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  • Writer's pictureSharon Beck-Doran

Welcome or Affirming?: LGBTQ+ Conversations in the Nazarene, Methodist and International Church

Why did I find the word “love” so offensive? The lady pastor’s book club is reading Redeeming Sex by Debra Hirsch. A passage, referring to homosexuality, reads, “This is the great challenge for the church in our time. It might even become a defining one. But it should not be so. How do we move from vitriolic polemics to the love that we are commanded to show to a love-starved world?”[1]


After googling definitions for “vitriolic” and “polemics,” I sat and thought a little about the “uggh” that came from my gut at reading her words. I thought about all the times I’d heard the phrase “hate the sin, love the sinner.”


In recent years the US evangelical messaging around LGBTQ+ has shifted from openly hostile to one of “love.” The goal hasn’t changed, but the approach is more socially acceptable. No one seems to be apologizing for vilifying the gay community, and homosexuality is still viewed as sin. The teaching remains—the only way to be saved from hell is to live celibate or find healing in a heterosexual relationship.


I knew the book was a little dated when she made reference to Toys ”R” Us. I flipped to the front and checked the publication date—2015.



Amy and Me 2016

I let my mind wonder to who I was 8 years ago. I was serving as an associate pastor at a small Wesleyan Church. When my best friend and roommate, Amy, came out as gay a few years earlier, it forced me to rethink my ideas around sexuality. I read all six Bible verses that mention homosexuality, but none of them seemed to fit. The debates were always around “is homosexuality sin?” I began to think that might be the wrong question.


My friend and others like her were wrestling with questions of identity, authenticity and fulfillment in long-term romantic relationships. When a Christian decides to come out as gay or trans, the Evangelical church has defined them as a sinner. That makes their identity not about who they are as a child of God, but all about their sexuality.


In 2015 I would have told you, “I think it’s ok. I think God is ok with people being gay.” Ok, that’s what I thought, but I was intentionally quiet about it. We would have had to be very close friends for me to say those words out loud. Shit, even now when I’m around other Christians that might be conservative, I choose my words very carefully. I realized that Debra Hirsch had a lot more courage writing a Christian book about sexuality then, than I have now, much less back in 2015.


I left ministry in 2018. It wasn’t for any theological stand on my part. My pastor had died the year before. The church was a half hour drive from my house. I was just worn out and it didn’t make sense to stay.[2]


My husband, Adam and I went looking for a church closer to home. We visited the Wesleyan churches, tried reconnecting to my Nazarene roots and even attended a Southern Baptist Church for a while. None of them were a good fit. I saw that the largest Methodist church in town was about to open a campus not too far from where we live. We decided to visit for a while.


That fall I joined an Advent Bible study group. It was mostly gray haired ladies and me. One lady told a story about her hair dresser. She said that she realized she was making a big deal trying to let him know she was ok with him being gay. I think the point was that although she was an ally, she needed to be cool about it. It was absolutely wonderful. I felt like for the first time, I didn’t have to be quiet.

 

The LGBTQ+ Controversy


I would soon learn that the United Methodist Church (UMC) was negotiating a separation. For years they had debated over guidelines around the LGBTQ+ community. Some wanted the church to take an unwavering stand against anything outside of heterosexual marriage. Other churches were pushing for full ordination of trans and homosexual clergy, criticizing those who hadn’t made progress fast enough. Yet still others were in the middle, wanting to welcome gay and trans folks, but maintain that it was still sin. Ultimately about a fifth of the UMC congregations have decided to leave over this disagreement.


Meanwhile, the church of my youth hasn’t been willing to even have the conversation. Both the Wesleyans and Nazarenes preferred to double down on what had been status quo.


My Nazarene Theological Seminary classmates have been wrestling with these social issues and asking themselves if they should stay or go. One posted a link to a Nazarene podcast that spent a season interviewing millennial clergy who had left. Surprisingly, most left for the same reason I had. They were tired. There was a lot of dissonance on issues of sexuality and a strong desire for the denomination to speak out in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement. But push to leave was finding themselves squeezed out, unsupported and feeling taken advantage of.


All of the interviewees I listened to, like me, had found a home in the UMC. One is even a pastor at my church! One talked about his extreme financial struggle as a Nazarene pastor. I would later learn that in contrast, the UMC sets minimum compensation guidelines for all clergy.

