Assembly Holds Firm to Views on Moral Laxity : Nazarenes Resisting Whims of Social Change
The Church of the Nazarene, an American-born denomination that grew out of a turn-of-the-century movement convinced that true Christians would be marked by their godly behavior, has resisted successfully by its own accounts the whims of social change and moral laxity.
Social dancing, Hollywood movies, lotteries and other forms of gambling, alcoholic beverages and smoking are still considered sinful diversions from the sanctified lives sought in the growing 750,000-member Protestant church body.
No resolutions sought to weaken those stands at the 21st General Assembly that ended Friday at the Anaheim Convention Center.
In fact, the nearly 800 delegates expressed unanimously their “abhorrence” of pornography in one resolution. In another action, they toughened their opposition to abortion by saying it is permissible only when the life of the mother is endangered. The previous statement allowed for abortions arising from health problems evident in the fetus.
But in one area where the denominational leaders are committed to change--to foster the “internationalization” of the worldwide church based in Kansas City, Mo.--the Nazarenes made no dramatic shift.
Two vacancies in the six-man Board of General Superintendents were filled with the election of two church officials from the heartland of America, leaving undisturbed the string of North American clergymen elected to the denomination’s highest administrative body.
The closest candidate from overseas was German-born Richard Zanner, a church official in Africa, who ran about fourth in most of the balloting.
Elected on the 10th ballot were the Revs. Raymond W. Hurn, an executive at Nazarene headquarters for the last 17 years, and John A. Knight Sr., president of the Bethany Nazarene College in Bethany, Okla. (Bethany Nazarene College received mention during the 1984 presidential primaries because Democratic contender Gary Hart, raised a Nazarene, was graduated from that school.)
Nevertheless, Knight said the church’s long-range goal is to increase the involvement of its members outside of the United States, who make up about one-third of the membership.
Jerald D. Johnson, who was world missions director before becoming a general superintendent in 1980, said, ‘We’re trying to be one church.’
Johnson, in an interview, said that some Americans tend to question whether converts in other cultures will “measure up” to Nazarene standards of wholesome living--an attitude he said needed to be modified.
A Dutch delegate indicated that some church members tend to depict non-Americans as “barbarians” who are always looking to be excused from the social strictures customarily followed by U.S. Nazarenes.
Johnson said he hopes to see fewer new church members abroad carried in the “probationary” status in the future. Of the 516,020 U.S. church members at the end of 1984, only 1,083 were in that waiting stage. But 70,000 persons were considered probationary members in other countries, nearly one-third of the foreign membership.
The Church of the Nazarene is the closest in theology and practice to an early stage of Methodist churches. It is a member of the Christian Holiness Assn., which includes the Salvation Army. About two years ago, the denomination joined the National Assn. of Evangelicals.
Nazarene leaders are comfortable with the label “conservative evangelical” but would deny the tag “fundamentalist” because of their emphasis on freedom of conscience.
It might seem even progressive at first in one area. Women have been ordained to the ministry throughout Nazarene history, including Gary Hart’s grandmother in 1914. However, few women today are pastors of large churches and no woman serves as a district superintendent.
Johnson said the status of women ministers is not an issue in the church. “I don’t have women coming to me and saying they’ve been turned down,” he said.
One issue that continues to pop up--despite the denomination’s long-standing opposition to it--is the Pentecostal-type prayer practice of “speaking in tongues.” The church has always disputed the Pentecostal belief that the sign that a Christian was ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ was the ability to speak in an “unknown language.”
Many mainline Protestant denominations, as well as Catholic parishes, witnessed a neo-Pentecostal movement in their ranks since the late 1960s but few major controversies erupted.
‘Cleansing of the Heart’
Nazarene delegates passed without discussion a resolution reaffirming their own stance that the “infilling of the Holy Spirit” leads not to certain gifts of tongues-speaking or prophecy but to “cleansing of the heart by faith from original sin as stated in Acts 15:8-9.” The statement said “prayer language,” as it is sometimes called, is contrary to the biblical and church position.
The Rev. Stephen Gustin, pastor of Azusa Church of the Nazarene, said the practice is far more prevalent than supposed by most Nazarenes. He said he is open about the use of “prayer language” and so is his growing, 200-member church. Gustin claimed that a half-dozen other pastors in the Los Angeles district also speak in tongues but have kept their experiences quiet.
However, the Rev. Paul Benefiel, district superintendent for Los Angeles, said that Gustin “has told me he does not (speak in tongues). He has given me assurances that he does not embrace doctrines and usages contrary to the Chuch of the Nazarene.”
Benefiel also said that Gustin’s statements “would seem to be a break” with Nazarene tradition. As for other Los Angeles area pastors alleged by Gustin to have experienced Pentecostal-like “gifts,” Benefiel said, “I totally doubt it. I think I would know about it.”