As Nazarenes, our core values are clear. We are Christian, we are holiness, and we are missional. Regarding the first value – “We are Christian” – we celebrate the remarkable times in which we live. For the broader Church of Jesus Christ, these are days of conciliation, of unity, of coming together for the sake of the Gospel and the advance of the Kingdom of God on earth. It’s a great moment to be alive and on the winning team!
The evidence of growing unity is all around us. In 1998, a joint declaration between Roman Catholics and Lutherans on the nature of justification was pronounced, a declaration ratified in 2006 by the World Methodist Council. Closer to home for those in the Wesleyan-Holiness orbit, 2011 saw the birth of the Global Wesleyan Alliance, with the 2013 meeting witnessing the participation of 11 denominations, including the Wesleyan Church, the Salvation Army, the Church of God (Anderson), the Church of the Nazarene, the Free Methoodist Church USA, and others. These are encouraging signs that the Holy Spirit is bringing us together in new ways, helping us advance in unity and with greater joint effectiveness.
As the only Nazarene missionaries living in the West African country of Benin (1999-2003), we reached out to missionaries of other denominations. Every Sunday night, twenty or so met together for Bible study, prayer and fellowship. On Wednesday, our missionary men’s group met for breakfast. Despite differences, we were one in Christ. Friendships forged with brothers and sisters of different theological persuasions became our lifeline. While we didn’t agree on a handful of doctrinal issues, we knew this: We needed each other!
Against this larger backdrop of cooperation between churches of various traditions – a move to strengthen the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love, as the old hymn says – a dischordant note has been sounded this week by Nazarene pastor and blogger Josh Broward in his essay, “Will the Church of the Nazarene split?”
I don’t begrudge Pastor Broward his right to ask the question. Our denomination from the start at Pilot Point, Texas in 1908 has been founded upon a spirit of compromise to bring together diverse groups. Tensions have existed all along, and sometimes those tensions have resulted in schism, like when the Bible Missionary Church left the denomination in 1955 over the issue of television. Smaller splits happen in Africa, such as when a handful of Nazarene congregations in southeast Nigeria broke away from the denomination in the early 1990s. If Paul and Barnabas went their own ways over the issue of John Mark and his usefulness to the mission as a traveling companion (Acts 15:36-41), can we expect to always have unity in our time?
That being said, there are 4 reasons why expending energy talking about denominational schism is misguided:
1- Talk of a split ignores that the Holy Spirit is moving churches closer, not further apart. At the very moment when an interdenominational choir of Christians is learning to make beautiful music together, the “Shall we split?” dirge from some Nazarenes sounds strangely off-key. Instead, Paul advises:”So then we pursue the things that make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19, NASB).
2 – Talk of a split overlooks the far more significant themes that unite us. We are a holiness church. Like a bus, car, plane or bicycle are all valid modes of transportation, it matters little which we take as long as together we reach our destination. As a denomination, our “destination” (mission) is clear. We are all about making Christlike disciples in the nations. How much time do we really want to spend discussing matters that risk distracting us from that calling? The voice in Luke Skywalker’s head as he honed in on the Death Star with his X-wing fighter was simple: “Stay on target.” As a church, let’s do the same.
3 – Talk of a split may dissolve the missions glue that is part of what holds us together. Cross-cultural ministry supported cooperatively has been a crucial element of our Nazarene DNA from the start. How is our missionary activity financed? While more and more Nazarenes in the 5 world regions outside North America are responding to the call to contribute to the World Evangelism Fund (WEF), the lion’s portion is still contributed by Nazarenes on the U.S.A./Canada region.
As a salaried Nazarene missionary, I know firsthand the value of WEF. It is the engine that drives our missionary efforts around the world. While WEF supports many vital initiatives related to our global advance, it also subsidizes emerging Nazarene higher educational institutions, schools that provide a way for women and men to prepare educationally in response to God’s call to vocational ministry. Only a strong, unified church around the world can hope to provide the monetary support that makes such educational efforts possible.
Further, reports from missionaries and news of our compassionate ministries around the globe serve as an important check to the spread of xenophobia. A photo taken in Benin of our young son with his Senegalese Muslim classmate was featured in a 1990s Nazarene missionary book. Many commented favorably to us about the photo, yet that photo never would have existed if we hadn’t been in West Africa, supported by the prayers and sacrificial giving of the Nazarenes who sent us. The same goes today for hundreds of missionaries serving around the world as ambassadors for Christ, ministers of reconciliation. If talk of “split” – however well-intentioned – in any way jeopardizes those efforts, then such talk comes at too high a price.
4 – Talk of a split entertains a solution that is no solution at all. Since when has division within the Body of Christ been a witness to the unbeliever? John 13:35 affirms rather that it is our love that is the hallmark of the Christ-follower, a love that Paul says “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor. 13:7, NIV). Above, I lamented that a handful of Nazarene congregations in Nigeria chose to breakaway from the denomination rather than stay and work out their differences. Nazarenes are not alone in that damaging dysfunction. Driving through the city of Aba (southeast Nigeria), I saw a roadsign pointing to the right: “Assemblies of God.” A few hundred meters down the road, another roadsign pointed to the left: “The True Assemblies of God.” How this must grieve the heart of Jesus!
Splits are not a solution; rather, they deeply tarnish the testimony of the people of God. Yet schism is seductive, leading those who entertain it to think that it solves problems. Truth be known, from a kingdom perspective, schism is a disaster.
Enough talk about breaking up. Rather, let’s celebrate the positive outcomes of unity.
Jesus prayed for his disciples to be one (John 17:21). We live in amazing times, times of coming together around themes that unite Christians of all stripes. My hope is that we will not miss what the Spirit is saying to the churches (Revelation 2:29) because we remain distracted by conversations that do not promote the unity that makes for strength. Let us not forget our first Nazarene core value, that we are Christian. As such, we have a contribution to make as Nazarenes to the peace, health and unity of the larger Body of Christ. Can we make that contribution to broader unity if we as Nazarenes are consumed internally by distracting and divisive conversations?
Not all have bought into the binary thinking of “Do we stay together or do we go our separate ways?” Broward himself raises the possibility of “orders” within the church, and Jason Rowinski drills deeper on the idea, offering it as a “third way.” A former Roman Catholic and now an ordained Nazarene elder and pastor, his analogy between departments of the church (such as NYI and NMI) and Roman Catholic religious orders seems apt, though I wonder whether historically orders have ever existed within Protestantism. Also, the loose bond of saying one is part of NYI or NMI seems a far cry from the monastic vows made by a Jesuit or Dominican, to the point of making any such comparison seem disrespectful to the latter.
Image credit: theworldroamer.com