Labels can be polarizing. Granted.
Labels can mischaracterize people. Granted.
Most people don’t fit perfectly in any one label. Granted.
However, labels can still be helpful in painting the broad outlines of the picture.
We aren’t sure exactly where Europe ends and Asia begins. (Somewhere in the Ural Mountains of Russia, I think, but that’s a fact I only vaguely know because of late night Risk games in college.) However, the labels “Europe” and “Asia” are still helpful markers on a global map. They define huge swaths of land. Within them are cornucopias of culture, language, and difference, but as umbrella terms they cover their territory well. We have some unified entity in mind when we say “Europe.” We sort of know what someone means when they say “Asia.”
“Conservative” and “Progressive” are similarly broad yet helpful labels.
Just as many Russians are not sure whether to consider themselves European or Asian, many Nazarenes will find themselves bearing characteristics of both “camps.” However, understanding the broad terrain of our time helps us chart our course and dialog among ourselves more effectively.
Conservative Nazarenes ...
tend to be very concerned with faithfulness to the Bible and to our Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. They highly value carrying forward the essentials of the Church of the Nazarene. Conservatives often live with neat categories of thought, black and white ethics, and expectations of logic-based propositional truth. They place a high priority on upholding truth.
At their best, conservatives help us stay rooted and anchored in Christian tradition. They keep us from being tossed about by every stray fad of change. When they are healthy, they act as a ballast for the ship, keeping us stable and upright even as we chart a course through the waves. Healthy conservatives preserve what is best in us so that we can carry those our best into the future.
At their worst, conservatives become resistant to all change. The Good Old Days are idolized and fictionalized as a time of frictionless, sinless beauty, and the ever-present prayer is a return to the revivals of the past. At their worst, conservatives are fearful, angry mobs retreating into the Church as a fortress to protect them from the evils of the world and the changes being thrust upon them. In America, unhealthy conservatives believes that Jesus rides an elephant and might just scratch their name from the Lamb’s Book of Life for voting for Hillary. When they are unhealthy, conservatives draw smaller and smaller circles of who’s in and who’s out, continually condemning others as corrupting the Church. Unhealthy conservatives may be so enamored with their vision of the past and so encapsulated by their own Christian community that they are functionally blind to the world around them.
Progressive Nazarenes ...
tend to be very concerned with moving forward into the world, adapting our modes of church and expression of the gospel to match our cultural context. They highly value social justice, cultural relevance, ancient Christian history (beyond the past 100 years), sacraments, and multiculturalism. Progressives often live with messy boundaries, engage the grey territory of ethics, and expect truth to take shape primarily in narrative. They place a high priority on demonstrating grace.
At their best, progressives help us adapt to our changing contexts for increased missional effectiveness. Progressives are willing to challenge long-standing assumptions that may stand in the way of embracing the truth of the gospel. They keep us from getting stuck in a status quo that is no longer working. At their best, progressives are the leaven that makes the bread rise, the spark for the fire, the catalyst for much needed change. Healthy progressives help us move into the future, reshaping our world into more of a Kingdom reality.
At their worst, progressives chase change for the sake of change. They can become addicted to “cool” and need the latest everything, including the latest theology. Unhealthy progressives can become so future oriented that they break from the essence of our tradition and become out of touch with the present. Unhealthy progressives can become angry people who see offense under every comment or picture, who hold others to unreasonable standards, and who refuse to give others the grace they expect for themselves. In America, unhealthy progressives think Jesus wears a rainbow tunic and smokes doobies with Bernie. When they are unhealthy, progressives can be idealistic fundamentalists out of touch with the church, the Bible, and most of the world around them.
We need both conservatives and progressives at their best.
We need healthy conservatives and healthy progressives (and everyone in between) to engage in positive dialog about how we move forward together. We need our progressives to help motivate change and our conservatives to keep the ship upright. We need our progressives to experiment outward with new missional branches, and we need our conservatives to keep us rooted along the way. We need both our conservatives and our progressives to dig deep into our rich tradition to help us all pull forward the best of who we are. We need to recognize that we all need each other; we even need those with whom we most disagree.
For the Church of the Nazarene, and for all Christians, it is not a question of whether progressives or conservatives are right or best. The question is how we can all bring our best to the family table.
For more discussion on the future of the Church of the Nazarene, check out these posts: