Wm. Andrew Schwartz
Jesus never excluded or condemned LGBTQ+ individuals. The Church of the Nazarene should be like Jesus.
This book is a collection of essays arguing why the Church of the Nazarene should be fully affirming of LGBTQ+ individuals. To be honest, I find this task somewhat difficult because it first requires me to understand the mindset of those who still need convincing—that is, those who believe the Church of the Nazarene should be “closed” and “rejecting.” It’s as perverse a task as trying to argue to a group of fish why they should live under water…Because it’s what fish do? Because not doing so will result in death? Perhaps you, dear reader, are offended by my tone. If so, fair enough. I guess I’m just tired of being polite toward bigotry in the name of Jesus. But before I lose you, allow me to walk things back a bit.
What is the Church of the Nazarene? It is a Christian denomination in the tradition of the Holiness Movement, Methodism, and Protestantism. “The Nazarene” for whom this Christian community takes its name, refers to Jesus (a.k.a. the OG Nazarene). It stands to reason, then, that in asking whether or not the Church of the Nazarene should accept LGBTQ+ people we should take a closer look at Jesus. As my childhood bracelet said, What Would Jesus Do?
As a philosopher and theologian, I can attest to how easy it is to get lost in the weeds when answering such a fundamental question. Fortunately, we find in scripture very clear guidance from Jesus himself. When asked which is the greatest commandment, Jesus showed his Jewish cards and cited the Great Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Deut. 6:5, Matt 22:38, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27). Then he adds that the second great commandment is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” going on to explain that everything else—all the other scriptures, all the other religious practices, all the other rules and regulations, everything that we would consider fundamental to Christianity today, all follows from these two commands.
Given the absolutely central and comprehensive nature of this call to love, this seems like a good place for us to start. One of my favorite theological bumper stickers is the one that says, “When Jesus said ‘Love your enemies,’ I think he probably meant don’t kill them.” And now that we’ve identified the low bar of love, the natural thing to do would be to seek clarity on what love looks like in practice. Unfortunately, many theologians go the opposite route, wasting countless pages on figuring out who our neighbors are. In the words of the great Homer Simpson, “D’oh!” Rather than embracing the call to love as a distinctive mark of Christianity by exploring in greater detail how we can love better, these theologians resist the call to love and seek to clarify who is worthy of such benevolence. It reminds me of that clip from the Adam Sandler film Big Daddy, when in a fit of utter despair Leslie Mann’s character declares, “We wasted the good surprise on you.” It’s as if Christians are, for some reason, concerned about wasting the good love on undeserving people. By asking “who” we should love, rather than “how” we should love, the Church of the Nazarene has been acting like a bunch of velociraptors testing the fence for weaknesses to see if we can escape the confines of Jesus’ command to love. Yet I can’t imagine Jesus calling us a “clever girl.”
I can hear the conversation now: “Okay Phineas, I figured out how to work the system…If we only have to love our ‘neighbors’, then all we need to do is figure out who doesn’t qualify as our neighbors, so we don’t have to love them!” “Great thinking Hiram. Let’s ask Jesus to clarify. Um, Jesus, are poor people my neighbor?” Jesus rolls his eyes and replies in an exhausted tone, “Yes, Hiram, poor people are your neighbors.” Phineas pipes in, “But what about people who look different, or speak a different language, or have a different religion?” Jesus nods his head, “Yeah, them too.” Hiram tries again, “But what if they murdered my friend? Or stole something valuable from me? Our gossiped behind my back?” Jesus explains, “Yeah, that’s tough, but you should love those people too.” Hiram and Phineas exchange looks, and the lightbulb goes on. “But what if they’re gay?” Phineas yells. They finally found the weak spot in the fence of love. Of course, this is where we get that famous quote in the Gospel of Todd, where Jesus confesses, “Ew gross. No, not those people. You definitely don’t have to love homosexuals.”
Christians are supposed to be followers of Jesus. We won’t always get it right. But trying to prioritize the thing that Jesus said unequivocally is the most important seems like a good place to start. This is the same Jesus that spent all his time hanging out with people who were marginalized by the rest of society and persecuted by mainstream religious institutions. The same Jesus that warns crowds, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” (Matthew 16:12). It’s natural to read ourselves into the story as the protagonist, but who is the Church of the Nazarene in this passage? The crowd of marginalized folks listening to Jesus? Jesus himself teaching about love? Or the group of self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees watching from the wings? Perhaps it depends on what the church does next.
There are many different ways I could have written this essay, and I’m sure some of the other contributors will fill the gaps I leave. I could have provided biblical exegesis on Genesis 9:20—27, 19:1—11, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, 1 Corinthians 6:9—10; 1 Timothy 1:10, or Romans 1:26—27. However, many biblical scholars far smarter than I have already shown that passages such as these, which are commonly used to justify Christian homophobia, don’t actually refer to loving relationships between two consenting adults, but describe rape, prostitution, etc. I hate bickering over biblical interpretation. Let’s not forget that Christians once used the Bible to justify slavery. We now look back on that history in shameful confusion. How could “they” have called themselves Christian? Is the current use of scripture to exclude and condemn LGBTQ+ folks so different? I believe that in the not-so-distant future, historians will look upon our current situation—the failure of the Church of the Nazarene to be open and affirming toward our LGBTQ+ neighbors—and ask, “How could they call themselves Christian?” When it’s a choice between using the Bible to condemn and exclude or using the Bible to nurture and embrace, it seems pretty clear what Jesus would do.
I also considered appealing to the self-interest of Nazarene leaders, or anyone with a vested interest in the future of the Church of the Nazarene. The message is simple: adapt or die. The hard truth is, if the Church of the Nazarene wants to avoid dying out, it needs to reach new generations. How do you do that? Interestingly, the trend remains consistent across generations—young people are more progressive than old people; that’s how progress works. What that means in this historical moment, among other things, is that an increasing number of young people are fully affirming of LGBTQ+ neighbors. If the Church of the Nazarene wants to attract young people, it needs to start listening to young people and adapting accordingly. If the Church of the Nazarene fails to adapt, it will literally die out in a few generations. But this isn’t the argument I wish to make in these pages.
I finally settled on the most basic and (hopefully) most compelling argument I could think of—be like Jesus. Afterall, what else should a Christian do? If you still aren’t convinced that Jesus would be fully affirming of our LGBTQ+ neighbors, then perhaps the best I can do now is turn the tables. I invite anyone that remains unconvinced by my essay to write a response titled “Why the Church of the Nazarene Should NOT Be Open and Affirming.” Good luck! I think you’ll have a difficult time writing that essay while sounding like Jesus, the OG Nazarene. Afterall, who would Jesus exclude?
. See Robert Gnuse, “Seven Gay Texts: Biblical Passages Used to Condemn Homosexuality” in Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol 45, No 2 (2015).
Wm. Andrew Schwartz, PhD is an author, scholar, and activist who serves as Assistant Professor at Claremont School of Theology, Executive Director of the Center for Process Studies, and Co-Founder of the Institute for Ecological Civilization.