This Was My Freshman Dorm - Photo from usnews.com

A few months ago my Facebook feed was flooded with posts about my alma mater, Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU). They had fired the Dean of Theology, Mark Maddix. In January the university Provost had directed Maddix to restrict adjunct professor, Melissa Tucker, from teaching classes in the future. Tucker had surrendered her ordination credentials with the Church of the Nazarene (COTN) in 2021 to pastor a UMC church that was open and affirming of LGBTQ+. Maddix had discussed the decision to let Tucker go with several of his fellow faculty members. That act of insubordination lead to his dismissal.[3] When the story came out, the student body protested. Criticism from both sides rippled across the denomination.


In June many of my peers celebrated because the COTN had elected pastor and religion professor, Scott Daniels, to the highest leadership position of General Superintendent. He is rumored to be on the side of affirming LGBTQ+ folks, although I couldn’t find anything online that indicated he’s open about it.


That same month there was lament over a decision by top leadership to clarify ambiguity in the Nazarene Manual—the official source for church governance, bylaws, doctrine, ritual and policy. They had elevated the Covenants of Christian Conduct and Character to “essential doctrine.” The list includes paragraph 31 that states, “the practice of same-sex sexual intimacy is contrary to God’s will for human sexuality.”[4] The consensus was that leadership wanted to have a mechanism to discipline pastors who were affirming of LGBTQ+ people, although that wasn’t officially stated.


This week the COTN has done just that. They revoked Pastor Dee Kelley’s ordination credentials and removed him from his pastorate at San Diego First Church of the Nazarene for teaching contrary to church doctrine. Six weeks ago Kelley published an essay calling for dialog around LGBTQ+ issues. He advocated that Nazarene pastors who wish to, should be allowed to officiate or at least bless same sex marriage ceremonies. He talked about the fear of public discourse. He theorized that if public conversation were allowed, leadership would see that opinions run the spectrum across the denomination.[5]


This isn’t the first time that Pastor Dee Kelley has been caught in the middle of controversy. Back in March of 2011 his church was hosting meetings to facilitate open dialogue around LGBTQ+ issues. First Church meets adjacent to the PLNU campus. One night they heard from the elected student chaplain for the University. Attendance was strong and the student shared his coming out story along with his intent to pursue pastoral ministry.[6] The University President wrote a statement emphasizing that this was not school sponsored and that PLNU continues to uphold Church standards.


I understand why church leadership doesn’t want to have this conversation. Open dialogue indicates that this doctrine is up for debate. In truth, the advocates for discourse are those who will also push for change. But the reason they want to talk is important. The conversation is as much about coming together in unity despite differences as it is about pushing the boundaries of scriptural interpretation.


I understand the pain that pulls you apart with your love and loyalty to a faith community on one side and faithfulness to ones convictions on the other. Staying hurts and I imagine leaving hurts even more.


Everywhere I look, this generation is struggling through these questions. How can I be a Christian and affirm same sex marriage? How can I be Christian and also believe that women should have the right to choose to have an abortion? How can I be Christian when a very vocal Evangelical right is everything my faith has taught me to stand against?


This conversation cannot be avoided. With 70% of the US population and 84% of millennials in favor of same sex marriage these questions are not going away.[7]

 

The International Church and the LGBTQ+ Controversy

Image of the world map that highlights 34 countries with marriage equality
Photo from Human Rights Campaign (hrc.org)

But US statistics are only part of the story. A growing portion of US based denominations are international. In 2019 UMC churches in Africa, Asia and Europe averaged $3.6M in weekly worship attendance compared to $2.6M in the US.[8] Likewise, in a recent statistical report for 2011-2021, Nazarene churches shrank by almost 11% in the US and Canada. By contrast churches in Africa grew by more than 56% and in Asia by 25% for the same time period.[9] Now that changes the conversation.


Of the 34 countries in the world that have legalized same sex marriage, the continents of Asia and Africa have one each (Taiwan and South Africa). About half the countries in Africa ban transgender folks from identifying as such.[10] Of the 54 African countries, 32 have laws that criminalize homosexuality. In 4 of those punishment includes the death penalty. Because of the extreme stigma, many queer folks suffer discrimination and live with fear of physical violence.

I was also surprised to learn that historically this has not been the case. According to a PBS News article from June of this year, “Historical evidence shows that people with diverse sexualities and gender expressions have always existed in African civilizations.” [11] While some likely encountered prejudice, it’s clear than many communities practiced tolerance.


