Ecclesial Disobedience and the Ordained

Many of my theological friends in the UMC–brothers and sisters in Christ–are much more progressive than I am. I feel the need to state publicly that I value these friends a great deal. I learn from them. They challenge me and keep me from becoming too comfortable with my own positions. They remind me that my own ideas are necessarily fallible and incomplete. I hope they value me, too. I’d like to think that our conversations have in some small ways helped them to grow in the life of faith.

I’m afraid, though, that after 2016, these theological friends and I–these brothers and sisters in Christ–will no longer share a worshipping community. The denomination has reached a breaking point. Of course, our disagreements over many topics, most prominently “homosexual practice,” are nothing new. What is different now than in the last four decades? The answer is quite clear: ecclesial disobedience. Some clergy, including some bishops, have made the decision to disobey publicly the denomination’s church law regarding gay marriage and ordination. The hope seems to be to embolden others who hold similar ethical positions and bring about a change of denominational policy.

The model for this practice of ecclesial disobedience is the U.S. civil rights movement which brought about change through peaceful, public acts of civil disobedience. There are, however, at least three important ways in which civil disobedience is unlike ecclesial disobedience.

1. For most of us, our national citizenship is not altogether voluntary. It’s much more difficult to say, “You know, I think I’d make a better Norwegian or Guatamalan than American,” than it is to say, “You know, I think I’d fit better in the UCC or the Southern Baptist Church than in the UMC.” Yes, hypothetically, each of us could emigrate to another country, but for most of us this simply isn’t a live option.

2. Unlike our national citizenship, ordination is a sacred covenant between the individual, God, and the church. If we engage in acts of civil disobedience, we are not violating a sacred covenant as we are in the case of ecclesial disobedience.

3.Presumably, we know what we’re signing on for when we’re ordained. (If not, you need to have a talk with your UM Polity instructor.) We know what kind of body we’re joining. We know its ideals, rules, standards, and ethical positions. Unless we immigrate to the U.S. from another country, this isn’t the kind of decision we make about national citizenship. When folks do immigrate from another country to the U.S., it is often because they are seeking a better way of life, and not because they wish to undermine the ideals of our nation. In fact, we take a very dim view of immigration with the intention of undermining our national ideals.

Willful acts of disobedience to the church as acts of protest, then, are quite different than acts of civil disobedience. I’m sure that some readers could point out differences that I haven’t brought up here. In light of these differences, it is incumbent upon the protesters to demonstrate that this is an ethical and appropriate way to bring about change in the denomination. 

Let’s be clear: the inevitable result of this kind of action, if it continues, will be a division of the denomination. It will not be reform of the denomination. That would have to come through some action of the General Conference, but what has precipitated these acts of ecclesial disobedience to start with is the fact that the progressives cannot get what they want at the General Conference level. Acts of ecclesial disobedience will not sway conservatives toward the progressive position. In fact, it will probably bring about a greater level of entrenchment. One reason for further entrenchment will be the fact that the denomination cannot allow this kind of action to change church law in lieu of the decisions of the General Conference. If we do allow this, then every group that feels strongly about its position in opposition to the Discipline can move its agenda forward by circumventing our established procedures.

It’s worth noting that the Protestant “Reformation” was really a Protestant schism. The Protestant impulse ever since has been to divide when we cannot agree. Now, let’s keep in mind that we Wesleyans are really not very good Protestants. Our parent tradition, the Anglican Church, was not born out of a theological protest (as, say, the Lutherans were), but out of a political dispute. Further, rather than being the heirs of sola Scriptura, we are the heirs of the Anglican “Middle Way,” which relied upon the three-legged stool of scripture, tradition, and reason. All this notwithstanding, however, we’ve soaked in enough real Protestantism from other traditions that we know a good opportunity to split off from one another when we see one. The disintegration of our structures of governance and authority will surely provide sufficient reason.

This is all leading up to a few questions that we should think through denominationally:

1) At what point does one’s individual conscience supersede the collective decisions of the body to which one is ordained?

2) What is the appropriate response when we feel the body to which we are ordained is acting unethically?

3) What are we to think about people who seek ordination with the intention of undermining the collective decisions of the body that will ordain them?

