Biblical Disobedience and Consequences


I just finished the excellent Finding Our Way: Love and Law in the United Methodist Church. This new publication is a collection of essays by Bishops from across the Connection with a variety of perspectives.  We will be reviewing the book as a whole in an upcoming WesleyCast, but I wanted to share a bit from one chapter in particular.

Bishop Michael Lowry from the Central Texas Conference has an excellent chapter on church order.  In the course of this chapter, he examines the notion of ‘biblical obedience’ from Bishop Talbert and his supporters, which is little more than a baptized version of civil disobedience.  Of course civil disobedience has a long and valuable history in our country and around the world; its ‘biblical’ variant, though, leaves something to be desired.  Lowry reflects,

“…it should be carefully noted that when civil disobedience is invoked, Christians have been willing to bear the penalty for such disobedience. This has long been a principle of civil disobedience. The need for order is not ignored but rather embraced on a higher level through the witness of being willing to face the penalty incurred. Presently, the position of biblical obedience, which evokes by some of civil disobedience against church law, is corrupted by the lack of meaningful penalties applied to those engaging in disobeying church law. it is now acceptable for some advocates, some church juries, and some bishops to settle for a twenty-four-hour suspension of the guilty clergyperson. Such a meaningless level of accountability has the effect of giving a person an extra day off for violating church law established by General Conference. Such actions offend the very integrity of the advocated biblical obedience.” (pp.75-76)

In other words, if one wants to invoke the honored history of civil disobedience within the church, part of that legacy is accepting the penalties that come.  At present, ‘biblical obedience’ advocates are doing everything they can to avoid consequences.  This, as Bishop Lowry points out, effectively neuters the power of strategic disobedience – because instead of forcing onlookers to see unjust penalties carried out, what we have is a de facto change in church law underwritten by certain places in our Connection.

Progressives can’t have it both ways.  I can respect the desire to call upon  the powerful witness from decades past of civil disobedience, for it is a valuable tool for social change.  Much of the force is taken away, however, from biblical dis/obedience when its advocates refuse to face the consequences of their actions.  The result from continuous disobedience devoid of consequences has not been and will not be a change in church law, but a continued strain on our covenant life together that could well bend our connection beyond what it can bear.

Let those with ears, hear.

P.S. For more on Finding Our Way, and reactions from other UM leaders, check out the helpful page dedicated to this discussion over at Ministry Matters.

6 thoughts on “Biblical Disobedience and Consequences”

  1. I would like to point out that yours and the Bishops’ analysis of what is needed for biblical obedience to have more credibility…….is pretty much the same take as Love Prevails.

    To those who have a studied history of nonviolent resistance–like at least one of LP’s leaders–then keeping the penalty for biblical obedience and the trials ongoing is necessary for the whole system to suffer from injustice instead of a few.

    I’m not saying I agree; I’m just pointing out that you disagree with LP at every turn, but at this roundabout you find each other driving side by side.

    1. Fair point, Jeremy. Thanks for reading and commenting. To clarify, this was just from Bishop Lowry’s piece, it isn’t reflective of all the Bishops from the book.

      I suppose intention matters as much as consequences. I want more accountability because I think making and keeping promises is important to our covenant life together. LP wants more accountability because that will allow them to drive the denomination closer to a cliff.

      What is needed is both more accountability and more willingness on the part of church leaders to not be bullied by small, immature cabals like Love Prevails.

      Also, it would be helpful if moderate conservatives and moderate progressives would stand up to those on the extremes – though I see little of this happening.

  2. What is really laughable about Amy DeLong’s stance is that when she had the chance to be upfront about her life she instead tried (successfully in her instance) to pretend that the Fifth Amendment applied to a church trial. When it was time for “Love On Trial” she retreated to ambiguity. Now, she has been appointed to “serve” a church.

  3. It should be noted that there is not a “progressive” monolith on the issue of trials and disobedience. I’ve seen some progressives calling for an end to trials but obviously not all. However, I have not seen a group calling to have it “both ways,” as you state.

  4. What I mean by “both ways” is declare the church unjust and sinful for its position, advertise and celebrate the one is going to defy church order, and then cry foul – and put the church through a costly trial – when the church attempts to hold that person accountable. If you dare the cop to pull you over for speeding, don’t blame the cop or act shocked you were pulled over. Accept the ticket rather than trying tear down the whole police department. Most of the progressive caucuses have been engaged in exactly that kind of doublespeak. If civil disobedience is going to be your rallying cry, be prepared to sit in jail on occasion. That is much more respectable than breaking the law and then fleeing from the sentence.

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