Megan Madsen, neé Krebs
Exclusivist theology harms the LGBTQIA+ community; at minimum loving our neighbors means not harming them.
I used to be a Nazarene. I was even ordained as a Nazarene elder after serving the denomination faithfully for a number of years. Both my college and seminary degrees are from Nazarene institutions of higher learning. It was the denomination where my faith was nurtured, where I experienced a call to ministry and an affirmation of that call, where I learned how to be a pastor and a theologian. I used to say “our” denomination. A part of me will always grieve what I lost. But now, I am a proud United Methodist, serving on a Conference that is wholeheartedly affirming of the LGBTQIA+ community. All means all for us.
When I became a Methodist, I learned about John Wesley’s Three Rules. When he founded the Methodist movement, he offered these three simple rules for being a Methodist as the only requirement. They are part and parcel to our Methodist identity. They are Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love with God.
Upon first glance, these rules seem very simple, indeed! Yet, how truly difficult they are. “Do No Harm” is not simply to avoid active harm by not murdering or not stealing. It is also to reject and dismantle systems that harm our neighbors, like racial disparities in housing, education, policing, and many other areas. Perhaps, it is to choose local produce and local farming, instead of outsourcing for a cheaper tomato. Maybe it’s recycling, reducing, and reusing as a way of loving God’s good creation. It is to choose the well-being of our neighbors above our own comforts, whether those neighbors are human or not. Critically, it is to refuse to harm those made in God’s image simply because they are made in that image.
Likewise, “Do Good” is simple to say, yet so much more difficult to embody! This is a call to leave no good undone, as much as it is a call to actively do good in the world. One might say that the calling of Jesus to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor aligns pretty well with the Three Rules. We cannot love our neighbors if we are harming them. We cannot love our neighbors if we are not doing good to and for them. We can only love our neighbors best when we are growing and learning on the journey of our relationship with God.
The Church of the Nazarene split out of the Methodist Church, and one of the things that was left behind in the divorce was these Three Rules. For us Methodists, these rules have become our metric for how we participate in and respond to the needs of the world.
In some ways, the Church of the Nazarene has a similar ethical standard by which it can illuminate what God has called its people to. This metric is the very name of the Church of the Nazarene. This denomination was named after Christ Jesus’s hometown, Nazareth. In John 1:46, Nathanael asks if anything good can come from such a place. This is the name that the Church of the Nazarene has chosen to align itself with. Not Christ’s divinity but with Christ’s humble humanity. This name was chosen to call members of your denomination into an identity where followers of Jesus were always called to return to the margins of society. To be identified with those that are rejected, oppressed, and deprived. To align themselves with those in need of both compassion and justice. In Methodist terms, it is the call and commitment to Do No Harm and to Do Good by Staying in Love with God.
Reclaiming use of Wesley’s Three Rules, specifically the call to Do No Harm, offers a clear path forward regarding the Church of the Nazarene’s posture toward the LGBTQIA+ community. That path is full inclusion and affirmation.
In the interest of integrity, nobody familiar with the United Methodist Church can claim that we are innocent of committing this harm. This essay, however, is directed to those who continue in relationship with the Church of the Nazarene, not from a place of judgment but from one who used to count myself among you.
There are many denominations who hold the same stance as the Church of the Nazarene, which is that sexual orientation is not sinful but any acting on a same-sex attraction is. Even if the highest ideals of the Church of the Nazarene’s commitment to this stance were embodied, this is a still harmful theology. And bad theology kills. This is not hypothetical or exaggeration. Harm is being done to our neighbors by non-affirming theology.
It is high time that followers of Jesus reckon with this truth—we have done untold harm to our LGBTQIA+ neighbors. We have tied weights around their feet and asked them to swim. According to Jesus, it would be better if we put those weights on our own necks (Matthew 18:6). The rates of depression, suicide attempts and completion, and many other mental illnesses skyrocket among LGBTQIA+ people who are not accepted by their families and by their faith communities. The rates increase by four times compared to their peers. One of the best ways to combat depression and suicide attempts among LGBTQIA+ youth? For these children to experience acceptance and love from their families. Having a single adult accept and affirm them reduces the risk of suicide by 40%. This data is readily available at The Trevor Project, which provides resources and support to youth who identify as LGBTQIA+ and those who wish to support them.
