By Elaine Alfaro and Charis Johnston
Senior pastor Dee Kelley at First Church of the Nazarene, located on Point Loma Nazarene University’s campus, stood trial within the Church of the Nazarene on Aug. 11, accused of spreading false teaching regarding human sexuality. The Regional Board of Discipline in the Church of the Nazarene determined him guilty and ultimately voted to remove his credentials.
The upset began after Kelley contributed an essay entitled “A Hope For Change” to Nazarene Theologian Thomas Jay Oord’s book, “Why the Church of the Nazarene Should Be Fully LGBTQIA+ Affirming.”
Kelley wrote that the purpose of his essay was to encourage conversation within the church: “I hope our church might continue to be a place where discourse is welcome. I hope we chart a course where disagreements are viewed as opportunities for learning and growth. We certainly disagree on how to embody the gospel message when it comes to the LGBTQIA+ community. May this become a time for learning and growth.”
After the essay was published, two pastors in the Southern California Nazarene district, who were also serving on the District Advisory Board, reported his actions to the District Superintendent, Tom Taylor, according to Ron Benefiel, a member and minister of the Church of the Nazarene and the director of PLNU’s Center for Pastoral Leadership. Superintendent Taylor has not responded to The Point’s multiple requests for an interview.
From there, an investigation was launched which led to the trial in August. Despite the desire to create dialogue in the Church of the Nazarene, Kelley said he has not been included in conversation.
“Six months passed from the time I wrote the essay to the time of the trial. In that time I never had an opportunity to provide context, share my intent, offer my perspective or present my case to the superintendency,” Kelley said via an email interview with The Point.
Kelley and his wife were the only people allowed present in the trial in addition to the disciplinary board. However, members of First Church of the Nazarene and friends stood outside of the trial in support.
According to Kelley, he has filed an appeal which was received and confirmed in the church headquarters on Sept. 11. The Regional Appeals Board will now determine if the appeal has merit. According to Kelley, the Regional Appeals Board was appointed after the General Assembly in June.
Professor Brad Kelle from PLNU’s School of Theology and Christian Ministry offered insight on the purposes of a trial within the church. As a disclaimer, Kelle requested to clarify the following: “Although I am a professor at PLNU and an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene, I speak in this article just for me and not as a spokesperson who represents the views of the School of Theology and Christian Ministry, PLNU or the Church of the Nazarene.”
Regarding Nazarene trials, Kelle wrote via email, “There are various kinds of ‘trials,’ but they are all related to the larger disciplinary process of the church.”
According to the 2017-2021 “Church of the Nazarene Manual,” “The objectives of church discipline are to sustain the integrity of the church, to protect the innocent from harm, to protect the effectiveness of the witness of the church, to warn and correct the careless, to bring the guilty to salvation, to rehabilitate the guilty, to restore to effective service those who are rehabilitated, and to protect the reputation and resources of the church. Members of the church who do violence to the Covenant of Christian Character or the Covenant of Christian Conduct, or who willfully and continuously violate their membership vows, should be dealt with kindly yet faithfully, according to the grievousness of their offenses.”
During the past year, the Church of the Nazarene made changes regarding the hierarchy of Nazarene doctrine. The Board of General Superintendents (BGS) issued a ruling in March that declared the Covenant of Christian Character and the Covenant of Christian Conduct essential doctrine.
The ruling stated: “The Board of General Superintendents (BGS) approved a NEW ruling on 29 March 2023 regarding Doctrinal Statement that is being communicated to district and regional leaders:
‘The Articles of Faith, the Covenant of Christian Character, and the Covenant of Christian Conduct, are essential statements of the doctrine of the Church of the Nazarene, as well as those portions of the Manual pertaining to what we believe and how we live in light of those beliefs.’”
Regarding human sexuality, the Covenant of Christian Conduct states in section 31: “In order to resist adding to the brokenness of sin and to be able to witness to the beauty and uniqueness of God’s holy purposes for our bodies, we believe members of the body of Christ, enabled by the Spirit, can and should refrain from…
- Sexual activity between people of the same sex. Because we believe that it is God’s intention for our sexuality to be lived out in the covenantal union between one woman and one man, we believe the practice of same-sex sexual intimacy is contrary to God’s will for human sexuality. While a person’s homosexual or bi-sexual attraction may have complex and differing origins, and the implication of this call to sexual purity is costly, we believe the grace of God is sufficient for such a calling. We recognize the shared responsibility of the body of Christ to be a welcoming, forgiving, and loving community where hospitality, encouragement, transformation, and accountability are available to all.”
