By David A. Busic
It has often been said that the union of three different groups to form the Church of the Nazarene at Pilot Point, Texas, USA, was to promote the biblical doctrine of holiness as expressed in the teaching of John Wesley and the American Holiness Movement. While that is certainly true, what is less well-known is that at the very same time, nearly 30 other prominent groups in the U.S. held this same conviction. So why did these three groups merge to form our denomination, but not the many others?
The three groups that merged at Pilot Point held several common ideas that were essential to their unity:
- The strong affirmation for the ordination of women
- A baptismal theology that included infant and believer’s baptism and was not bound by a specific mode for baptism
- The willingness to allow for freedom of conscience regarding eschatology. The early Church of the Nazarene included post-millennialists, pre-millennialists, and a-millennialists
- A view of divine healing that did not exclude modern medicine
- A shared believers’ church ecclesiology
While many other holiness denominations held exclusive and narrow viewpoints on these issues, the Church of the Nazarene chose to unite holiness people around middle-way (via media) practices. We have never been at our best as a church when we live in the extremes.
But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Pilot Point was that the Church of the Nazarene was able to do what few other evangelical churches could in the divisive years that followed the American Civil War — overcome issues of regional politics, prejudice, and the lingering hatred that follows horrific conflict.
Names like Bresee, Jernigan, and Reynolds came together from north, south, and east U.S. to embrace a transformational idea: Christian holiness can break down any walls of separation. It was a movement of God unprecedented in U.S. church history.
Nazarene Historian Stan Ingersol powerfully summarizes the miracle of Pilot Point:
The union of churches at Pilot Point was a shining example of the social reality of Christian holiness. At the heart of the Christian message is a word of reconciliation: first between sinners and Divine Love; and second, among the members of the human family who are estranged from one another. Pilot Point signifies the reality that holiness heals hearts and unites people otherwise driven apart by sin, politics, and conflict. (Stan Ingersol, “Born In Hope, Borne Onward In Love.” A paper delivered 26 June 2017 for the Fraternal Delegates Luncheon in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA)
In such a time as this, in a world filled with great political strife and extreme polarities, can the Church of the Nazarene return to the spirit of our founders at Pilot Point? It was unlikely to happen then, but by the will and power of God, a union was formed. Our founders were not able to do everything, but they have given us hope that we can also deal with the issues that divide us today.
We serve the same God and have the same purpose. This is our holiness legacy. Let’s get back to the point of Pilot Point.
*I am indebted to Nazarene Historian Stan Ingersol for these insights.