By Benjamin R. Cremer, Class of 2008 and 2010
Unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.” This quote by Charles Wesley holds a prominent place in NNU’s Brandt Center auditorium. It was one of the first impressions made on me as a potential student at the “Explore NNU” event. In the midst of trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life after high school—like everyone else there—I was also struggling to reconcile a past filled with church splits over disagreements between right belief and right ways of living. I felt called into the ministry, but my faith struggles left me wondering if there was such a thing as a “healthy church.”
As I read this quote from Charles Wesley, my eyes filled with tears and it gave me hope. That day, I became eager to dive into my newly found community at NNU, and I imagined what healing might come from my time there as a student. I was unaware then of how impactful this ideal of knowledge joined with vital piety would become for me in my life.
As is stated in its mission, Northwest Nazarene University’s Wesleyan-Holiness tradition strives for the holistic transformation of its students. NNU partners with students to not only work toward a renewal of the mind, but a renewal of life and the world beyond! “Centered in Jesus Christ, the NNU education instills habits of heart, soul, mind and strength to enable each student to become God’s creative and redemptive agent in the world.” Our heritage as Wesleyans has always been founded on this two-sided ideal: personal transformation and world transformation.
We Wesleyan-Holiness people are committed to the principles that our religious expression (piety) should not only include transformation of persons, but also participation with God’s ongoing work in transforming the world for the better. Knowing the gospel is not enough unless it is lived, we are determined to be transformed by it and live it out. Knowledge and vital piety: As a student, I found this mission deeply influential in my life.
In my first year as a theology student, I learned some history of the church, Biblical Greek, and theological perspectives all previously unknown to me. This education was not only illuminating a deeper picture of God for me, but it encouraged me to see how this new knowledge should change how I live my life. My professors were passionate and so dedicated to their craft, and it was so clear to me, even as a young student, that they valued their students just as much as they valued their call to teach. They were not just professors, but mentors and fellow Christians on the journey of uniting the knowledge of God and the mission of God in daily life.
For the first time in my life, I was exposed to people and ways of thought that were far different from anything I had encountered before. The faith that I had called my own since childhood took on deeper meaning and sacredness. I was not only engaged with books, professors and classmates with whom I agreed, but equally important, I was also taught to engage with books, professors, and classmates with whom I didn’t agree. This exposure stretched me in difficult, yet formative ways.
As I was being introduced to the broad spectrum of knowledge and skills in my studies of humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and formal sciences, my mind and heart were set free to comprehend life and my faith as much bigger and much more complex than I had ever anticipated. Even my deepest held beliefs, which I felt completely certain about before, were found in need of deconstruction and reconstruction. NNU gave me the necessary tools to not only have a deeper grasp of the world around me, but to make my faith my own.
NNU also provided many opportunities to cultivate my spiritual life outside the classroom. The prayer chapel, small group Bible studies, the weekly rhythms of chapel services and Timeout on Wednesday nights all became a proving ground for how the student body practiced its faith in Christ together. Add to this that, as a ministry major, part of my educational requirements was to be involved with the local church, its ministry and its outreach.
On an average day, I would find myself hearing lectures and sermons by NNU’s faculty in class, then pondering their words as I worked with my church’s youth group pulling weeds or painting fences in town. Through these practices and education, worshiping God became something greater than just the things I did. Worshiping God was changing who I was. It became a daily commitment to allow Christ to transform my whole life and discern how to live out the transformation Christ wants to see in the world.
Now as a pastor, with my undergraduate years far behind me, I find myself ministering to a deeply divided culture, which will come as no surprise to anyone reading this. However, I do not believe these divides within the church begin and end just with partisan politics, as many might assume. I believe what makes these divides so deep and damaging is that we have stopped practicing what we learned to do as students in the classroom. That is to intentionally engage with the nuances and complexity of the world around us in truth and love, including the things we agree with and the things we don’t.
