To My Progressive Friends

Letter

A few days ago I received Rob Renfroe’s article “Three Requests of My Centrist Friends: An Open Letter.” Rev. Renfroe is the Pastor of Discipleship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church in Texas. His letter so resonated with my spirit that I felt led to share his sentiments. The UMC is dealing with a lot of tension as it pertains to sexuality and marriage, as are we all. I had a difficult time with some of his terminology as he related to the various voices within the UMC. What he identified as “centrists” I recognize as “progressives.” What centrists in the UMC call the “far right,” progressives in the CotN call “ultra-conservatives” or “fundamentalists.” Nonetheless, the heart of his message reverberated deeply with me. I actually wept as I read his words. I have used his letter as a direct source for the following thoughts as they pertain to the Church of the Nazarene (a link to his letter is attached below).

Over the past couple of years, I have been dialoguing with pastors in the Church of the Nazarene who identify themselves as “progressives.” I have grown to appreciate many of these leaders. I believe they genuinely love Jesus and desire to impact the world with the gospel. As much as I love these folks, I am also aware of how differently we view some very important issues, namely sexuality and marriage.

It is improbable that we will ever agree on what the church should teach regarding sexuality. I find their arguments for changing the church’s position on this issue out of harmony with everything we use to measure truth (the bible, theology, and science). Their arguments for same-sex monogamous relationships simply don’t work (Renfroe, paragraph 2).

I hate the idea of dividing into camps as we have this conversation. However, they have branded themselves “progressives” (Renfroe, paragraph 5). They use that label as if the rest of the church is against progress. Let me assure you, the Church of the Nazarene is progressive in the sense that we work diligently to advance the cause of Christ in the world. We are conservative in our message and progressive in our methods. Nonetheless, the old adage carries weight: “The one who defines the terms often wins the debate.”

With that as a foundation, I’d like to take a few moments to speak directly to my progressive friends…

I have a high level of respect for many of you. However, I do think you need to recognize there are a few voices lurking in your camp that are damaging your cause. If you would distance yourself from the aggressors we could have a more peaceable conversation. In fact, the sarcasm in your online discussion forums, the memes that constantly mock those who don’t share your views, and the social media accounts created to ridicule church leaders behind the mask of anonymity are undermining your attempts at meaningful dialogue.

With that said I need to inform you of something: You’re not the only ones seeking progress as it pertains to the church. You should have enough integrity to stop painting that picture. I’d like to ask you to stop referring to traditionalists as “ultra-conservatives” and “fundamentalists.” Many of us have worked hard to distance ourselves from the spirit of legalism that’s damaged the church over the years and would appreciate it if you’d stop using these phrases.

If you insist on using politically laden descriptions then at least be fair and call yourself “liberals.” In reality, we affirm what the position the church has held for over 2000 years regarding sexuality and marriage. We are in accord with the vast majority of Christians around the world on this issue. How that makes us “ultra-conservatives” or “fundamentalists” is beyond me (Renfroe, paragraph 6).

We are actually the ones who stand in the center. We are progressive in the sense that we are centrists. The Wesleyan-Holiness movement has always been centered in its message. In fact, being willing to stand in the tension of the center takes a lot of spiritual stamina. We intentionally position ourselves in a place that prophetically speaks truth to the right and the left. Why don’t you use another label. Call us evangelicals, Wesleyans, centrists, or orthodox because that’s what we are.

Also, let’s talk about the Bible. You may consider yourself orthodox, but realistically you’re treading on thin ice. You have to reinterpret large portions of scripture to arrive at your current conclusions regarding sexuality. At this point we are traveling very different paths. This indicates that we have major differences regarding the authority of scripture.

When you arrive at a place where you feel certain portions of scripture could be blotted out altogether, that’s more than a difference of interpretation. That’s a difference in how we view biblical authority and inspiration. This directly affects Article IV in our Articles of Faith. So be candid and admit that your perspective is quite different from what’s taught in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” Paul’s view would include major parts of the Old Testament that it seems some of you would like to ignore. (Renfroe, paragraph 9)

None of us are fundamentalists in the sense that we believe God forced the hand of human authors to pen the Bible. Orthodoxy doesn’t believe God turned human beings into robots for the purpose of writing words on paper (Renfroe, paragraph 10). Although we may vary in our views regarding canonization, we have to part ways when it comes to ignoring passages you don’t think God could have possibly inspired. This means that ultimately we don’t hold the same view of scripture. I hold to the view articulated by the Apostle Paul. He may be wrong and y’all may be right, although I doubt it. Regardless, I’m sticking with him.

