Bryan P. Stone
A holy church is not marked by moral perfection and exclusion but by vulnerability and an openness to God’s unpredictable grace.
Should the Church of the Nazarene be fully LGBTQ+ affirming? For me, the answer is unreservedly yes. At the same time, I am keenly aware that an answer to this question entails answers to several other questions with which it is necessarily entangled: should the Church’s understanding of scripture be enlivened and broadened such that it takes into account the vast cultural differences between the ancient world and ours—especially in relation to gender and sexuality? Should the Church take a more informed and responsible approach to human sexuality, drawing on rather than disregarding the last century of social scientific research? Should Nazarenes trust and take seriously the witness and experience of LGBTQ+ Christians who—in their words, life, and spirit—testify to the fact that they have already been accepted by Christ and included by the Holy Spirit in Christ’s body? Should the Church of the Nazarene find ways to move closer to a Wesleyan understanding of holiness that emphasizes Christlikeness, humility, openness, and welcome to the marginalized other? Should the Church of the Nazarene shift away from an over-reliance on static models of holiness as moral perfection that lead to legalism and exclusivism?
I cannot develop answers to all these questions in this short essay. But they go together, and by viewing them together one can readily see that even if one takes an open and affirming position on the Church fully including queer people, the work that would need to be done to move the Church of the Nazarene toward an affirming and inclusive position is considerable. Large institutions have a hard time changing, and with a question this complex and implicating so much of Nazarene theology, history, and culture, it is difficult to imagine the Church changing its position. It would just take too much. And yet…who knows? After all, holiness is queer. It defies the binaries of in and out, sacred and profane, saint and sinner. It always has. And as much as we try to predict it, calculate it, set up fences around it, or possess it, God’s sanctifying grace finds ways to break through our definitions, barriers, and rules. Holiness is queer. So perhaps even if we cannot be optimistic, we can still hope, speak out, and take action.
Almost 30 years ago, I tried to outline a Wesleyan view of scripture that might guide us when it comes to thinking about homosexuality (“Wesleyan Theology, Scriptural Authority, and Homosexuality” in the Wesleyan Theological Journal (1995). I continue to believe that re-thinking the nature of biblical authority is among the most crucial tasks related to the question of full inclusion for queer folks. I stand by that article, though I was too reserved and qualified in my conclusions. I will not duplicate here all of what I said there, but for Wesleyans, the relationship of scripture to homosexuality is far more complex than trotting out a few verses from the Bible that appear to condemn homosexuality. Wesleyans also take experience and reason into account when forming theological and ethical conclusions, though putting those sources into play is not a simple and straightforward task. It takes time, patience, study, and a willingness to grow.
I have come to know many, many queer Christians during my life. As a Nazarene, I am asked to discard this knowledge and reinterpret their clear witness as a mistake, a distortion, and a deviance. But the reverse strategy is always possible—and, in our time, necessary. Perhaps by attending more carefully to the witness of queer Christians, we can begin to read scripture in a new light.
John Wesley’s distinctive vision of grace can help as we wade into these waters. For Wesley, grace does not reject, negate, or override human experience and reason, but instead appeals to it and poses questions to it. The sovereignty of grace is, thus, not a power “over” us, but a persuasive and loving presence, a lure, a beauty that we know by the name of the Holy Spirit. If, as Wesleyans, we believe what Wesley says about grace when talking about salvation, why should we not extend his view of grace to how we understand God’s revelation in scripture? For revelation is indeed an act of God’s grace. On this view, the Bible is a faithful guide, companion, and authority, but not one that triumphs over us, repudiating our experience (for example, our experience of queer Nazarenes) and asking us to sacrifice our intellects. And if elements of the ancient worldview contained in scripture are known to be oppressive or inaccurate (household codes, condoning slavery, reliance on patriarchal frameworks, a pre-Copernican view of the cosmos, and obsolete understandings of human gender and sexuality), we do not merely throw out scripture, but we work hard to interpret it for our time. Proof-texting from scripture on matters of human sexuality is about as misguided an enterprise as I can imagine—at least for 21st century Wesleyans.
The more we know about human sexuality, the more we realize how central to who we are as human persons is this important dimension of our lives and how impossible it is to separate out our sexuality (including our sexual “practices”) from our very identity as persons. Sexuality is not just a practice reserved for pleasure or procreation, it is also an “orientation”—something the ancient writers of the Bible could never have known. Treating homosexuality as a sin, then, is vastly different from the way the Church considers sins such as murder, gossip, or adultery. Unlike the church’s stances on these sins, the church’s stance on homosexuality leads children to grow up hating and deceiving themselves—or worse. This is why the often-repeated adage, “love the sinner, hate the sin,” not only lands wide of the mark but is deadly dangerous when it comes to homosexuality.
Side by side with biblical prohibitions against homosexuality are prohibitions against inter-breeding cattle, sowing a field with two different kinds of seed, or wearing a garment made of two different kinds of material. Moral purity was bound up with ritual purity, with an emphasis on separation from all that might “stain” us or result in a mixing of the holy and the profane. But Christ dissolved this ironclad connection between moral purity and ritual purity. It is not separation from those deemed “impure” that makes us holy. Holiness is found in engagement with the world and an embrace of those who are dispossessed, marginalized, or rejected. Holiness is queer.
One of the things that makes holiness so queer is that the more we seek to define it, contain it, and stake out the lines of who is in and who is out, the less holy we become. The truth, of course, is that Nazarenes have long picked and chosen their favorite sins and then made those the litmus test of inclusion and fitness for ministry. Not that long ago, visiting a motion picture theatre could get you into big trouble on Nazarene college campuses and in Nazarene churches. But our efforts to identify the kinds of sins that would keep someone from being fully included in the church are inevitably slippery and arbitrary—almost always omitting the ones that are rampant among us. But Christ has shown us a path to holiness that rejects this kind of legalism. Holiness is not a moral achievement or a state of perfection at which we arrive. It is rather a relationship with God, neighbor, and creation characterized by love and respect. It is a disposition of spirit characterized by vulnerability, brokenness, and openness. Rather than being a possession that some of us have while others don’t, holiness is a receptivity to God’s grace, which often arrives in ways unpredictable and impossible to calculate. If holiness can be thought of in Wesleyan terms as a journey toward Christian perfection, it is thus never a static perfection, but always an openness to growth and to ever-expanding forms of inclusion.
There may well be sins that would exclude one from full participation in the body of Christ, but if Jesus’ sparring with the Pharisees is any clue, those have more to do with the way we block others from entering the kingdom. There is a perverse irony in all of this, for clearly the more serious sin is excluding others deemed sinful from the body of Christ. At its best, the church is not to be understood as a community marked by moral perfection or achievement, but rather a community marked by vulnerability, by standing with the marginalized, and by openness to a grace that arrives from outside of ourselves. The more we attempt to control who is in and who is out, the more we will find that control slipping through our fingers like sand. Holiness is queer indeed.
Bryan Stone is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Boston University School of Theology. He is the author of multiple books and articles on evangelism, ecclesiology, and the intersections of theology and popular culture.