When deciding on sexuality questions, I have looked to Bible interpretation, communal discernment, personal relationships, and Jesus’ example.
In 1928, the conditions were right for an alignment of church traditions around the hermeneutical concept of inerrancy: the idea that the Bible has no errors. It is written as God spoke it, and we are to take it literally. Well, most of it. This was the era of the Scopes Monkey Trial, the rise of evolution, and the scientific method. There was an “evil” development called Modernity, and these aligned churches were mounting their forces against it.
The newly formed Church of the Nazarene, just 20 years old, comprised many traditions, including people that were drawn to this alignment. At the 1928 Church of the Nazarene General Assembly, influential leaders tried to make an amendment to the scripture Article of Faith, to say that scripture is inerrant.
Enter H. Orton Wiley. He was a pastor and theologian in the early Church of the Nazarene. Actually, he was the first pastor of the church I served in right out of graduate school and freshly married. He wrote the 3 volumes of systematic theology most taught in Church of the Nazarene higher education. I still have mine.
Wiley worked behind the scenes to craft the wording of this decisive Article of Faith that would be voted on by delegates at that critical hinge in history. Some 36 years ago, I wrote a term paper about this very issue. I titled it “The Nazarene Trojan Horse.” A great deal of that paper was predicated on personal interviews I had with the late Paul Bassett at Nazarene Theological Seminary. There is also a small pamphlet titled “All Things Necessary to Our Salvation,” by Michael Lodahl. H. Orton Wiley’s critical intervention is reported there as well.
Wiley decided to use the word ‘plenary’ as his adjective for scripture. After doing my homework, I believe this was a strategy to keep the Wesleyan-Holiness hermeneutic intact. The Nazarene Church in theory is a large tent. Space is made for a wide spectrum of theological views distinctively Wesleyan-Holiness. Plenary is just vague enough to fit into the pattern. Many of the doctrines allow for a wide understanding. Baptism can be poured, submerged, and sprinkled. There is even an allowance for infant baptism. The Second coming will happen, but not specified before, during, or after tribulation. So scripture is plenary and not inerrant.
Plenary means full, or complete. A plenary session means all the members are present. An engineering understanding of a plenary drive means it runs all the way through, and the word is primarily used in archetypes as a type of scaffolding or storyboard, later having no bearing on function.
Wiley wanted to emphasize the essential idea about a Wesleyan Holiness understanding of scripture. It contains all things necessary to our salvation. Everything else was up for communal discernment. Wiley shared a view with other Wesleyan scholars that inspiration of scripture was a cooperative effort of the Holy Spirit and human beings. That means he left room for mistakes, cultural influence, lost in translation, contradictions and other foibles of which we humans are capable.
I am a convinced Mennonite, but I am a cradle Nazarene. My parents decided to follow Jesus not long after they were married in 1961. It happened at an altar of prayer in Southgate Church of the Nazarene in Colorado Springs, Colorado. They committed to raise their children in a Christian home following the law of love. I’m sure I was in church days after my birth, and didn’t miss a Sunday morning, night, and Wednesday night thereafter. There were revivals, church picnics, and church camp. We were embedded in this community of faith. We moved to Greeley, Colorado, when I was 7 and were part of Sunny View and First Church of the Nazarene the rest of my growing up years. Later, I attended a Nazarene university and eventually took an associate pastor calling in a Nazarene Church, which led to my ordination in the Church of the Nazarene. My children spent the early years of their lives in a Nazarene church. I was a Nazarene for 45 years of my life, and in many ways, I am still very Nazarene.
I was drawn to the Mennonites. My wife had attended a Mennonite high school and had many friends that intrigued me. I was charmed by the Peace theology, the rich hymnology, and four part harmony a cappella singing. I was fascinated with the flat polity and communal interpretation.
At the same time, I experienced a growing disenchantment with the Church of the Nazarene. Since the attack on 9/11, I didn’t feel right about the vein of militarism in the church. The top down politics and individual religiosity didn’t sit well with me. And the eschatology bordered on fanaticism.
