The Church of the Nazarene is ready for LGBTQ+ acceptance, and we should rejoice and be glad in it.
I once shared on a discussion board with other Nazarene academics and clergy that if I had to rank my obligations as a theologian, I would say my first priority is to be a faithful Christian, secondly a thoughtful Wesleyan, and third, at best, a good Nazarene. While the Church of the Nazarene is a home full of extended family for me, the kingdom of God is far greater than can be fully realized anywhere, let alone by our young denomination, without God inhabiting our conversations and actions. If I were convinced that the call of God to pursue justice and love mercy necessarily drew me away from our brand of evangelicalism, then so be it. But I do not think that is necessarily the case.
The decision of the Church of the Nazarene to become fully inclusive of LGBTQ+ people is, in my view, an inevitable one. I say this not out of a sense of impending revolution, but in a sense of hopefulness. The clearest reasons I have for this come out of my experience as a Nazarene and Nazarene pastor’s son, who has also attended welcoming and affirming congregations for over 10 years. More concretely, these reasons are also rooted in several realizations. First, Nazarenes are already inclusive of queer people in a variety of ways in many places, inside and outside of our churches. Consequently, many of us already have love for members of our church family who are also part of the queer community, and are not asking them to leave anytime soon. Furthermore, I have come to realize that acknowledging and affirming queer lives can show us far more about God and ourselves than practicing exclusion will ever allow. Finally, I have come to see that it makes sense of the ways we already read the Bible.
The reason the Church of the Nazarene has not already moved toward acceptance of queer people is, as I see it, not as much theological as it is practical and dispositional. I believe we have not moved toward full acceptance largely because many are unwilling to unlearn our assumptions and re-examine our own lives. In what follows, I will offer observations and experiences that many readers will share, and explore how these have led to my own change of belief and practice.
We Already Do
Currently, most Nazarene churches would allow, at least in principle and as a matter of polity, queer people to become members of the church, although usually with limited leadership capacities. After all, even if queerness were irreducibly sinful, the church is still for sinners. Sadly, it is very much the norm for queer people in our churches to hide aspects of themselves from an atmosphere of condemnation, often feeling unable to talk about their personal lives without risking judgment or altering friendships within the church. For just one relevant point of research, a 2018 release from Reuters reported findings from the American Journal of Preventative Medicine of a connection between religious faith and self-harm among LGBT adults. There, the author reports that
Religiosity has also been linked to a lower risk of suicidal behaviors, but there is some evidence to suggest that the impact of religion may be different for lesbian, gay, bisexual and questioning (LGBQ) individuals.
Among lesbians and gays who said religion was not important to them, there was no association between sexual orientation and recent suicide attempts. But being homosexual did significantly increase the likelihood of recent suicide attempts in people who said that religion was very important to them.
There is a great psychological harm perpetrated on queer people when the church refuses to accept them as they are. Even worse, many churches have fostered a kind of self-loathing among queer individuals that leads to self-harm. But while religious trauma in the lives of queer people is real, and deserves far more words and attention than I can give it here, a growing number of Nazarene churches are actively demonstrating a welcoming and affirming posture, while also conscientiously navigating denominational commitments and polity. However, it may be more often the case that members and leaders leave the denomination for church bodies that have moved past these hurdles in favor of loving their queer neighbors. It is increasingly the case that other denominations and churches are opening their doors to queer people, and working to seek out the Kingdom of God alongside them.
Outside of our local churches, members already work with and have friendships with queer people and understand, implicitly if not explicitly, that queer people also bear the image of God. Many no doubt recognize that the politicized tropes about queer lives posing a threat to Christian families, even as simply as existing with and having the same rights as anyone else, is a bit of nonsense rooted in ignorance and bigotry.
We Learn More About God and Ourselves
It would be unfaithful not to mention that queer lives have been a means of grace to me, communicating forgiveness and love in unexpected ways. Countless first-hand experiences compel me to testify that accepting queer lives into full communion in our church will show us more about God and about ourselves. In my time attending a fully welcoming and affirming congregation in Boston—Church of the Covenant—I was greeted, hugged, and shown more love by just one member of that church than I had ever experienced any home church up to that point in my late 20s. This is how I met Kate, a lesbian who had experienced more hate from non-affirming Christians than she would probably care to tell. In our very first conversation over church potluck, she asked about my church background and whether Nazarenes would be open to people like her.
I was not ready for that question. After a few moments of self-evaluation and regret, I told her that while there are indeed some Nazarene churches who are welcoming, the denomination as a whole is still growing and learning, that we still have the marks of bigotry and ignorance that need to heal, and that I am confident we will.
