Bonus Essay: Like A Shroud

white waving fabric

James Travis Young

In my lifetime, it customarily began with clergy of different shapes and sizes gathering in a church foyer, shaking hands, and sharing jokes. A few wore finely tailored black suits with polished wingtips, gold watches, and shirts so white, the broadcloth actually appeared holy. Others simply dressed their best, whether that was an old Montgomery Ward sport coat shiny at the elbows, or a polyester leisure suit from Goodwill.

Of course, there were always splashes of color: ladies seemed to prefer satiny blouses in either deep shades or pastels, depending on the decade. Meanwhile, year after year, all the neckties invariably matched the neon hues of Miami Vice. At some point, muffled announcements would begin to echo from inside the auditorium, signaling that the service was underway, and one of the more fussy ministers would shush everyone, though it did little good.

These were my colleagues—pastors, associates, evangelists, chaplains, professors, students, and missionaries—elders and deacons. From the young rookies to the retirees, I felt a kinship with them all.

Suddenly, the music would begin, so we would fall into some kind of panicked, impromptu formation and march headlong down the aisles of the grand sanctuary singing in almost the same key. In that moment of synchronized procession, I always felt honored, not simply because it was an ordination service, but because of the connection we ministers shared. My heart never failed to stir as the church organ droned, and at the top of our lungs we cried out in one voice, “Called unto holiness…”

It felt like home.

For those of us whom the Church of the Nazarene has been our past, present, and future, holiness is more than mere heritage—it is our very identity.

From our founding in 1908 as a denomination blessed with a combined history of the 18th century Wesleyan revival and the many holiness churches, missions, and associations that arose a century later during the holiness movement, to the very words inscribed upon our official seal, “Holiness Unto the Lord” has been our watchword and song. Holiness is the subject of the lengthiest Article of Faith in our Manual, and is our published “primary objective.”

But over the years, I have witnessed an increasing number use a theologically specious definition of “holiness” in attempts to divide the church from within. Probably the most dramatic example involves the condemnation of LGBTQIA+ individuals, the queer community at large, and anyone in the church who adopts or even considers affirmation.

A number of ministers and their like-minded followers took to social media, sharing cruel memes and ill-conceived proof texts, reinforcing narratives that portray Christians as not just fearing the queer community, but actively hating them. Behind the scenes, this fear and hatred translated into actual discrimination: numerous individuals were confronted about their sexuality, prevented or dismissed from serving in the church, denied sacramental elements during celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, and even asked to leave with instructions never to return.

This culture war has been simultaneously fought inside the clergy as well. Judicial policies intended to protect the church have instead been exploited to abuse ministers through social exclusion, conditional threats, and the removal of credentials. It has now become commonplace for any proposal regarding LGBTQIA+ affirmation to become supposed evidence of teaching doctrines out of harmony with the church, or even written proof of conduct unbecoming a minister.

Our denomination has never before faced such depraved manipulations of our doctrinal objectives and judicial processes. This is more than a crisis: our very theology of ordination for ministry and Christian service has been corrupted.

By permitting this to continue, we are betraying the legacy of Phineas Bresee, John Wesley, Martin Luther, and any claimed succession from the apostles of Jesus Christ.

If our shared identity is truly “Holiness Unto the Lord,” how can we condone the misappropriation and weaponization of the term “holiness” to insult, slander, and outright persecute members of our own body?

Scripturally, holiness leads us not only to acceptance of others, but of ourselves, and ultimately worship:

“Brothers and sisters, considering the boundless mercies of God, I implore you to dedicate your bodies as a living sacrifice—a holy offering that God finds pleasing. This is your authentic and meaningful act of worship.” (Romans 12:1, author’s translation)

Increasingly, the above scripture has been used as a proof-text battering ram by ideologues intent on demonizing transgender individuals, the non-binary, and just about everyone in the LGBTQIA+ community. For years, I wondered why Paul specified that even our physical bodies are a holy offering, but I’ve come to understand that my own perspective as a person who identifies as heteronormative was limited. My personal experiences differ significantly from the struggles faced by many in the queer community.

Transgender, intersex, and non-binary individuals sometimes have complex relationships with their bodies, facing societal pressures about body ideals in addition to their struggles with gender identity. Gender dysphoria, a disconnect between gender identity and assigned sex at birth, can cause psychological distress and even physical discomfort. Meanwhile, some suffer from body dysmorphia, an anxiety disorder where individuals feel psychologically and physically overwhelmed by perceived flaws in their appearance. Gender-affirming actions can help with gender dysphoria, while healing body dysmorphia often requires therapy to challenge negative thoughts.