To be clear, I’m not calling for division. I don’t want division. I want to worship alongside brothers and sisters in the faith who help me think more deeply about God. I’m simply pointing out what I think is going to happen if we continue on our current trajectory. I’m interested in reading your comments and hope you’ll help me think through these issues.



74 thoughts on “Ecclesial Disobedience and the Ordained

  1. Thank for your post, your thoughtful approach, and your commitment to unity of the UMC.

    Allow me to address your question “What is different now than in the last four decades?“ Now, compared to 1972 when the General Conference first introduced language (“incompatible with Christian teaching”) used to discriminate against gay Christians, the following things are different:
    (1) We UMCers have grown into our more egalitarian (Galatians 3:28) polity and theology which in 1972 was quite new and still scary for many. Women’s equality is paving the way for LGBT equality.
    (2) There is now a medical and scientific consensus about gender identity and orientation which in 2014 understands homosexuality as natural (how God has created some humans) rather than “disordered” (as most thought in 1972). Even through the 1980s and 1990s the scientific evidence was debated, but now there is clear consensus affirming homosexuality as natural and debunking “reparative therapy” as harmful to its victims. We are now at another “science proves the world is round” or “science proves evolution” moment of truth.
    (3) Gay people are living out healthy and affirmed lives in popular culture and, more importantly, in ordinary workplaces, neighborhoods, churches and homes. Most Americans know gay people in a more personal and mutually friendly way than before. We see the compelling witness of faithful gay laity and clergy.
    (4) Because gay folks are now widely accepted socially, kids who put off their “coming out” experience are now doing so at younger ages. So many of our UMC kids in confirmation have friends with older brothers and sisters in high school who have come out already. Many of those gay kids are now seen as leaders rather than as shunned outsiders. Our young confirmation kids are challenging the church over the apparent discrimination and what seems, to them, weak and misguided Biblical justification for it. Our policies are harming the witness and mission of the church.
    (5) In 1972, gay people could not serve openly in the military, then we passed through a stage of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (similar to our Boards of Ordained Ministry in some annual conferences), and now the US military welcomes and fully utilizes the skills of open gay men and women.
    (6) Instead of zero states offering civil marriage equality for same sex couples in 1972, there are seventeen states where gay people can legally wed in 2014. And these couples do move to all fifty states and their marriages are still valid — at least valid so far as the federal government is concerned. Increasingly married gay folks are members of our UMC churches in all fifty states. It is only our churches’ degree of welcome of such people that is uneven and too often un-Christian.
    (7) While marriage equality has come to many states through the normal legislative process, the courts are increasingly active after the Supreme Court’s decision in the DOMA case. A growing list of state marriage bans have been overturned judicially and are pending Supreme Court review. Most court observers predict that marriage equality will become a federal right applied to all fifty states sooner rather than later. So the clergy dilemma of “Shall we marry these two faithful gay members of our church as allowed by state law?” will soon be posed not just in some annual conferences, but soon enough in all US-based conferences.
    (8) Public opinion was very much against homosexuality and same sex marriage in 1972, but in 2014 a majority of Americans support marriage equality for gay people. While regional differences persist, even in conservative southern states the tide is turning and in some southern states has turned. Every generational cohort is increasingly accepting of same sex marriage. And the younger generation is overwhelmingly supportive.
    (9) Now the wave of societal acceptance has moved from the cultural mainstream to reach all sectors of society and across the entire ideological spectrum. It seems that even conservatives and evangelical families have gay kids and increasingly they are accepting rather than rejecting them. So the state of debate is no longer clear cut.
    (10) The pro-gay marriage argument is not just advanced by the most progressive (including the sexual liberalizers), but rather it is pushed by the middle of road Methodists and parents who want for their gay kids the exact same standard as for their straight kids — chastity in singleness and faithfulness in marriage.
    (11) Evangelical and reformed clergy and seminary professors (e.g., James V. Brownson) are beginning to take a new look at the Bible’s few “clobber passages” and applying their hermeneutics of “high Biblical authority” and reaching an affirming conclusion. And popular evangelical bloggers (e.g., Rachel Held Evans) have made the connection between women in the church and gays in the church. Most recently we have the very compelling testimony of Matthew Vines through his viral video and new book.
    So our UMC debate can no longer be cast as a “stuck debate” raging inconclusively and unchanged for four decades. A lot has changed. The end game is not schism but rather acceptance according to the best tradition of “in essentials unity, in non-essentials tolerance, and in all things charity.”

