However I might wish to avoid it, I must deal with the LGBTQ+ agenda. This became clear to me while reading Mary Eberstadt’s Adam and Eve After the Pill, Revisited, when she noted that while secularism gravely challenges the Church the “most insidious threat” is self-censorship. “There is understandable temptation among Christians to capitulate preemptively to this new faith [secularism], for all kinds of reasons: saving face, not being ‘judgy’, preventing the ostracism of one’s children. Even so, Christians need to know that the sex-fixated dogmas of this new faith require purposeful engagement, not accommodation” (p. 55). I see this when a public school teacher who attends our small community church in the mountains of Colorado recently resigned her position because she refuses to abide by the state’s mandate that all schools promote gay rights and endorse same-sex activities. I note that a theological professor in England was suspended at Cliff College (a Methodist-affiliated school) for daring speak out against homosexuals demanding the church accommodate them. I have watched the Woodlands Methodist Church—a dynamic megachurch—recently join World Methodism after severing ties with the United Methodist Church because it endorsed gay rights. And Hungary enacted a law against providing information to minors that promotes homosexuality and gender reassignment only to face a European Commission determined to overturn the law in the European Union’s Court of Justice. To R.R. Reno, writing in the June/July issue of First Things, such incidents reveal the power of what he calls the “Rainbow Reich, a progressive project of social transformation that has access to tremendous economic, institutional, and political power” (p. 67).
In light of this, I must appraise Thomas and Alexa Oord’s recently published Why the Church of the Nazarene Should Be Fully LGBTQ+ Affirming (NP: SacraSage Press, c. 2023; Kindle Edition.) Doing so saddens me because some of the essays are written by former colleagues and friends of mine, tempting me to self-censor. But I must not! The book contains 90 essays, divided into three section: folks (“queer voices,” predominantly women) identifying as homosexuals asking for denominational support; “allies” (relatives, friends, pastors) who support the LGBTQ+ agenda; and “scholars” explaining why they think the church should change its position on human sexuality. The “queer voices” tell essentially the same story—reared in Nazarene homes and churches, devoutly seeking to follow Christ, discovering their homosexual hungers, lamenting the church’s failure to rightly support them, and pleading for a significant change in the Manual’s statement regarding sexuality while often explaining why they think the Bible has been misinterpreted as condemning same-sex relationships. Their “allies” mainly plead for compassion and love, understanding how homosexuals suffer at the hands of hardline moralists, and endorsing their agenda. The “scholars” set forth various reasons for changing the church’s condemnation of homosexual activities. Virtually all the contributors to this book invoke personal experience as authoritative. Rather than reason or tradition or scripture serving as the ultimate guide, one should follow his own feelings regarding right and wrong and find ways to justify them. Importantly: none of the contributors deal with the Natural Law tradition and its definitive condemnation of same-sex activities.
To oversimplify: the queers insist their love is righteous because they feel it’s so; the allies demand that love for homosexuals requires us to endorse same-sex relationships; and the scholars insist that God is essentially love and surely endorses all loving behaviors. The contributors all assume homosexual desires are genetically-based—they claim that no one “chooses” his sexual orientation but rather discovers he or she was pre-programmed at birth. Yet this assumption—like efforts to explain away biblical texts clearly condemning gay sex—is simply untrue! Multiple efforts to find a “gay gene” have failed and scholars remain unsure how to rightly explain why some persons have same-sex desires. In fact: no one is born gay. Gay persons, according to a recent scientific study, have a “perfectly normal genome,” and the American Psychological Association simply says: “There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors.”
Rather than trying to specifically address the Oords’ book’s arguments (which are nicely handled by Kevin DeYoung in What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality and Robert A.J. Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice), I want to understand why the book would be written. After all, the Church of the Nazarene has traditionally been a conservative church with a strong, very traditional ethical component. Yet in Why the Church of the Nazarene Should Be Fully LGBTQ+ Affirming we find rather prominent Nazarenes setting forth what must be regarded as a form of “situation ethics.” What are the real philosophical roots of this collection of essays? What about Nazarene history and theology might explain them? While wondering about all this I noted the frequent references to Mildred Bangs Wynkoop’s A Theology of Love—a book that significantly impacted the Church of the Nazarene decades ago. Perhaps the move to get LGBTQ+ accepted by the church is an unanticipated consequence of embracing Wynkoop’s views. Tom Oord is devoted to Wynkoop’s theology (as well as process philosophy) and has written extensively on Love. Perhaps there is a link between her “theology of love” and support for the gay agenda. In fact, her book’s title is misleading, for it is basically a celebration of the “experience of love,” and she focuses almost exclusively on us rather than God. Had she written a solid “theology,” as did H. Orton Wiley, Wynkoop might have treated one of the truly basic concerns of good theologians—the simplicity of God—which rightly takes love as an attribute of God, not His actual essence. Reducing God to love—even making Love God—may explain some Nazarenes’ support for the gay agenda.
