Winds of Change in the Church of the Nazarene
I have been attending predominantly Nazarene churches for about seven years now and officially been a member of the Church of the Nazarene for around six years. In that time, I’ve come to realize that there is a lot of tension between the right wing and the left wing of the denomination – tension that seems to be approaching a boiling point.
The strength of the conflict reminds me of the “Conservative Resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention of the 1970s: back then, the SBC had a similar tension and the conservative wing organized a methodical coup of the Convention’s universities, seminaries, and institutional positions of authority, effectively pushing out any “liberal” theological presence. For today’s Southern Baptists, this “resurgence” was a critical point in their history which they remember with pride.
Blog posts and articles from leading church voices seem to be pushing for a similar type of conservative takeover in the Church of the Nazarene. I don’t think that type of pressure within our denomination would work, though, for two primary reasons: first, we are proud of our wide range of theology across the evangelical spectrum and, second, the underlying worldview of our society has shifted.
Nazarenes are proud of their “big tent.”
One of the unique heritages of the Nazarene church is that it has a large, inclusive “tent” of acceptable theology. The denomination itself was founded by the merger of several holiness groups from across the United States. Even in our denominational infancy, we had broad disagreements on matters of specific doctrines, but we intentionally chose to look past those differences and band together in unity. Nazarenes all across the globe are proud – proud in word, at least, if not in action – that the denomination allows such a wide swath of beliefs. Indeed, attending Nazarene churches in various regions even within the United States reveals a monumental discrepancy in views on biblical authority, social responsibility, and many other doctrines.
For a wing of the denomination to push out others, it would require overcoming the Nazarene pride in a “big tent” approach to faith, and I’m not sure that can be done.
American evangelicalism is moving on from a modernistic mindset.
The SBC’s push for conservativism was buoyed by the prominence of modernism in that time period. Evangelical churches had latched onto a scientific sense of rationality, allowing faith to operate by the rules imposed by science. Though it co-opted the base assumptions of the scientific community, the evangelical church ironically distanced itself from actual scientific inquiry because it espoused a laziness of intellectual activity. As a result of this black-and-white modernism, and with the help of an American culture built upon emotional revivalism that de-emphasized both theological and secular education, Christian fundamentalism established deep roots in our society. It was in this climate that the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence was able to thrive. (For more on this subject, I highly recommend Mark Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.)
In recent decades, though, our society has begun to move past that modernist construction of faith and back into a historically-aware confession of what it means to be a Christian. We have seen the bitterness embedded deep within fundamentalism and found that to be inconsistent with the values of truth, love, and holiness modeled by Christ. We have witnessed the implosion of fundamentalist thought and practice and have chosen instead to return to the Christian ideological frameworks that have endured for millennia.
If the fundamentalists within the Church of the Nazarene want to erect walls of protections around themselves to fortify themselves against the coming storm, that is their right. But if their goal is to take over the Church of the Nazarene with their feet firmly planted in the worldview of 1920-80 American evangelicalism, they are about thirty years too late. We have already returned to a God-centered, Scripture-based, compassion-filled faith, and we are not turning back.
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