    • Dave,
      At least 7 out of your 11 points detailing “what has changed” are are basically stating that societal attitudes have changed. That is an accurate reading of the situation: the culture has been more effective in shaping people’s hearts and minds than has the church. However, that is a cause for alarm rather than acceptance.
      Your second point states that there is now a consensus that homosexuality is innate may be true as well, but your accompanying statement is theologically unfounded ( that is “how God has created some humans”). To assume that simply because someone is born with certain innate orientation means that God created them that way completely misses the reality of original sin and the fact that every human is born with both “imageo dei” and a profound orientation to sin, hence our desperate need for God’s saving and transforming grace.

    • I also take issue with Dave’s second point about “consensus” in the medial/scientific community. It might appear that way from media soundbites, but essentially it’s not true. For example, an American Psychological Association online fact sheet about sexual orientation directly contradicts that false notion:

      “There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles … ”

      Scholars in other fields (some of whom are progressive or LGBT themselves) also contend that the current Western understanding of sexual orientation is a cultural construct that is NOT universally “true” over time or place. David Benkof is an Orthodox Jewish, celibate gay man who is also a trained historian. His article tracing the development of the idea of orientation is another interesting counterpoint to Dave’s claims. (

      • Thank you, Karen, for providing the link to the APA paper. It is an excellent resource for medical professionals, pastors and especially parents who’ve just learned their kid is gay. I encourage readers of this blog to read it carefully. I hope pastors will save it.

        Thank you, Karen, for pointing out where my comments could be read as overstating the case. Two refreshing aspects of our past interactions have been (1) you work to be careful and precise about your preferred sources by nevertheless pointing out shortcomings, and (2) you have been open to changing your mind when new evidence leads you there. All that said, you and disagree about homosexuality and how the church ought to respond to it. But I am thankful for it being a respectful disagreement. I glad to be in the UMC and in Christian mission with folks who take varied theologicall approaches to still arrive at commitment to making disciples of Christ and living out both personal and social holiness,

        Within the confine of points #2, I made two claims about the years since 1972 in that there has been a change in scientific understanding and consensus in medical/scientific community since then with respect to (a) homosexuality is natural and (b) reparative therapy (a.k.a., conversion or “change-the-gay” therapy) is harmful. Your criticism addresed the first one.

        If I left the impression that “the exact reasons” (quoting APA) why people are LGBT is a fully settled scientific matter, then I was wrong. I did not mean to say that, but I can see how my comment could be misconstrued. I do know many people who feel strongly that they were “born that way”, and I think it is respectful to treat people’s own understanding with respect. But I agree with the APA quote you excerpted in your comments. So with respect to etiology, it would be more fair to say “growing consensus” rather than clear consensus and the growing consenses acknowledges a mix of factors both innate and environmental which may well vary. Note I did say “some”. I believe that most science and medical professionals believe that some are born that way (as at least part of the explanation) but I believe that there are other factors also at play for some others. The church needs to welcome everybody and I don’t see how it matters what is exactly the etiology that has made them gay. Note, later in that same source you provided, the APA says “Despite the persistence of stereotypes that portray lesbian, gay, and bisexual people as disturbed, several decades of research and clinical experience have led all mainstream medical and mental health organizations in this country to conclude that these orientations represent normal forms of human experience.” So let’s just say “the growing consensus” is that homosexuality is natural.

        The other point you didn’t criticise was that we have now a clear medical consensus (well more than just growing consensus) that reparative therapy is not safe and not effective. It doesn’t mean 100% agreement, but when you read that APA paper that is their clear position.

        Remember that my overall point in the whole comment was to answer David Watson’s question “What is different now than in the last four decades?“ by saying “A lot has changed”. So does my point #2 about medical and scientific consensus support that overall argument. Absolutely. Sure there is more science to come, just as Galileo’s was not the last word on astronomy and Darwin’s was not the last word on evolution. But in the last 40 years, we’ve learned enough new about the medical science, that it is very appropriate to re-examine Scripture and discern whether the traditional interpretation is perhaps in need of examination and change so that we can more effectively witness in today’s world.