Years ago I detected a curious, though not exact, correspondence between the “situation ethics” of the Episcopalian theologian Joseph Fletcher and the “holiness” ethos of Mildred Bangs Wynkoop. He proposed to delineate a “new morality” for Christians whereas she wanted to design a new approach to the Wesleyan doctrine of “entire sanctification.” Dismissing “systematic theology” as a hothouse for legalism, Fletcher claimed his approach was “more Biblical and verb-thinking than Greek and noun-thinking” (p. 52). Wynkoop said her theology is fundamentally biblical and rooted in the Hebrew, rather than the Greek, understanding of human nature. Both thinkers, importantly, stressed the existential, relational aspects of the Christian life. Though often different, their views coincide at significant points inasmuch as both find in agapeic love the key to Christian behavior. Fletcher’s book, Situation Ethics, was published in 1966; Wynkoop’s A Theology of Love was published in 1972. Wynkoop never cites Fletcher, but many of her assertions significantly resemble his, and it seems reasonable to assume they both drank deeply of the broadly “existential” currents of their era, appropriating some of Paul Tillich’s thought.
Fletcher began his work by declaring that he had no “system.” Instead, he proposed a “method” whereby one may act in accord with love. Still more: he suspected that “any ethical system is unchristian or at least sub-Christian” (p. 12). Unlike philosophical ethics, or the Natural Law, that seek to be rigorously systematic, “Christian” ethics should be “contextual” or “situational.” Conventional rules, or commandments, such as promise keeping, may be helpful in making decisions, but each decision must be unique and tailored to the needs of the persons considered. “Situation ethics,” he says, “aims at a contextual appropriateness—not the ‘good’ or the ‘right’ but the fitting” (p. 27-28). “This is the temper of situation ethics. It is empirical, fact-minded, data conscious, inquiry. It is antimoralistic as well as antilegalistic, for it is sensitive to variety and complexity” (p. 29). Wynkoop, similarly, insisted that Wesleyan theology be “biblical,” not “systematic” or “propositional.” One should read and apply biblical insights without worrying about the logic of one’s position. Whereas Fletcher discarded all “systems” as non-Christian, Wynkoop more subtly minimized rational categories, preferring to maximize the role of the will, for faith, she said, is not intellectual assent to certain prepositional truths. To “believe,” she explained, never means to “accept” certain “truths.” Obedience and love, not believing that certain things are eternally “true,” constitutes “faith” (pp. 241-242). To Wynkoop, the heart (meaning the will), not the head (reason), is the locus of human personality, and with the heart (not the head) one loves.
Fletcher and Wynkoop both positioned themselves mid-way between the extremes of legalism and antinomianism. Fletcher rejected any form of legalism; there simply are no absolute ethical norms. Wynkoop rejected the “absolute” nature of the 19th century American holiness theology (with its recurrent and troubling “moralism”) espoused by the Church of the Nazarene from its inception. Fletcher further insisted that his “situationism” not be equated with antinomianism, since for him there is a singularly “absolute” dimension to the agapeic love that must motivate Christian behavior. Wynkoop too wanted to avoid antinomianism, stoutly insisting that agapeic love establishes the very highest of all possible standards. To both thinkers, however, there is nothing clearly good or bad, right or wrong, since love alone (variously applied to specific cases or relationships) justifies acts. Trying to avoid the antinomian label, Fletcher argued that “principles” rather than laws should inform Christian behavior. To him, “principles or maxims or general rules are illuminators. But they are not directors” (p. 31). To Wynkoop, likewise, “relationships” rather than commandments evoke the loving behavior pleasing to God. In her words: “Christian morality is the person-to-person rapport, the relationship of harmony and love and mutual will which requires moral integrity to enter and to maintain. One wills to will God’s will, which puts the self creatively within the context of true morality” (p. 178).
