To borrow a sentiment and a line from Steve Martin in The Jerk, I was born a small Nazarene boy in Kansas City. My father was a graduating seminary student from NTS. He and my mother attended Olivet and prepared for a call to ministry in the Church of the Nazarene (CotN). Nazarene blood courses through my veins and while I am currently not part of a Nazarene congregation I claim my Nazarene bonafides by heart and by heritage. My calling is now as Paul was to the gentiles, a missionary for Arminian and Wesleyan doctrine within the broader church world.
In addition to being born into a Nazarene household I was born in the late 1970's, a time period that straddles the generational divides. I have found that I fit more into the GenX generation than the much talked-about Millennial generation (those media hogs!). The lens which I view the world though reflects the sensibilities and cultural influences of both generations. I straddle the cold war on one side and the war of terror on the other. I am just as versed in the rise of grunge music as I am in the Millennial luxuries of beard grooming and artisanal bacon. I enjoy REM, Greenday and Mumford and Sons in equal measure.
Through these aforementioned lenses I have studied the developments within the CotN in North America; as well as the broader changes taking place in the evangelical/protestant world as a whole. My master's degree from Fuller has provided me with another missiological lens through which I see and hear what is going on around and among us.
What I have seen (along with others, such as Josh Broward and Michael Palmer) is that the CotN is approaching a crossroads. The choices made by leadership in this transitional moment will determine whether the CotN, as we know it, endures. Cultural tensions are coming to a head within the CotN. These tensions are not wholly unique to the CotN; rather, they are the result of broader cultural shifts. The surface crust of western culture has begun to buckle under the building pressure of the postmodern-secular cultural shift taking place. The modern era of empirical truth and Cartesian reason is coming to an end. A new world-view is emerging, influenced by secularism and a focus on local and situational ethics. These two colliding eras are reacting like baking soda to vinegar.
Two philosophical substances are fighting it out within the bottle of our culture, and the CotN is caught within it. Christians (Nazarenes) are not immune to their culture of origin. We exist "within" culture, and it is often as invisible to us as the air that we breathe; whether that culture is modern or postmodern in origin. I mentioned above that I have blended aspects of the modern and postmodern in my own world-view. Each of us carries with us a certain way in which we hold our Christian faith that is shaped by things other than ourselves, our tradition, or by God.
Because we do not always perceive our own culture of origin, it can result in the bias of seeing "our way" (how we hold our Christian faith) as the right way (thus, implying the other side is doing it wrong). For modernists, seeing the approaching wave of postmodernism has caused a reactionary and defensive response. Likewise postmodernists often see their modern brothers and sisters as stuck in the past and obstructing progress. As our assumptions about how we view the world (and how to act rightly in it) are challenged, the natural outcome is for us to be defensive of what we see as the plain reality. It is both natural and okay for us to desire to either preserve what we have, or to argue for change depending on our worldview. These impulses are both driven by God-given and good instincts.
The truth is that this struggle, this buttressing against cultural change and struggle to establish something new, is not a new thing in history. It is a saga that has played out time and time again. The Church has faced cultural shifts like this before, and the Church was rarely left unchanged in the wake.
An example that predates Christianity, but had a fundamental effect on it, is something historians of the faith identify as Hellenism. In the world of the New Testament, there were Hellenized Jews. These were Hebrew people of Jewish faith who had adopted the Greek culture that dominated their geographic world. They dressed in Greco-Roman fashion and took Greco-Roman names. This cultural identity went beyond just looks and names, but affected their thinking too. Some within Judaism thought Hellenization would be the end of their faith, that Hellenization watered down the Jewish faith (ignoring that Judaism has also changed significantly from ancient times). A result of this cultural change was the production of the Septuagint (the Hebrew scriptures translated into Koine Greek). If it wasn't for the Septuagint and the effects of Hellenization the New Testament world might not have been paved so well for the Gospel of Jesus to have been shared by the early church in such a fast-moving way.
This brings me to an important point of observation. Not all cultural battles are moral battles.
What is right? On the face of it, I have no doubt that many of us see that question as easy to answer and rather impetuous. What right does someone have to ask that question, especially within the context of the Christian Faith? Ethical questions lie central to our Evangelical and Protestant understanding of our faith. It is precisely because we (individually and as a people) did not answer that question well the first time that were all in this mess called sin, correct?
The difficulty we are facing as part of this cultural shift is that doing what is right is intrinsically linked to the culture in which the opportunity to do right is given. We (as humans) have trouble separating for consideration "rightness" as something outside of our own cultural lens of interpretation. This inability to see a third way is true equally of modern as well as postmodern Christians. When faced with a question of "what is right," we likely will default to our base cultural view as the standard by which others should be judged. The danger is when we begin asserting our base-cultural view as the one and true kingdom of God view.
In the last few years, signs of this ethical tension at work within the CotN have been the ongoing stories surrounding the demotion or dismissal of two well-loved professors at Nazarene higher-education institutions. In each case the official statements haven't seemed to jive with the information on the ground. The reasons for the actions taken have been clouded in a haze of cultural arguments on both sides. These two dismissals come on the heels of the near downfall of NPH, hastened by its merger with a faltering media production company and under likewise hazy circumstances. These events have given a black eye to CotN leadership (in the view of some) and eroded confidence among a number of Nazarenes. Some argue that the denominational leadership is not acting in transparent, ethical, and accountable ways.