At this point, the problem that threatens our unity is not a difference of opinion. It’s a difference of practice (Renfroe, paragraph 17). It’s pastors openly declaring things contrary to scripture and opposing the Manual of the Church if the Nazarene. You argue, “But the Manual changes at every General Assembly.” Pertaining to social issues, yes, the Manual is often amended. However, regarding matters of biblical orthodoxy, the Manual may be reworded for clearer understanding, but meaning is never lost.

This indicates that we differ in both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. How? I’m glad you asked. Some of you openly affirm that you’d be willing to bless what the church declares incompatible with Christian teaching if we would change our stance. We differ because some of you are elders who refuse to uphold a higher standard as it pertains to the covenant of ordination. At this point we don’t merely have a difference of opinion. We now have different ways we desire to live out the gospel. Our orthodoxy and orthopraxy are in opposition. I don’t care how big the tent is, without biblical orthodoxy, the tent will collapse.

I’m grateful for knowing you. I consider many of you friends. I think we all genuinely want to serve the church to the best of our ability. However, I don’t see how we can ever come together on these issues with the breadth of distance that’s obvious in the conversation. So, in the mean time let’s just be honest about our differences. We are worlds apart and the gap is growing ever wider.

The “big tent” approach, “federation” of the denomination, or no other perceived remedy that allows you to perform same-sex ceremonies is ever going to work. It’s simply out of sync with the classical Wesleyan-Arminian understanding of this subject. I love you. I’m better for knowing you. I wish we could work out our differences, but all I see happening right now is us drifting further apart.

Please hear me, I wish you no ill will. In fact, I mourn your departure from orthodox Wesleyan-Arminian theology. However, you need to understand something very clearly. The global responsibility to uphold our polity has never been more urgent. Our tribe is growing rapidly in the southern hemisphere. Do you know what that means? It means every morning when we wake up, the Church of the Nazarene is more committed to sound, orthodox, biblical doctrine than it was the day before… and that, my friends, is worthy of celebration.


(These words and ideas have been shared with the direct approval of Rob Renfroe)

(Sources: Rev. Rob Renfroe, “Three Requests of My Centrist Friends: An Open Letter” from The Perspective Newsletter, link: http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Three-Requests-of-My-Centrist-Friends—An-Open-Letter.html?soid=1108936514096&aid=UvYvSC3-8S4, and various conversations with denominational leaders in the Church of the Nazarene)

25 Comments

  1. I am a Progressive Friend. I for one, understand your dilemma. The Heart of the Gospel is for all people in every generation. The Gospel traditions that caused our separation from other Apostolic Churches have always defined us.
    Ther has always been a homophobic faction in the Church. It is also true that same sex covenants were evident in biblical times. THE DAVIDIC COVENANT, (JONATHAN AND DAVID), JESUS AND JOHN the Beloved Apostle. NAOMI and Ruth.
    This however is not the focus of progressive Christianity, but rather that the Gospel that Yeshua lived was for the common man , not for the religious politicians. Our traditions are not the Good news they are merely traditions. The heart of Jesus is unconditional, He loves all people the same. We are the religious elite who love differently. We see Tribe …
    God sèes the Planet.