With admirable clarity Fletcher enunciated four presuppositions basic to his ethics. The first is Pragmatism. Whatever works is both true and good! To decide what to do we must first determine its practicality. “To be correct or right a thing—a thought or an action—must work” (p. 42). Wynkoop employed the hermeneutic of John Wesley, who was, she says, a thoroughly “practical” rather than “theoretical” theologian. Evaluating the doctrine of holiness as espoused by eminent Nazarene theologians such as H. Orton Wiley, Wynkoop argued that they had proclaimed a theory that had proved impractical and thus false. “Our problem,” then, she said, “is a credibility gap. Of all the credibility gaps in contemporary life, none is more real and serious than that which exists between Christian, particularly Wesleyan, doctrine and everyday human life. The absolute of holiness theology may satisfy the mind but the imperfection of the human self seems to deny all that the perfection of Christian doctrine affirms” (p. 39). Neither biblical exegesis nor philosophical logic proves decisive, for the ultimate truth test, the conclusive experiential judgment, is practical. Fletcher’s second presupposition is Relativism. Love, like the speed of light, is absolute, and everything else is relative to it. We must always love, but the ways we do so are up to us. The end is as constant as the North Star; the means are as varied as the navigational strategies of ancient seafarers and modern space voyagers. Shifting to relativism frees folks from codes and casuistry, from cast iron imperatives, “from prescribed conduct and legalistic morality” (p. 45). With equal fervor, Wynkoop made everything relative to agapeic love. Indeed, she insisted that good theology is “relational,” not propositional, for “holiness has to do with persons in relationship” (p. 25). Might thereby endorse LGBTQ+?
Fletcher’s third presupposition is Positivism. Contrary to the Natural Law tradition—best evident in the work of Thomas Aquinas—theological positivism is voluntaristic rather than rationalistic. One’s will, not one’s mind, dominates his personality and behavior. “Any moral or value judgment in ethics,” Fletcher says, “is a decision—not a conclusion” (p. 47). Reason, as a handmaid of the will, measures facts and makes inferences but cannot establish “values.” So we must will to act in accord with agapeic love. Historically insightful, Fletcher links this position to Medieval nominalism. Nominalists like William Ockham (and later Martin Luther), insist what we call “good” is simply a label we attach to things, not anything intrinsic to their being. Any particular “‘good’ is nominal, i.e., it is what it is only because God regards it as good. Though she didn’t join the philosophical debate, Wynkoop certainly shared the nominalist-voluntarist agenda. Inasmuch as she aligned herself with “process theology,” with its continually developing “reality,” she could not but endorse it. She clearly rejected the “substance concept of reality” basic to Plato, Augustine, Aristotle and Aquinas. Thus there is no substantial “sin” to be cleansed, and no metaphysical “soul” to need cleansing. What we call sin and salvation are names we use to describe ever-evolving relationships. Enlisting Wesley as her guide, Wynkoop also insisted that one’s heart should lead his head, that intent rather than content is preeminent. We are, by nature, more agapeic than sapiental. Following our inner impetus to love, she says, is the mark of salvation. Indeed, rightly loving secures our salvation.
Fletcher’s fourth presupposition is Personalism. “Situation ethics puts people at the center of concern, not things” (p. 50). Legalists are fixated on “what” we ought to do whereas Personalists ask “who” questions. No thing—no act—is intrinsically good or bad. How things affect persons is the only concern. Relying on Martin Buber, Fletcher said: “An I is an I in relationship with a You; a you is a You, capable of being an I, in relation to a Me” (p. 50). Wynkoop concurs, openly drawing on Buber and insisting on the importance of “‘personness’ rather than ‘thingness’” (p. 71). Still more: “To know God, to ‘be saved,’ is to love Him—and love is the most personal thing in the world” (p. 90). Holiness, she said, is never a “state” of some sort. Rather it is a “moment-by-moment impartation of the life of Christ to the human heart” (p. 86). While we are rightly related to God we are holy; if we sever that relationship we become sinful. What changes is the quality of our relationship. Sin is, for Wynkoop, a deranged or derailed relationship, not some inner quality of being. There is nothing set in us—all is determined by the quality of our “relationship” with others, including God. “Love is the most personal word in human language,” she says, “certainly the most personal aspect of human relations” (p. 87). And it is “the centering, organizing principle which gives direction to life. It is everything the person is and does to find personal fulfillment. It is the dynamic of the personality. It is perhaps the only truly free thing about man” (p. 87).
