To Be Nazarene is to Love Those on the Margins

* Please note the Headline change from “Being Nazarene Means Loving the Marginalized” in the print edition to “To Be Nazarene is to Love Those on the Margins” per the request of the contributor. 

By: Josh Gailey

My family has been deeply involved in the Church of the Nazarene (CotN) for over 100 years, with six ordained elders (four still living) in the church. While at Point Loma Nazarene University, most students I have interacted with are not from the Nazarene tradition. 

According to Ron Benefiel, the director of PLNU’s Center for Pastoral Leadership, a recent internal analysis showed that around 6.5% of students were Nazarene. The diversity of religious backgrounds provides space for important interdenominational discourse, but the relative lack of Nazarene-specific understanding can be a challenge when students desire to engage in discussions about recent events relating to Nazarene polity.

The CotN, like most Christian traditions, has a long history of debate about the tenets of its doctrine. What I write here will not be summative, nor should it be interpreted as a representation of all Nazarene thought. My intention is to provide some important historical context that might be relevant to understanding some of the Nazarene discourse taking place today. 

The CotN is a denomination of Christian tradition coming out of the Wesleyan movement and was officially founded a little over 100 years ago. The most notable figure in the church’s founding was Phineas F. Bresee, who helped start a church in downtown Los Angeles with the explicit intent to serve poor and disadvantaged people in the community.

As a Wesleyan movement, the main tool by which doctrine is decided is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. While there is much debate about the application of the Quadrilateral, the basic idea is that there are four ways, that are used in conjunction with each other, to form theological positions: Scripture, tradition, experience and reason. While some denominations will use only the Bible as a source of doctrine (sola scriptura), this is not the position of the CotN (which follows a prima scriptura model). 

The church’s stance on alcohol would be an example of the Quadrilateral in action. There is not a biblically supported moratorium on alcohol consumption, although there are injunctions against habitual drinking and drunkenness. However, the context of alcohol consumption has changed since the Bible was written. 

Alcohol was a delicacy for special occasions, something that Jesus took part in, but it was too expensive to habitually consume alcohol. At the founding of the CotN, and still today, alcohol is much cheaper and more easily accessible, which can lead to alcoholism and sometimes poverty. Bresee started the church to help people in poverty, and if alcohol was an issue that contributed to poverty, then, even though Scripture alone would not provide the justification for a rejection of alcohol, experience and reason could provide that justification (but also, not experience and reason alone; they are used in conjunction with the Scripture – Romans 14, for example). 

There is precedent within the Nazarene church (for many issues, not just this one) that rules and structures can be added, removed and changed to follow the intended desires of Christ, especially where contemporary context differs from historical context. This is not to reject the law but to fulfill the intentions of the law. 

Colloquially, there is a distinction between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. Christians might agree that they cannot deny both the spirit and letter of the Bible; however, they might disagree on whether one of them can be denied. The CotN has historically been open to both options regarding biblical interpretation. 

Jesus himself makes clear some of the distinctions between the letter and the spirit of the law. For example, he said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…” (Matthew 5:21-22). The literal message would only apply to the act of physically killing another person, but Jesus says that even the internal intention of violence is wrong. 

This is in no way to diminish the law. In Jesus’ own words, he had not “come to abolish the law or the prophets… but to fulfill,” (Matthew 5:17). However, when asked which law was the most important, Jesus did not respond that all laws are equal and should be discussed equally. He said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” (Matthew 22: 37-40). The fulfillment of the love of God and neighbor is the fulfillment of the law.

We even have biblical support for the altering of doctrine to include as many as possible in the grace of God. Acts 15:1-35 recalls the early church debates about whether or not Gentiles would need to follow all of the Jewish laws to take part in salvation. The decision was made that Gentiles would not need to follow all of the laws as imposing those rules would prevent people from participating in salvation. This is especially important to consider if the imposition of a law causes direct violence to one’s neighbor. 

The CotN was started to support those in poverty, orphaned children, widowed people and those who have immigrated; those on the margins whom Jesus especially called us to care for. While the structure and implements of the CotN manual have a long and storied past, something that certainly should be discussed, what I would like to emphasize as most important to an understanding of Nazarene doctrine is that to be a Nazarene is to be someone with an imperative to love and care for those siblings of ours who have been most marginalized. It was the reason the church was founded and should remain the guiding principle for the denomination’s future.