  2. Great job Brian. While we must stand in line with the Bible, we must also stand in line with love and grace.

  3. I am intrigued that so many use the Bible as a means to circumvent what is now known about the tendency for some to express homosexuality. My reading of the Bible certainly identifies a few passages in which disapproval and even condemnation is directed to homosexual relationships. On the other hand just because someone wears mixed fibre suits, sows two kinds of seed in a paddock, eats shell fish or works on the Sabbath I feel no obligation to stone them to death just because I am aware the scripture tells me to do so. I hope you are not disturbed to hear that even when scripture expresses strong approval for dashing babies against the rocks because their parents are enemies (eg the end of Psalm 137) I even suspect that the author was not in tune with the principles of the Sermon on the Mount.
    But if we look at the passages about homosexuality we also notice other matters as well.
    Just for the record I am aware of the Old Testament Story of Lot (in Genesis 19) where Lot protects his angel visitors from non-consensual rape by offering his two daughters to the crowd instead for non consensual rape. (Which I would have thought is hardly guidance for desirable behaviour today). Leviticus 18:22 is clearer. “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” The writer of Leviticus was definitely against it. (Of course the word abomination is not necessarily the same as an outright sin since other Old Testament Writers use the same expression “to’abhah” for other antisocial activities like eating with Egyptians (Genesis43:32), sacrificing imperfect animals Deuteronomy 17:11(which I am not in the habit of doing – although our three legged cat used to annoy me from time to time), using unjust measures Deuteronomy 25:13 and having haughty eyes Proverbs 6:16. Leviticus 20:13 actually proscribes the death penalty to homosexuality (along of course with a whole raft of other crimes like adultery, incest, sorcery, witchcraft, idolatry and cursing one’s parents.
    In the New Testament Romans 1:18-32 Paul condemns those who are heterosexuals who have turned to idols and homosexuality, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 there is homosexuality along with quite a list (including the haughty eyes example )
    The two examples in 1 Timothy 1:10 and Jude 7 appear to be referring to male prostitutes (ie the Greek words used) 2nd Peter 2:10 is more concerned with defiling passion which is a bit ambiguous.
    As it happens (and somewhat inconveniently for those amongst the gay bashers), the love between two men is frequently extolled. For example check out 1 Samuel 20:17, John 21:15-19,John 20:20
    But there is actually a more subtle question. If Paul, with presumably a less than perfect knowledge of the science of the human body, and certainly no knowledge of our different culture today with its very different set of social needs, says that something is wrong, does it need to stay that way when we now know different stuff. Paul thought having slaves was OK. I personally think it is wrong for today. Paul said women should not talk in Church. I see no reason in a changed society why they should not do so. Is your position that if Paul said something was a sin – nothing remains to say?

    I would have thought as modern Christians we ought as a minimum at least concede that Jesus is not on record as condemning homosexuality – although he showed strong disapproval at other relationships eg prejudice. We also ought to concede there is scientific evidence for showing that many forms of homosexuality are neither optional nor free from physiological and environmental causes. We must also admit that for whatever reason a good deal of very non Christian behaviour is directed to homosexuals and has been the case for many years. Orlando might be the most recent example but through the centuries homosexuals have been imprisoned, executed, reviled from the pulpit, and are frequently the target of extreme prejudice. It is good when Church leadership speaks up on their behalf but I have noticed it is not common. Mind you many Biblical principles are similarly ignored. Love your neighbour? Forgive your enemy???? How many Christians prefer to take up arms against their enemies? I would have thought it is the Quakers who seem to take the forgiveness principle seriously not the conservative Christians…

    1. Dear Peddiebill,

      Could you explain your position on the Bible? To be clear, what is the purpose, intent, and design of the canon as we currently have it? What is its usefulness if so many of the examples you cite are dated and unscientific? What is the central theme of the Tanakh portion of scripture? Who is determines what is chosen to heed or ignore? How does one determine that? Is the Bible even relevant today? If it is, how? If it is not, why not? And if not, should churches abandon their operations?

      I look forward to reading your thoughts.

      Sincerley,

      L.B. Edwards

      1. Certainly – my position on the Bible is clearly spelled out in my post “Shaping God”
        There I give lots of examples of why the history of the Bible’s construction, eg many different Canons to choose from, the extensive list of errors and contradictions, evidence of borrowed stories and subsequent editing, scientific inaccuracies, etc all combine to make it unwise to take the Bible to be inerrant or literal. My view of God is introduced in my post “The God who limps” and similar articles.
        I do study and respect the Bible (eg I have posted a complete set of lectionary sermons for the three year cycle) as a useful lead into attitudes of faith and behaviour but also see it as incomplete in that many of todays issues eg bioethics, the arms race, Genetic engineering, coping with an increasingly global community, climate change etc etc are scarcely touched upon.
        Why not visit my site “Making you Think” and check out my understanding for yourself.

