Tag Archives: biblical obedience

Covenantal Individualism & UMC Clergy

obedience memeA recent Reconciling Ministries blog, in which a UM pastor tells her side of the decision to conduct a same-gender wedding contrary to the Book of Discipline, was shared on Facebook with the following tagline:

“Rev. Pam Hawkins shares what led her to officiate Doug and Frank’s marriage ceremony. She will be suspended for 90 days without pay after a complaint was filed because she fulfilled her clergy vows to be in ministry with all people. ‪#‎BiblicalObedience‬

It is neither a secret nor a surprise that the recent Supreme Court decision has added heat to an already-boiling debate.  In truth, both progressive Christians, who celebrated it as a victory, and conservative Christians, who decried it as a loss, were wrong.  Allan Bevere clarifies this helpfully:

“There is a difference between the way the state views marriage from the church. According to the state, marriage is a right not to be denied, which is now extended across the U.S. to gay and lesbian couples. The church has never viewed marriage as a right, and those Christians who believe it should be so understood by the church need an introductory course in the theology of marriage. For Christianity marriage is a gift from God given to two people. No pastor is required to officiate at any particular marriage ceremony. I have the authority, which I have exercised more than a few times over the years, not to officiate at a wedding. I do not even have to have a reason why I might refuse to perform a particular marriage (though I always have). The point is that Christian marriage is not a right owed; it is a gift received.”

In a Christian grammar, marriage is a gift (some say a sacrament), not a right.  It is chiefly a spiritual, covenantal reality and not a legally binding contract (as it is for the state).

For better or for worse, the UMC has had a consistent position about same-gender sexuality (I would argue, not identity) for over forty years.  United Methodists pastors have been forbidden from conducting same-gender weddings specifically since 1996, for nearly twenty years. (Thanks to my friend and RMN board member Dave Nuckols for correcting me here). Anyone who has been ordained within that time frame, like yours truly, has had hands laid upon them and pledged to serve within a church with these particular rules on the books.**

But RMN and other progressive caucuses in the UMC have taken an interesting tack in recent years, arguing that church teaching is contradictory, that, as the tagline above implies, pastors must disobey some rules in the BOD to fulfill their calling.  Notice how individualistic the logic is:

“But I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that God prepared the way for me, as an ordained United Methodist minister, to be present in ministry with them, and that with the help of God I was able to stay focused on the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – and not be distracted by a few gospel-less rules of The United Methodist Church that call us, the ordained, to choose harm and discrimination above love.”

A couple of things stick out here:

Modern Christianity is all about 1 person: me.

  • The relationship is “me and God,” reminiscent (as so many poor Protestant decisions are) of Luther’s “Here I am, I can do no other.”  But UM Clergy are ordained as members of bodies called Orders and Conferences.  We are never on our own. It is always “Here we are,” not “Here I am.”  Draw the circle wider and realize that UM clergy represent not only themselves, but one another, and indeed the whole church.
  • There’s that overused word again: “harm.” The author ignores the community that ordained her, we are told, because she is choosing “love” over “harm and discrimination.” But she admits that the couple could have gotten married elsewhere.  Moreover, many clergy have been present at and even participated in same-gender weddings without doing the full ceremony themselves. (Even many of our bishops have clarified that this ministry is not against the BOD.)  The word ‘harm’ in UMC circles no longer has any identifiable definition, it is instead used to shut down conversation and justify anything controversial.  If your intent is to prevent ‘harm’ (notice the utilitarian logic), anything is permissible.
  • Clear church teaching for decades is dismissed as “a few gospel-less rules.”  Now, I am not necessarily a fan of our current language. It is inelegant and imprecise, especially by 2015 standards.  But the BOD is the voice of the whole church, and these particular “rules” have been the most hotly debated – and affirmed – for years.  To decide individually what rules represent the will of God and which can be flagrantly ignored represents a sad capitulation to the individualist spirit of our age and a direct insult to Methodists around the world, the majority of whom wish to see church teaching as it is currently constituted. I don’t have to agree with church teaching to abide by it, especially since the clergy covenant is always entered into willingly (and can be exited willingly).

One last point. I am troubled by the faux self-sacrifice of this piece, in which the author identifies with Noah and Jesus, and goes on to say,

“I will find my way through an imposed season of ministerial drought. I expect to face temptations of a hardened heart and dark nights of my soul. I anticipate discouragement and doubt from time to time while suspended from the work that I love.”

Cartoon via Nick & Zuzu.
Cartoon via Nick & Zuzu.