H. Orton Wiley had helped make sure the Church of the Nazarene had sound theology on paper. There were good elements in the early days of the Church of the Nazarene, and there continued pockets of loving, Wesleyan-Holiness orthopraxy (the practical living out of theology). But the fight against modernity, the ensuing rise of the evangelical right, and the culture wars had taken their toll on the Church of the Nazarene.
When we decided to leave the Church of the Nazarene to attend and later join a local church in the Mennonite Church USA denomination, our first priority was to check their faith statement and make sure they had the right understanding of homosexuality. You know, one man and one woman? This was nearly 13 years ago. We all change. Every seven years, all the cells in our bodies are new. If we change this way physically, we must change mentally, emotionally, and relationally.
My perspective has changed by new understandings of scripture, discernment with other Christians, experiences with friends and family that identify as LGBTQIA+, and what I call the Jesus lens—looking at our world through the eyes of Jesus. This includes listening to science and all the general revelation that comes when you open yourself to the leading of the Spirit of Jesus.
Communal discernment was new to me. Having been part of Mennonite Church USA for nearly 13 years, I am starting to understand it. We value all of the voices and give space for each to speak. There is prayer and looking to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Consensus decision making is the best case scenario, but sometimes voting for a majority percentage is needed. Listening to understand is sometimes all that is needed. Waiting for one’s turn to talk is fertile ground for escalating polarization.
I was oblivious for much of my life. I was not aware of a gay or queer person until graduate school. I thought everyone I knew was straight. Honestly, I didn’t know a Democrat until college. And even then, I thought there were only three at the university I attended.
Since then, I have met many LGBTQIA+ people. I even have some in my family. My sister in law, Nancy Kelso, got married to another woman last summer. It was my first lesbian wedding. The love of the group gathered was palpable. I was so grateful she was happy. Nancy has been so gracious with my insensitivity and entitlement over the years. She has literally loved me to life! If anyone has the Fruit of the Spirit, it is her. She has convinced me to change my mind. She was a cradle Nazarene too, and a minister in the Church of the Nazarene. She has also contributed an essay to this book. I highly recommend it.
The evangelical Christian church has also changed its mind slowly. Now it is almost status quo to accept that a person can be attracted to the same sex. It was not that way even 20 years ago. Also, “reparative” or “conversion” therapy is not seen as reputable since the dismantling of Exodus International. The acceptable perspective for non-affirming Christians is to accept the gay identity and call for celibacy.
To have a close relationship with a gay or queer person makes all the difference. When we allow ourselves to have empathy for these marginalized people, we open ourselves to a new world. We begin to imagine the part of the body of Christ they fill.
In the Mennonite Church, I have learned about the Jesus Lens approach to reading the Bible. It is associated with the idea that the Bible is not a flat book, meaning that every part of scripture is taken equally. There are some parts of scripture that rise above the others. Years ago, a Carmelite Catholic priest who I was seeing for spiritual direction told me that when I pray, I should look for a few words of scripture to meditate on. He said to start with the Gospels, and better yet, the actual words of Jesus. Then he said, “Water is purest, closest to the source.”
We can also consider the amount of words that are written about a topic. For instance, the Bible says a lot about money. It also talks a great deal about the poor, the oppressed, and migrants. Paying attention to what Jesus pays attention to can be helpful in discerning how to treat LGBTQIA+ people.
There are a couple of books that have been influential in continuing to change my mind after forming close personal relationships with LGBTQIA+ people: Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice (2019) by Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, and Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did (2014), by Derek Flood.
I want to cultivate a posture of humility. I have decided these issues are very complicated. A Wesleyan-Holiness view of scripture does leave room for the human element. We can reinterpret millennia-old texts written in dead languages, reinterpreted in other languages and meanings. And, we can change our view of the Bible like we have with slavery, divorce, corporal punishment, and women in ministry (remember orthopraxy!). At the very least, I can love my neighbor and welcome them and their gifts into God’s new creation and leave the judgment to God.
Lon Marshall is a Licensed Marital and Family Therapist. He is the architect and founder of Cornerstone Brief Therapy in Coralville, Iowa. His caring methods have been recognized for their ability to bring about positive change. He has a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from the University of Missouri in Kansas City. He also is a peacemaker with his conference Mennonite Conflict Transformation team.