God help us to live out and answer the prayer of Jesus in John 17, "that we would all in His name and who declare salvation through Him alone be one, even as the Father and Son are one."
There. I said it!
I am a fourth generation Nazarene, and my wife is fifth. I was born into a Nazarene pastor's family. Later, my father was a district superintendent. Every morsel of food I've eaten, every home I've lived in, every car I've driven, every piece of clothing I have worn, every provision of life from then until now has either directly or indirectly been from Nazarene tithe.
Both my bachelor's and master's degrees came from Nazarene institutions. I have been in Nazarene ministry now for 30 years, and I wouldn't change a thing if I could. I love the Church of the Nazarene more now than I ever have in my life.
But today, I am a concerned Nazarene.
I am concerned that our precious Articles of Faith, those 16 grand biblical statements of doctrine based directly on Scripture, and our Wesleyan-Arminian and Holiness Movement history that have guided us well for over a century are under attack. Not from those outside our Christian faith, but from those inside.
These are people who believe we have been and desire us to be again who we never have been — a church in the Fundamentalist/Reformed tradition, or at least the spirit and tactics thereof. John Wesley, Phoebe Palmer, H. Orton Wiley, and William Greathouse would blanch in concern today if they knew the insidious theological and ecclesiastical battle going on through the Internet, driven by categorization, guilt-by-association, and "gotcha" tactics that more represent radical politics than anything remotely biblical, Christian, or certainly holiness.
We must be people of the Word. We must boldly declare our allegiance to Article IV of the Articles of Faith of the Church of the Nazarene. To those who would deny full inspiration of all 66 books or dispute inerrancy "in all things necessary to our salvation" we must lovingly but firmly respond with our deep conviction of this Word being God's Word! We must also remind those who desire to make the Bible into a detailed, literal account of human history and to believe that its primary purpose was to define all science and research that the Nazarene position has never been that.
We have never, for example, taken an official position on a certain view of creation or a certain timeline of other events. Never in our history! We subscribe to God as creator, the Bible as the fully-inspired and, with regard to all things salvific, the inerrant Word of God. We always have, and always will.
But we also don't go further into more detailed encampments that other denominations have declared themselves in and, in turn, have found themselves in constant divisive battles. We are a middle-road Wesleyan-Holiness tradition—and, God helping us, may we always be. With that, may we be generous in spirit towards those who go further or not as far as we do, but determined to continue being who we are.
Joy of Worship
I am concerned that our precious heritage of worship, joyous praise music, and celebratory services are under attack from those who would so narrowly and selfishly define worship by their own personal tastes. In this type of climate, the Holy Spirit is not free to move among us like He so desires. It bothers me that people would leave a church because of a certain sound or style or instrument or other surface issue.
However, it also bothers me that so many Nazarene churches never sing a hymn, the bedrock foundation of our worship tradition. I am concerned that we often fill quotas in worship in terms of praise songs or hymns and adhere to some earth-based system of what kind of music we should use, rather than seeking God and His Spirit's leadership. Why not seek the Spirit's direction as to what a certain service theme or message calls for, regardless of hymn or chorus, regardless of the music's age?
We must be people of worship — let us embrace the ancient songs of our heritage and sing them with gusto as well as worship in the new voices and sounds of praise that allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us in today's language and style. We must refuse to divide over, of all things, the worship of God. What a travesty to see holiness people stubbornly refusing to budge and coming to permanent division over songs of praise to the King! Where in the scripture, especially the Psalms, do we find biblical foundation for such division?
Respecting Nazarene Higher Education
I am concerned that our amazing tradition of liberal arts colleges and universities, envisioned by those who went ahead of us, and raised to be centers of Holiness theology but also critical thinking on a variety of subjects, are constantly being attacked by the Internet rumormongers. Our school presidents are under attack, our professors under surveillance, and a Salem-witch-hunt or Inquisition-type atmosphere now pervades the minds and hearts of many Nazarenes regarding our institutions.
If a certain professor quotes from or uses a book that has some perceived unorthodox idea or discussion within it for reference, he or she is immediately 'guilty until proven innocent' and has to be constantly on the defensive. Our presidents: godly, wise, and proven leaders, are under direct and often slanderous attacks from various sources, with E-mails created and forwarded at will with no biblical process of conflict resolution ever sought or followed by the rumor-spreaders.
Under the guise of protecting the church from 'emergent' ideas and concepts, whatever those are, these accusers continue to press their cause in Jesus' name, quoting scripture while full of self-righteous piety. It is not enough for these people that our presidents and professors confess our Articles of Faith. They must also toe the litmus-test line of those doing the charging, no matter how narrow, non-Wesleyan, or even unbiblical that test may be. Boards of Trustees, elected by districts and General Assembly delegates, elders and laypersons of distinction though they be, are not trusted by these loosely-knit groups. Indeed they are often the object of great derision and mistrust in the scurrilous E-mail exchanges.
We must use our educational influence carefully, no doubt. We are at unprecedented levels of financial, enrollment, and reputation strength in Nazarene higher education. Our colleges and universities are greatly respected and desired places to receive undergraduate and graduate degrees. With all of this success, beyond our forebearers wildest dreams, has also come a need for greater scrutiny and accountability. Everyone understands that.
But we must also remember that higher education requires exploration of many ideas and various traditions. Our professors must be supportive and encouraging of our theological and doctrinal positions, while also carefully leading students through a necessary and healthy process of critical evaluation, as well as personal growth and maturity.
