It is my current privilege as pastor of Pasadena First Church of the Nazarene to preach each Sunday from a pulpit that belonged originally to Phineas F. Bresee. There is some good-natured debate as to whether or not it was the only pulpit that belonged to Bresee or even how special thisparticular pulpit was to him, but in our minds, the faithful in Pasadena are the true guardians of the pulpit of Bresee.
Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are. – Jaroslav Pelikan
It is not surprising that after a century of development, extension into vast global contexts, and rapidly changing social, economic, and political landscapes, the Church of the Nazarene would be wrestling with questions of identity. Struggling to continually redefine, recontextualize, and renarrate the core values and convictions of faith is a vital part of being a living tradition. One of the key ways that traditions thrive in the future is by reaching back and retelling the stories andcelebrating the people who set the trajectory for the movement.
A living tradition, as church historian Jaroslav Pelikan so beautifully states above, cannot simply return to its past; it has to embody it anew. It is impossible to think about recapturing the spirit of the Church of the Nazarene without examining the founding influence of Bresee. Any rearticulation of the legacy of the denomination has to take seriously his life, his passion, and his deepest convictions.
But without a thoughtful record of his life and ministry—like battles over wardrobes and pulpits—the church can often co-opt an influential leader’s memory for their own purposes.In these days of frequently contested identity in the church, one might wonder, who are the true “children of Bresee” today?
There are many things that I hope a new generation of church leaders will glean from Bresee’s life, but let me name just three.
First, it is my hope that in every generation the heirs of the Church of the Nazarene will be shaped by Bresee’s passion for the poor. Every Nazarene should know that the denomination’s name came not just from the connection to Jesus of Nazareth, but from the understanding that the word “Nazarene” had derogatory overtones (as demonstrated by Nathaniel in John 1:46: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” [GW*]). Bresee’s church would be centered on Jesus the Nazarene but would also be oriented toward those marginalized persons from whom nothing good was expected to come.
In a day not unlike the day Bresee faced over a century ago, when people are still abandoning the poor in urban centers globally, the church should be reminded of statements like this from Bresee: “We can get along without rich people, but not without preaching the gospel to the poor.”
Many of the faithful in the evangelical tradition since the time of Bresee have been deeply shaped by eschatologies that lack hope. In other words, the generationthat currently leads the church was largely shaped by theological systems whose future expectations were that God’s plan is to redeem a few out of the world before its eventual destruction. It should not surprise us that people shaped with those kinds of expectations often embody a gospel that isolates the church from the world and, like the prophet in the fourth chapter of Jonah, sits outside the city waiting for the world’s great cities and cultures to be destroyed, while God is busy at work redeeming the lost of Nineveh.
Bresee led Nazarenes into the darkest corners where sin abounded, because he was convinced of the transforming power of God's grace and Spirit to bring light into darkness, to bring holiness where there was sin, and to bring life out of death.
Finally, I also am hopeful that those who wrestle with making today’s church a living reflection of Bresee’s character will discover his commitment to unity on essentials while negotiating and leading an incredibly diverse group of people. It is important to remember that the Church of the Nazarene was formed more by the merging of people with similar passions and values than it was the leaving of disgruntled people from other traditions and denominations. Bresee was so devoted to the vision of holiness that many other nonessentials clearly became secondary.
In a time of rapid cultural and global changes, the questions of orthodoxy constantly rise to the surface. Technology and social media have done a lot of good things, but in the church they can often be instruments of division rather than unity. Leaders with Bresee’s wisdom and conviction are desperately needed today to hold a group far more diverse than Bresee ever encountered united together around the essentials of the call to be holy as God is holy.
Bresee was far from perfect and like all great people he was profoundly shaped by his particular moment in time. But God also used him to begin a movement that has gone far beyond what Bresee likely could have imagined. I hope that those of us called to lead the church today [are] connected with his heart so that the best days of Bresee’s original vision are still out ahead of the Church of the Nazarene.
T. SCOTT DANIELS is senior pastor of Pasadena (CA) First Church of the Nazarene and also Dean and Professor of the School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University.
*Note: Scripture marked GW is taken from God’s Word®. Copyright 1995 God’s Word to the Nations. Used by permission of Baker Publishing Group. All rights reserved.
Taken from Phineas Bresee by Carl Bangs, abridged by Stan Ingersol © 2013 by Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, MO. Used by permission of Publisher. All rights reserved. Visit www.beaconhillbooks.com to purchase this title.