From the many politicians, news cycles, and even some Christian leaders in the public eye, we are constantly fed a false narrative that our world is caught in a battle between starkly black and white (or red and blue) categories. That there is no gray area or middle ground anymore. There are only winners and losers and you’re either “for us or against us.” The dominant mindset in our cultural arena would have us believe that our lives only revolve around two choices, one good and the other bad. The issues we all care about are reduced to their most superficial definitions and pitted against each other in order to defeat our so-called enemies. Around every corner, we are compelled to force everything we believe and experience into these either/or categories, all while being told by those who lead us that any attempts to understand the “other side” is a sign of compromise and weakness. Sadly, doing this causes us to rally behind one issue or another, creating enemies of other people, rather than discerning together how God might be calling us as the church to heal the brokenness in every single one of the complex issues facing God’s world today.
During this unprecedented time, I have been deeply privileged to serve alongside a wonderfully gifted staff and charitable church. We have not only been able to serve numerous families in need of food and supplies during the pandemic, but we have been able to network with a sister church and local school to address other needs in our community. As we would all quickly realize, however, these physical needs are only the tip of the iceberg. The mental and spiritual needs of people became just as pressing as the physical needs, especially as the pandemic continues to drag on and escalate.
People are not only dealing with isolation and financial difficulties, but grappling with social unrest and trying to make sense of continuous unfolding events. “What are we to make of all this?” is a question we are asked often by those in our community. We are actively seeking ways to serve and pray for our medical workers, school teachers, students, police officers, city officials and the cause for equal justice for our Black brothers and sisters. All these who call Boise, Idaho, home face their own individual set of challenges, struggles and needs. I believe the church has a tremendous opportunity right now to embody the radical love of Christ in each situation people are facing in the world today.
Ministering in such a culture is obviously fraught with challenges. But
one of the greatest challenges facing the church right now is overcoming the prevailing either/or categories of our time that prevent us from truly knowing and understanding the complexities of people’s lives. The prevailing Biblical truth is that no matter someone’s circumstance, lifestyle, economic status or beliefs, each human being is created in the image of God and therefore can never be reduced to an either/or category. When we reduce people in that way, we dismiss their actual needs and only elevate what we want over them.
In this culture of ours, so shaped by this either/or metric, it is a challenge to remember that our God-given purpose as the church is not to dominate our world for the sake of the Gospel, but to live lives that are dominated by the Gospel for the sake of God’s world. To put it another way, we are not called to live by the rule “love the sinner, hate the sin.” This only serves to put people in categories of sin we create, while taking the focus off of our own deep need for transformation. We are instead called to “love the sinner, hate our own sin.”
It has always been my sincere conviction, since my days as an NNU student, that how we respond to the news of the day must be shaped first and foremost by the Good News of the Gospel. The Gospel must be good news to those in need and those most vulnerable to harm or it isn’t the good news of Jesus Christ. Therefore, if we are asked to be inconvenienced and wear a mask for the safety of others, then Christians should be the first to do so. For Jesus called us to “go the extra mile” and put the needs of others above our own. If our Black brothers and sisters are crying out for equal justice under the law, then the church should be the first to listen to their stories and seek to understand the complexities of their lives and what changes are needed. When we are faced with the false narrative that all major social issues should be divided into “right” and “left,” either/or categories, we Christians should be the first to respond in declaring to the world that we resist anything that seeks to divide us from one another. For our Christian religious expression is founded on the truth that the Gospel we know must shape the way we live with and love all people.
In these days, our Christian heritage compels us again to renew our conviction that the transformation of our personal lives in Jesus leads to the transformation of God’s world. This message is central to the academic and spiritual mission of NNU and the Church of the Nazarene, by which my spirituality was forever changed as a student. This heritage of ours urgently implores us to understand that our world will be transformed, not by political saviors or the decisions of those in power, but when common everyday, ordinary people refuse to be divided and pitted against one another, but rather insist on supporting one another in love. We, as the church, are tasked by God to lead with purpose towards that loving unity by example.
We must, as Charles Wesley said, “Unite the pair so long disjoined, Knowledge and vital piety: Learning and holiness combined, And truth and love, let all people see. In those whom up to thee we give, Thine, wholly thine, to die and live.”