Have you ever met someone that was instantly the most awesome person you ever met? They said the right thing at the right time. They told the funniest jokes but with appropriate tact. They dressed in the most fashionable ways and liked all the right hobbies. Compliments poured out of their mouth at every turn and they even volunteered at orphanages and animal shelters.
Then you met their spouse. . .who was all right but less than awesome. But you figured, I will hang out with the spouse if it means getting to know this incredible person all the more.
That is kind of like how it is with Christ and the Church.
But then again, have you ever met someone that was instantly the most awesome person you ever met and then you met their spouse and their spouse was the meanest, most cruel, vindictive person ever? They regularly drove away well meaning people. They hated everybody who wasn’t them? They held extremely controversial political views that they were willing to share, more like yell, at everybody they met? And then as you got to know them you discovered they moonlighted as a hooker on the weekend, selling their body and soul to the highest bidder?
That is actually how it is with Christ and the Church.
I love Jesus. I just spent a couple of months getting to know Jesus more in the Gospel of Mark and I am planning on spending the next couple months getting to know the Risen Jesus in the last chapters of all four gospels. I want to hang out with Jesus. I want to love Jesus more and be more like this awesome God who has found me in empty tombs and on roads to Emmaus and hilltops in Galilee.
But Jesus’ bride, the church, scares me half to death.
Last week as I journeyed with Jesus to the cross, a professor was terminated at one of our institutions. This professor was often called Dr. Love as he has written some of the best works out there on theologies and philosophies of love. He also holds controversial philosophical views, views that I value but ultimately disagree with. Since the university hired him, there has been a growing group of reformed fundamentalists who have issued all kinds of threats to the university for having him on faculty.
According to official announcements the threats to the university had nothing to do with the termination. Instead the university needed more money for capitol improvements and marketing. If I take that announcement at face value, which many are not, it is still quite troubling. Our university cares more about buildings and raising money than we do about quality professors.
This flows out of a trend in all universities (public and private) to turn higher education into a glorified pyramid scheme. Over the last 30 years higher education tuition has skyrocketed, fundraising has never been easier and professional sports have poured millions into the coffers. All this time, faculty wages have remained flat while administrative costs (buildings and executive positions) have skyrocketed. It seems like higher ed is now a market that raises money so that it can raise money so that it can hire people to raise more money. As a whole the market has forgotten it is there to educate students, not to raise money and build bigger buildings and win football games.
Our private Christian universities have learned that the best fundraising strategy is to claim that we are not as heartless as the secular universities. We care about our students. We focus on giving them quality education. We like our low student to faculty ratios. And yet here we are, eliminating faculty to increase our pyramid scheme.
To make it worse, the professor was notified while on vacation in Hawaii. My father works for a failing technology company who has had scores and scores of layoffs in the last ten years. In my father’s very dark, somber work place, everybody is afraid to take vacations because they are afraid that the minute they leave town, they will be axed. I used to take great comfort that at least we respected each other, even our enemies, enough that the church would never do that. Now I am afraid to take a vacation.
And this latest flare up in the church is only one in a long line. At another institution, a chaplain was demoted one week, suspended the next.** The spark that lit that fire was a very humble sermon asking people to think about their love for a very violent movie in light of Jesus’ call to peace. What scares me is that it was a sermon I very well could have preached.
Right before that a friend of mine was forced to resign his pastorate because he asked hard questions about the role patriotism plays in our worship.
Before that a friend of mine was forced to leave our denomination in Wyoming due to ideological differences concerning women in ministry.
Before that another friend was driven out not for any particular ideological “flaw” but just because he was a student of our university and seminary so it was assumed there must be an ideological flaw.
Before that another friend was forced out due to ideological differences with district leadership.
I do not know the full stories in any of these situations, but I do know my friends. Even if they did make one or two lousy judgment calls (which I am sure some of them did) grace means we should not banish them from our communities.
And all of this makes me wonder, am I next? It seems like in the Church of the Nazarene, my kind is being killed off quite vehemently. When will the church’s violent and vindictive sword find me? What honest mistake or ideological view will it be? And what will be the price for my family, for my friends, for my soul?
The Church of the Nazarene started as a big tent church. Every line in our early Manuals was a testament to our willingness to debate, dialog and compromise when needed. We have always loved and welcomed conservative fundamentalists and progressive liberals. We have been proud that both could worship under the same tent and engage in fierce but loving dialog with those who think differently. This means, I have several friends who are very conservative and slightly fundamentalist and I love them and rejoice they are a part of this denomination. I value their input and opinions and want them to stick around because I love them.
But when members of the conservative fundamentalist group suddenly turn violent and vindictive and start waging ideological wars against those who think differently from them and when they score huge victories through sacrificing the careers and livelihoods of my dear friends I fear for my life.
This isn’t new. In fact, I remember that one day I was awake in church history class and learned that in the early 17th century, the Calvinists, threatened by Arminian views, banished and executed any followers of Jacob Arminius. I find hope that it didn’t work because there are still faithful Arminians around today. Moreover, this event was one skirmish in the middle of centuries of Christians actually killing each other over silly ideological differences. And I even guess that the fact that today we are just terminating positions and not people is a sign of progress.
Or maybe I am just looking for a bit of that Resurrection hope that says if ever the church should decide it needs my blood displayed on a cross for all to see, at least my Savior hung there first and at least there is the glory of an empty tomb waiting for those whom the mob lynches.
**(I previously wrote that the chaplain above had been terminated, i.e. relieved of all positions, but have since learned he retained his chaplaincy. I apologize for the mixup. I thought I had that on good authority.)