Can We Work in Charitable Discourse?
It feels as if the American Church has been approaching a crossroads for a long time. We could see it in the distance, but knew we had time to decide which direction to go when we arrived at the crossroads. We are now quickly approaching the point where we must make decisions that will impact who we are, or if we even exist in the next decade. Specifically for me, the Church of the Nazarene is in danger of taking the road taken by so many organizations over the years into factional arguing and destruction. Can we right ourselves enough to even think about which direction we take at the crossroads? Maybe, but if the extremes within our tent continue to tug at the vast majority closer to the center of our strained tent, we risk tearing ourselves apart.
Every generation of the church faces a crisis of some type, and we are not an exception. Ours just looks larger this time because we have forgotten much of what makes us unique. We lost a particularity of voice as we pursued church growth, money, respect, and cultural relevance. Furthermore, the ongoing conflict between our Wesleyan-Holiness and Reformed-Holiness branches has significantly clouded our understanding, particularly when we find ourselves leaning towards different manifestations of fundamentalism. Like Rev. Dr. Bob Hunter mentioned in his guest essay on the hermeneutical crisis in the Church of the Nazarene, we also face an identity crisis brought on by fear, politics, and the desire to appear less peculiar within American Evangelicalism. Laypeople and clergy alike are being discipled not by a Wesleyan-Holiness particularity but a generic Neo-Reformed understanding of Christianity driven by YouTube influencers and even platformed Christian Nationalists. What we are experiencing is the twin prongs of two extremes with fundamentalist certitude. One side is a traditional fundamentalist framework where the scriptures are totally inerrant, the Bible is a collection of propositional truths, and God is sovereign in power. The other fundamentalism is different, but it also claims a certitude and purity of thought that demands all conform to central theses.
The truth is that both of those extremes are wrong, but only one faces discipline by the church. Caught in the crossfire of the two extremes are the many faithful pastors and others who are weary of holding to the tension of the via media. It is a hard and weary slug for many clergy as we find ourselves pulled to and fro by those who demand our attention. That is where the battle has arrived. Pastors of local churches find themselves trying their best to be faithful to the call of God to shepherd and serve God’s people which includes the communities in which our churches find themselves. That tension of holding ideas close to either extreme based upon the local context, our Wesleyan-Holiness theological and ethical concerns forces local pastors to fend off the extremes. Often we look out at the flock we serve and see a diversity not reflected in our conversations. That makes us have a deep desire to engage with other pastors and theologians to help us make sense of our experience of the Spirit working in the lives of people whose response to the Spirit is surprisingly open.
But we can’t have those conversations if we want peace. If we ask tough and probing questions online, there is most likely someone waiting to screenshot those comments and use them out of context to accuse. I have seen my words in screenshots provided as backup for accusations of a friend. That specific accusation was found to be false as an aside. Imagine being a pastor who witnesses an experience of the Holy Spirit by an attender who is on the margins. If that pastor starts asking questions about our positions and how they can be faithful yet recognize that experience, they may find themselves on the defensive. Before the inevitable counter claims begin, this is vague because it is about a multitude of ideas which seem forbidden for us to even discuss to be contrary to current church covenants.
The irony is that most of these discussions happen around things in our Manual which have not been considered essential doctrine in the past. Those things found in our Covenants of Christian Conduct and Character. Yet there have been public instances of clergy teaching contrary to our Articles of Faith. The bulk of these teachings center around Articles IV (Scripture) and XII (Baptism).
My experience has been that clergy can argue that we must believe in total inerrancy to be true to scripture and the authority of scripture; even though this is contrary to our Article IV. There is an understanding of Article IV which allows for someone to claim total inerrancy, but that cannot be bound upon the entire denomination. Once someone claims that it is necessary to believe in total inerrancy to be a Nazarene or even a Christian, they are contrary to our doctrine. Yet you may find yourself having to defend holding to our official doctrine of scripture because of a YouTube star who claims that you are teaching “another Gospel” by believing what the Church of the Nazarene has always believed.