However, it’s important to note that not all individuals in the queer community experience these challenges. Some find empowerment and joy in embracing their uniqueness, navigating their identities with confidence and celebrating the diversity that sets them apart.

Tyler Brinkman, in his superb essay, “Bodies are Holy—Even Transgender Bodies” found in Why the Church of the Nazarene Should Be Fully LGBTQ+ Affirming writes how the notion that our physical bodies are holy is fully in keeping with Wesleyan tradition. He points out that theologians such as Mildred Bangs Wynkoop and others have written that the practice of valuing a soul over and separate from the physical body is not only scripturally unfounded, but rooted in Greek paganism.

Holiness is transformative—and this power is evident not only spiritually, but is manifested physically as well. We preach a holiness of heart that our lives follow, but so much more than our hearts find transformation in relationship with God.

Of course, biblical precedent for this is obvious:

Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee “breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” experienced transformation of body, soul, and even identity. Not only did he lose then regain his sight, the Lord transformed him from someone known for “all the harm he has done” into God’s “chosen instrument” (Acts 9). Saul later changed his name to Paul, a Latin name, so he could embrace a new identity as a missionary to Gentiles.

And it is no accident that Jesus, in whom holiness is personified, served as a healer during his earthly ministry and brought about physical transformation in the lives of others. According to scripture, through Jesus, the blind were caused to see, the lame walked, and even the dead were brought back to life. Of course there are multiple scriptures that state how Jesus himself, upon resurrection, had apparently undergone some bodily physical transformation—yet this did not have any bearing upon whether he was acceptable as God’s son, much less our Savior, and King.

Even with transformed bodies, we are “a holy offering that God finds pleasing” (Romans 12:1). This scriptural declaration underscores the value of presenting ourselves authentically to God. Being true to one’s gender identity and sexual orientation is not just a genuine act of devotion—it is holy.

This is in keeping even with an Old Testament understanding of holiness, which drew upon experiences that reflected the unique relationship between the Israelites and God, such as the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Ten Commandments. More precisely, it denoted the act of consecration for divine purposes—a definition that extended to encompass objects, actions, motives, individuals, and even God.

Legalists wrongly believe holiness is predicated on some complicated definition or formula of what they think God finds holy, but this is scripturally myopic. We don’t have to be straight or use binary pronouns to be acceptable to God: he desires us when we present ourselves to him, and he is the one who makes us holy.

There is more to the story. Holiness empowers and equips us for service in the kingdom. Rather than accusations, threats, trials, dismissals, or shunning in any form, God recognizes holiness in the honesty and courage it takes to live in accordance with one’s true self, even when it disrupts cultural norms in society or the church.

This is scripturally reinforced by the very next verse:

“Don’t let the world shape you into its mold. Instead, let your mind be renewed, bringing about a transformation that helps you recognize God’s perfect will—what is good, pleasing, and truly perfect.” (Romans 12:2, author’s translation)

Globally, LGBTQIA+ individuals are under attack for who they are. Around the world, 64 countries have laws criminalizing homosexuality. In places like Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, northern Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, and Yemen, engaging in consensual same-sex intimacy could lead to the death penalty.

In the United States, individuals in the LGBTQIA+ community were more likely to experience hate crimes than any other minority. Discrimination takes various forms, spanning limited healthcare access, employment struggles, workplace bullying, and even religious trauma. Sadly, pervasive psychological damage resulting from relationships with the church is vastly overrepresented by the queer community.

The plea, “don’t let the world shape you into its mold” in Romans 12:2 is a call to stand against the judgment and stigma created by hatred in our violent world. If we allow the enemy to dictate fear and condemnation into our relationships, then we are not the church, and our actions and attitudes are anything but holy.

Rather, we as the church are invited to “let your mind be renewed, bringing about a transformation that helps you recognize God’s perfect will—what is good, pleasing, and truly perfect” (Romans 12:2). More than a mandate to evolve our understanding and acceptance of others, this transformation establishes an alignment with God’s will, emphasizing the importance of empathy, compassion, and inclusivity.

This is also in keeping with how “holiness” is described in the New Testament, as a transformative journey to Christlikeness. Rather than moral purity, holiness seeks to love others, responding to their needs without control or coercion—which makes holiness relational.

Our minds must be renewed. The prejudices against the LGBTQIA+ community we absorbed through our culture must be transformed into love, and that means relationships between the queer community at the church must be renewed as well.