We must maintain and strengthen our refusal to become people of moral relativity in our age of humanistic and often atheistic educational influences. However, we must also acknowledge the realities our students live with in our present world, and not hide either them or ourselves from critical thinking about those. These are tough days, with huge external spiritual battles, to effectively build Christian institutions. How sad that in these days often our greatest battles are from within, from those who name themselves among the people of God and the people called Holiness and Nazarenes.
I am concerned that our historic gregarious spirit, driven by holy love for believers in other Christian and Evangelical groups, is fading. Many among us are moving towards a judgmental, critical attitude of mistrust and gossip regarding other movements and churches. When the Christian faith has never been more desperately needed by a fractured world, we waste huge amounts of time, energy, cyberspace, and print materials attacking each other.
If a mega-church of renown allows a certain writer or speaker to appear at a conference on their property, suddenly everything that writer or speaker has ever said that's controversial is now ascribed to the host pastor or church.
If an idea of a tradition-challenging thinker is given some credence, the charge is immediately made that that pastor or movement has now embraced all of that thinker's views. Again, with no regard whatsoever to biblical conflict resolution principles, the charges are filed on-line, and within minutes they are inflaming the emotions of the faithful.
Many sincere, godly, and holy people are rightfully concerned about developments in our day and age, but those are now unjustly and manipulatively ratcheted up by the fully-aware bloggers: fully-aware of exactly what they are doing.
Consider this: If we had applied the same approach to the Apostles in some of their well-documented, early-church battles, we would have summarily dismissed them.
If we had applied the same approach to the giants God raised up in Christian history to change the course of His church, we would have rejected them and ignored the Spirit working through them.
Imagine sitting in the presence of Martin Luther when he ripped out the book of James from the New Testament, declaring it unworthy of the Scripture! He would have been declared a heretic, let alone his view of Jews and women!
Our ability to historically separate the biblical from the unbiblical, while at the same time loving the person and leaving the judgment to God, has been reduced to special-interest-political-action-group thinking and their tactics are now regularly used in the Body of Christ. This approach is pitting believer against believer, pastor against pastor, layperson against layperson, and in general many against many.
Coping with Change
I am concerned that in the historic and astounding rise of many mega-churches, para-church influences, and hero-making within the Body of Christ, some with great leadership influence have been unthinking in their pronouncements and 'what ifs?' Thinking aloud, no doubt, their speculations have often led to confusing signals being sent to the rest of the Body and some of the concerns are genuine in origin. But God has always raised up mavericks and used them for His glory and the advancement of His Kingdom.
From the last prophet John the Baptist, to the paradigm smashing Paul the Apostle, to the new thinking of Augustine, to the history-shattering movement led by Martin Luther, to the radical concepts of John Wesley, to the tradition-bulldozing of Billy Graham, and on through the explosion of new and creative ideas by God's servants today, His Church has always faced change.
His people have always had to re-think things. His leaders have always called us to different approaches. And His Spirit is ever 'up to something new' among us, and in our sinful world. That which is truly of God survives and remains effective long after the person(s) creating the 'new thing' is gone. That which was made of man, with shallow sand-based shifting truth, is revealed for what it is, and is eventually thrown on the ash heap of discarded ideas and rejected approaches.
We can handle these challenges in biblical ways. We can sit down and reason together. We can love each other in Jesus' name, and even when we have to disagree, we can do so agreeably without casting dispersion and eternal damnation on someone else. We can discuss (yes, even on the Internet) various concepts without taking upon ourselves the role of eternal judge. We can tone down the rhetoric, and remove words like 'heretic,' and 'unorthodox' and 'emergent' and 'threat' from our discussions. And we can spend a lot more time in advancing God's Kingdom through missional ministry among the lost, rather than wasting time throwing stones at each other on the same side.
We can accept the biblical admonition that our enemy is not flesh and blood, but rather, the powers and forces of evil. And we can adopt the attitude of the Apostle Paul, when confronted with those who were insincere and ministering from impure motives, trying to undercut his authority and leadership in the Church while he was in prison powerless to defend himself, declared that he 'rejoiced' when Christ was preached, no matter the motive of the preacher. God help us, God help me, to follow in his stead.
God help all of us who dare name ourselves among those who seek, pursue, and live in holiness of heart and life especially to never profane the Holiness of God by participating in such divisive and disruptive behavior. God help us to seek to live out and answer the prayer of Jesus in John 17, 'that we would all in His name and who declare salvation through Him alone be one, even as the Father and Son are one.'
That is how I will spend my remaining years on this earth. And I will use every influence I have to encourage others towards that goal, and discourage others from division with God helping me, until I die or Christ returns. Will you join me?
- Will you seek these ends, rather than divisive and destructive ends?
- Will you refute the methodologies of those who demand perfect adherence to a narrow list of agenda items and join those who seek to rationally discuss and discern areas of concern among us?
- Will you leave the bloggers? E-mails and sites more often, seeking a clean mind and pure heart and loving means in all you do and say?
- Will you pray that God's truth will prevail, that God's people are blessed, and that God's chosen servants, churches, and institutions of influence have unprecedented spiritual power in these days?
Kevin M. Ulmet is pastor of Nashville First Church of the Nazarene.
Holiness Today, March/April 2012