Saturday, July 18, 2020

Nazarenes & Mighty Thin Boards

Church of the Nazarene, Hurdland, Missouri | via Flickr
The different ways that people understand change and stagnation in their religious traditions is something that often attracts my attention. Being a former Catholic and evangelical, and now a Unitarian Universalist, I've had a range of experiences myself with the topic. The other day I stumbled across an example involving a denomination that I've rarely thought about, that being the Church of the Nazarene.

The religious world in which I grew up was fairly small. Before I was 10 the only churches I heard about very often were Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, and to a small degree Nazarene. One of my classmates was raised Nazarene, but since they didn't host Vacation Bible School as the Methodists and Baptists did, I had no direct experience with them. To be clear, there are Nazarene churches that host VBS. My daughter attended one when we lived in Farmington, New Mexico many years ago. It's just that to my knowledge, the one in Hurdland, Missouri didn't offer it when I was a child.

Thus, the Church of the Nazarene has always been a bit of an enigma to me. I learned as I entered adulthood and became evangelical that this is a denomination in the holiness tradition. Here's how the denomination is described on the official website:

The Church of the Nazarene is the largest denomination in the classical Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. The doctrine that distinguishes the Church of the Nazarene and other Wesleyan denominations from most other Christian denominations is that of entire sanctification. Nazarenes believe that God calls Christians to a life of holy living that is marked by an act of God, cleansing the heart from original sin and filling the individual with love for God and humankind.

From a more academic perspective, I'd say I have a good notion of the history and beliefs of this denomination. In terms of direct contact, active contact with the religious tradition, however, there's pretty much nothing on my part. And so, when I discovered a post entitled 'Why I Left the Church of the Nazarene' I was taken aback by what someone who had been preparing for ministry in that denomination had to deal with before leaving. The post as a whole is well worth a read, if this is a subject that's of interest to you, but the following is the hear of it, and the place where my jaw dropped.

The interview began. The lead pastor on the board said these exact words to start the interview: “Healing. Go.”

I was confused. I asked, “Healing?”

“Yes, healing.”

I asked for clarification. He explained to me a scenario in which a little old lady comes up to me after the service and asks, “Pastor, where in the Bible does it say we should pray for healing?”

Well no problem, I responded with James chapter 5 and explained the content of that chapter and connected it to the question “why should we pray for healing?” I was pretty sure I nailed it. They were not satisfied.

“Okay, but not James 5.”

So I offered John 5, and described how Jesus offers healing to a paralytic man by asking him, “Do you want to get well?” Once again, not good enough.

“Okay, but not James 5 or any of Jesus’ miracles.”

To test my biblical theology, I was to answer where in the Bible it says we should pray for healing, but I’m not allowed to use James 5 or any of Jesus’ healings. I did not know what they wanted. So I confessed my ignorance, and without Jesus and James I probably wouldn’t be able to answer the question.

The board of interviewers gave each other disapproving looks. Then, one spoke up, “Isaiah 53:5, by his stripes we are healed.” This is what they were after: They would throw a word at me, and I was to recite a verse with reference.

I hope I don’t need to explain why “by his stripes we are healed” is an inappropriate answer to a church member’s questions about praying for healing. This line of questioning was not about biblical theology or pastoral ministry.

This interview was about shaming a kid who was the product of Nazarene educational institutions.

They asked me the same with the word “glory” and another word I can’t remember now. I did my best. I quoted verses, albeit the wrong ones for them. My blood boiled, but I wanted to respect my interviewers. I did not challenge their questions.

At the end of the interview, I received a lecture about how my education has not prepared me for ministry. This lecture is the reason I believe that the purpose of the interview was to shame me and/or attack Nazarene Theological Seminary and/or Northwest Nazarene University. They told me that for all my studying, I had not moved closer to being ordained. They told me that ministry was about more than book-smarts. One minister on the board led the tirade against my education. Other ministers were visibly uncomfortable with what was being said, but they didn’t speak up.

Reading that seemed to confirm what I've been concerned about with conservative evangelicalism generally. There's an anti-intellectual streak running right through that movement. It finds its roots in many places, including an independent, free-thinking current that goes back to before the founding of the United States of America. It's aggravated by fear and bigotry, as parents and (perhaps especially) grandparents watch their young people graduate from university with ideas about accepting ltbgq+ folks and having a more flexible understanding of the Bible. In some groups, such as the independent Christian Churches, the solution has been to establish and maintain Bible colleges where high school graduates will be taught that 'Darwinism' is a false doctrine (rather than dealing with evolutionary theory as a scientific subject) and more fully indoctrinated into the denomination's interpretation of the Bible. 

