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”
Thanks, David, for a thoughtful and respectful piece. There are several points, however, where I would take issue with you. The first has to do with the way in which you characterize the hope of those who engage in ecclesiastical (My friend, Bruce Robbins, insists that this is the correct word rather than “ecclesial”) disobedience. You say “The hope seems to be to embolden others who hold similar ethical positions and bring about a change of denominational policy.” That may have been a hope for many of us some years ago. It is not the hope today. The issue is rather that we can no longer be a party to the harm that our church is doing to God’s beloved children. We can no longer engage in discrimination against those committed to our care. Of course we believe that the policy of the church is wrong, but, more than that, we have come to believe that the church is acting sinfully towards people it is called to serve. For most of us this is a pastoral and not a political issue; our actions are not acts of protest, but acts of love.
Second, I think you have made the mistake of believing that the covenant of the ordained is subservient to the majority rule of the General Conference. The General Conference does not and cannot own the consciences of our pastors. The General Conference can make rules and pass laws intended to serve the common good, but it cannot own souls pledged to love and serve God’s people. The Discipline that it produces every four years is neither “sacrosanct” nor “infallible” as the bishops declare in its opening pages. Its elevation to iconic status puts us in danger of substituting the painful, risky, exhilerating work of discerning God’s will for us in ministry for sheep-like obedience to a set of rules, no matter whom they harm or how misguided they might be. That may be easier in some ways, but it costs us our souls in the end.
Third, it is worth noting that there is nothing in our ordination vows that calls us to be obedient to The Discipline, as popular a misconception as that might be. We do promise to uphold the “order and discipline” of the church, but that is with a small “d” and it has to do with the way we live our lives together. It is about the spiritual practices that shape us that the ways in which we serve God’s people. It is not about promising that we will take our cues in the moral life every four years from whatever those one thousand delegates (850 in 2016) tell us we must believe. Do you realize that the General Conference almost defeated a motion in 2012 that simply said “God’s grace is avalable to all,”?
Fourth, you frame your first question in the final section in terms of “one’s individual conscience” and contrast that with “collective decisions” of the denomination. We are no longer talking about individual actions here. Pastors all over the connection have discerned that they are being called by God to be pastors to all of their people. The reality is that a majority of American delegates voted to change the law of the church at the last General Conference. Because of the worldwide nature of the church, this did not translate to a voting majority, but the point is that this is no longer an elevation of individual conscience. It is a spiritual discernment that is deeply and widely shared across the denomination.
Fifth and finally, I agree with you that the present situation is untennable. Something has to give. The result may be schism, and, like you, I hope it is not. The alternative is for us to structure the church in a new way that will permit our ministers to serve their people in more contextually appropriate ways. We ought not to be imposing the cultural values or even the theological discernments of one part of the church upon other parts of the church that do not share the same understandings or values. Instead of attempting to maintain the myth that one size can fit all, we need to honor the diversity of our denomination and permit our pastors to have the moral agency they need to do the work to which they have been called. It is time to start trusting our ministers instead of coercing them and threatening them into compliance with positions they find morally unacceptable.
Thanks, again, for your gentle and thoughtful approach to a difficult topic.
I appreciate your argument, and how well you have excursed it. However, in all simplicity, when I was ordained, part of my commitment was to live in covenant with other ordains, all of whom made identical commitments to the polity of the United Methodist Church. You mentioned in your argument that some have “made the mistake of believing that the covenant of the ordained is subservient to the majority rule of the General Conference.” But it was not a mistake, unless the person being ordained was false in heart, and in fact lied to the bishop, the church, and those others in this holy covenant. When I was ordained, I covenanted with all other ordains, the bishop, and the church, to accept and abide by the Book of Discipline, as created and amended by the General Conference. I did so knowingly and willingly. I did so knowing that if I disagreed strongly enough with the BOD, that I had three options: 1) to live with it regardless, 2) to work within the structure to change it if I could, or 3) to surrender my credentials and seek to follow my call in another venue.
When I was ordained, it never occurred to me to break that sacred covenant by purposefully disobeying whatever I felt was disagreeable to me, good conscience or not. I respect that many of my colleagues disagree strongly with me and with the BOD. That is certainly their right, perhaps, even, their calling. But I strongly suggest that rather than dishonor and break their sacred covenant, they in good conscience, in fact honor it by surrendering their credentials and joining with whatever denomination or faith community they can best live out their calling in. There is no dishonor in that. I will certainly regret losing some of these fine people, but I will support their decision and respect them for their decision.
But what I cannot regard with any respect are those who make their covenant a lie and try to force their disobedience and practices down my throat. I joined the United Methodist Church, with all its wonders and all its faults, knowingly, and lovingly. I made the ordination covenant to uphold, teach, and abide by its teachings, doctrine, polity, and way of life. If and when I decide that I cannot abide by that, then I will sadly surrender my credentials and seek to live in another faith community that better expresses my conscience. I urge all others to do no less, and to do so with honor and with my respect.
I won’t belabor this, but there are other options than the three you list if you are convinced that the church you love is harming God’s people. Yes, you can acquiesce to that wrong, or you can make a good faith effort to change it, or you can turn your back on that wrong and walk away. Or you can do what Jesus did when he broke the rules of the Sabbath and turned over tables for the sake of those who were in need or those who were being exploited. He did not stop being a Jew and go find another religion. Or you can do what John Wesley did when he decided to ordain ministers without authorization from the Church of England. The need was pressing and the work was waiting. Wesley violated the polity of his communion in order to serve the needs of God’s people. You call this breaking covenant. I call it being faithful to the core of covenant, not merely its trappings. Blessings on you and your ministry.
Dear Folks Who Have Commented,
Thanks for taking the time to read this piece and comment on its strengths, weaknesses, insights, and blind spots. I wish I could respond individually to every post, but I can’t at this time. Regardless, I appreciate your contributions to this conversation.
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