Friendship with LGBTQ+ Christians can help skeptical Nazarenes draw closer to an understanding of the matchless grace of Jesus and to a faith formed and evidenced by the fruits of the Spirit.
I’d like to begin this brief essay by asking you to pause for a moment and bring to mind the face of a friend. This could be someone you knew as a child, a group of people even, or someone you’re in close contact with today. It could be a spouse, a coworker, or a family member. Close your eyes if you need to, and then when you have that friend in mind, open your eyes, and keep them in mind as you read on.
The first face that pops into my head when I do this exercise is that of my childhood best friend, Ryan. Today, Ryan is married, the father of three children, 38 years old, and serving as a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene in Michigan. I live in North Carolina now, but we still stay in touch. We first met when we were just three years old at a Church of the Nazarene in southern Illinois. My parents had just moved our family to town, and when we walked in the door on our first Sunday, the family legend goes that Ryan saw me in the foyer and fainted, somehow overwhelmed by the knowledge that he had just found a lifelong friend. Looking back on that story as a parent today, I sincerely hope that the fainting part was not literally true. (Did they call a doctor?) But I can affirm, thirty-five years later, that the lifelong friendship part of the story definitely has been.
Our friendship has formed me significantly through the years, and I assume it has formed Ryan too. Friendships do that. They can give joy, light, and happiness to your daily life. They can provide a place of refuge and support in difficult times. They can push you out of an endless number of comfort zones. Friendships can influence decisions and opinions; they can send you off in different directions and change how you see the world around you. And often, they can be an overwhelming example of Christ’s love breaking into the world.
The Bible is full of such friendships. Jonathan and David are probably the most often-cited biblical example of friendship, as they loved each other as they loved themselves (1 Samuel 18:1-5). Naomi and Ruth are another good Old Testament example: Ruth promises to stick by Naomi’s side when she is most in need, and they both are made better for it (Ruth 1:14-18). Jesus himself had close friendships during his ministry on earth, especially with John the Apostle, “the one whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). This friendship was so transformational for John that he was never the same, writing and preaching about God’s love for the rest of his life. And Paul had Timothy and Titus, beloved friends and co-laborers in spreading the good news about Christ throughout the first century world (1 Corinthians 4:17, Titus 1:4).
Do you still have your friend in mind? Good, hold on to them. The theme of John the Apostle’s transformation through friendship is one I will revisit, so taking a minute to consider how your friend has transformed your life might be a good idea right now. I’m guessing you would not be the same without that friend’s influence. Without Ryan, I would never have gone to as many local church or District events in my teenage years, I never would have attended Olivet Nazarene University for college, and I would definitely have laughed a lot less over the last three decades.
Other friendships have shaped me over the years too, and in ways I would never have expected. Remember, friendships can do that.
Ryan and I attended summer camp at the Illinois District’s Nazarene Acres, and a mutual friend from those years has since left the church. He was always hilarious, kind, devoted, and Christ-like, but once he began publicly dating another man, there was no room for him in the Church of the Nazarene. His story is sad, and it is not unique.
We also attended Olivet together, where I sang in the Testament Men’s Choir and went on a mission trip to Argentina with a great group of singers. Though quiet about their sexual orientation while at ONU, a few from that group had their gifts for ministry rejected as unworthy and unclean (along with the rest of them) after graduation, and many no longer call themselves Nazarenes. Their story is sad, and they are not alone.
Personally, though, I watched those friendships fade away once those young men found the courage to admit to themselves, to their friends, and to their churches that they loved others in a way that the 20th century church in America deemed abhorrent. I let them go because I could see no other way forward.
How could these friends of mine not love the same way that I love; why could they not just be normal? Their romantic decisions were inconceivable to me twenty years ago, and I wished they could simply see the error of their ways. Wasn’t it clear in the Bible that we all professed to believe that this way of loving was fundamentally wrong?
I am hopeful and confident that you will find good answers to those two sociological and theological questions in the other essays included in this book, or elsewhere, if you go looking with an open heart. I have found good answers myself over the years. But well-supported biblical arguments were not what transformed my opinion from silently regretting and judging the orientation and decisions of my friends to actively affirming them and their full participation in the Church.
You might have already guessed this, but friendships did that.