    2. As I read through this response, I sense a love that wants to reconcile the homosexual activities of good (yes, GOOD) people that wish to follow God and continue the lifestyle, but in reality it is full of red herrings and reaches. There are passages of scripture that certainly pose challenges – such as your reference to Psalm 137, and the highly contemptible actions of Lot in Genesis 19. What we must be very careful to do is not confuse Biblical account with Biblical approval.

      Just like anything that we read from the scriptures, the word of God must be approached with the understanding of the Character of God as a whole. Though there are some intriguing proof-texted examples you’ve provided here, there are some very convincing contextual counters to those examples (especially the Pauline exhortations). Yet, in regard to homosexuality, the theme across the whole of scripture is that it is not something God approves of or endorses. Yes, we can justify just about anything if we read the scriptures with a slant, but consistently in the OT and the NT, I have yet to read anything that indicates that homosexuality is anything but sin.

      1. I notice that people who want to share their faith with me rarely want me to share mine with them.
        Understanding the character of God as a whole is a tall ask as a prerequisite for approaching the Bible when as the wise man once said, man who cannot make a worm, makes God by the dozen. For example I choose to follow one of the many versions of God presented in the Bible. God for me is Love – and yes I have a scripture to defend it. I do not follow the God who insisted that Joshua kill every man woman and child after “fitting” the Battle of Jericho, nor the God who took pleasure in dashing the children against the rocks, nor even the God who thought it a great idea for Elijah to chop up 400 priests of Baal because they believed the wrong stuff. I personally think this is an odd way to pursue interfaith dialogue. Lots of Christians would disagree with me and many thousand of innocent people have died as a result (see Kelsos “The Victims of Christianity”) but just because lots of Christians agreed that the Bible told them to do torture and kill I am not sure why I have to agree. Treat Homosexuals as sinners by all means if your view of God requires you to do so, but if I happen to be uneasy about casting the first stone, allow me -as it happens a heterosexual sinner – to follow my own path. In any case I suspect many of the metaphors of God in the Bible (see my article Metaphorically Speaking) are now somewhat irrelevant. If even the scientists are vague about the creation of the universe why should I think the limited version in Genesis tells me much about the nature of the creator.

    3. I would point out that there is a difference between the requirements of the Mosaic covenant on the Jewish people and the general expectations placed on humanity in the scriptures. That the Mosaic covenant and the general expectations overlap does not mean that everything applies from Moses to the Gentiles. The covenant of Noah is what governs the standards for Gentiles, and from a Jewish understanding of that covenant, it included a prohibition on same-sex sexual relationships.

      It would seem that the New Testament writers (as Jews themselves) did not see Jesus’ covenant as subverting Noah’s either (just as they did not take his covenant to have subverted the Mosaic covenant for the Jews). Thus, they continued to prohibit same-sex sexual relationships for all because Jesus didn’t come to subvert the law, but to fulfill it, both for Jews and Gentiles.

    4. I am interested in reading the scientific evidence you refer to that supports the claim that homosexuality is not optional. Could you provide something here? Perhaps a link to an unbiased scientific journal (or two) that supports this claim? Thank you!

      1. Since the free choice aspect of homosexuality is the one which gets a great deal of attention, there are some important understandings coming out of science research which should inform our discussion. For example the brain structure and neural pathways are becoming much better understood. To give one simple example, (Ian Sample in The Guardian, Monday 8 June, 2008) the Scientists from the Stockholm Brain Research Institute announced that they had identified a symmetry in appearance of brain structure when comparing the brains of homosexual men and heterosexual women. This was not present with heterosexual men and lesbians where the brain was asymmetrical. The researchers also showed that the same regions of the brain preferentially fired for women and homosexual men whereas for men and lesbian women different areas were favoured. They even suggested that the popularly claimed difference between men and women for map reading ability was a consequence of this symmetry and function difference.
        There are plenty of examples of studies into animal homosexuality and also heaps on
        the sociological influences for a range of people. When reasons for being against homosexuality change eg no longer a need to strengthen the tribe by doing ones duty as a breeder, or being a manly warrior there is less need to add these strictures into scripture to reinforce the required behaviour. On my website I go into these matters more deeply.

