of the P.F. Bresee Foundation, a nonprofit community center in Los Angeles’ Mid-Wilshire district. In 2000, he was elected as the eighth president of Nazarene Theological Seminary. Benefiel is currently serving as the Dean of the School of Theology and Christian Ministry at Point Loma Nazarene University. Grace & Peace Magazine asked Ron to respond to a few questions about being Nazarene, his ministry in Los Angeles, and his thoughts on Bresee.
G&P:WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO BE PART OF THE NAZARENE FAMILY?
Benefiel: In many ways, being a Nazarene is as much a part of my identity as being a Benefiel. The Church of the Nazarene nurtured and “raised” me as a follower of Jesus Christ. I owe a great deal to the tradition. And what a great tradition it is! God raised up the people called Nazarenes and specifically called us to be a holy people to minister to and among the poor. Growing up, I always wondered about the name: “Church of the Nazarene.” Timothy Smith, in Called Unto Holiness, says that the name came to J. P. Widney after a night of prayer. In adopting the name, early Nazarenes believed that Jesus of Nazareth, who identified with the lowly, “toiling masses of the world," is the One for whom our Church should be named.
G&P: YOU SERVED AS PASTOR OF LOS ANGELES FIRST CHURCH OF THE NAZARENE FOR MANY YEARS. WHAT ARE YOUR IMPRESSIONS OF THAT TIME?
Benefiel: It was a real privilege to serve as pastor of Los Angeles First Church of the Nazarene, Bresee’s church, the church many people consider to be the founding church—certainly in the West. Throughout most of its history, the congregation celebrated Founder’s Day on the third Sunday of October. On that day, we remembered Bresee, the founding of the church, and the reason for our existence. Bresee’s vision of a worldwide church—that the sun would never set on the Church of the Nazarene—was quite literally true of us there in Los Angeles. On any given Sunday, people from 30 different nationalities would come together and worship. Even today, those congregations have a sense of pride and gratitude in being Nazarene and of being part of what God raised up in the beginning under Bresee.
One of the saints from my tenure was Mary Stewart. Mary had been the pianist for 65 years, and her mother had been the pianist when Bresee founded the church. When I came, Mary was the only person in the congregation who had any direct memory of Bresee. She told us one story over and over again: “When I was a little girl, Phineas Bresee would come out on the platform, and you could tell he had been in the presence of God.” This was a story from generations past to generations future. Here was someone reminding us that Bresee was a man of integrity, a man of Christian character, and even as a little girl, she knew that he was a man of God.
G&P: WHAT DO YOU SEE AS BRESEE’S VALUE TO THE NAZARENE MOVEMENT?
Benefiel: Phineas Bresee was a breakout leader and was an outstanding preacher and organizer. Even though he did not have much formal education, he understood the value of education and was committed to it; he founded what has become Point Loma Nazarene University. He was able to hold together a passion for evangelism and care for the poor that is at the heart of why the Church of the Nazarene was raised up as a renewal movement in the Wesleyan tradition. He had the ability to unify the church. Even at its founding, there were pushes and pulls that threatened to tear the church apart. Bresee was able to transcend all of that. He was a great leader who was fully committed to God—someone who embodied everything our tradition came to represent.
G&P: AS A SOCIOLOGIST, WHAT ARE YOUR OBSERVATIONS OF NAZARENE IDENTITY?
Benefiel: Sociologist Ken Crow and I have been observing and categorizing denominational identity in the Church of the Nazarene over the past 18 years. One thing we have learned is that Nazarene identity is not static but constantly changing. We developed a model or typology of six different identities that contribute to or compete for the core identity of the Church of the Nazarene. The six types can be collapsed into three major groupings. The first group, the “traditional” Nazarenes, looks to the immediate past and is rightfully concerned about losing the history of our theology and our reason for being. The second group, the “contemporary” group, is broader in character and is more concerned with looking outward, connecting with other denominations where God is moving in the world and learning from them. Finally, there are the “re-traditioning” Nazarenes. This group focuses on digging deeply into our Wesleyan heritage and bringing that forward into the present and future.
Each of these identities embraces a dimension of our Wesleyan theological heritage in one way or another. “Traditional” Nazarenes have a very strong commitment to evangelism and preaching the gospel. The Church of the Nazarene was born as an evangelistic movement. This is essential to our calling. “Contemporary” Nazarenes help us see where God is at work in the world today. The work of the Spirit is always moving us to new and creative ways of thinking. “Re-traditioning” Nazarenes help us remember our calling and commitment to the poor and to social justice.
Each group contributes something to our larger understanding of what it means to be Nazarene. Our hope is that the different groups appreciate what each of them brings to the table. Each type brings a particular perspective— an angle of vision—but what is important is that our sense of identity always unfolds out of our core or central narrative of being a holiness people who are deeply committed in our love for God and neighbor.
G&P: HOW IMPORTANT ARE NAZARENE SCHOOLS AND UNIVERSITIES IN FORMING AND REINFORCING NAZARENE IDENTITY?
Benefiel: Our schools are critical to this process. There is a lot, of course, that our general leadership can do, but those in our educational institutions are shaping and influencing the lives of students in a community over an extended period of time. When I consider my colleagues at Point Loma Nazarene University, I see this incredible holiness resource of thinkers and leaders in literature, social work, nursing, business, or theology. Our schools have the potential of being ministry resource centers, centers out of which mission can be communicated, expressed, and resourced. Our schools are extremely important to the future of the Church of the Nazarene.
RON BENEFIEL is Dean of Point Loma Nazarene University's School of Theology and Christian Ministry.