The elevation of the Covenant of Christian Character and the Covenant of Christian Conduct has never happened before.
“The ruling from the BGS that elevated the covenants to the status of ‘essential doctrine’ might have been ill-timed, ill-considered and tone deaf in the current local contexts of the church, especially as the church attempts to navigate the very difficult issues related to human sexuality with compassion and in good faith,” Kelle said.
The BGS attempted to clarify the ruling in April. See the video on YouTube. General superintendent Gustavo Crocker stated that the covenants, while not part of the Articles of Faith, are “historically important to the denomination” and thus have been determined to be essential statements.
“Rather than just take the human sexuality piece and make a statement about that, they decided: That’s part of the Covenant of Christian Conduct, and so we’re going to just do the whole thing and elevate all those together. But, really the pivotal point was on human sexuality,” Benefiel said.
Due to Kelley’s trial and appeal, Benefiel said little is known about how the covenants will continue to affect future trials within the Church of the Nazarene; however, Kelle said the elevation of the covenants impacted Kelley’s trial.
“Whatever problems the ruling was thought to solve, it has created many more, some of which have harmed the lives of persons (now even costing one pastor his ministry and livelihood),” Kelle said.
Kelley balanced pastoral leadership between the congregation and Nazarene leadership for over 16 years, according to the First Church of the Nazarene website. He said this balance has required intentionality, especially after the BGS’ ruling regarding the covenants.
“I think most pastors navigate some of the ecclesial oversight changes with great care and discretion,” Kelley said. “A good pastor holds the tension between the expectations of the superintendency to whom she/he reports and the character of the congregation whom she/he serves. The recent elevation of the covenants came across to many clergy as simply an act of greater control over the local pastor, and an implied decrease of trust in the local pastor by the superintendency.”
The lack of clarity regarding how the covenants will be enforced is a key concern, according to Benefiel.
“The General Superintendents have not retracted their declaration regarding human sexuality, so now it’s just sort of hanging out there for a lot of younger pastors and people who are more progressive on some of these issues to wonder what that means for them,” Benefiel said. “That’s really pretty unresolved and the issue with Dee [Kelley] is sort of the test case. We are right here at ground zero both with Dee and with regard to some of the rulings here at Point Loma in the spring. And it has implications, reverberations, especially across the country but potentially even around the world.”
In the process of reporting, The Point has reached out to employees and members of the First Church of the Nazarene and of PLNU who declined to comment on the record for fear of losing employment or being subject to consequences imposed by the BGS.
“If this elevation of the covenants continues to be used in this way [bringing charges against ministers].., it could possibly have the very chilling effect of removing the ability to ask questions about or to critically evaluate various stances held by the denomination,” Kelle said.
PLNU is directed by a board of trustees in addition to university President Bob Brower, who follow the bylaws of PLNU. As an affiliated institution with the Church of the Nazarene, the bylaws currently state, “All members of the board of trustees must be a member in good standing of his/her local church, committed to living his/her life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and understand and support the doctrines and practices of the Church of the Nazarene. All trustees shall be members of the Church of the Nazarene with the possible exceptions of the ex-officio positions of Alumni President and Foundation President and up to three other trustees elected by the board.”
Esteban Trujillo, university chaplain at PLNU, clarified how chapel programming is connected to the Church of the Nazarene.
“PLNU is connected to our sponsoring denomination, The Church of the Nazarene, and therefore the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene that goes through waves of edits during our quadrennial gatherings, is the lens through which many of PLNU’s policies and programming align, including chapel,” Trujillo said via email. “Furthermore, we also recognize that our student community is multi-denominational, and therefore chapel will have a diversity of representation in speakers and styles of expression of worship. We recognize that we belong to something greater, which is the global Body of Christ represented by church denominations connected to the head of the body, Christ Jesus.”
As Kelley and the congregation of First Church of the Nazarene navigate the appeal period, Kelley said support from the community and support for the community has been heartening.
“The community support has come through prayer, cards, letters of encouragement, letters to those in ecclesiastical authority, phone calls to church superintendents, meals dropped off at the house, offers of homes for personal retreats, a rally at a parking lot outside the hearing venue, and gift cards for an evening out,” Kelley said. “It feels like love in a tangible way. Support for the community has included transparency about all that is taking place, lament services, grief counseling for staff, amazing guest speakers and a very wise church board and church staff who have planned well, prudently executed those plans and held the emotional weightedness of these circumstances with both truth and grace.”
This is a developing story. The Point will continue to investigate and report.
Written By: Elaine Alfaro and Charis Johnston