This bias against an evidence-based approach has real life consequences in the world, as we've seen the with rise of Trumpism, the anti-vaxx movement, and all those people who cry and complain about having to wear masks in public during a pandemic. Like gasoline to a fire, the Bible itself is cited to support willful ignorance.

"Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.” — 1 Corinthians 1:20-31 Revised Standard Version

You can argue until you're blue in the face with a conservative evangelical over this passage, which is focused on the matter of faith in Jesus for redemption and sanctification (let the reader understand), but you will get nowhere. What applies to something as important as salvation, they reason with a leap in logic, must needs also apply to every other topic under the sun. Faith trumps (there I go again) reason, as the Bible is the final word on every topic about which it seems to speak.

As I said, that blog post seemed to confirm my thinking about evangelicalism and knowledge, but it's not all there is to say. The picture painted there is of a district that is so anti-intellectual and stuck in place theologically that ministers are expected to parrot back Bible verses in response to one-word topics rather than carefully examine and explain the texts. There are other angles to consider here, though.

The Nazarenes clearly value higher education. If you go to their website you'll find quite a long list of universities and seminaries in regions around the world. Just in the US and Canada they count these institutions:
Note that these are mostly universities, with only one Bible college and one seminary. While I'm completely certain that they uphold a specifically Nazarene Christian ideal, which likely applies to student conduct, the universities must teach all subjects required for regional accreditation, and to the same standards as all other universities, whether public or private. This is a denomination that is truly invested in education. I suspect that the resentment that Ric Shewell had to face in that meeting was somewhat localized. As I've said, it's an expression of an undercurrent in American culture that is fanned into flame with certain Bible verses. The same could be found in many US denominations, and even in local expressions of 'liberal' mainline Protestant churches. 

Before I close out this post, I'd like to provide a contrasting view from someone else who left the Church of the Nazarene. Someone identifying only as 'Ex-Nazarene' ran a blog from 2009 to 2011, with one last outlier post going up in 2016. If you read through a few of the posts (not recommended) you'll find a prime example of the sort of unhinged ideology that got a con artist from Queens elected to the highest office in the US. What I want to focus on here, though, is what we can learn from the 'About' page on this person's blog.

Raised Catholic. Was born again in 1981 and began attending a Nazarene church in 1984. Left the Nazarene Church in 2007 and are now members of a biblically solid Baptist Church. 

Have 4 children. Two have graduated from Nazarene universities. Our other two children go to a non-denominational Christian secondary school. We have NO intention of sending them to a Nazarene university when they go to college because the schools have been compromised by liberal philosophies and strange prayer practices that have slowly and quietly come in under the radar. 

We believe we are witnessing “the falling away” as foretold in Scripture.

In various posts the blogger complained not only of the 'liberal philosophies' in the universities, including what he referred to as 'the Emergent heresy,' but also regarding a change in local church polity. Aside from 'emerging church' being a big buzz word at the time, there was a lot of chatter around being a 'purpose-driven church,' a model which ultimately advocates for staff running the show. He had seen staff officially join the board and guide the church in new directions for outreach, and it rubbed him the wrong way. I'm also interested in how he speaks of this as the end times of biblical prophecy (according to some interpretations). When evangelicals don't like a change in polity, tone, or interpretation, they almost universally run to not only labeling it as apostasy, but also in eschatological terms. The world is ending!

One of the common fallacies that plagues our species is the 'end-of-history illusion.' Essentially, everyone always thinks that they will see the world and be exactly the same person they are now for the rest of their lives. Sure, in our more sober, reflective moments we can understand this isn't the case. We usually return to our default illusions, though, and can hear ourselves saying 'I will never.' When it comes to conservatives this sort of runs wild. Any significant alteration in the status quo is seen as threatening, different from what they've believed, and a violation of how they would like things to be. Coming from the outside rather through internal processes of personal development this situation is seen as an affront. Since others appear to be rejecting the future that they took for granted, then surely time must be drawing to a close.

Perhaps this is a stretch. There are certainly other biases and bigotries that elicit this response. In any event, I find it worth considering, particularly since it is sadly so prominent in American political discourse these days. 

Years ago someone told me that it's a mighty thin board that has only one side. With regard to the Church of the Nazarene specifically, and evangelicalism in general, it seems evident to me that there are a number of interrelated and often competing trends and tendencies in play at the same time. Locally, some are embracing different ways of 'doing church,' while others are holding on to cherished beliefs and practices from past generations. Sides are being taken for and against higher education, with these and other viewpoints mixed and layered within the same denomination. Whether these perspectives can ever be smoothed over to avoid schism very much remains to be seen.