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)