So, What Is a Nazarene?
A few days into my freshman year at Trevecca Nazarene College, one of the guys in my dorm suite pulled me aside. He was unchurched, attending TNC on a baseball scholarship. He spent his first week wide-eyed, watching us Church of the Nazarene folks, wondering what he had gotten himself into. With a hushed voice, half embarrassed and half amused, he whispered, “What is a Nazarene?”
Since then I have been asked the question dozens of times. While there are different ways to answer it, perhaps the best response is to look back at how we got the name.
In the first century, the town of Nazareth in Galilee was considered a second-class community. This attitude can be seen in Nathaniel’s response to Phillip when he spoke to his friend about “Jesus of Nazareth.” Phillip evidenced his skepticism with, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46, NIV). The assumed answer to Phillip’s rhetorical question was “Of course not. Nothing worthwhile ever happens in Nazareth.”
In Luke 4 when Jesus returned to Nazareth, he was physically rejected and nearly killed by citizens of his own hometown. Their response might be described as, “Why should we listen to you? You’re no better than us.” To be a “Nazarene” in the first century didn’t win you much credibility.
In embracing the role of an outcast, Jesus the Nazarene showed His solidarity with those who were marginalized, persecuted, and without hope.
It is remarkable that the Second Person of the Trinity would come to us by way of a remote place like Nazareth. God himself chose to reside in a community where people believed goodness did not exist. In doing so, He reminded us that we are not always so quick at distinguishing good from evil. It’s a problem we’ve had since the first chapters of Genesis.
Some 700 years before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah foresaw the life of Christ with the words, “He was despised and rejected by humankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (Isaiah 53:3). In embracing the role of an outcast, Jesus the Nazarene showed His solidarity with those who were marginalized, persecuted, and without hope.
Nineteen centuries later, in Los Angeles, California, a Methodist Episcopal Church preacher named Phineas F. Bresee felt the call to take the message of Holiness to poor families—urban outcasts who likely were not welcomed by well-heeled folks in prominent fellowships. Leaving his denomination over the issue, he partnered with a well-known physician and former president of the University of Southern California, Joseph P. Widney. In 1895, they joined with others in the community to start a new church. The late historian Timothy Smith said that in doing so Bresee “declared that the only thing new in the movement was its determination to preach the gospel to the needy, and to give that class a church they could call their own” (Called Unto Holiness, Vol. 1, p. 110). The name they chose for their movement was suggested by Widney, who said the term “Nazarene” symbolized “the toiling, lowly mission of Christ… to whom the world in its misery and despair turns, that it may have hope” (Ibid. p. 111).
Since that time almost 122 years ago, our fellowship has expanded into more than 160 areas around the world. You’ll find Nazarenes of diverse ethnicity and socioeconomic backgrounds, worshiping in beautiful sanctuaries, cinder block buildings, and strip malls. Our thousands of churches may have different personalities and programs, but we continue to share a common aspiration. First and foremost, we are driven to take the message of Holiness to the poor and needy around us. Secondly, we embrace the identity of the God who himself became an outcast in order to reach the outcasts of this world—people like ourselves.
Since my freshman year at TNC, I have gotten better at responding to “What is a Nazarene?” These days, the best answer I can give is: “Come with us into the neighborhoods. Let us show you the jail ministry, the community garden, the food pantry, the mentoring and backpack feeding programs. Come join us as we work alongside those who suffer—the sick, the aging, and the addict—and then you will clearly understand what it means to be a Nazarene.
My wife and I are both in the Navy and searching for a church once we were stationed here. We have a young son and wanted a church that had an excellent children’s service. Oak Harbor was the answer. We have connected so well with many of our Navy peers here and it feels great to be in a place that feels like home.
I have never been an alcoholic, a dug addict, a thief or a murderer. I was worse! I was raised in a Christian home, went to Sunday School and was, basically, a “good boy”. I grew up in a pretty much Normal Rockwell kind of place, never got into any real trouble and kept my nose clean most of the time.
In high school I was introduced to the Church of the Nazarene and quickly fell into a very legalistic interpretation of Christianity. Over the years I busied myself with lay work within the Church, teaching Sunday School classes and serving on the Church Board, all the while thinking quite well of myself.
In the Gospel of Luke*, Jesus describes a scene where two men, a “sinner” and a Pharisee stood in a synagogue. The Pharisee was thankful that he was not like other men, robbers, evildoers or even the sinner beside him in that very room. The sinner, on the other hand, could not even look up – he simply prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus said the sinner, not the Pharisee, went home justified before God. I was the Pharisee!
In time I began to grapple with the concept of Christian Holiness. I was increasingly convinced that my life didn’t meet God’s standard, convicted over my attitude of self-appointed worthiness. Eventually, I prayed that God would fill me with his Holy Spirit & guide me to a deeper understanding of his role in my salvation. In short, I came to realize that nothing I had done, or ever would do, would justify as holy in God’s eyes.
ONLY his plan for my salvation, my repentance and his blood could wash away the years of smug self-satisfied sin that was my life. I stand before you today, no longer a Pharisee, convinced of my own worth, but a forgiven sinner, living in his will and fully aware of where I’ve come from, who I was and what Jesus has done for me. * Luke 18:9-14
We have been at OHNaz for over 30 years and it has been great seeing the church grow and welcome people to our congregation. We adore this church family to which we belong
Charlie & Deena Janssen