The greatest irony is that contemporary progressive UM advocates play the martyr while intentionally violating the clergy covenant, knowing full well they will likely face few consequences from their superiors (and in some cases, outright support, like Bishop “Grow Up” Carcano wearing a Love Prevails pin to Connectional Table meetings) and will be lauded by their peers.  Frank Shaefer and Mel Talbert are conference-circuit heroes now.  The author – whose church has on its web page information on how to support her financially despite the suspension – will no doubt be welcomed into that Rogue’s Gallery now, as well.

So there you have it.  Today’s progressive Methodists can enjoy the benefits of the clergy covenant without accountability, pick and choose which aspects of the Book of Discipline to follow, and simultaneously build their personal brands by playing both martyr and hero, all for the price of a slap on the wrist. (See note at bottom for more.)

To conclude, a word about the title.  “Covenantal Individualism” sounds like nonsense because it is.  I believe Jesus-loving United Methodists disagree on how to move forward, and I am open to finding ways to honor those disagreements within the covenant.  But we must find that way together.  It’s not up to me or you.  It’s up to the whole body.  Continued covenantal individualism (which makes as much sense as “biblical obedience”) will only make the house of cards fall faster.

*Note: I actually do respect the decision by Nashville Area Bishop Bill McAllilly; in calling for significantly more consequences than most of his Council of Bishop peers have, he has gone against a troubling current and deserves praise for actually doing his job, however distasteful and unfortunate I’m sure it has been.

**Edited after correction by Dave Nuckols.

Biblical Disobedience and Consequences

findingourway

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 Questions for the #UMC Schismatics: Progressive Edition

humptydumpty
Humpty Dumpty, illustrated by Denslow, circa 1904. Courtesy Wikimedia commons.

My recent post questioning the conservative UMC schismatics garnered a wide range of responses, including many who called on me, in the name of fairness, to ask similar questions of those progressives in the UMC breaching covenant in various ways.  Though I had at least hinted at the end that I saw their actions as equally schismatic, I did not have time and space to then go into my questions for the left in  a similar fashion.  So, in this follow-up, I offer some questions to my liberal UMC neighbors:

1. What ever happened to doctrine?  Progressive Methodists excel at talking about and advocating for social justice, inclusion, tolerance, and diversity.  These are wonderful things, of course.  But often these terms are simply lifted from secular culture and deployed in progressive Christian circles with little to no theological content.  There are strong theological voices for progressive Christians to draw on, in the sexuality debate and beyond.  However, the seeming lack of interest that many progressives have in basic Christian orthodoxy gives moderates and conservatives concerns about the presence of foundational Christological and Trinitarian affirmations among our more left-leaning neighbors.  A little doctrine and theology would go a long way, not just in building trust in the church but in making your own arguments more plausible.  If you talk like a Unitarian Universalist, you can’t expect to be taken seriously in any discussion about church beliefs and structure.

2. When did celibacy become oppression?   I believe that there are valid concerns that the sexuality clauses of the Book of Discipline (BOD) are unevenly and unfairly enforced against our LGBT members and clergy candidates (outside of answering one written question that was not discussed, sex was not brought up at all throughout my ordination process). It is  fundamentally unjust to hold LGBT persons to the “celibacy in singleness, fidelity in marriage” clause (as marriage in the church is not, at present, an option) if we also do not take celibacy equally seriously among unmarried heterosexual Methodists.   By so doing the church is, quite literally, placing  “burdens too heavy to bear” upon our LGBT members and clergy candidates to which we are not willing or able to hold heterosexuals accountable (Acts 15:10).

That said, Christians have always – since Jesus and Paul – held that celibacy was a valid Christian vocation.  No doubt, in a world that idolizes sex, we need to be much more proactive in providing resources and showing grace to persons called to a single life, but this should be viewed as a positive vocation with a long history among our monastics, clergy, martyrs, and saints.  By itself, the Church’s call to celibacy in singleness is not oppression; our highest calling as a people dedicated to sanctification is not expression or intimacy but holiness.  In that regard, the Church of the 21st century would do well to recover the witness of celibate persons and lift up singleness in all the possibilities that it offers.  The debate over who should be celibate will and should go on, but celibacy as a valid calling for Christians should be unquestionable.  We worship Jesus, after all, not Freud or Kinsey.

