Tag Archives: individualism

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.

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Following Jesus Alone is Impossible

More like your own personal idol.
More like your own personal idol.

In all quarters, we hear from folks who seem to have outgrown the need for religious community.  There is talk of scandals, such as Ted Haggard and the Archdiocese of Boston.  Significant figures famously deconvert, like Tony Campolo’s son.  And we all have personal accounts of being mistreated or insufficiently cared for by churches, pastors, and supposedly Christian friends.  Combine all that with a culture of radical individualism, a disease present even when masked by the superficialities of social media, and you have a recipe for the abandonment of Christian community.

Will Willimon reflects,

Living a religious life would be an easy task were it not for the troublesome presence of other people. The woman who says that she feels more religious when she stays at home on Sunday morning watching Oral Roberts on television, the man who claims to have a more uplifting experience on the golf course than in church, the young person who receives “better vibrations” in twenty minutes of transcendental meditation than in sixty minutes of morning worship are all simply stating what is true: It is easier to feel “religious” in such individual, solitary, comfortable circumstances.  Whether it is possible to be Christian in such circumstances is another matter. (78)

I can’t speak to other faiths, to atheism (though the rejection of religion seems to have itself become a religion), or to the searching spiritualists of no particular faith heritage.   But both the whole canon of Scripture and the story of God’s people – Israel and the Church – point to the impossibility of knowing and serving the One God alone.  Even the most extreme solitaries of the Christian tradition, the desert monks of Egypt, had a larger purpose to their isolation and would receive guests to teach or would emerge occasionally to give counsel.  We may like Jesus much more than his Body, the Church, but we are not allowed to choose between them.  Willimon goes on to say,

The church is, above all, a group of people, a more human than a divine institution – that is its glory. It was no accident that Jesus called a group of disciples, not isolated individuals, nor was it by chance that immediately following the death of resurrection of Jesus we find a group of people gathered together in the name of Jesus.  The Christian life is not an easy one, the world being what it is and we being what we are. We need others. Strong people are nose who are strong enough to admit that they need other people.  The rugged individualist is a spiritual adolescent. (84)

I have no idea how much community matters in other faiths.  But of this much I am confident: it is impossible to follow Jesus as Jesus intended by oneself.  If you truly love someone, you love their people, you love who they love.  How does that apply to Christian discipleship?

You can’t love Jesus well if you ignore his Bride.  He never intended that to be an option.

An oldie but a goodie.
An oldie but a goodie.

[Source: Will Willimon, The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything, (Valley Forge: Judson Press 1987).]

The Cross is Not About You

Pay attention to enough old revival songs, and eventually the individualism of so much “Jesus n’ Me” theology will wear your patience thin.  N.T. Wright is an evangelical Anglican (a rare breed indeed) who gets that the Good News is not just about “my salvation,” and I continue to learn a great deal from him.

As Good Friday approaches, in which we meditate on the cross and consider all that Christ endured to effect our reconciliation with God, I found these words a helpful reminder that the cross is not merely the news about something done for me, but also a vocation that is to impact how we as Christians approach life and ministry and mission each day.  The cross is personal but also political, it is individual and communal.  Like the entirety of the Biblical revelation, it is first about who God is, and only secondarily about me.

I hope this blesses you in some way as it did me, and I would heartily suggest you add this volume to your current reading list.

The cross is the surest, truest and deepest window on the very heart and character of the living and loving God; the more we learn about the cross in all its historical and theological dimensions, the more we discover about the One in whose image we are made and hence about our own vocation to be the cross-bearing people, the people in whose lives and service the living God is to be made known…we do not – we dare not – simply treat the cross as the thing that saves us “personally,” but which can be left behind when we get on with the job.  The task of shaping our world is best understood as the redemptive task of bringing the achievement of the cross to bear on the world, and in that task the methods, as well as the message, but be cross-shaped through and through.”

N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 94-95