The need for a new global narrative. A response to Dan Boone’s “Reframing the alcohol discussion”
The alcohol discussion in the Church of the Nazarene is definitely a hot button. I am thankful for Dan Boone’s effort in reframing this discussion (Click here for Dan Boone’s article). I feel that Dan’s article enables us to have a fruitful global conversation. Where I come from, abstinence is very uncommon as a church tradition. I am always amazed by the emotions involved when this issue is discussed in our church, and as a result I have always avoided these debates. Dan’s effort in reframing the discussion, along with the way I experienced the last General Assembly, has given me confidence that speaking up in this discussion is not a waste of time and could benefit the global conversation in our denomination.
I am Dutch and was raised in the Church of the Nazarene in the Netherlands. To my knowledge, abstinence is not part of any other church tradition in my country, apart from the Salvation Army. Therefore, our church’s position on alcohol is always in need of explanation. In membership classes I always start with the historical explanation and tell that abstinence is an expression of our historic calling to stand with those who suffer from the abusive consequences of alcohol. As we go deeper into the matter and connect it to discipleship and holy living the confusion begins. Very often, the response of the people comes down to this question: Why is the church so adamant on this particular issue and not on other topics that have equal or even stronger biblical support? They ask this question because they are unfamiliar with abstinence and more familiar with other emphases of holy living. The church’s strong emphasis on abstinence and the neglect of other ethical issues appears to many as arbitrary. As we discuss this question and other related themes, we very often talk more about history and culture than Bible and theology. And in the end the conversation is about the differences between American Christianity and Dutch or European Christianity.
As an illustration, moderation as a Christian virtue has influenced Dutch culture. For many, having a moderate life style is a prominent expression of holy living. This view has been excellently captured by the title of Simon Schama’s book on Dutch culture during the 17th century, Embarrassment of Riches. This is how the Christian merchants felt when their young and tiny nation was the wealthiest in the world. Having been raised in such a context, a Dutch Nazarene has a hard time understanding the prominent call for abstinence, while he or she may desire to hear our church stress the call to be moderate in everything we drink or eat, from coffee to alcohol, and from the piece of meat on our plate to the dessert. Let me give another illustration. In our Christian heritage social justice is a strong strand. For example, for over a 100 years we have a Christian union supporting the cause of employees, and it is one of the largest in the country. And at the moment we have three Christian parties in parliament with commitments that stem from our Christian tradition. Therefore, when a Dutch Nazarene hears that the call for abstinence is an expression of our solidarity with those who suffer from the abusive consequences of alcohol, they will respond saying that there are many more options for supporting those who suffer under the evils in society and in our global economy.
All of this raises a critical question. Should a particular theme, coming forth out of the history of a particular tradition be given such a dominant emphasis in a global denomination at the exclusion of other emphases stemming from other traditions? Applied to our topic, why should abstinence be stressed at the expense of issues that Nazarenes in other parts of the world see as more pressing than abstinence? In the previous paragraph I have listed two emphases that many Dutch Nazarenes feel strong about, and I can imagine that Nazarenes from other countries have other valuable concerns. Approaching the question concerning abstinence historically, we give a narrative that reflects the history of the holiness movement in the beginning decades of the 20th century in the United States. I think it is a wonderful testimony of the earnest zeal and compassion of our church. But should this be such a dominant theme in a global church, realizing that abstinence is not part of the church traditions in all parts of the world? Is there room for other concerns from Nazarenes in other parts of the world? And far more importantly, shouldn’t we be fighting other issues that on a global scale have a much greater destructive impact?
The greatest challenge to global church denominations such as the Church of the Nazarene is not dogma, but addressing the ethical questions in such a way that they build on our theological confession and not reflect the history and culture of a particular geographical segment of the church. This is not an easy process because we all bring our own cultural traditions and perspectives to the table. In the midst of all these different perspectives we need to focus on what we have in common. The work done on human sexuality which resulted in resolution CA-701 has provided a model for our denomination. I still rejoice about the 97% favourite vote by the General Assembly. This provides a pathway in dealing with other ethical issues that have the potential to divide us.
I think we, as a denomination, are approaching a similar point in our history that the early New Testament church reached as the make-up of the church was becoming more diverse. The debate reported in Acts 15 on the issue of circumcision, or the arguments concerning food as addressed by Paul in Romans 14, come close to the dialogue we are having in our global church. As Paul told a new narrative based on the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and fulfilment of the law, so we need to rewrite our denominational narrative. We need a new story that is comprehensive and not selective based on a particular history. Our denominational story is too much one of growth and international expansion of an originally American church in the holiness tradition. Historically this is accurate, but as we tell this narrative it rings a bell of colonialism in the ears of Europeans who feel ashamed of that element in their own national histories. What I am asking for is a more inclusive, global narrative similar to what we have done by selecting 1908 as the year of birth for our church, rather than 1895, when a particular congregation used the Church of the Nazarene name for the first time. As I reflect on the sermons preached by our general superintendents during the last General Assembly, I can detect the story line of this new narrative. We are one body, with one Lord, one Spirit, one faith, one hope.
In our new narrative we need to rejoice and welcome the various cultural implementations of the holy life. Those who advocate abstinence will be joined by others who, with the same commitment, call for environmental concerns, economic justice, or observance of the Lord’s day. Pro-life campaigners will be joined by those who fight against racism and human trafficking. Coming from different nations, cultures and traditions, we then widen the perspective on what living a God-honouring life implies. In a global and interconnected world we need the diversity to avoid being selective, and to diminish our culturally shaped blind spots in order to become comprehensive. Using words from Ephesians 3:18, only together with all the saints will we be able to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the holy life.
Along with such an approach, confession becomes an important element. As we become aware of the complexities of ethical issues and develop a comprehensive approach it will be evident that no individual nor any single church in a particular cultural context is able to live up to all of the ethical standards. Acknowledging that we fall short and are continually in need of grace will help us avoid individual boasting or exhibiting a judgmental spirit. I also think that promoting the high demands of living the life of Christ will be more trustworthy when we admit along with Paul: “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on…” (Philippians 3:12, NASB).
Back to the discussion on alcohol. Alcohol is indeed a problem in many of our societies and the church needs to give a clear warning. The church community needs to illustrate that having a party is not dependent on the availability of alcohol. Being a counter-cultural community will strengthen our warning for uncritical and heavy consumption of alcohol and the resulting damage. This voice of protest is needed in many of our societies. The traditional call of our denomination for abstinence can help the Church of the Nazarene in the Netherlands be such a voice of protest. However, my observation is that the disproportionate emphasis on abstinence over other concerns that are more pressing to Dutch Nazarenes makes the call for abstinence counter-productive. That is why we need a new narrative that is global and comprehensive.