Knowing one’s theology is vital for growing in faith and understanding of God.
On a few occasions in my ministry I have heard comments that seemed to disparage the value of theology in our everyday life. One example was in a local church board meeting.
“Brother Middendorf,” the man said with a flourish, “We don’t want a pastor who will be throwing theology around at us. That stuff just confuses people.”
In the awkward silence that followed, several people started to speak, but no one seemed to quite know how to respond. One or two seemed to nod, but most of those around the table were surprised and uncertain.
We had been discussing the calling of a new pastor. Among the candidates we were considering was a graduate of one of our seminaries. He had a wonderful ministry in the first congregation he led, and seemed a very promising pastoral candidate for this growing community and church.
The man who spoke out was one of our vocal and outspoken lay people, a local business person, and a fairly new Nazarene. He continued his comments by saying, “We just want someone who will preach the Bible. That is what we need. We just need a good preacher.”
Trying to be kind, I said to him, “That is a very theological statement you just made.”
“Oh, no sir,” he replied. “I am not into theology at all. I just want people to know about Jesus.”
Within the space of those few comments, my friend had just exposed a deep desire that his next pastor be a good theologian. The next two hours became one of my most memorable and enjoyable board meetings as we began a very open conversation about the way our theology shapes our thinking and our living.
Everyone is, at one level or another, a theologian. In the early Greek tradition, theologia was the doctrine (logos) of God (theos). Whatever we think or believe about God is, in its barest form, our theology.
When we talk about Jesus, discussing our belief or our doubt about Who and what He was and is, we are engaging in a theological activity. Our beliefs about the Holy Spirit, about creation, about redemption and eternal life, are all an expression of our personal theology. How we live, in every arena of our lives, is an outworking of what we believe, but this is especially true in regard to our “theology.”
Each of us is, in that sense, a theologian. The risk is that we will be uninformed, ill-informed, or merely opinionated, and assume that we are in no need of further assistance in understanding the breadth and depth of this magnificent arena of study.
The Church of the Nazarene is deeply shaped by her theology, one that is expressed in the briefest possible form in our Articles of Faith. Those 16 Articles, found in the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene, provide for us the necessary theological cohesion that gives content to our faith and meaning to our mission as a Church of Jesus Christ.
The Articles of Faith (nazarene.org/articles-faith) are changed only by action of Church of the Nazarene general assembly delegates, and ratified by at least two-thirds of all the Phase 2 and Phase 3 district assemblies around the world. Our beliefs are a matter of central importance to us as a denomination. They inform our mission, and form the content of our preaching, our teaching, and our living as a people. This is our message, and without our message, we have no mission.
But it is just as true that, without our mission, we have no message.
Nazarene theology must inform the beliefs and practices of our people. This is why it is so necessary that our pastors and leaders be well informed about our theology, and that they be capable interpreters, proclaimers, and teachers of good theology.
That board meeting I mentioned became a wide ranging discussion about what we believe as a church. We spent a lively two hours talking, laughing, testifying, and at times, wiping tears from our eyes. We concluded the conversation with prayer and a sense of deeply satisfying unity. The board member who began the conversation was still insisting that we needed a good preacher, but was, by the end of the meeting, wanting to be sure whoever we called, male or female, was well enough educated to be able to make sense of our beliefs for the people of the church and community.
The layperson, an active Christian for many years, had been drawn to the Church of the Nazarene by the life and witness of a business colleague. The integrity of that man, his passion for Christ, and his love for his church were an influence on many people. The more the two business colleagues talked, the more drawn to the Church of the Nazarene was this Christian business man. But somehow, he never seemed to grasp how thoroughly the man who was such an influence on him had lived out a very consistent set of beliefs about God, the church, her beliefs, and her mission.
This new Nazarene had come to love his church, and was actively engaged in the worship team and other activities. He had even been elected to the church board. But he had not allowed his beliefs to be subjected to a serious examination of how the Church of the Nazarene was shaped by a rich tradition of scriptural interpretation within the Wesleyan-Arminian holiness tradition.