    5. Peddiebill, I am interested in reading the scientific evidence you mention that supports the claim homosexuality is not optional. Could you provide something, perhaps a link or two, to an unbiased scientific journal that supports this claim?

    1. Peddiebill, your narrative is well balanced and well written. You put in words what my heart tells me is true. It is apparent that you have given these things a great amount of thought and prayer. The Church needs more men who. like you, will dig deeper. Thank you for sharing your reply. Keep on speaking the Truth in Love.

      1. Jerry, I love you brother. I think we are all trying to speak the truth in love, yet also be faithful to scripture. Sometimes it feels like walking a tightrope.

  4. The previous, somewhat lengthy post does a good job discussing some of the holes in this piece, but I’d like to say something else. The quote about whomever defines the terms usually wins the argument and the subsequent push throughout this piece to define the terms misses the point of that statement. The defining of terms is not a magical way by which a discussion is “won.” The ability to define the terms is consistent with the power to do so–the power to define a term, to tell someone what or who they are, to name them as other or part of the community. It is about having the power to control the discussion by controlling the language. However, I’m not convinced that Christianity is about using power for the purpose of control. It seems that, historically, when the church sought power and control, it strayed the most from the biblical mandates, from the creeds, and from the love of the crucified Christ.

  5. Excellent work, Brian. I’m glad you found my thoughts worthwhile. Thanks for sharing them in your context. God bless you and your ministry. Rob Renfroe

  6. That was graciously and well said.

    We are entering a time when, unless people humble themselves and return to God, affirm His word, and hold both His truth and his love to be equal, we will see (and already are) the Church in the west, including the Nazarene church, fracture over issues like abortion, homosexuality, drug and alcohol abuse, “social justice”, et al.

    I see no way forward for those who desire to stand outside of historical orthodox Christianity.

    1. Orthodox Christianity means being able to confirm the creeds, which don’t speak to abortion, homosexuality, drug and alcohol abuse, or whatever you mean by social justice.

      1. I don’t want to argue a technicality with you. I’m aware what the strict definition of “orthodox Christianity” is. However, “orthodoxy” literally means “straight teaching”. In other words, it is teaching, doctrine, theology that is consistently aligned with the historical teaching of the Church, such as murder is wrong (abortion), homosexuality is a sin (like all other sin–not special or above), and the command not to become drunk with wine (alcohol, and by extension drug, abuse). These are really simple, biblical teachings that, until the last few decades or so, have not been reinterpreted to mean the opposite.

        My point is there is a contingency of contemporary Christians today who want to throw out the historical teachings of the Bible, or rather, who want to conform the Bible’s teachings to their own actions, experiences, and beliefs. I see no way of reconciling that mindset with those who wish to remain faithful to Christ and historical, Christian, orthodox teaching.

        You might be interested in a man by the name of Vincent of Lerins who taught that “all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all . . . all questions must be tried in the first instance . . . [and]supplemented by an appeal to that sense of Holy Scripture which is supported by universality, antiquity, and consent.”

        If we all strove for that, it would go a long way toward bringing unity.

      2. I have always enjoyed Vincent of Lerins. Universality, Antiquity, and Consent–and I would suggest that the church is now struggling for consent. But it should also be noted that he was upset with people quoting the Fathers obscurely to support their own novel ideas (“[19.] This condemnation, indeed, seems to have been providentially promulgated as though with a special view to the fraud of those who, contriving to dress up a heresy under a name other than its own, get hold often of the works of some ancient writer, not very clearly expressed, which, owing to the very obscurity of their own doctrine, have the appearance of agreeing with it, so that they get the credit of being neither the first nor the only persons who have held it.”)