Anti-LGBTQ+ ideas seem to have been imported, and most legislation originated with colonialism. Christian and Islamic faiths have been big contributors too. Some have criticized the influence of US evangelical groups over the past 20 years for adding fuel the fire of hate.


At first I thought maybe this would all go away as Boomers die off and more progressive Millennials take over leadership roles. Turns out the pathway forward isn’t so simple as facilitating safe conversations. This might require us to rethink more than the relatively simple questions of “Is homosexuality a sin?” and “Should pastors be allowed to bless same sex unions if they want to?”

 

Lessons from Colonialism and Big Oil

In season 2 of my favorite show, Ted Lasso, footballer stages a protest against big oil that had ruined his homeland in Nigeria. I wondered if this was a real thing. Turns out the most recent devastation was brought about by a deteriorated UK-based Shell Oil pipeline. This wasn’t the first time. According to AP News, the UN Environment Program conducted an independent assessment in 2011 that concluded the government and Shell Oil had been polluting for the better part of 50 years. Although they called for a billion-dollar clean up, there’s still little evidence that any work has been done.[12]


Yet Nigerians have benefited financially from oil production in the Niger Delta. Oil helped make Nigeria Africa’s largest economy. Is oil all bad? No. What makes this a bad situation isn’t oil production, it’s a simple lack of responsibility by foreign oil combined with corrupt government systems.


Is it possible that foreign missions are somewhat the same? Well-intentioned Christians have certainly been used as a tool for colonization. We brought the gospel message, but we also brought political dominance, culture, wealth, influence and a sense of moral superiority. Evangelicals preached, but was it entirely for the sake of the lost?


While we rejoice with our international brothers and sisters at the gift of knowing God’s grace, we also need to take some responsibility for what our influence has done.

 

Deeper Reflection


This is a call for deeper reflection. We have to start by asking why is this “sin” so offensive? As Debra Hirsch says, “We worry about what people are doing in bed much more than making sure everybody has a bed to begin with…”


We have spread our hate and homophobia around the world under the guise of “good news.” Why is this issue so dangerous that we can’t have a conversation unless it starts with “We’re against it?” Why does the idea of listening to the other side make some so uncomfortable? Of all the things you might choose to go to war against, why is this one so important?


I can answer the last question for myself. I’ve known too many gay and trans people who have been deeply wounded by Christians. I think of my coworker who had to go home every day at lunch to use the bathroom because she didn’t feel safe in either gendered restroom. I think of friends with broken relationships because their parents are too ashamed to have a child that doesn’t fit with their evangelical community. I think of men and women in places like Uganda and Sierra Leon who hide their sexuality to stay safe from violence and prosecution. And I’m disappointed in myself that it’s taken so long for me to get here.


You see, dialogue is helpful, but it’s just the beginning. Hirsch was right. This is the great challenge of the church for our time. This is a defining moment.


I hate that this one thing would break apart the church that I love. We can’t really come to the table until we are ready to see the damage that we as the Body of Christ have caused and take responsibility for it. But we have to come to the table. Not as our superior selves, but with humility.


Believe it or not, progressives read the Bible too. I am reminded by scripture that the people of God aren’t just called to personal salvation, but that our purpose from the very beginning was to be a blessing. I’m reminded of the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount where he said, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5.14-16)


With that in mind, I’d encourage you to ask yourself this: How do I want to show up in the world today?




 

Footnotes

[1] Hirsch, Debra, Redeeming Sex: Naked Conversations About Sexuality and Spirituality, IVP, April 2015, page 114. On Amazon.com [2] You can read more about my exit from ministry in this post titled “Pastor.” [3] From The Point, PLNU’s Student New Media "Dean of Theology and Christian Ministry Allegedly Fired Leaving Faculty, Community Members Shocked and Upset" [4] Paragraph 31 of the Nazarene Manual [5] Dee Kelley “A Hope For Change” [6] From one of the critics of Dee Kelley https://reformednazarene.wordpress.com/responses-by-point-loma-on-the-homosexual-controversy/ [7] Gallup Poll from 2021 [8]UMC membership and attendance statistics https://www.umc.org/en/content/united-methodists-at-a-glance [9] Church of the Nazarene Annual/Decadal Statistical Report [10] PBS News Article https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/where-african-countries-stand-in-their-struggle-toward-more-inclusive-lgbtq-laws [11] 5 Countries in Africa That Have Legalized Same-Sex Relationships in the Past 10 Years [12] AP News article “Oil Spill from Shell” June, 2023

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