I cannot recall how or when I learned what I did about sexuality before I grew to become welcoming and affirming. Evangelical culture is awash in messaging about “defending marriage”, “the moral majority”, the “gay agenda”, and other turns of phrase for reducing queer lives to sexual deviance. I can recall it being normal to have a visceral reaction when encountering anyone who was gay. After all, I knew everything I needed to know, right? But coming to know queer people, coming to love and be loved by them, you are forced to reconcile what you thought you knew with the faces and lives you actually begin to know. How can it ever make sense to tell someone that the church that nurtured you would not also accept them as they are, would not let them teach Sunday School, or preach, or lead music, or work with their children without resounding objections? How do you tell someone whose life is just as loving and hard-fought as yours, that they cannot fully participate in your church because your church does not exercise the same flexibility in biblical interpretation that we extend to the role of women in church, people who are divorced, or people who eat shellfish?
This was not “the gay agenda” looking me in the eyes at the church potluck, it was Kate—a woman so delighted to see me volunteer to do dishes that she would go on to hug me every time she saw me on Sunday mornings. In (almost) the words of Fanny Crosby, I love my friend Kate because she, knowing how I had spent the formative years of my life principally opposed to people like her, first loved me.
Here is a confession: I am a Nazarene whose past, most regrettably, included speaking and acting as though queer people’s lives were, by their nature, sinful and sickening. I was physically uncomfortable around them and have used “queer” and other terms as slurs. After meeting many queer people, befriending them (or being befriended by them), hearing them preach the Gospel of a risen crucified Christ, working and studying alongside them, I had perhaps the clearest realization I can remember: I had sinned against them. What had made me uncomfortable was a trope of ‘queerness’ that wasn’t any more true of actual queer people than it was for many of fellow self-described Christians. I had taken on the impression that queer living brought down society in some vague way, and that, for example, two men marrying each other would have some impact on heterosexual marriages. The only responsible Christian response to this revelation is for me to praise God for queer lives and for exposing my own bigotry, and support queer acceptance in the church.
We Already Read the Bible in Accepting Ways
It did not feel like hate when I accepted, in my youthful Christian wisdom, that queer folk, by definition, were sinners. I was reading the Bible as it had been taught to me in churches, revivals, camp meetings, and youth rallies. The apparent straightforwardness of passages like 1 Timothy 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 helped to keep my conscience clear: it wasn’t my opinion that their lives were sinful, it was the plain text as it had been interpreted for me by clergy, lay leaders, denominational leaders, and other public Christian figures, so I felt no responsibility for how it affected others. That supposed clarity also allowed me, just as easily, to accept that queer folk were not just sinful, but also a threat to my way of life. It did not occur to me that the way I read the Bible could defame and cause harm. After all, I was living by faith as a faithful Nazarene Christian.
To my mind, defending the full inclusion of queer people in the church is akin to arguing that we should not understand creation to have happened in seven 24-hour days, or that we should not actually stone women for having affairs. Most of us are already in the practice of reading these other parts of the Bible in non-literal ways. There is hardly any interest in taking the Bible literally about rich people selling their possessions and giving their money to the poor. Christians are very happy not to read many parts of the Bible literally. But it is a sad tendency to read the Bible literally, or at least without regard to context, only when we want to decide who is in and who is out.
The Bible is full of surprises, if we will read it with eyes open. For example, who would have thought that, in an apparent direct reference to forced abortion, God gives instruction to Moses in Numbers 5 for how prepare a concoction that would “cause bitter pain, and [a woman’s] womb shall discharge, her uterus drop” in the event that she were unfaithful to her husband? Or what exactly does it mean that Jonathan’s love for David was so great as to be “passing the love of women”? Or who would have thought that in Matthew 19 readers could find a recognition of people who are born neither fully male nor female using the most accessible language available at the time? Certainly, these passages beg for closer reading and interpretation than I can possibly give here, and there are far better scholars capable of providing it. But it is also important to see that these passages were not written for us, and so they are also not open for us to take at face value for our own facile generalizations. For these and many other reasons, the door is open for us to re-engage things we might have thought were settled. With the eventual move toward inclusion, whether during this General Assembly or some other one, it is time we begin this work now to confess our sins against the LGBTQ community and seek to read the Bible in ways that reflect their dignity within God’s family.
. Here I use queer inclusively to refer to the whole of the whole LGBTQIA+ community. This is practiced by many in the queer community, often as a way of reclaiming that label and erasing its power as a slur.
. Anne Harding, Reuters Health. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-lgbq-religion-suicide/religious-faith-linked-to-suicidal-behavior-in-lgbq-adults-idUSKBN1HK2MA, accessed Feb 10, 2023.
. Harding, Reuters Health.
. Numbers 5:11-31. NRSV. “When he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall discharge, her uterus drop, and the woman shall become an execration among her people.
. 2 Samuel 1:26. NRSV “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”
. Matthew 19:12. NRSV. “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
Adam Wallis, PhD is the son of a Nazarene minister, a graduate of Southern Nazarene University (BA Theology and Ministry), Nazarene Theological Seminary (MA, Theological Studies), Northern Illinois University (MA, Philosophy), and Boston University School of Theology (PhD, Theology). As one might expect, he is now a software developer and product manager and lives in the Chicago area.