All three of these situations (NNU, MNU, and NPH) have largely been marked by the inability of leadership to respond to criticism promptly, in humility, and with full disclosure of the facts. The ambiguity (or contradictory statements) have prompted many within the CotN to question the motives, reasoning, and integrity of those in leadership of its institutions. This perception (and in some cases truth) of a lack of integrity and lack of transparency is compounded by the lack of any formal accountability by the Board of General Superintendents for those who have made the allegedly poor decisions.
The tensions at work are broader than just our tribe or even just our faith. What is playing out in the CotN is mirrored in the broader church culture. Other Christian denominations and educational institutions are experiencing the same struggles. The most recent example of this conflict is the controversy surrounding Larycia Hawkins and Wheaton University.
We have tension, that is established; however what is accelerating the use of harsher and harsher words and exasperating the tensions at work in the church?
Above I explored the growing power post modern and secular thought has on our culture in the west. The answer to the division lies in finding a third-way in how we handle the present and coming cultural change.
Within culture and within the church, there are largely two factions at work at any given point in time: preservationists and adaptationists. A few caveats before continuing: I am going to generalize a bit, and I see the division between these two groups as cultural more than generational.
Preservationists want things to stay as they are. This means things like polity (how we do things as the church), and dogma (what we believe as a church) are basically fixed. The goal of the preservationists is to maintain what the church has and is amidst the perception that any other way to be the church is fundamentally a weakening compromise. (Think of the Hebrew speaking Jews in the example above.) Preservationists tend to be more accepting of hierarchical power structures. Those given authority by virtue of title are deferred to and rarely questioned.
Adaptationists want the church to become a flexible entity that flows within the broader culture. (These are the Hellenists.) Polity is contextual (how one local church is structured may be different from another based upon its culture), and dogma is adaptable (theology remains consistent with Christ, scripture, and tradition; but can be interpreted, expressed, and even held differently based upon culture). The adaptationist church seeks to live as a part of, as well as in contrast to, the culture of which it is a part.
The core values of the adaptationists are transparency and authenticity as integral to the leadership process. Adaptationists are looking for humble, vulnerable, and accessible leaders who share both their successes and their failures in open ways. (Preservationists admire these quality too; however, they aren't essential.) For adaptionists, these qualities build trust, accountability, and authenticity. Authority is not based upon position or title; rather, authority is the product of shared struggle and willingness to be continually transformed by the mind of Christ.
The strong reactions of adaptationists surrounding the three most recent controversies was sparked by our denominational leaders not exhibiting these valued qualities of humility, vulnerability, and accessibility throughout the process. For adaptationists the capstone is that the leaders at the center of these decisions have by-in-large not been held accountable by the CotN leadership for actions and words perceived as disingenuous, evasive, and manipulative of the truth.
As I stated above, not all cultural battles are moral ones. It is entirely possible that individuals with strong feelings all sides of the issues may have a mixture of valid and invalid observations when they approach it largely from an adaptationist/preservationist or modernist/postmodernist lens. The third way for followers of Christ is to look through the lens of his kingdom. No matter our cultural position we are called first and foremost to handle our conflict as citizens of that kingdom. What is "right" in these situations may very well not satisfy the base cultural views of either side since neither side is fully rooted in kingdom culture.
Kingdom culture and kingdom ethics call for us to stop for a moment to consider what God wants as the primary goal. It is this ecumenical and kingdom spirit that must be embraced and sought after by folks on either side of the cultural shifts taking place. To do otherwise is to condemn the CotN (and the church as a whole) to a the dustbin of denominations that have already died amidst internal squabbles.
This setting aside of preferences for the sake of the gospel has even happened before within the CotN. Both social justice oriented and personal moral witness groups united at the very founding of the CotN under a common theology of holiness. It is perhaps this ability to show charity to other Christians in non-essentials that has allowed the church to survive to this day in its own unique and beautiful way.
Certainly the conflict(s) we find ourselves in today is centered less around our continually shared holiness theology; rather it is located among the non-essentials. The ethical question of what is right needs to be answered; however those questions can't be settled by just preservationists, nor can they be settled just by adaptationists. Both sides need to pray that the Holy Spirit would form a charitable middle in the midst to allow for helpful dialogue, understanding, and Christian love to take root.
We cannot give into the temptation to follow current political leaders (across the world) into arguments of us versus them. Jesus Christ lives in the hearts of those on both sides of the widening gap within the Nazarene church. Let the CotN be an example to our broader culture that Christians can come together, even in our well-founded differences, and arrive at consensus and peace under a charitable banner of a shared gospel message.
The cultural questions of sexuality, leadership styles, political activism and social engagement aren't going away. We can seek out a way forward together, even through these toughest of issues, if we can practice peace-making and loving the other. This is because what is "right" is ultimately a Kingdom of God issue, and all who believe are its citizens.
I want to give a special thanks to Josh Broward for editing this article.