Our history — Church of the Nazarene

Nazarene identity — The story of a movement that became a global "tribe."

The Christian church, as we know it today, came into being following the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This happened in the first half of the first century after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost that is described in Acts 2. Within less than 300 years, the Christian movement became a powerful force in the Roman world. In the year 323, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire.

In the Middle Ages, several Christian reform movements arose. In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation — led by people like Martin Luther and John Calvin — gave birth to many of the Christian denominations we know today.

John Wesley

In the early 18th century, an Evangelical Revival swept across England. That revival was fueled by evangelist George Whitefield and the ministry of two brothers, John and Charles Wesley. The Wesleys emphasized the possibility of a victorious life through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The preaching, teaching, follow-up work, and social ministries of the Wesleys gave birth to the Methodist movement. The historic "golden age" of evangelical Protestantism includes the first 100 years of this movement.

As time passed, the preaching and the teaching of the doctrine and experience of the Spirit-filled life (sometimes called entire sanctification or Christian holiness) began to wane within Methodism in the U.S. and Great Britain. Open opposition even developed toward Methodists who wanted to maintain a focus on the biblical call to holy living. One result was the birth of new denominations, such as the Wesleyan Methodist and Free Methodist.

Revival of holiness in the U.S.A.

About that same time (the latter part of the 19th century), a holiness revival spread across the U.S. In addition to Methodists, the revival involved members of many Protestant denominations. Sadly, the holiness movement was not universally popular, and opposition to the message of freedom from sin arose. Such opposition led groupings of holiness people to band together for mutual encouragement. The Church of the Nazarene was born in the context of this banding together of various small associations of local churches that had been formed to preach and teach holiness.

Initially, the "Church of the Nazarene" was a single congregation. That church was organized in Los Angeles, California in 1895 under the leadership of Phineas F. Bresee. His experience as a pastor, educator, evangelist, and presiding elder in the American Methodist church had prepared him well to guide the new group. Within a decade, dozens of churches in the U.S. had been organized under the Nazarene banner. While its initial beginnings were on the West Coast, that new movement soon began reaching toward the heartland of the United States and then to other countries. Bresee's burning passion was to "spread scriptural holiness" around the world, a passion that has continued to be a driving motivation for the Church of the Nazarene throughout its history.

These Wesleyan groups and associations, including Bresee's Nazarene group, began discussing the need for a more structured and comprehensive fellowship to unite their forces. Thus, in 1907, a meeting in Chicago betweern Bresee's group and a similar association from the East Coast led to a merger of the two groups. The following year, at a meeting in north Texas near Pilot Point, a large group from the South joined these other two groups. This latter event — on October 13, 1908 — is celebrated as the official formation of the Church of the Nazarene. Subsequently, other like groups have chosen to come under the Nazarene banner, not only in the United States but in other parts of the world as well.

At its official beginning as a national denomination in 1908, the Church of the Nazarene had a little over 200 churches and 10,500 members scattered across the U.S. as well as missions outposts in Africa, Asia, and Mexico. The Church of the Nazarene now includes congregations in more than 160 countries of the world. Today, the 30,000 Nazarene churches around the world are composed of more than 2.5 million total members.

I've been asked, Why did the Church of the Nazarene break from Methodism?

It didn't. People from a variety of denominational backgrounds came together in the late 1800s and early 1900s to form the Church of the Nazarene. Several early Nazarene leaders had Methodist backgrounds, but many did not. So, the Church of the Nazarene was not a group that split off from the Methodist Church, as did, for example, the Wesleyan Church (formed in 1843 as the Wesleyan Methodist Church) and the Free Methodist Church (formed in 1860).

In addition to the Methodist Church, denominational backgrounds of early Nazazarene leaders included the Association of Pentecostal Churches of America, Congregational Church, Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Holiness Christian Church, Holiness Association of Texas, Holiness Church of Christ, New Testament Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church, Pentecostal Church of Scotland, Salvation Army, and the Society of Friends (Quakers),

Is there still a special niche for the Church of the Nazarene?

While doing deputation during one of our home assignment times, a discouraged pastor asked me: "Has the Church of the Nazarene outlived its usefulness? Do we still have a clear reason to continue as a separate movement?"

Good question. Most Protestant denominations resulted from the Holy Spirit's spiritual revival and renewal action at specific times and places. Sometimes, a movement's message, methods, and structures are closely tied to a specific cultural and historical context. With the changes in that context brought by the passage of time, the movement starts to seem disconnected and irrelevant. As it seems increasingly less able to project a prophetic voice to the surrounding society and act as a viable force for change, that movement retreats into a protective shell or else morphs into a generic group indistinguishable from others.