        [BTW, I agree with you that gender identify and sexual orientation have a component of cultural construction and that varies over historical time and place. That doesn’t undermine my points. But it is part of the complexity we have to wrestle with].


      • Dave, I don’t want you to think I have been ignoring you or your post. I’ve been out of office quite a bit this week due to a knee injury. But I want you to know that your thoughts on science have prompted me to write a blog post in response. (It addresses some, but not all of your points.) I got it in late today, so it probably won’t appear until after the holiday on Monday. When it does, I’ll post the link here.

        I also want you to know that I appreciate your non-combative responses.

  2. As someone who’s probably a moderate progressive, I’m appreciative of your gracious words to those on your left. I also have concerns about tactics being used by the left and the right to ensure change or the status quo. Jeremy’s recent Hacking Christianity post did a great job articulating much of that.

    One pushback comment, I think you eloquently demonstrate that civil disobedience in the church is not akin to civil disobedience in society. I would however suggest that you’re relying on a false premise. Many of the actions of those pushing the envelope, through their eyes–are SIMPLY SEEN AS DOING WHAT IS RIGHT, GOOD, FAITHFUL, AND JUST–in the eyes of God. I’m not saying that can’t be critiqued, but I think the basis for your argument is flawed.

    P.S. It would be awesome if you allowed for more comments to show up on the bottom of your blog (rather than only 4-6 per page.

  3. Dear Commenters, thank you very much for taking the time to read and comment on this post. I have been at the Aldersgate Covenant all day and haven’t had time to respond. I’ll try to respond to some of these comments in the next day or so.

  4. Thank you for this contribution to the conversation. Thanks too to all those who made thoughtful comments. It seems to me that we who are called to lead congregations are beginning to talk more about this important issue that divides us and how it will affect the congregations we serve, and that is good.
    My few thoughts on the post are that
    1. I would suggest that comparing civil and ecclesial disobedience is helpful but a better comparison would be with Jesus and his calls for justice and equality in the world. He specifically called out the ecclesial leaders for putting law over justice and equality, and many say that is the reason he was put to death.
    2. If we do consider the civil disobedience model carefully though, we see that the movement was born out of the church, and if you read Rev. Dr. MLK’s writings, you will find that the movement sought unity and not division, and not even forgiveness so much for inequality and injustice, but beyond that to reconciliation.
    3. I agree that we United Methodists are “heirs of the Anglican ‘Middle Way’ which relied upon the three-legged stool of scripture, tradition, and reason” but I would suggest that Wesley’s addition of “experience” to those three is important to consider in our conversations as well.

    • Jesus called the Pharisees white washed tombs because they did not believe He was the Messiah. They were religious but did not love God or God’s people. They were so concerned about their reputations they would not even consider His miracles, His teachings, and the prophecies He fulfilled. They hated Jesus and what He represented – a threat to their way of life. Jesus never broke one of God’s laws. Justice without knowing Jesus as your Savior is worthless. Those who I know who believe the Scripture as truth love God and love people. I have not heard Progressives talk about Jesus as Savior and repenting of sin. Wesley quadrilateral put Scripture as the most important and the center of his decision making. Experience, tradition, reason radiated from Scripture as the spokes on a wheel. Reason, experience, tradition, and Scripture confirms that God’s plan for marriage is one man and one woman. Our commission as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ is to go into the world making disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and teaching them to obey Jesus. Until we get back to fulfilling our commission, the denomination will continue to lose membership. Our focus as believers should be the same as John Wesley’s, salvation through Christ alone. Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah who lived a perfect life, died for our sin, was resurrected because He is God, and now lives in Heaven waiting to return.

  5. David, thank you for a clear and concise analysis of our crisis in the UMC. I believe you have nailed it. The “occupy” movement has no place in a covenant relationship. The acts of rebellions are portrayed as expressions of faithfulness, but they remain tools of division and schism. You have eloquently described where we are and where we are headed.

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