Similarly, we believe that the baptism of infants is just as valid as the baptism of adults. While we use confusing terminology in our Article XII, infant baptism is baptism. We have clergy who will claim that infant baptism is invalid and refuse to baptize infants. Like the clergy who call for full inerrancy, this is also teaching contrary to our doctrine. I know of no clergy who have recently been disciplined or lost credentials for that teaching.
If we dig, I assume we will discover that many, if not all, clergy hold small beliefs here and there that are contrary to our Manual; and we have given room for those discussions over our history. But we are becoming increasingly calcified such that we are afraid of conversations which could lead to change. Unless that change is toward a more classically fundamentalist direction. In many of those conversations, the clergy who hold the majority view of our doctrines typically meet those with the understanding of conversation to show why we believe what we do.
As organizations, such as a Christian Denomination, begin to fear for survival in uncertain times, there is a tendency to coalesce around certitude. That causes us to begin building walls, gates, and guardrails rather than find our centering and allowing freedom of movement within that centering. When we are centered, we avoid leaving our distinctiveness behind, but can have conversations flowing from the very Spirit of God. The fear turns itself upon those with prophetic imagination; the dreamers and improvisors making music as they seek an understanding of a God who is with us. This is the legacy of John Wesley within the Wesleyan movements, a legacy of motion and growth; always reaching to understand the mysteries of God.
This concept is not novel or unknown to us. Mildred Bangs Wynkoop's zealous advocacy for a revived embrace of Wesley's Theology of Love instilled a sense of apprehension in us. Dr. Wynkoop is now considered mainstream and read widely by our clergy, yet there is also a sanitation of her work and thoughts. Wynkoop was a relational theologian like Wesley, but she had an affinity for what is now labelled open and relational theology. Many fundamentalists try to label this a wrong reading of Wynkoop as they consider open and relational theology unorthodox. But if we look at Wynkoop’s own preface to A Theology of Love we find a very interesting point. This is one of several reasons that a committee for the 2012 General Assembly rejected a motion by one District that condemned “the dangers of Process Theology.” Here are Dr. Wynkoops’ own words:
“‘Process Theology’ makes a much-needed correction to the dualisms of a former day. It is my considered opinion that, though the metaphysical foundation of process thought is not the only solution to theological problems, its insights are inescapable in a biblical theology. The dynamic emphasis in relation to God, man, love, grace, nature, and salvation and interpersonal relations is crucial to the Christian faith.” (Wynkoop)
Process Theology (and Philosphy) is broad, but it birthed Open and Relational Theology which leans heavily on the themes of God as love and always working in the world for the good of creation. For Nazarenes, this is most present in our idea of prevenient grace. It also allows for a dynamic conversation between rapidly distancing extremes.
But we don’t need open and relational theology to have the conversations we seem to fear. Rather, we just need to recapture the trust and grace that fellow clergy and pastors in local churches are truly attempting to work out what the Spirit is doing. We need to quit allowing the extremes to pull at the good tension present in a consistent and loving approach to conversations; even when they go outside our current ideologies. It is hard, but worth it, trust me. I have conversations weekly that uplift and encourage me. Especially when those conversations allow me to grow and to transform people into the renewing of the image of God in Jesus.
I like to hope that our crossroads can lead to a more charitable means of conversing and even disagreeing. We will be richer and much more able to reach those who so badly need the transforming hope of Jesus. I just hope we can get out of the way of ourselves so we do not present an angry and confrontational view of God and the family of God. Maybe we can invite people into the continuing work of God such that the Church of the Nazarene is once more seen as the church that acts and moves where God leads as it welcomes the people who find themselves on the margins and destroyed by the world.
Wynkoop, Mildred Bangs. A Theology of Love: The Dynamic of Wesleyanism, Second Edition . “Preface.” Nazarene Publishing House. Kindle Edition. "