A Voice in the Wilderness

Charles R. Ovando

The Nazarene church should be a leading voice that channels the norm-shattering acceptance that Christ taught by fully affirming LGBTQ+ individuals.

The silence has been deafening. As our country has spiraled into a split-screen world where anger, hatred, fearmongering and shock are the fuel of public discourse, I have sat in my church hoping for a third voice to break through. But due to the (possibly) well-intentioned desire to stay out of politics, many churches have been left mute and increasingly irrelevant as they try to stay above the fray with the relentless intrusion of politics into every aspect of our lives.

Even once safe topics like helping the poor and loving one’s neighbor have been threaded through a narrow needle to avoid triggering hot button issues. The result is a weakened moral voice that speaks in generalities, allowing those of us in the pews to project our existing biases onto them. We are told to love our neighbor: My neighbor is white and straight. I’m good. Great message. Should I get the soup and salad at Olive Garden after church?

One reason this vanilla messaging works for many churches is because it offers the illusion of inclusivity and allows churches to appear as an oasis surrounded by the nastiness of a divided world outside their doors. But we don’t live in churches. We ride subways, scroll social media, eat dinner with family members, sit in classrooms, and have jobs that all involve interactions with people whose realities confront us with the very things our churches are reluctant to address. Those realities include ever more brazen and dehumanizing rhetoric about groups of people like our LGBTQ+ family (aren’t we all sons and daughters of God?) as well as systematic political attempts to restrict their rights. Churches that remain silent under the guise of not taking political sides need to be reminded that before this was a political issue, it was a human one. And Christ has a thing or two to say about how we should treat one another.

To be clear, yes, the Church of the Nazarene should categorically affirm our LGBTQ+ family. It should speak with an unambiguous voice that is above the political white noise and that is rooted in the two greatest of all commandments: Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. It is a message that we hunger for, both inside and outside of the church. Those inside need to hear explicitly who our neighbors are (hint: not the homogeneous flock that makes up too many of our churches) as well as hear an unequivocal affirmation of human dignity from what may seem like an unlikely source. We ALL need to see that the message of Christ is still relevant and countercultural when it matters most.

I have recently entertained a silly fantasy, imagining Jesus as a special guest in a gathering of church leaders and laypeople for a Q&A session. A respected pastor of an influential church has a turn at the mic: “Teacher, should the church officially make a statement of affirmation for people in the LGTBQ community?” Gasps and murmurs erupt around the hall. Some are giddy with excitement, others nervous with dread, and still others arrogant in knowing exactly what he will say. Jesus takes a few seconds to let the question sink in and then leans into his microphone, creating high-pitched feedback that silences the room and makes the anticipation almost unbearable. His answer? A parable.

The details of the parable itself are unimportant. We all know what the point is: Something unexpected, something that challenges our biases, is counterintuitive, rocks our worldview, and makes us feel slightly uneasy if we initially think we know what it means. It resolves nothing for the people gathered in that room. But it says everything we need to know. Did not all of Christ’s parables do this? The prodigal son was undeservedly embraced and celebrated. Ninety-nine sheep were left behind and unattended while the shepherd searched for the one who was lost. The good Samaritan, of all people, helped the injured man and paid for his care. Labels, traditions, expectations, even the law—they are all upended by the Teacher.

The narrative of where evangelical churches stand in the current culture wars is mostly predictable. They have become havens from the “real” world for those who want to live in a bubble of cultural sameness, not the sanctuaries they should be that are welcoming to all. There is an exceptional opportunity before us for that narrative to be shattered, for a voice in the wilderness to rise up and speak with the authority of love, acceptance, and the timeless teachings of the Rabbi.

This is the prophetic voice I have eagerly been waiting for. One that fosters humility, casts doubt on assumptions, and guides us into an open posture of Christ-like acceptance of all. One that cuts through our divisions and self-righteousness and holds us to a higher standard. One that allows churches to be nonpartisan without being wallflowers. One that channels His words, “You have heard that it was said … but I tell you….”

Affirming our LGBTQ+ family should not be a singular statement by the Church of the Nazarene that can be construed as one more salvo in the culture wars. It should be a call for inclusivity that goes beyond the legal notion of equal treatment under the law that is the civic affirmation of all people. It should emerge from the most basic tenets of God’s love for all humankind and Christ’s command to not judge others. It should speak to the spirit of the law. It should be about grace. It should cultivate a community of people who strive to see others through the eyes of Christ and who as a result find themselves less and less concerned about who does and does not belong—we all do.

Charles Ovando is a public-school educator whose professional interests include equity in education, closing the achievement gap, and advocating for English Learners. Raised as a missionary kid in Latin America, he later earned degrees from Point Loma Nazarene University, Olivet Nazarene University, and Concordia University Chicago.

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