Relational holiness is tantamount to relational wholeness. By experiencing and sharing God’s love, not only will the church be transformed from within, but we can become an important part of the LGBTQIA+ community. As Eric R. Severson shared in his essay “The Queerness of the Holy” found in Why the Church of the Nazarene Should Be Fully LGBTQ+ Affirming, the church “is being invited to join the Kingdom of God, which resides in the margins, where holiness abides, among the poor, with the oppressed, as queer.” When the Spirit moves in both the church and the queer community, broken relationships will be healed, harmony can be restored, and as one body, we can be fully reconciled to our creator.

Why is this not happening?

For one thing, holiness demands not only love, but justice, and justice is not being served in the relationships I see currently at play within the church. We must engage with our faith, each other, and the world around us as we pursue holiness through transformative love.

Friends, I propose we stand on the threshold of a turning point, more specifically, what could be called a peripeteia.

A peripeteia is a narrative device that originated in Greek tragedies, a turning point in the story where the protagonist discovers that everything he/she/they knew is wrong. It’s Charlton Heston falling to his knees in despair on a sandy beach before the chest deep remnants of the Statue of Liberty at the finale of The Planet of the Apes.

When one experiences crisis and arrives at revelation, that’s when the real learning can begin.

Revelation describes Jesus proclaiming, “Behold, I make all things new.” Perhaps a promise, warning, or both, this passage anticipates that expectations will one day be upended, possibly even destroyed, only to be rebuilt. Sometimes resurrection takes three days—for some, the resurrection they experience could happen in an instant or even take a lifetime.

It is high time for the church to be resurrected.

Some of you probably find my words blasphemous, but I am not surprised.

Over forty years into my experience with the Church of the Nazarene, two-thirds of that spent in credentialed ministry, I am realizing something for the first time: though it is Christlike to love others, it is madness to love an organization, a denomination.

The warm, fuzzy connection I felt with other ministers that I described at the outset of this essay isn’t so warm and fuzzy anymore. At first, it was painful observing some I have known for greater than forty years for their uncompromising love compromise everything for politics. I watched them vilify members who merely did not share their opinions. Then I saw them turn to social media and spread hate.

I will not pretend my motivations are purely objective; certainly, there has been a personal toll. For my advocacy of LGBTQIA+ affirmation within the church, I have lost fellowship with a majority of my colleagues. I have not attended a denominational event in the past seven years where I nor members of my family have not been treated as outcasts.

Some of my colleagues have told me that because I have an affirmative stance, I am dooming myself to hell, and have said this looking me directly in the eye. Others simply tell me I am no longer a part of the church, though these people have no authority to make such decisions.

I have experienced feedback from those whom I will refer to as church leaders who serve in supervisory roles over me and the ministry I participate in. Though I still consider these friendly relationships, I have been asked if my published proposals for LGBTQIA+ inclusion are not clearly “out of line” with the doctrine and teachings of the denomination. Though I am optimistic, I also realize that these conversations took place with witnesses, and there was a very clear promise that more questions will be asked in the future.

I have accepted the possibility that there could be a day sooner or later where I find myself accused of teaching doctrines out of harmony with the church, or even conduct unbecoming a minister for writing such as this very essay you read (the pessimist in me even considered titling this “Exhibit A”).

There are those whom I am sure feel “caught in the middle” and believe “both sides” need to “calm their rhetoric.” Though I wholeheartedly applaud what is undoubtedly a Christlike impulse to be peacemakers, justice is not being served. Hatred cannot be wielded by the church, and our judicial policies have been twisted to perform a witch hunt by a small contingent of ministers who seek to change much more than our denominational stance on LGBTQIA+ affirmation. True holiness means we must stand for the oppressed and the broken, and empower others to do the same—not revoke their ministerial credentials.

What is most interesting is when other ministers ask me, “Who are you to believe your theology could in any way be comparable to those in leadership?” This chilling effect encompasses more than colleagues expressing differences of opinion; rather, it implies a hierarchy that looks less every day like the church I thought I loved, that felt like home. Instead of joining together as one voice to cry out “Called unto holiness,” the song reverberating in my ears is “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”

I fell in love with what I thought was the body, but it was just a fancy covering, like a garment. A shroud.

You know, the thing Jesus left behind in the tomb.

Peripeteia. Everything I knew was wrong.

The Church of the Nazarene must decide whether they shall unite and be joined together as the living resurrected body of Christ, or if they wish to remain a remnant of the past, a covering for the dead, cast off and left behind in a lifeless tomb.

So, I’m waiting for the new things, a resurrection. I still believe loving others together will transform the world not just within the reach of our arms, but beyond. Joined together with any of you, resurrection is possible, and I am excited about that future. And I for one refuse to leave without a fight. True holiness requires it.

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