do assume that God’s creative activity is expressed in what we have learned to call evolution, then we also should assume that all manner of genetic variabilities find expression across a wide range of human proclivities, attractions, and behaviors. Sexual attraction (and even perhaps to some extent, at least, sexual identity) would be quite naturally located across this very wide spectrum. Granted, there are surely many other factors (personal history, family dynamics, social constructs, the wide variety of human relations) that contribute to sexual desire and attraction. One of my reservations regarding Grider’s monograph is that he appears at times to have adopted a far too simplistic, unnuanced, approach to these matters. Nonetheless, if genetics play a (not insignificant) role in human sexual attraction and behavior, we cannot and should not simply brush this aside.
The official position of the Church of the Nazarene is not to deny that there are people—indeed, good Christian people—who experience same-sex attraction. Rather, the official position is that such people ought to refrain from sexual activity and pursue a life of chastity. The problem with this position is that it is formulated and enforced by people who enjoy the privilege of heterosexuality. We all should be suspicious of our positions of privilege and power when it comes to biblical interpretation and application. It is one thing for a homosexual person voluntarily to undertake a life of chastity (just as it would be for a heterosexual person); it is another thing for people in authority to enforce upon others what ought to be considered a vocational decision.
In 1978 Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott authored a book entitled Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? This is a profoundly misleading title. We should immediately add that their reply to this question was a hearty Yes. So why is the question misleading? Certainly it was a play on the question asked of Jesus in Luke 10:29, “Who is my neighbor?” According to the logic of this question, if I am given a working definition of “neighbor,” I may proceed to identify what people are situated outside the “neighbor” category. But Jesus answered this question with the well-known parable about the compassionate Samaritan, at the end of which Jesus utterly transformed the question: “Who proved to be the neighbor to the person in need?” No longer is “neighbor” a term to be defined in such a way that some person or people might be considered outside the category; rather, Jesus challenges his questioner to “go and do likewise” (10:37)—that is, to go forth and be a neighbor to the ones in need. So the question would no longer be “Is the LGBTQ+ person my neighbor?”—but instead, “Am I becoming a neighbor to LGBTQ+ people?”
To become the neighbor literally means to draw nigh, to draw near, to the other. My fear is that far too often we who experience ourselves in the privileged position of heteronormativity have not been willing to draw near, to listen carefully and compassionately, to become the neighbor to those in need. And if we were to follow J. Kenneth Grider’s counsel, we would be running to help, to hear, to love.
Michael Lodahl is Professor of Theology & World Religions at Point Loma Nazarene University. He is the author of many books including The Story of God and Matthew Matters.
. J. Kenneth Grider, “Wesleyans and Homosexuality,” unpublished manscript (n.d.), 1. Further citations from Grider’s essay will be parenthetical in-text.
. See Julie Rodgers, Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story (Broadleaf Books, 2021); see also https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/october/lgbt-homosexual-identity-what-comes-after-ex-gay-movement.html
. The book has since undergone a second edition in 1994.