3. Have you counted the cost?  Some folks did not like when I brought this up at the New York Annual Conference forum on Clergy Covenant and Human Sexuality, but it needs to be considered.  The regions where progressives dominate the church are not the healthiest parts of our communion.  There are more United Methodists in North Georgia than the whole of the Pacific Northwest.  A member of the Connectional Table informed me that many Annual Conferences have pension funds that are unsustainable.   Many others Annual Conferences can’t even pay the full bill for their episcopal leaders.   Meanwhile, the churches that are leading the charge for a formal schism in reaction to breaches of covenant by progressive UMs are mostly within (and would likely draw many supporters from) the South Central and Southeastern Jurisdictions.  These two jurisdictions alone “pay in” through apportionments a much larger percentage than their numbers represent – a rough estimate I’ve heard was that these regions represent 40% of the church numerically, but pay 70% of the apportionments.  How much will your ministries of justice, peace, and mercy – not to mention all those boards and agencies that we fought so hard to keep intact in 2012 – suffer if some of our largest churches pull out?  This is not to defend the tactic  – even though it seems to be getting popular with progressives now, also – but simply to say: you may get what you want, but at what cost?

4.  Can people of good will disagree with you?  Part of the trouble with binaries like liberation/oppression and justice/injustice is that they create a very simple narrative world in which those on one side are righteous and those on the other side are evil, if not sub-human.   I have seen traditionalists, the Book of Discipline, and even the UMC as  a whole labelled “homophobic,” “ignorant,” “oppressive,” “hateful,” and the like by those on the left.  At the Connectional Table dialogue last month, someone stated that “violence” had been done, presumably because one (fairly tepid) panelist kinda sorta defended the BOD. Violence? Hatred? Oppression?  Those are a very broad brushes with which to paint.

I have many conservative friends and colleagues.  I’ve sat down with some of the leading evangelical pastors in our denomination.  These are not people who fear or loathe LGBT persons.  You certainly won’t win them to your side by declaring that they do.  But this rhetoric persists.

Now, of course, homophobia, discrimination, and hate speech should have no place at all among God’s people.  Even Christians who do not see lesbian and gay relationships as valid expressions of God’s will should, in the name of Christian love, defend the persons in them from abuse.  Likewise, I believe (and think it should be a no-brainer) that the church should support efforts to make sure that gay and lesbian partners be given civil and legal recognition in matters of inheritance, visitation, etc. on par with heterosexual couples.  But on the matters of church discipline vis-a-vis marriage and ordination, I ask: is it possible to disagree with you about sexuality and still recognize each other as sisters and brothers in Christ?

5. What else is up for grabs?  I sense a concern from moderates and traditionalists about deeper divisions among us than just matters of church discipline and sexual ethics (see #1).  If whole conferences and jurisdictions feel justified, on principle, to ignore or disobey certain clearly defined parts of the BOD, what else can be ignored?  Progressives will sometimes argue that their current breaches of covenant “do no harm” to the rest of the UMC, and so should be allowed to follow their own path.  But if this persists – absent an agreement similar to Bishop Coyner’s recommendations – what else can be ignored, and how is the rest of the church to trust that this is the only area of the BOD that progressives will seek to pressure until it breaks?   When even left-leaning bishops do not seem particularly interested in listening their peers, there seems to be a legitimate concern that progressive United Methodists have no concept of authority outside of personal conscience.  A church full of self-appointed Luthers (of whatever ideological stripe) is going to find it difficult to live together and serve God’s redemptive and healing mission.

6. What is your end game?  I believe the vast majority of UM progressives, like their conservative neighbors, sincerely love Jesus and feel caught between their personal convictions and their love for and commitment to the UMC.  Those of us who disagree with their beliefs and/or actions should still be in prayer for them, as they are our beloved in Christ.  So I ask you, my progressive friends, the same question I asked the conservatives: what is your end game?  It seems pretty clear to most observers that, given the demographics, General Conference 2016 has little chance of removing the language related to marriage and ordination.  So, barring that, what can you live with?  Is an “agree to disagree” statement worth pursuing? Could you live with a United States Central Conference, that could have more flexibility (as all the other Central Conferences have presently) with what language to adopt around sexuality?    I hope, for the sake of a church that I truly love  and that  still has much to offer the world,  that there is something short of full victory (represented by a full excision of the LGBT clauses in the BOD) you are willing to accept – because continued “biblical obedience” may tear the church apart to such an extent that, like Humpty-Dumpty, it could not be put back together.

Conclusion

Ultimately, I don’t want to be in a church of only personal holiness or or only social justice.  As Methodists in the lineage of John and Charles Wesley, I think we really are at our best when we  strive to have our cake and eat it.  And so in asking tough questions of the schismatics on both ends of the spectrum in the UMC, it is in the service of this goal: that we might be one.

The old song was wrong: breaking up is not hard, it’s easy.  It’s what the rest of the Mainline has done.

I believe we can and should strive to do better.