A reflection on being Nazarene in light of recent denominational events by Pastor Chris Nafis, endorsed by The Watershed Gathering (Living Water Church Board):
In the wake of Dee Kelley’s hearing, conviction, and swift defrocking, I find myself thinking a great deal about my own ordination and membership in the Church of the Nazarene. Dee was ousted for his essay calling for wider discussion about our collective boundaries around sexual ethics, one of many essays in a book that was intended to challenge the current statement in our manual on human sexuality (paragraph 31). According to the email we received from our District Superintendent, Dee was found guilty of “holding and teaching doctrine contrary to that of the Church of the Nazarene about human sexuality and marriage, and for publicly advocating beliefs that are unorthodox and out of harmony with the Church of the Nazarene’s doctrine, teaching, beliefs, and practices.” There is plenty to say about the specific charges, their accuracy, the word “harmony,” and other aspects of the still-unfolding process, and there are many people talking about those issues online and in private conversations. Leaving that aside for a moment, I find myself with a larger question – what is it that binds us to one another in this denominational family?
When I was in college, I joined a tiny church called Azusa Community Church of the Nazarene. When everybody showed up, there were 13 people at church, all but one of them decades older than me. They were shocked to have a 20-year-old show up alone and uninvited, and I imagine they were more shocked when I showed up a second time. This little group of elderly Nazarenes welcomed me with open arms. They invited me to lunch every week after service, and when their very elderly pastor (a pastor who previously served in Baptist churches) retired, they allowed me my first opportunity to lead services and even preach a couple of sermons. I don’t think it ever occurred to them to invite me to become a member of the church, and I was certainly never shown a Manual. I may not have realized it at the time, but having become disillusioned with the large non-denominational church of my childhood, I was looking for a home in the church. This tiny local congregation gave me one.
Over time I came to see myself as an adoptee of the Church of the Nazarene. I thought I only knew 13 Nazarenes in the world, but I was reassured to learn that one of my most influential professors was also Nazarene. Eventually I headed across the country to Duke Divinity School, now knowing 14 Nazarenes and considering myself committed to the denomination. I called myself a Nazarene at this United Methodist school, which led me to meet other Nazarenes and allowed me to have some semblance of community in a place far from home where I didn’t know anybody. I eventually joined a Nazarene house church in Durham (still not introduced to a Nazarene Manual as far as I can remember, although my pastor there helped guide me toward classes that would fulfill the course of study). I received a local minister’s license from that church late in my time at Duke, too late to seek a District License. Graduating, I moved to San Diego, came on staff at Southeast Church of the Nazarene, joined that church officially, and went through the ordination process from the beginning.
I have now served on the Southern California district for 13 years. Most of the Nazarenes I know are here. After five years serving as Associate Pastor, Southeast Church of the Nazarene sent a team with me to plant a church in downtown San Diego. Our church plant felt like a district project. PLNU had been sending students downtown for over twenty years to serve food to impoverished people. A ministry led by Mid-City CON that was also supported by Mission CON and Southeast CON served a meal downtown every Tuesday night for over twenty years. Our church was rooted in these collaborative Nazarene ministries. As we got going, both Southeast CON and the SoCal district offered us financial support. We received a grant from the General Church of the Nazarene. We had people around the district praying for us and sharing resources. At our first building, we pieced together a sound system from components donated by five different Nazarene churches. Nazarenes have done work projects here, have sent volunteers to help with our ministries, have supported us financially (and received our financial support through our budget allocations), and have offered us encouragement and advice. They’ve helped us negotiate our lease and contracts with local agencies to provide services. They have helped ordination candidates from our church discern their vocational paths. Our volunteers have become fast friends with volunteers from a sister Nazarene church through regular encounters picking up from the same food bank. Although almost nobody in our church had any connection to the Church of the Nazarene before joining this local church, we are now entangled with Nazarene mission, networks, finances, polity, doctrine, discernment, and friendships in all sorts of ways. And, of course, my own life is deeply entangled in this denomination. My ordination and vocation, my friendships, my family’s finances, my sense of belonging and accountability, and my sense of mission and purpose are all tied into the complicated life of this denominational body.