  7. Here is why I call myself “progressive”:

    When I was growing up, I was not allowed to go to movies nor school dances. I was either 7 or 8 years old when Gremlins came to the theater. For some reason, I wanted to see that movie. I guess because everyone at school was talking about it. My sister who was had a child of her own and married devised a plan to take me to the movie. It would require not telling my mother. The closer the day came to put the plan in action the more anxious I became. It bothered me so much that I would be lying to my mother that I broke down and told her everything. Know what happened next? I was not told “Thank you for not lying to me”. I was not told “Thank you for not dishonoring me”. No. She called our pastor! Rev Rhoades gave me the speech as to why Nazarenes are not suppose to go to movies. Apparently, it was in the Manual. Both my mother and my pastor missed the bigger picture! Going to the movies was not a sin. Going to a movie theater was not a sin. The sin would was the lying to my mother and dishonoring her; which I confessed to and did not carry through with the plot.

    I was also taught that women should not wear pants to church. I can remember having to pack dresses to go to church camp for chapel. I can also remember having an attitude toward any girl who did not have a dress for chapel.

    I was taught dancing would lead to drinking. I remember when my elementary school was hosting the first 6th grade dance. Mom would not let me go because there might be alcohol there. Seriously? A dance for 12 year olds? My best friend who was a devote Pentecostal went! That girl went to church every time a church door was open, plus she participated in her church’s nursing home ministry. I wanted to go to her church! Because they got to have fun!!

    What I heard was all the “do nots”. I can remember being told drinking alcohol is a sin. That real Christians do not drink alcohol. Real Christians do not smoke. Real Christians do not say certain things, do certain things, think about certain things. I grew up thinking God was waiting for me to mess up to throw me into hell. I lived in fear that if I did the wrong thing then I would burn eternally.

    Thank God I have progressed past that! I discovered His love.

    The Church, as whole, needs to take a step back and realize this one thing. We have demanded so many non-essentials over the years that we have set ourselves up for what is happening in our culture. Let’s take a look at health insurance. When a gay man or lesbian woman wanted to have his/her life partner on the health insurance plan, they were told they could not do that because they are not married. What if over the years they had not been told that? What if over the years we had said health insurance is not essential to our faith but showing God’s love to them is a part of our faith, would our voice of concern be heard now? Next question I have is … marriage is a sacrament of the Church, correct? Then how did it get taken from being family contracts and a Church thing to being a State thing? Personally, we looking at the marriage issue from the wrong angel. We should be asking why does the State have the right to grant permission to marry anyway? I found out. The first marriage licenses to be issued in the United States was in the colonies. It was to grant people who were not allowed to marry, because it was illegal to do so, permission to marry within the law of Massachusetts. A driver’s license says we have permission from the State to drive. A vehicle license says that vehicle has permission from the State to be driven on the roads. A marriage license is permission from the State to get married. Why is marriage treated in such a manner?

    The people who were sinners who encountered Jesus while he walked on earth became changed. When Christians argue on the internet, the world is not encountering Jesus. When we banter back and forth, we are not following Christ command to love one another as he loved us.

    I have progressed from being a person who measures my sisters and brothers in Christ by a ruler that does not matter. I have progressed from being a person who measures the world by the same ruler. I want to be a person who lives out the love of Christ and stay out of the Holy Spirit’s way when it comes to transforming the person. I desire to be Jesus to someone so that person can be changed, not because of me but because of Christ who lives in me. It is my task to love, it is the Holy Spirit’s job to transform.

  8. Much of the comments here miss the point. At this point the CotN has clearly stated its position. We do not need to try to convince the same people we are right. This may be a fruitful discussion somewhere (I don’t often see that) but what we need to talk about is not why but because. Because of the clearly stated long held well thought out stand that we take, the question is not why you don’t agree, we have heard it all many times before. The question is do you embrace who we are as the CotN. Do you embrace our understanding of Scripture (see Report of the Scripture Study Committee to the G.A.)? Do you embrace our understand of human sexuality? If not are you willing to admit that you are not in harmony with the CotN and find another place of ministry? The question is not why you don’t believe as we do but because you do not what should you do about it. And also what should the church do with those (especially clergy) who have had ample opportunity to come under the “tent” and reject the clear teaching of the CotN. Someone may not like or agree with the CotN stand but it has been made very clear. Some might say this should not be that big of a deal, it should not divide us, but it is clearly a big deal and it clearly divides us. This is who we are, are you with us is the question?

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