Nazarene Progressives: Do they exist and are they a threat?
By Rev. Bob Hunter
In my previous article, The Holiness Partnership: Reform movement or reactionary group?, I contend THP must reform itself before playing a significant role in bringing the Church of the Nazarene closer to her cherished ideals. In this article, I shift concern to those The Holiness Partnership (THP) opposes. The task; however, is not an easy one. Organized group gatherings and official statements of mission do not exist. Instead of hearing directly from designated leaders, I find myself relying on other sources of information social media and otherwise, which can be very subjective. Despite those challenges, there are real issues of concern which I hope to address.
Metaphorically speaking, the Church of the Nazarene is like a raft of people riding the raging river of the 21st century which has been most unfriendly to organized religion. The struggle, it seems, is keeping everyone on board without running aground. If we can address some of the internal issues present among crew and passengers, safe passage to a better future stands a chance. By no means, am I an expert and disagreement among friends is expected. This article is one person’s feeble attempt to address some of the pesky internal issues that plague the church, especially as it pertains to the question of whether or not woke-progressives are a threat.
According to THP, woke-progressives (if that’s a fair label) have infiltrated the church resulting in a drift from our treasured holiness tradition toward something more liberal. I don’t disagree such a group exists, but it is difficult to nail down. The affiliation is loose and shared convictions are informally recognized. Unlike the THP, virtual gathering places are the venues of choice for woke-progressive Nazarenes. Sites like “I’m Nazarene too” are a good example.
So, let’s begin with the social media component. In a number of instances, social media platforms are the preferred method of delivery in confronting conservative Nazarenes. There is a history of online shenanigans pre-dating the existence of the THP. Shenanigans in the form of fake social media accounts, secret groups, online harassment/bullying, and cruel memes to name a few. Yes, I have witnessed it firsthand and to the extent I was complicit with those activities, I am deeply sorry and I regret not speaking up sooner. On one occasion in particular, a district superintendent was scrutinized unfairly and his likeness used without permission in a meme aimed at attacking his credibility. The meme site, claiming to be Nazarene, issued numerous satirical pieces that cast conservative Nazarenes in negative light. To my knowledge, the site’s creator remains anonymous. That said, I do not think it is fair to assume all people or even the majority of woke-progressives actively participate, but their silence is deafening.
Intellectual elitism and academic arrogance are a problem. The Church of the Nazarene has many smaller churches serving rural areas where it is difficult to attract ordained clergy with higher education. In some cases, they rely on local licensed and district licensed ministers that have not had extensive training and exposure to the broader scope of ministry in the Church of Nazarene. Some of these ministers are serving bi-vocationally as they work toward ordination. They are doing the best they can with the information and resources available. Could we do better as a denomination meeting their educational needs? Yes! But far too often, Nazarenes representing this demographic of our church have been labeled harshly by those with more desirable pedigrees which fuels frustration. Those of us with advanced degrees need to refrain from making them feel inadequate and unwelcome solely on the basis of their educational level and cultural background. We would do well to remember; to whom much is given, much is expected. Those of us with more prestigious educational credentials need to show up for those who are still progressing on their journey. Translation: We need to quit acting like educated jerks and try to understand people who have ventured down a different path socially and educationally. We have a variety of educational options from which to choose. We can debate their worth, but we should not condescend to those doing their best to excel within our current system.
Now let’s talk about the elephant in the room. What is it? LGBTQ issues of course! The Church of the Nazarene is making solid strides in showing more sensitivity and kindness to the LGBTQ community. But there are some for whom our position hasn’t gone far enough and their views are inconsistent with the denomination. Where is the accountability? Conservative Nazarenes ask. Okay, fair question. Where do we draw the line? Can a person have an individual opinion on the matter that does not reflect the denomination’s statement on human sexuality? I think we are trying to figure that out.
In fact, this very issue is being put to the test as I write. Case in point, an elder in the Church of the Nazarene expresses a personal view that goes beyond the scope of the denomination’s statement on human sexuality. When asked to elaborate, refreshingly honest answers are given. At no time does this elder impose his/her view on others or work to undermine the denomination’s stance. A personal opinion is stated, nothing else. The nature of this elder’s activity is now under scrutiny. Is it wrong? How so? I’d much prefer that approach over ones working subversively behind the scenes to promote their own agenda. Thankfully, those individuals only represent a small handful. It seems the majority having a view that goes beyond the scope of the Church of Nazarene leave for denominations where their personal views are welcome. I admire them for doing so regardless of the cost. What is not acceptable to me is the lack of full disclosure whether that be among THP faithful or woke-progressives. The mistrust it creates fosters a toxic finger pointing environment that leads to separation talk. The list of denominations splitting over the LGBTQ issue continues to grow (i.e., Episcopalians, UMC, RCA, etc.). Nazarenes need not be another casualty. This issue has the potential of steering us into class five rapids, but only if we allow it.
Polarizing political activism is another issue of concern. It’s like having a series of small holes in your raft that go unnoticed while small amounts of toxic water seep in. Many in the woke-progressive camp are quick to criticize traditionally conservative Nazarenes for propping up the right wing of the Republican party. I take no issue with their criticism. Meanwhile, when it comes to adding politics to faith, I’ve found them to be just as guilty. The BLM bandwagon was a short-lived fascination for some which had a polarizing effect on public discourse. Others are guilty of using their online accounts to vocalize hatred of certain candidates and their policies.
One politically motivated pastor stirred controversy by faking interest in a Trump rally. Rally attendance created an occasion to Tweet derogatory remarks about those in support of Trump. “The worst humanity has to offer” is how it was described and parallels to demonic activity were drawn. The story attracted attention among local news reporters. Words like “busted” and “misleading” stood out in their writings. The whole incident painted a picture of a pastor who is anything but non-partisan and hardly believable. Politicized faith has never found a better friend than among the woke-progressives. The hypocrisy is quite stunning to me. How you can on one hand, call out conservatives for pandering to the right, while making your own affinity for the political left so painfully obvious? Is it possible to depoliticize our faith or is that a pipe dream? I think plugging political activism holes and keeping toxic political water out increase our odds of safe passage into the future.
Where do we go from here? How hard would it be to put aside personal non-essential beliefs in order to live harmoniously in Nazarene community? Is it possible to tolerate a bit more diversity than our current level of comfort allows? Wherever we go in church work, there are going to be people who are more conservative and more liberal/progressive than with which we are comfortable. The extent to which Nazarenes are willing to stay within the broad parameters of the Wesleyan/holiness tradition and uphold stated beliefs and polity, dictates whether or not future coexistence is possible. And for whatever reason—if some choose disembark, let them do so with our blessing. Meanwhile, cue the via-media refresher course for those who remain. Instead of shrinking the size of our raft and reducing seating capacity, I’d like us to be different. Wouldn’t it be something if Nazarenes set an example instead of following the failed trajectories of other denominations? As children of Wesley, we should strive for alignment around essentials. Opinions and perspectives on non-essentials are like shallow water hazards. If segments of the denomination insist on strict alignment over diversity, then we have no other choice but to run the raft aground and go our separate ways.
In conclusion, do I think a loose network of woke-progressives exists? Yes, but I do not view them as a huge threat because as one minister said, “They tend to isolate too much. They don’t organize well and they aren’t always sure what they are liberal about!” In addition, they are quietly leaving us to board other rafts. For those reasons, I think their influence is overrated, just like I think THP is overrated and reactionary. If I could do it, I would take a representative from each group down an actual river for a day trip. We’d all get along just fine. There would be three Nazarenes: A progressive, a conservative and a moderate. And trust me, nobody would get thrown overboard!