When I think about what binds me to the Nazarene family, doctrine is certainly part of it. But I am bound to this denomination by all sorts of entanglements. It is a social binding, a financial binding, a binding of mission, a binding of common prayer and supplication, a binding of responsibility toward others, and a binding of common story. Ultimately, it is a binding of the Holy Spirit who has called us to one another and put us in fellowship with one another in all sorts of embodied ways.
It’s difficult for me to come to terms with the reality that my denominational family might someday cut all of these entanglements with me because of a minor difference of opinion over polity or (stretching the word) doctrine. Part of our identity as a holiness denomination is the communal discipline that is articulated in the Covenants of Christian Character and Conduct. These are not short or simple documents, but documents that lay out the shape of what our collective denominational family has discerned to be a “holy” life. Despite many claims of entire sanctification among us, I would venture to guess that if we were to remove every Nazarene who has violated these covenants, there would be nobody left. Of course, there is a difference between violating a covenant and challenging its validity, but I would also venture to guess that almost none of us hold these covenants as infallible. The fallibility of these covenants is confessed by the fact that we alter and adjust them every four years as we continue to discern our way through a complicated world in a global denomination together.
It may not seem ideal to have an Ordained Elder publicly voicing a dissenting opinion about our communal discipline, but if this binding document is loosed, is there really nothing else that holds us together? Are all of the other bindings so weak, all of our other entanglements so meaningless that we would just slash through them voluntarily if we find that one portion of one of these covenants has come loose? Does our bondedness to one another really come down to a complete and unquestioned submission to the entirety of this discipline? Is complete endorsement of every portion of these covenants so paramount that we would abandon every other part of our calling toward one another if it is found lacking?
Are my friendships around the SoCal district really so insignificant? The time that the district and so many within it have invested in me as a young pastor? Our collaborative mission to preach and embody the gospel in downtown San Diego? Our financial investments in one another? Our joy in gathering for assemblies, retreats, zone meetings, and workshops? Our shared expertise in various disciplines? Our shared stories and histories? Our shared discernment processes and the social and spiritual backing of one another’s work? Is none of this able to keep us bound to one another if one of us voices a word of dissent toward a single aspect of our covenantal discipline?
I am Nazarene because God has dropped me into this messy people, and I have allowed myself to become deeply entangled in our communal life and work, even working toward that entanglement because I find beauty in the connection and messy harmony of life together in Christ. Seeing how quickly and harshly Dee was cut out of his long and entangled history with this denomination has me wondering if I need to start loosening the bonds this church has on me. If the denomination doesn’t value them, then can I rely on them? Do I need to protect myself from the harm of being torn from a family that has seemed to embrace me? Do I need to prepare myself emotionally, socially, missionally, financially for a sort of divorce because I may voice an opinion that is in dissonance with the manual? Do I need to guard my relationships, my work, and my heart from the people who have invited me in and called me their brother? Has my embrace of a church, a district, and a network of fellow clergy endangered them, opening them up to the pain and grief of broken relationship if I am eventually torn from my place? What will happen to my church if Nazarenes outside of our congregation come after my credentials?
This is all a lot to bear and a lot to process. Can I commit myself long-term not only to submission, but to unquestioning endorsement of a manual that will always lag behind the contemporary ethical and theological debates? Can I risk my mission and well-being, as well as the mission and well-being of my church and family in commitment to a manual that will change, possibly in directions that put me in deeper dissonance? Can I trust a denominational leadership structure that would use its power so aggressively toward a long-standing pastor, beloved by his congregation, in good-standing in all ways apart from one dissenting opinion that he dared to voice? Is there a place for me here, and will there still be a place for me here tomorrow? I certainly don’t want to be cut loose from my entangled life with this people, this denomination. But then again, neither did Dee.