I graduated from Olivet, served with Nazarene Compassionate Ministries in Africa, and then returned to the States to serve as a youth pastor at Seattle First Church of the Nazarene. While there, I enrolled in graduate school to be a counseling psychologist, hoping to listen and care for others as my lifelong vocation and calling. Several of my classmates were pursuing their own vocation through the church and answering their calls to the pastorate and the priesthood. And several of them, alarmingly to me at the time, were gay.
Admittedly, the ivory towers of liberal, west coast academia might not be an admirable place for many, nor a surprising place to find my opinion evolving, but remember that my personal transformation did not come through well-supported biblical arguments or “woke” classwork. My own stance on LGBTQ+ issues in the church and culture at large was transformed through friendship and personal relationships, through listening to my classmates trying to pursue the call of Christ in their lives and through caring for them as they expressed pain, rejection, and heartbreak in the churches and families of their youth. These were young people, like me, hoping to be of use to the Body of Christ, like me, willing to give their lives in service, answering God’s call.
And perhaps most importantly for the context of this particular essay, these young people thoroughly and consistently exhibited the fruits of the Spirit. My LGBTQ+ friends were serving one another humbly, in love. They were loving their neighbors as themselves. Their lives were marked by love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. They had faults and flaws, much like we all do, but they were faithfully trying to keep in step with the Spirit, and they wanted wholeheartedly to devote their lives to the church.
These friendships opened my eyes to a world where sexual orientation was not a dealbreaker nor a litmus test to being a follower of Christ. In much the same way, Paul wrote about these familiar fruits of the Spirit in a time when circumcision and other Jewish laws and customs were being used by the churches in Galatia to keep people out, to treat Gentiles as second-class citizens who needed to conform before they could be accepted into the Body of Christ. As he wrote to them then, “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace… the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:4-6). Paul was calling the Galatians back to the wonderful, matchless grace of Jesus—deeper than the mighty rolling sea—and to a faith formed and evidenced by the fruits of the Spirit.
I continued over the following decade, as maybe you have over the last few years, to find LGBTQ+ Christians exhibiting those fruits of the Spirit in different contexts. My wife and I moved our family to Charlotte in 2014 and eventually found a church home, one where I still serve today. I chose our previous assistant priest, whose sexual orientation would preclude her from serving in the Church of the Nazarene, to be my spiritual director for a class at Nazarene Theological Seminary because of her wisdom, temperament, and gifts for preaching and pastoral care. Our church’s Director of Music has been in a committed gay relationship for 40+ years, as has our church administrator. The former knows more about church music than anyone I’ve ever known, is immensely talented, and can (and often does) quote John or Charles Wesley on a whim. The latter has an enormous heart for God’s people, especially the homeless people in the neighborhood around our downtown location, and exhibits more patience and self-control than I could ever hope to demonstrate. Their friendships have shaped me, transformed me into being a better Christian than I would have been without them in my life, and I am eternally thankful for their willingness to continue to serve the Church, even with—no, especially with—their scars of rejection and judgment.
These are the friendships that all of us need, those that turn us toward Christ.
Before I conclude, we need to return to the exercise at the beginning, of bringing to mind a friend. If you took the time in the middle of this brief essay to think about how this friend has transformed your life, fantastic. If not, please do so now. The stories of friendship in the Bible give ample examples of love, comfort, faithfulness, and companionship through persecution and difficulty, and hopefully these friendships you’ve thought of have done the same in your life. The story of Jesus’s friendship with John is particularly instructive, as an encounter with the love of Christ shaped everything about John for the rest of his days. It is nearly impossible to encounter Christ and not be changed. May all of our friendships shape us as John was shaped.
Friendships transform us; it’s what they do. My friendship with Ryan has been transforming me for over 35 years, and I would not be who I am today without him. Thankfully, friendships with LGBTQ+ Christians have transformed me too, especially over the last decade: here in Charlotte, Marion, Budd, and Nancy have all helped me fully recognize the need for the Church—the entire Church—to be a place of welcome and grace, affirming the fruits of the Spirit when we see them, and inviting more and more people to a life of faith expressing itself through love.
It is my hope and prayer today for Nazarenes and other Christians across the world to pursue meaningful, open, and loving friendships with their LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, to lament for the way we have treated our fellow image bearers in the past, and to allow those friendships to transform our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
John Wakefield is a 2006 graduate of Olivet Nazarene University and earned his MDiv from Nazarene Theological Seminary in 2023. He is currently a Postulant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina and serves at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte as Director of Youth Ministries and Parish Communications. Find him online at jhnwkfld.com.