As we talked that evening, I heard him say, more than once, “You know, that is what drew me to this church.” The more we talked, the more obvious it became: this man craved a coherent theology that would give greater meaning to his love for the Lord, the way he lived his life, and his passion for the lost.
The church background from which he came to the Church of the Nazarene was shaped less by a coherent theology than it was by a desire to reach the broken and addicted in their community. As commendable as that was, the man had found himself increasingly uneasy because of a lack of scriptural depth. Untrained and uneducated pastors with great zeal had made a significant impact on the community, but the “revolving door” became a frustration. People who came into the faith did not seem to “stick.”
While we talked that evening, some of the long-time members of the church began to express, very clearly and with great insight, how their beliefs informed their worship, their spiritual journey, and their desire to see people brought to faith in Jesus. They expressed a desire to see them brought to a life of Christlikeness and spiritual maturity. Some of them nodded, tears running down their cheeks, as one of the senior adults on the board testified to his experience of total surrender to God as a young believer. “We call that entire sanctification,’’ he said.
As we brought the meeting to a conclusion, we agreed to table discussion of the call of a new pastor until we had planned and carried out a period of prayer and fasting for the entire congregation. We closed with a fervent, heart-stirring time of prayer.
That evening the church board was involved in “doing theology.” After the meeting, as I drove toward home, I began to wonder if there was not a need for more intentional opportunities for people in the church, members of a church board, Sunday school teachers, and others, to have time to talk openly, and with guidance from a trusted resource person, about the basic theological concepts that shape our Nazarene theology.
A pastor who is leading a congregation, preaching and teaching, does not often have opportunity for open dialogue and conversation about these vital subjects. But a relaxed series of meaningful “pie with the pastor” dialogues might be planned for a Sunday evening, or another occasion, where healthy dialogue could provide for the kind of conversation that would give guidance and understanding to the people of a congregation.
Other resource people for such a conversation could be a district superintendent, a theology or Bible scholar from a Nazarene seminary or Bible college. Many well-read lay people have a wonderful grasp of Wesleyan theology, and would be a wonderful resource for the kind of conversation that could give guidance and help clarify the beliefs that define Wesleyan-holiness theology.
It is not enough to merely proclaim our experience and our opinions. What does the Scripture teach? What do we really believe about the authority of Scripture, about the sources of our theological understanding, and our historical stance in regard to the wider church of Jesus Christ?
Confusion about where the Church of the Nazarene “fits” in the broader Christian tradition can leave good and godly people uncertain, and reticent to speak confidently about their own beliefs.
Recent articles in Holiness Today have served as a wonderful resource for addressing some of the confusion that often exists. Resources like Nazarene Essentials, and the online site, The Discipleship Place, are helpful means of providing good and appropriate resources for informing, shaping, and making Christlike disciples out of our Nazarene lay people.
But there is also a need for local pastors to teach, preach, and converse with their people about our theology. Discipleship classes, membership preparation classes, and specialized teaching in seminars and Sunday school classes provide opportunities for broadening our understanding of this treasure we call Nazarene theology.
I am particularly excited about the publication of a new Nazarene catechism— One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. We have long needed something to give clear and unequivocal expression of our beliefs for new Christians, for children and youth in the church, and for refreshing the confidence of all our people in the beliefs that define us. This new resource will be the basis for a coherent global understanding of our theology for the Church of the Nazarene.
Jesus taught His disciples. It was the means by which He shaped them and informed them of who He was, and what He came to do. His commission to them, as He prepared to release them into the world to begin the work of announcing the kingdom of God was clear: Baptize (evangelize) and teach them. That is still our mandate. We dare not merely birth the new believers, and leave them to fend for themselves in a world seeking to destroy them.
We must equip them, teach them, shape and disciple them, until we all come to “unity in the faith, and in the knowledge of the son of God, and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
Jesse C. Middendorf is general superintendent emeritus in the Church of the Nazarene.
Holiness Today, Jan/Feb 2017