My pastor friend was wondering if something like that would happen to the Church of the Nazarene. Honestly, there were very personal reasons for his questions. His little congregation appeared to sliding into oblivion. On top of that, his children had contemptuously turned their backs on the church. Frustrated at his church's impotence in reaching not only the community where he was ministering but also his own family, my friend had fallen prey to doubt and discouragement.

The Church of the Nazarene was born to meet pressing, definable needs. In addition to other things, Phineas F. Bresee said, "God has called us to help Christianize Christianity." More than a century has passed since the organization called the Church of the Nazarene was formed.

Today, we are one of many groups seeking to evangelize lost people. We are having success in planting new churches around the world and in evangelizing ethnic minorities. But . . . beyond that, is there a specific need that our theological and historical heritage has uniquely prepared us to meet?

Recently, I've been reminded that the original objective of "Christianizing Christianity" is more valid than ever. In a book on religion in America written several years ago, pollster George Gallup said, "Religion is growing in importance among Americans, but morality is losing ground." It would appear that American Christianity is still a long way from being Christianized. Clearly, time has not erased the need for a movement whose constitution asks its members to evidence their commitment to God "by avoiding evil of every kind." Our niche has been and can continue to be the fearless proclamation of a holy lifestyle, of radical commitment, of "dying out to sin" (to use older wording). That message needs to be heard by Christians of every denominational stripe.

Raymond Bakke reported to the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization the results of his meetings with church leaders in more than sixty major cities of the world. He concluded that one primary hindrance to urban evangelism was that Christians usually had "no ethical superiority" over nonChristians.

The preamble to the Church of the Nazarene constitution speaks of our hope "that we may cooperate effectually with other branches of the Church of Jesus Christ in advancing God's kingdom." We must help those involved in urban evangelism see that the godly walk and vital piety to which our Manual calls Nazarenes is not a narrow-minded peculiarity of a holier-than-thou club. Rather, such a holy lifestyle is a key ingredient to successful urban outreach. Believers in other movements may never embrace the exact wording of every one of our Articles of Faith. But they cannot argue with the idea that complete devotion to God and the holy obedience of love made perfect may offer the best hope for evangelizing the world's cities.

Some time ago, Christianity Today reported on a survey of church-going families. Forty-two percent of the children interviewed in the survey said their families never discuss religious topics. Don't these families need to hear from a group whose "Covenant of Christian Conduct" specifically emphasizes the need for holiness teaching in the home?

In their quadrennial address to a denominational General Assembly, the Board of General Superintendents reminded Nazarenes that their central purpose was the "propagation of Christian holiness." This may be narrowly defined as teaching and preaching holiness only to those persons converted in our own churches. However, I like to think that this "propagating" is aimed at a much larger audience: believers in all evangelical movements.

Occasionally, I meet Nazarenes who fear being thought of as "pushing our doctrine." Such defensiveness is unwarranted. In full respect of Christians in other evangelical movements, we must believe that the Holy Spirit has entrusted us with a precious treasure that must be shared with the whole Christian world. In kindly, brotherly love, we can bear witness to the message of the cleansing and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Once in a while, we get drawn into debates. That's not all bad. Sometimes, a debate will help clarify definitions. But we must remember that our primary concern is spreading the biblical message of holiness, not debating it.

Jesus' fervent prayer in John 17 for the sanctification of believers was meant for all Christians. One of the reasons for our existence as a movement is to help believers in other traditions embrace the cleansing and power available to them (even if they prefer to talk about it a little differently than we do).

I sympathize with my discouraged pastor friend. He is carrying some heavy burdens. But he has no reason to fear that we're an outmoded movement stalled inside a time frame of the past.

The Church of the Nazarene is uniquely qualified to occupy an important niche in the Christian world. Let's preach, teach, testify to, and live the key ingredient that so many Christians seem to lack: a life of Christian holiness.

Reflection questions

  1. What are the potential benefits and limitations of the Church of the Nazarene's commitment to propagating Christian holiness while also having a willingness to engage with believers from other traditions?
  2. In what ways can the Church of the Nazarene's emphasis on Christian holiness help believers address contemporary societal challenges?
  3. What challenges does the Church of the Nazarene face in maintaining its focus on holiness and keeping its distinct identity?
  4. Do you agree with the statement that the Church of the Nazarene still has a unique niche in the Christian world? Why or why not?

This article was written and published in what is now called Holiness Today while Barbara and I were missionaries in Italy.

    -- Howard Culbertson,

Nazarene global missions history

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