The past few months have seen a series of controversies within the Church of the Nazarene, especially discussing theological conversation on Nazarene university campuses.
In February, Mid-America Nazarene University Chaplain Randy Beckum was removed from his position as Vice President of Community Formation just a few weeks after preaching a controversial sermon on Christianity, violence, and patriotism (the manuscript of which you can read here). While the president of MNU has denied that Beckum’s removal had anything to do with his sermon, many have speculated that Beckum losing his position as VP was a result of the content of the sermon.
Then, in March, Northwest Nazarene University’s president, David Alexander, announced that theology professor Thomas Jay Oord would be laid off at the end of the semester in order to respond to budgetary needs, as one part of a broader personnel adjustment.
Oord is a vocal proponent of “open theology,” which is often criticized by some Nazarenes, and there has been speculation that Oord’s removal, like Beckum’s, may have been rooted in theological viewpoints, rather than the stated reason of budgetary cuts. A subsequent outcry against Oord’s removal prompted the university president to issue an apology and put the layoff “on hold,” but the situation is still pending.
Both of these developments should disturb any Nazarene interested in the quality of the denomination’s theological conversations.
First, there is an internal problem when college campuses are hesitant to tolerate theological differences, and seek to encourage a uniform way of thinking among students. Views that are different should not be immediately banned from the conversation, and yet, when professors and chaplains write controversial books and preach controversial sermons, it can be easy for university leaders to avoid the difficult task of fostering intellectual plurality on campus.
Instead, leaders seek to limit the voices in question because those voices may conflict with those of traditional, long-standing financial supporters of the institution. It is this same reluctance to have an open conversation about theological, political, and ideological issues that is so out-of-sync with the values of young people especially. While colleges and universities need supportive donors to sustain much of their operational costs, these institutions are still designed to educate young people.
I find it difficult to imagine that too many potential religion or theology majors would be excited about attending a university that they knew was hesitant to encourage debate on various subjects like theology and politics. With the rise of social media, we can be sure that these debates will take place. Why not have them in a serious, studious, supportive college environment?
An open, vibrant theological conversation with various points of view is integral to the Church of the Nazarene’s historical identity. The denomination itself was formed as a result of the merger of various unique holiness groups. I would imagine that there were times when the members of these groups had to conclude that the strength of their collective commitment to the holiness movement far outweighed whatever other theological differences may have existed among the groups.
In a few weeks, the global Church will celebrate Pentecost Sunday, a day when we remember how the descent of the Holy Spirit on that room of apostles created an explosion of diversity, of different languages and dialects. The exponential growth of the Church in the following years meant that what was once a local gathering of Aramaic-speakers had become a multi-lingual movement in the Mediterranean world. And I cannot help but think that the Church of Pentecost was not just diverse in language, but in thought, as well as in speech.
Perhaps being a truly Pentecostal Church means allowing for this kind of diversity, celebrating it, and drawing strength from it. Leaders at NNU, MNU, and every other Nazarene college and university would do well to ponder this idea. Will they sponsor free speech, or will they suppress it? Will they support a dynamic, vibrant theological conversation, or will they stifle it?
In the end, leaders in Nampa and Olathe need to arrive at the conclusion that the price of plurality in the spirit of Pentecost is far lower than the cost of conformity.