Sometimes What You Say Gets in the Way of What You Mean

white and red house near road

Kevin M. Talbert

The cultural message of the Nazarene Church’s stance on LGBTQ+ issues undermines God’s mandate to love the vulnerable.

The Church is a cultural institution as much as it is a theological one. If this were not true, then Christians would have no part in Culture War politics and there would be little meaning, or little to debate, in the Christian aphorism to be “in the world but not of the world.” No doubt those in The Church of the Nazarene who advocate against LGTBQ+ people as full members of the church community do so, at least in part, out of a desire to “protect” their church from outside cultural influence they perceive to be undermining The Church’s theological grounding. While understandable, I find this effort misguided and, ultimately, hurtful.

Indeed, it is easy to think of any church as itself “having a culture,” whether one thinks of their local congregation or more broadly of “The Church” universal. Ministers and congregants alike often speak of the culture of their church with words like “welcoming,” or “contemporary,” or “relevant [to the culture].” Yes, even describing the church as “affirming,” as the authors in this volume advocate, is a comment about the desired culture of The Church.

Culture is, in large part, formative. It helps educate people about “how to be” and “how to live” in a particular context. In that sense, culture has a pedagogical aspect, that is, it teaches people the symbols and meanings needed to successfully navigate life in a community. Consequently, one may understand the culture of a given community as a sort of “text” that is both written and interpreted by the members of the community, as well as those outside the community. These cultural messages are a form of curriculum that helps people learn whether they belong in a community, and how to belong.

Cultural texts are informed and shaped not just by the local context, but also by broader, more widespread contexts. In this way, then, The Church exists not just as a culture but within a larger culture that includes its own texts, its own symbols and meanings that shape peoples’ understanding of the world. And, the culture of The Church is shaped within/through cultural understandings from the wider society. Thus, when The Church takes a stance about a particular cultural issue, much less a theological one, it is also performing an educational function. That is, we can take The Church’s stance on any particular issue as a sort of curriculum that “teaches” both its members and the culture at large about The Church, its priorities, and, especially, its vision of who God is and the work (it contends) he does in the world.

This cultural educational effect of The Church is also implicated with relations of power. That is, The Church as an institution manifests power in the world, at least the power to determine what (and, therefore, who) is “acceptable” and “good” in God’s sight, and what or who is not. What a weighty role! In a real sense, the cultural messages The Church sends not only communicate messages about a given issue, but communicate that The Church claims power as the primary arbiter of God’s authority in/over the world. When The Church includes certain people and excludes others from the sacraments, from its rituals and practices, from its leadership, it is exercising power with potentially eternal consequence in peoples’ lives! It is also denying people friendship, community, even livelihoods. I daresay these are often felt in peoples’ lives in a more real and potent way than they feel any eternal consequence, whether we like that or not.

My wife and I left a Nazarene Church in part because of its refusal to acknowledge its cultural power and, especially, to use its cultural power affirmatively on the side of the vulnerable in its community. It chose, instead, to rest in platitudes about “loving everyone equally” and “staying above the fray,” which in effect suggested a curricular message that those who were being harmed were to have no refuge in that church. It taught my wife and I that that congregation was willing to ignore Christ’s mandate to protect the vulnerable if it meant not being controversial. Sadly, this means it was willing to use its power to sacrifice on the altar of “unity” those who needed the affirmative, active protection of a loving community willing to risk itself on their behalf.

LGBTQ+ people in the United States continue to be among the most vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, and premature death, whether by suicide, murder, or the cumulative effects of the stress of trying to survive in a society that hates their existence.

I support the full affirmation of LGBTQ+ people within the Church of the Nazarene. I do so because I believe God loves LGBTQ+ people with the same reckless love he has for me, a straight cisgender person and a sinner. I urge the Nazarene Church to fully and publicly affirm LGTBQ+ people. I believe not doing so communicates a cultural text that undermines The Church’s theological position. That is, the cultural message received by those inside and, especially, outside The Church, is that they are not welcome in God’s kingdom since they are not fully welcome in God’s earthly community. I believe this cultural text subverts any theological message coming from The Church, such as the common saying that God loves LGBTQ+ people even as he abhors their sin.

My formation in the Wesleyan tradition leads me to believe God loves people through their sin, which I take to have a double meaning. God loves ­people by looking beyond their sin—not ignoring it, but seeing the person for more than just their sin. And, perhaps more importantly, God’s love is restorative, it is healing, it moves people beyond their sin into redemption. As a denomination, The Church of the Nazarene’s message of love should be unambiguous. And The Church should use its cultural power to demonstrate in concrete and material ways to the world and, especially to all those most vulnerable in our society, that God loves them first, last, and always.

Dr. Kevin M. Talbert, PhD is Associate Professor of Education at The College of Idaho where he teaches courses in curriculum studies and the sociocultural foundations of education. Educated in a United Methodist Church and a UMC-affiliated college, he and his family now attend a Nazarene church in Nampa, Idaho.

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