Strangely enough, for one who dislikes “propositional” thought, Fletcher tightly structures his book and moves most logically from presuppositions to propositions, setting forth six. These include “The First Proposition: ‘Only one “thing” is intrinsically good; namely love: nothing else at all’” (p. 57). There is no “objective” truth—the aligning of one’s mind with the reality of what is. So “only love is objectively valid, only love is universal” (p. 64). Wynkoop too thinks only love is truly good. The very “thesis” of her “book is that love is the dynamic of Wesleyanism” (p. 20). Rather than developing logically, like a staircase ascending upward from truth to truth, Wesley’s theology, Wynkoop says, “is like a great rotunda with archway entrances all around it. No matter which one is entered, it always leads to the central Hall of Love, where, looking upward toward the dome one gazes into the endless, inviting sky. There is no ceiling to love” (p. 16). God is love, and all else about Him reduces to this. Consequently, there’s “The Second Proposition: ‘The ruling norm of Christian decision is love: nothing else’” (p. 69). Just as Jesus disregarded Sabbath observance, so His followers should feel free to disregard the Torah. We must never equate love with law and think obeying it is a kind of love. Situation ethics calls one to follow the precepts of the law only when they seem loving; conversely, one ought cheerfully break them when they seem loveless. Working through the Decalogue, Fletcher explained why none of the 10 Commandments invaiably apply. Neither Nature nor Scripture provides sufficient guidance for moral decisions and acts. To Wynkoop, “Moral Integrity Is the Goal of Redemption” and the true Christian ever prays: “’Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’” (p. 181). Life is a succession of moments wherein one chooses what to do and thereby (empowered by the imparted grace of Christ) crafts his character. Only loving responses to a loving God really matter. She celebrated the “personal” and the “relational,” but not once did she refer to the Decalogue or the Law as authoritative sources for moral standards. Inasmuch as the “natural law” is “impersonal,” she rejects its authority, and: “No Christian, is ever asked to surrender to the law, to the Church, to a creed, or to persons” (p. 179). Each of us has (thanks to prevenient grace) an inner sense of “ought,” knowing we are designed for fellowship with kindred creatures and needing to maximize healthy relationships with them. Following one’s own inner sense of ought could easily lead one to affirm LGBTQ+ ties.
In his “The Fifth Proposition: “Only the end justifies the means; nothing else,” Fletcher says: “Love could justify anything” (p. 126). Here he sides with Lenin, who said: “’If the end does not justify the means, then in the name of sanity and justice, what does?’” (p. 121). No act, such as theft or fornication, is in itself wrong. Fletcher’s mentor “William James liked to say that truth does not exist ante rem, before or apart from facts as lived, but in rebus—in the lived event itself. And so with the good!” (p. 133). Though not aligned with Fletcher’s “new morality,” Wynkoop consistently applied his fifth proposition—the end justifies the means—to her ethics, invoking Wesley to declare that “‘Love is the end of all the commandments of God. Love is the end, the sole end, of every dispensation of God, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things’” (p. 222). Moment-by-moment loving obedience—finding the truth not in some spiritual state but in rebus—makes one holy. Next, Fletcher sets forth his “Sixth Proposition: ‘Love’s decisions are made situationally, not prescriptively” (p. 134). Though many of us prefer to know what we should always do before we’re faced with crisis decisions, Fletcher insisted that every situation demands a differently nuanced response. Jesus, he argued, was no legalist, and we should follow his example. There are no blueprints, no game plans, no prescriptions. There is only a vast area of options wherein we try to do loving things. Obstetricians, for instance, need not respirate every newborn baby—those “monstrously deformed” (p. 138) should be allowed to die. Significantly, for Fletcher:“Whether any form of sex (hetero, homo, or auto) is good or evil depends on whether love is fully served” (p. 139). Adultery may very well be absolutely right for some folks some times. “Any form of sex” may be loving. To Fletcher homosexual activities may be as loving as heterosexual, conjugal unions. They’re equally good.
Wynkoop, of course, would never for a moment have supported such a position. But in her efforts to free holiness from legalism she helped prepare the way for Nazarenes following her thought to champion the positions set forth in Why the Church of the Nazarene Should Be Fully LGBTQ+ Affirming. Ideas have consequences. When Evelyn Waugh entered the Catholic Church in 1930, he explained his decision: “In the present phase of European history, the essential issue is no longer between Catholicism, on one side, and Protestantism, on the other, but between Christianity and chaos.” Much of the cultural chaos in our world, seeping into the churches, results from the sexual revolution that has upended many traditional standards. Significant cadres in that revolution have been homosexuals pleading first for toleration and then, once empowered, seeking to impose their views on their world. Once strong churches—United Methodist, Presbyterian USA, Episcopal—have been hollowed out in large part because of militant homosexuals’ demands to not only worship with but to assume positions of authority within these denominations. Whether or not Nazarenes follow such churches remains to be seen, but if the Oords and their fellow travelers succeed the prospect is assured.