Sometimes inclusion is not enough.
When I look at the lives of my queer friends and family who have been hurt so deeply by the Church of the Nazarene and those like it—the churches that shaped and formed them from their earliest days—my heart breaks for what could have been. What if my family had fully welcomed my aunt and her girlfriend? What if my friend at Southern Nazarene University had been allowed to hold hands and show affection to his partner on campus without fear of punishment? What if the members of my childhood church had celebrated my sister’s engagement to a woman instead of withdrawing from her life?
Growing up I was proud that the Church of the Nazarene, since its beginning, affirmed and celebrated women in ministry despite my peers from other Christian traditions insisting that women in church leadership was “unbiblical” by citing verse and chapter. Yet, I knew that the Church of the Nazarene, understanding that greater biblical evidence exists that celebrates women in spiritual leadership and originating in the Wesleyan-Holiness movement, stood apart from other traditions because of the vital leadership and contributions of women preachers, evangelists, and church planters.
Looking back now as a person who strives to be fully affirming of people of all sexualities and genders, I wonder why the Church of the Nazarene, like so many other denominations in the Wesleyan tradition, struggles to see that the same Spirit that empowers men and women of all races, nationalities, and social classes can and does also empower our queer siblings in Christ. Those before us have transformed and resisted exclusionary beliefs in the past, and they can do it again.
The Church has so much to learn from the queer people it has rejected, and I do not believe that simply “creating room for them at the table” is a solution that will create full inclusion and affirmation of their identity, their humanity, their nature as imago Dei. In the face of rejection and in pursuit of finding their identity, queer Christians and their allies have found and formed communities that exemplify Christ’s invitational nature that calls us to transformation, love, and belonging. We see that in online spaces like TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook, and in-person spaces like gay bars, drag shows, and house churches. The Holy Spirit never needed a church building.
The Church of the Nazarene doesn’t need to make room to include queer people, it needs to be completely transformed from the root to the branches. It must catch on to what the Spirit is already doing outside the doors of the church buildings among those that have been locked out, metaphorically and literally, so as not to miss the invitation to participate in what God is doing. The Church of the Nazarene needs to repent and ask permission to join queer Christians and their friends in the work they are doing among the margins—where Jesus called us to go. Perhaps, then, they will make room in their spaces for Nazarenes.
John Wesley, the spiritual predecessor of the Church of the Nazarene, defied the religious structures of his day and created a transformative movement of the Holy Spirit that is still alive today. His theology was shaped by his experience with Christians from the Moravian Church. He first met a group of Moravian missionaries on a ship traveling to America. At sea, the ship experienced such violent storms that everyone was terrified for their life except for the Moravians who calmly sang together. When he returned to London, Wesley was encouraged to attend a Moravian gathering. It was there, while reading Martin Luther’s preface to Romans and influenced by the Moravians’ deep assurance in God’s grace to save, that Wesley’s theology was forever transformed. It generated a drive within him to preach a practical divinity rooted in individual and communal holiness.
In his day, as the rise of industrialization and the Enlightenment brought skepticism and a lack of interest in religion, a growing number of common people were disconnected from the church. His desire to minister to the working class led him to leave behind some of the strict practices of his religious training in the Church of England to “become more vile.” Learning from and being transformed by their stories and contributions as fellow leaders in the early Methodist movement, Wesley did not simply invite people into the traditional spaces they were averse to. He created new ways of being church with them.
Sometimes inclusion is not enough. Inclusion is a term that means a space that was once exclusive of a group is made accessible to that group. If the expectation or result of inviting is that the newly included group must live into the ideals and lifestyle of the dominant group, then there is less room for justice, love, and equity to exist. No one should be asked to diminish themselves—who God made them to be—to be accepted into a community.
If power is expected to stay in the hands of the same people and system when queer people are invited into the Church of the Nazarene, we can anticipate there will be shortsightedness and important considerations missed. Of course the intention of inclusion is to create a diverse, safe space for all, but without centering those who have historically been pushed to the edges, the efforts of inclusion will fall short. It is too simple to invite queer Christians to the table without deep self-reflection and a willingness to learn from and be shaped by queer Christians and their allies who are forging new paths.
What if the Church looked beyond itself to learn from queer Christians, and specifically queer Nazarenes, who have invaluable contributions to make to the life of the Church? What if the Church of the Nazarene looked around at the communities built by those who were rejected and who chose to create their own inviting spaces rooted in Christ’s transformative message of love? The Church has acted as host for far too long. Maybe it’s time for it to become a guest—to be open to being welcomed in to learn from and be transformed by others.
Inclusion can lead to absorption into the larger community’s ideals, while transformation creates the possibility for the larger group to be renewed and changed for good. If Nazarenes open themselves to be transformed by the queer Christians who are willing to walk alongside them, they will rediscover their theological and traditional roots as they find new ways to experience God’s love, grace, and holiness. Transformation leaves space for something new—new life, new creation, new ways of being.
The Apostle Paul calls us to resist being conformed to this world and to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2 NRSV). In our world, heterosexuality and gender and sexual binaries restrict human flourishing, because they create a narrow definition of what is normal and even what is human. One cannot break from these norms without being subject to disdain, criticism, or worse. (Even I, growing up a tomboy, experienced negativity and extreme pressure to act and dress like little girls “should.”) These norms are created by our culture and reinforced by our actions, yet cultures change as does our definition of normal through the generations.
The founders of the Wesleyan-Holiness movement asked the question: Is there another way to view holiness? They birthed a movement that brought a beauty and depth to Christian theology and practice that would not have existed otherwise. The willingness of the mothers and fathers of our tradition to break the mold is a legacy that queer Christians live out every day. Queer people remind us that it is possible to break out of the patterns of this world that simplify and flatten what it means to be human or Christian or holy or good.
When I was in seminary at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO, I met fellow ex-Nazarenes who planted a house church. The church was small, open, and affirming. I felt comfortable inviting my queer and trans roommates who attended with me and felt welcomed and cared for. The pastors were humble, kind, inquisitive, and willing to be challenged and changed by our stories and insights. We talked about how painful it was to leave the church traditions that we loved, but each of us had a reason to leave whether it was our choice or not. Queer exclusion was a factor in each case. I’ll always be grateful for that house church and others like it that listen and grow alongside those whose voices are rarely heard. These kinds of churches seem to be catching on to what the Spirit is doing a bit quicker than the Church of the Nazarene.
Christ calls us to repentance—to reorient the way we think, act, and live. That requires a willingness to step out of our comfort zone and the spaces where we hold power and influence, to walk alongside those who challenge us to question what we think we know, and to expand our understanding of what is loving, holy, good, and just. The Church of the Nazarene has contributed to American Christianity’s rejection and marginalization of queer people and as a result queer people and their allies are steadily leaving and discovering new spiritual paths and communities to find the belonging they deserve. There is another path the Church of the Nazarene can walk—one that is rooted in that same Spirit that moved in the lives of John Wesley, Phoebe Palmer, Phineas Bresee, and so many more. Repent, and be transformed!
Piper Ramsey-Sumner grew up a pastor’s kid in the Church of the Nazarene. She received her BA in Theology from Southern Nazarene University and her MDiv from Iliff School of Theology. She is the Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida United Methodist Church and hosts the podcast, Pastor’s Kid.