A Book Review
I feel it is necessary within the current moment within the Church of the Nazarene for me to explain how I review books. I do this because there may be complaints I am being more fair to the book in this review than to the book that purports to be a response. When reviewing a book, I try to first evaluate whether the book successfully attempts to do what it claims in any explicit purpose. After that, I evaluate the structure, actual arguments, and included sources. The book that claims in part to be a response suffers from some issues which I dealt with in that review.
Namely, that the book Biblical Sexuality is not truly a response because many of the essayists have stated they refuse to read the book they are responding to, the book actually has essays which argue against the current understanding of human sexuality in the Church of the Nazarene, and one essay contains incorrect explanations of genetic science when discussing intersex human beings. That is difficult to understand given the subtitle of “Why the Church of the Nazarene is Right.” This review also carries the personal aspect that I know and interact with several of the contributors and call them friends. That does not mean I agree with their arguments in full, of course. I also have friends who would more likely agree with some aspects of Biblical Sexuality but they would not take the extreme position of calling for discipline from the essayists in Affirming.
Why the Church of the Nazarene Should be Fully LGBTQ+ Affirming is a book which challenges those of us in the Church of the Nazarene (COTN) to a conversation. The book is arguing for change and that is something which frightens clergy and laity in churches. But conversations make us grow. Even if we do not change our position, we come to better understand the positions of those with whom we converse. It is in that spirit that this review is being written. As Wesleyans, the COTN is in a long tradition tracing back to John Wesley of having a dialogue with diverse voices both inside and outside our theology, doctrines, and dogmas. These conversations shape, hone, and sometimes change our theology, doctrines, and dogmas. Sometimes they reinforce our current understandings but stick in us such that we may change later. Regardless of the hand wringing by some of our more conservative clergy, the COTN does change and our democratic processes allow for everything within our governing Manual to be changed by following certain processes and reaching the required thresholds for passage. Thus, this should not be a book which causes the angst that it has caused. The fact that a majority of our clergy across the world disagree with our doctrine of infant baptism is one idea which should inform how we discuss the argument in this book. Those actually teaching against our doctrine of baptism are not being threatened with dismissal.
What this book and the responses to it have shown me is that the COTN needs a robust theology of human sexuality. Without that, the conversation is about how we describe sexuality within the sections of our Manual which explain how holiness folk live out our commitment to holy living. We have done an excellent job of working out our theology of women’s ordination and the equality of women and men in leadership such that it is noncontroversial. Neither this book nor the recently released semi-response Biblical Sexuality have the purpose of defining a theology of human sexuality, but the scholarship represented in Affirming is arguably superior to that in the response. That is not an evaluative comment to the arguments, but the experience and reputation of the actual scholars. Maybe we will get a robust theology of sexuality soon, but for now we are left with discussions and essays.
Affirming is structured to provide a three-pronged discussion of the primary argument. The first section is personal stories from those who identify within LGBTQ+ and these stories are important to listen to as the experiences of a group who is often treated as other within evangelical Christianity. That does not make value statement as to the essays, but to state that they should be treated as the personal stories and experiences of real and valued human beings who carry the image of God. There is tragedy in many of these stories and the most tragic are those who were striving to faithfully follow requirements to stay within the polity and doctrines of the COTN but were still treated as being outside that doctrine or harmed by being honest about orientation, attractions, or other personal experiences.
The second section is that of narratives of allies, which are both arguments from experience and from scripture and reason. While there are limitations to experience, including that of projecting the particular experience as universal, these are still helpful. Here we also encounter dialogue with scripture and hermeneutics, which shows that the essayists take scripture seriously and are not trying to ignore the revelation of God. This is an important point, as many of the critics of this book (many of which have not read a single word of the book) is that it seeks to “change the Bible” or ignore scripture. One essayist in Biblical Christianity argued that this is a fight over Biblical Authority. That is a ridiculous claim once one reads the essays of this book.
The last section is scholarly perspectives about affirming. This section has a very impressive collection of contributors. Based upon the reputations alone, this book shows a serious treatment of the subject. The scientific discussions, theology, and scriptural interpretive discussions lend a rigor to this book that helps to make it a cogent argument and helps to make it capable of fulfilling its claim. That does not include the understanding that those who read this will be convinced, but the essays attempt to argue from copious evidence and scholarship. One essay I will call out specifically is by Dr. Dana Hicks on the “Sin of Sodom.” This essay is important because the narrative of Sodom has been misused by many and the evidence in the text of power, rape, and oppression versus homosexuality is important. This should help the non-affirming and via media groups make better arguments for the status quo without using poor arguments.
That brings me to the idea of how this book can help the larger dialogues within the COTN. Its rigor, structure, and scholarly input are obvious, but that does not mean that the book will change the minds of anyone. What the book will definitely do is create conversations. Many of us who like to believe we are the via media watching two poles argue past one another can view the arguments here in that spirit. Those who argue against the premise of the book will benefit from reading and understanding the arguments and interpretations used and be able to have better and more informed conversations. I recommend this book as an addition to a library of those who want to understand the diversity within Wesleyan-Holiness and to better understand our brothers and sisters who are asking us to consider LGBTQ+ human beings in a different light. Read this especially if you disagree so that you are informed about the affirming arguments.