God’s holy people, divided yet one

Introduction: I presented this paper at a theology conference of the Eurasia Region of the Church of the Nazarene in November 2019. In it I share insights I gained in writing the articles on human sexuality. This paper focusses on keeping unity in the church when ethical dilemmas cause division.   

Ethicist Patrick Nullens published a book called Caring for a strong headed flock,[1] referring to the congregation in a postmodern society as independent and well informed. The word “strongheaded” is not meant negatively. The people in the churches today can think for themselves; they have a strong and well developed head or mind. The current situation in many of our churches is far removed from the traditional picture of the flock, obediently following the church and its pastors.

Let me expand the description of the church today with another adjective; diverse. The changes in our societies are reflected in the make-up of our churches. Especially congregations in urban societies have become far more diverse than 50 years ago. I am not only thinking of multi-ethnic congregations. But think of the opposing political positions members of one congregation take, the opposing moral values they have, the literature with varying theological convictions they read, and the wide range of generational preferences. Our congregations today are far less homogeneous than they used to be.

Let’s move from grass root level to our denomination. All the Nazarene articles of faith begin with the words “We believe…”. Yet, the brief statement of belief in article 20 is introduced with the following words: “Recognizing that the right and privilege of persons to church membership rest upon the fact of their being regenerate, we would require only such avowals of belief as are essential to Christian experience”.[2] The wording indicates that a person can join the Church of the Nazarene who is not in agreement with all that is stated in the confession of faith. Therefore I raise the question who is included when we say “We believe…”?

I raise this question with in my mind the enormous diversity in our local congregations and its strong headed membership. In a publication of the World Council of Churches in 2013 it was stated that over the last 30 years moral discernment has received increased attention as a source of division between churches and within denominations.[3] It are no longer the doctrinal and theological issues that threaten the unity of the church but the moral questions.

Questions concerning homosexuality have been a major source of division within the Dutch district. The debate among the pastors started in 2005. At times it was very emotional with opposing  positions. After years of dialogue, prayer, and study we were able to formulate a pastoral approach concerning homosexuals in our communities.[4] Even though consensus is not possible, we have reached a workable solution that keeps the district, its pastors and congregations united for the sake of being a witness of Jesus Christ in our context.

During our quest it became evident that we were engaged in an exercise for the future of our church in a postmodern environment. The ultimate question was: How can we bridge differences of opinion in Christ? For us the issue was homosexuality, in other districts the divisive issue may be another topic, but the goal will be the same: How to remain one when we disagree. So what have we learned? I want to present four imperatives for keeping unity when confronted with ethical dilemmas.

  1. Acknowledge the complexity and the hermeneutical questions involved

First of all an acknowledgment is required that the issue is complex in various ways and that debate and difference of opinion exist not just between representatives of different theological and denominational traditions but also among people of the same “tribe”. Easy solutions will not help; thorough examination is needed. It also needs to be communicated that difference of opinion is okay. Space for an open conversation needs to be created with input from specialists from all sides. Also the hermeneutical complexities related to various ethical issues need to be acknowledged. In our debate on homosexuality we reached a point when we realized that we had basic agreement on the exegesis but when it came to the interpretation and application people reached opposite conclusions.  Acknowledging that this happens without disqualifying the other position as biblically unsound is a major step towards unity.

  1. Apply the Wesleyan quadrilateral

In our journey Scripture was not always as clear as we had hoped, it did not give us all the answers we needed. We needed more information and followed Wesley’s method of finding supplemental guidance in tradition, reason and experience. For us it meant we listened to the experience of (Christian) homosexuals, observed how other denominations in our country dealt with the topic, and studied the debates in the area’s of medicine and psychology. Widening the scope of our focus beyond Scripture was necessary in order to translate Scripture into an ethical position that is relevant and a true witness of Christ in our context.

  1. Develop a Christocentric ecclesiology

The third imperative relates to how we look at the church. The church is the community of disciples centered around Christ. The unity of our church lies in the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Son of God and as the model for holiness. Such a view allows for differences of opinion concerning theological and moral issues not essential to our core statement of faith. This is the wisdom behind paragraph 20 of the Manual concerning the brief statement of faith. Yet our history as a holiness church reveals a tendency to define certain characteristics of the holy life as essential as well for being a Nazarene. Then ethical behavior or having a similar ethical view competes with the centrality of Jesus as the foundation for unity.

In our district we have homosexuals who feel at home in our churches, several of them have been raised in our churches. Should we deny them as our Nazarene brothers or sisters based on certain moral decisions they make that are not in line with the official position our church? Such a question triggers even more questions. In the end we were forced to rethink our practice as a church, and started to realize that the ultimate question is not about homosexuality but ecclesiology.

Following such a Christocentric model for the church helped us to see the church as a community on its way. The portrait of the disciples, especially in the Gospel of Mark, is of a group of followers of Jesus who did not get it immediately. The church in Acts is described as a community who had still many things to learn. As we contemplate on these examples, we may be able to suppress our tendency to describe the church as we think it ought to be, and create space for differences of opinion on complex moral issues, even when the church has a clear stand. Such an approach is not a sign of laxity but of wisdom. For it acknowledges that people and the church can err, and that only in prayer, open conversation, and obedience to Scripture will we reach new and better insights.

  1. Have courage to make debatable decisions

In our context, we realized that something had to be done. We could not continue doing the same thing and hope that we would eventually reach consensus. Neither could we continue saying we love all homosexuals, while their feeling of being rejected remains. The solution was not a new statement, but a new way of expressing our unity in Christ. Courage was needed for a debatable decision.

We found wisdom in Paul’s advice in Romans 14-15 where he articulates a compromise to keep the unity within the community. We found direction in the way Jesus dealt with people such as prostitutes, tax collectors, beggars, lepers, Samaritans and gentiles, women and children. The official religious representatives considered these  persons as sinners, people to be avoided, or of insignificant value. But Jesus incorporated them into the community in order to give them the experience of being loved and cared for. This approach gave him the questionable reputation of  being a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Out of love Jesus made debatable decisions that caused many disputes. But those concerned felt safe in Jesus company.

As a district we made debatable decisions, that can be easily labeled as too liberal or still too conservative, but we made them out of love for the homosexuals involved and with respect for our denomination and fellow Nazarenes in other countries. The purpose of this paper and the limited space do not allow me to outline the pastoral approach we designed. My point is that when confronted with divisive situations in our communities we need courage to make debatable decisions. Otherwise nothing significant will happen and we let a certain situation harm the church community and the testimony of the church in society.

I have used this paper as an opportunity to reflect on what we have worked on in our district for the past 15 years and to describe a generic approach of how to be the church, divided, but still united and one in Christ. I present the four imperatives as a possible roadmap for our denomination. I bring this into the open for further debate in order to learn. I am also on the way, always learning and open to exchange my roadmap for a better one in building a community of God’s holy people, divided yet one.


[1] Patrick Nullens, Zorgen voor een eigenwijze kudde, een pastorale ethiek voor een missionaire kerk, 2015, Zoetermeer: Uitgeverij Boekencentrum.

[2] Manual Church of the Nazarene, 2017-2021, paragraph 20.

[3]  Moral Discernment in the Churches, A Study Document. Faith and Order Paper No. 215, WCC Publications, 2013, page 58.

[4] The conclusion was published in September 2019 as the final article is a series of 18 lengthy articles over a three year period. All articles will be published as a book and translated into English.

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