A Sacred Fellowship

A Sacred Fellowship

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Recently* I was in a service where new members were received into the fellowship of a local congregation. It was a wonderful reminder of something that is all too easy to forget, especially in this age of polarizing rhetoric, labeling, and pigeon-holing commentary. I pray that the insightful words in the covenant of church membership, written so carefully by our early leaders, was not lost on those new members standing before the altar.

The ritual begins in a familiar way:

DEARLY BELOVED: The privileges and blessings that we have in association together in the Church of Jesus Christ are very sacred and precious. There is in it such hallowed fellowship as cannot otherwise be known. There is such helpfulness with brotherly watch care and counsel as can be found only in the Church. There is the godly care of pastors, with the teachings of the Word, and the helpful inspiration of social worship. And there is cooperation in service, accomplishing that which cannot otherwise be done. The doctrines upon which the church rests as essential to Christian experience are brief.

As I listened to the pastor reading from the ritual in our Manual, I realized afresh that these new candidates for church membership were not just joining this local church; indeed, they were now in association with all the members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ, there is hallowed and sacred fellowship.

There is the godly care of pastors who teach the Word in the setting of inspirational, social worship. And there is cooperation in mission and service, all predicated upon those essential beliefs summed up in Christian doctrine.

The ravages of time have often clouded our vision and understanding of our place in the Church of Jesus Christ, substituting instead the shrill ideology of sectarianism that seeks to isolate, polarize, and withdraw in the name of sterile holiness. Working on a hunch that such was not always the case, I asked our denominational archivist, Stan Ingersol to share his thoughts regarding this issue. He wrote:

When Timothy Smith wrote Called Unto Holiness (1962), he noted that most churches originate as inwardly-focused sects and then evolve into denominations increasingly open to society. But he asserted that the opposite happened with Nazarenes. He argued that the founders established a denomination at the outset, and that Nazarenes subsequently devolved into a sect with second, third, and fourth generation Nazarenes dominated more by sectarian concerns than the founders.

Others agree with this analysis, including Paul M. Bassett and the four authors of Our Watchword & Song (2009), a recent denominational history. Floyd Cunningham, the new book's editor and Smith's former student, has also written perceptively about the church's erection of a 'sectarian shield' in the early years and its gradual diminishment in the recent past.

The Nazarene Manual contains paragraphs that explicitly position the church in very non-sectarian ways. The 'Historical Statement' begins by identifying Nazarenes with "the people of God through the Ages . . . in whatever expression of the one church they may be found." Manual paragraphs 23-25, which go back to Bresee, have appeared in every Manual and affirm that we view ourselves as simply one expression of God's wider church, that Christians organize around common objectives, and that Nazarenes have organized around the central idea that Christian discipleship should embrace the believer's entire sanctification.

For these reasons, Nazarenes do not baptize believers into the denomination but into the Christian Church. At baptism, the Nazarene pastor represents the Church Universal. Nazarene ministers, similarly, are not ordained as ministers in the Church of the Nazarene but "in the Church of God"--words that also appear on Bresee's Methodist credential from the mid-19th century.

The challenging nature of our times demands continued faithfulness to those sacred Christian doctrines that bind us together. They are economically stated in grandeur and majesty in just eight simple statements. Beyond that, however, now more than ever, we need to recall afresh that we are members of the Church of Jesus Christ. Isolating ourselves in the bunkers of separatism may appear to be a tactic of survival, but it will prove to be a failed strategy in the grand sweep of God's redemptive history.

David J. Felter, editor in chief*.

Holiness Today, Sept/Oct 2010

*Please note: This article was originally published in 2010. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.