Can we change? The future of the Church of the Nazarene,
and the lives of countless individuals, depend on it.
Oddly enough, my journey to full LGBTQ inclusion began with a sermon by a fundamentalist preacher. Hearing him over the radio, I did not catch his name, but he said something that did grab my attention. He was railing against the evils of women in ministry. He insisted that only men could preach, teach, and lead in the church, and that a church that ordained women was a church that had rejected the Bible. And then he issued a grave warning—the slippery slope. He said that if a church embraced women in ministry, it would eventually open ministry to gay pastors.
I have always taken great pride in our Nazarene tradition of ordaining women to ministry. Even though our practice has not kept pace with our theology on this issue, we have a vision for full participation of God-called, Spirit-gifted women taking their leadership roles in our churches and our denomination. Many have worked tirelessly to see this vision fully embraced and embodied.
While I disagree with my unnamed fundamentalist brother on his opposition to women in ministry, he had made an important point about consistency of hermeneutics. How do we interpret the Bible? When it comes to controversial topics, do we adjust our approach based on our fears of where careful study may take us?
Our passion for women in ministry is grounded in a theology that, I believe, shows honor and humility in handling scripture. We have not treated the Bible as though it was a twentieth century American document, or as if it was originally written in King James English. Rather, we have explored the original languages, the context in which scripture was written, the authors’ understandings, and other issues within the overall context of what we believe about God. And yet, when it comes to passages that we link to homosexuality as we perceive it, that humility seems to evaporate. We adhere to “the Bible is clear” fundamentalist literalism, which we have completely rejected for the rest of scripture.
And so, we find ourselves to be selective fundamentalists. Paul wrote that “women should remain silent in the churches” and are “not allowed to speak” (1 Corinthians 14:34). While we are confident that this is not a law for all cultures for all time, we take his words in passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (which we have assumed to align to our current definition of homosexuality), and say they are timeless with no context needed. In so doing we are teaching our congregations how to be fundamentalists. We are teaching them that our form of Wesleyanism works well with the dominant conservative evangelicalism of our day.
Our clear voice is needed. But a Wesleyanism that is compromised by fundamentalism is a convoluted message, rather than a message of hope which springs from a theology of love. Theologically, the stakes are high.
But that is not the worst of it. Toxic fundamentalism that puts doctrine over love, and certainty over acceptance, has done untold damage and destroyed many, many lives. Research from the Trevor Project in 2022 reveals some startling realities. It found that 45% of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered taking their own lives, while nearly 1 in 5 transgender and nonbinary youth have actually attempted suicide. (Rates are higher for LGBTQ youth of color than for their white peers.)
Think about the young people in the youth groups of our local churches. What would we do if we discovered that nearly half of them wanted to die and many of them had attempted to kill themselves? Our panicked hearts would realize that something terrible is happening. We wouldn’t wait for the next board meeting to assemble a committee to discuss it. We would run to those precious children and do everything we could to preserve their lives. We would tell them about their worth, their dignity, and their calling. We would open our homes to them. We would do everything in our power to nurture their souls and save their lives.
LGBTQ children are just as precious as our children. In truth, they are our children. They sit in our pews and attend our youth activities. And even those we have never met, those who have never been in a church, those who have been forced to live on the streets because of who they are—they are our children.
Several years ago, I was in a pre-General Assembly meeting in which we were previewing the work ahead of us. When we turned to the documents pertaining to human sexuality, someone said they were against deleting the word “perversion” from the discussion of homosexuality. They boldly proclaimed that same-sex attraction is perverted. Holding back my anger and frustration, I cited statistics about LGBTQ youth and suicide, then simply said, “I don’t think they need to hear the church call them perverts.”
You see, we were discussing our LGBTQ children as an issue. However, these sisters and brothers are not an “issue” to God. They are God’s image-bearers who need and deserve love, acceptance, and—yes—inclusion in the Church of the Nazarene. The stakes are high.
Our inability to fully include our LGBTQ brothers and sisters brings a very practical problem to the forefront—a deficiency in our capacity to fulfill our mission. Again, there is a parallel to the approaches of women in ministry and LGBTQ inclusion that must be addressed.
Fundamentalism has made the monumental mistake of despising the gifts of women. We will never know what has been lost because of this tragedy. Women who are gifted and called to empower the Body of Christ have been disqualified by men—not by the Holy Spirit—and the loss has been incalculable. The same is true of the Christian LGBTQ community. Beautiful people, whose gifts are given by the Spirit and valued by God, have been told that those gifts are not legitimate. I know many of them who are using their gifts for the work of Christ, but they have been forced to use their gifts while being cut off from the broader Body of Christ. This was never intended to be how the Body functions. Imagine how their gifts would flourish if we affirmed what God has already affirmed—“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27).
God’s gifts should not be squandered. The stakes are high.
My wife and I have had the privilege of worshiping in LGBTQ inclusive settings on many occasions. The joy is palpable as people worship in safe spaces. While they know that God accepts their praise and adoration, that truth is enhanced as other believers affirm their hearts for God. But what is also present is a deep sense of pain and woundedness. For many, the simple support of straight people worshiping with them is part of their reprieve from constant rejection and fear. In our spirits, Carol and I are always reminded that in those moments we are standing with the marginalized. Those are very humbling experiences. We always feel honored to be in the presence of this part of Christ’s family.
Planting ourselves among the marginalized is what the Church of the Nazarene envisioned in its infancy. We wanted to stand with the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed. Times have changed and needs have changed. For example, unwed mothers are no longer shunned, but people are targeting and murdering black trans women. We never hear about this because, to the media, to politicians, and to the culture at large, these people just don’t seem to count. But they matter to Jesus, and they should matter to us.
Needs change, but our calling must never change. We should be the people we were called to be. But we cannot be true to our calling by excluding sisters and brothers who are dangerously ostracized—by culture, by families, and by the church.
God called us to see Jesus in the marginalized. The stakes are high.
In the words above, I have referred to the Church of the Nazarene as “we” and have spoken of my relationship to the church in the present tense. But it’s time for full disclosure. While an overwhelming majority of my deep friendships are in the Nazarene orbit, and my love for them has not diminished, there came a time when I chose to resign my ministerial credentials and my church membership. I should not have been surprised at how difficult this step was to take after spending my entire life in the church that I love. But it was—and continues to be—more difficult than I had imagined. But after much prayer over a four-year span, I realized that the ministry and life my wife and I have been given with our wonderful LGBTQ family and friends could not align with a church that did not fully embrace them. While the Church of the Nazarene rejected me for this stance, I also needed to reject my denomination’s inability to fully see Christ in these dear friends, and to be Christ to them.
The Church of the Nazarene is not diminished by my departure. But there are many young, gifted, promising leaders who are feeling early in their ministry what I began to feel at a later point in my journey. These women and men are the lifeblood of the future. They are passionate for the way of Christ, and they love the church. But many are coming to the same conclusion to which I came, while many others are simply being told that they don’t belong and that they need to leave.
A church that is unwilling to change—even when the way is dangerous and demanding—is a church whose best days are behind it. Please understand: the stakes are so high.
Phil Stout pastored First Church of the Nazarene in Jackson, Michigan for thirty years. He received his undergraduate and MDiv degrees from Nazarene institutions and earned a DMin degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Phil currently serves as Spiritual Care Director for David’s Promise, a ministry to adults with special needs. He is also a Teaching Pastor at Westwinds Church.