As followers of Jesus who take seriously the call to Do No Harm, we have to reflect seriously and critically on this information. These numbers are staggering. The quickest way to Do Good for a young person who is LGBTQIA+ is to simply love and accept them as they are. It bears noting here that love has no asterisks. We cannot love a person and reject core aspects of their identity. Banish forever the words, “I love you, but…” Trauma and harm are being done because well-meaning followers of Jesus are rejecting our own children, siblings, parents, cousins, friends. In other words, because we have failed to love our neighbor as ourself.
The statistics mentioned above may seem distant, so I will share specific ways I have witnessed and experienced harm due to a non-affirming theology.
A curious thing started to happen as I learned more about scripture, the history of Jesus’ church, and about God, I began to change my mind about things I had been taught to assume. One of these shifts took place in college. During those years, a number of my closest friends began to come out of the closet. These were peers who I knew and loved. Friends I had prayed and worshiped with. They were just as full of faith and trust in God as I was. They desired to follow Jesus as much as I did. Yet they were also gay, bi, or trans.
For years, I’d believed what I had heard, that this was a choice that only people who were against God would choose. Yet my actual experience with actual people who are LGBTQIA+ was the exact opposite of those claims. These were good people, trying their best to live as members of Christ’s Kin-dom, as reflections of Jesus in the world.
I could no longer reconcile the God who Jesus described with excluding my friends and neighbors from full participation in a Christian life simply because they were LGBTQIA+. Scripture paints the picture of a God who knows us and loves us as we are. This is a God who comes to humanity in flesh, in the body of a poor person from a bad neighborhood. A colonized person living under the reign of Rome, who grew up witnessing violent oppression enacted against his own people. This Jesus is God-with-us, yet his teachings were being used to harm people made in God’s image. I could reach only one conclusion—either God loved all of us, or God loved none of us. I chose to believe in God’s love.
During this time, I was studying at a Nazarene university that I loved. Yet, this institution was actively harming my queer friends. They were having scholarships taken away for merely being gay, let alone actually dating someone of the same sex. Others were afraid to come out—who could afford tens of thousands of dollars a year without scholarships? There were members of the faculty being punished for not reporting these students to the administration. This is real and lifelong financial and psychological harm.
The Nazarene seminary I attended fired a gay staff member after receiving backlash from members of the Church of the Nazarene for his sexual orientation. His fireable offense? Being gay. This was admitted in legal proceedings. The courts, however, decided that it is legal for religious institutions to commit acts that meet the legal requirement of bigotry and prejudice if their theology justifies it. More financial and psychological harm.
How many young Nazarenes have been sent to conversion therapy? A harmful practice deemed abusive and cruel by all therapeutic bodies in the United States. How many have experienced bullying or rejection? How many have been welcomed into a church until they desire membership? How many have felt forced to pretend to be straight for years, hiding their most authentic self from the world, fearing that God will reject them in the same way as their church home?
Even being an ally to the LGBTQIA+ community is punishable in the Church of the Nazarene. Districts across the United States are targeting young clergy who hold an affirming stance. These are folks who fit the required mold—they are straight, often married in a heterosexual relationship and serving the church in sacrificial ways. Yet if this pastor tells the truth, that they support full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in the Church of the Nazarene, this person faces loss of ordination, district licensing, and job loss. This doesn’t even speak toward the deeply painful loss of community and relationships.
Harm was being done. Harm is being done now. This is not the way of Jesus. This is not the way of the Nazarene.
You might say that I have walked in both worlds in the church—the side that does not welcome LGBTQIA+ people and a world where all really means all. Before, I used to secretly research safe places for my LGBTQIA+ colleagues to worship. Now I get to step into God’s work among all people. I get to extend apology and healing and hope because our God does love queer folks, without any asterisks.
Rev. Megan Madsen, neé Krebs, is a United Methodist elder in the Pacific Northwest Conference. She earned her bachelors from Northwest Nazarene University and her MDiv from Nazarene Theological Seminary. She was ordained in the Church of the Nazarene in 2018 and received by the UMC by Safe Harbor protocols in 2022. She lives and pastors in Spokane, Washington with her husband and two dogs.