Can the General Conference Make Reliable Moral Decisions?

Much of the talk in the UMC these days has to do with how we will govern ourselves. Will we stay with a more centralized polity located in a single General Conference? Will we become more congregational in polity? Will we eliminate the General Conference altogether and divide up into smaller bodies of like-minded communities? Can any solution hold together the disparate voices of our church?

As I’ve said before, I really don’t agree with A Way Forward. I think it is problematic on several levels. I recognize the good intentions of those who crafted it, but I can’t get on board with it. The UM Centrist Movement wishes to divide the denomination into regional conferences. This will have the effect of separating the conservative voices of the two-thirds world from the North American church. With regard to plans that change our polity, I’m most drawn to Chris Ritter’s Jurisdictional Solution.

These proposals are attempting to reckon with the fact that many clergy, and even some bishops, have lost faith (if they ever had it) in the General Conference’s ability to arrive at proper moral judgments on behalf of the church. This has been made abundantly clear by acts of ecclesial disobedience in the church and the refusal of judicatory bodies to hold accountable those who commit these acts. If we still believed that the General Conference could make proper moral judgments on behalf of the church, we wouldn’t be trying to find ways to undercut its decision-making authority or eliminate it altogether.

I’ll venture to say that this lack of faith in the decision-making capacities of the General Conference tells us something more about the ways in which many of our leaders regard the General Conference: Despite their prayers and piety, the delegates of the General Conference are not effectively guided by the Spirit. Despite all of the corporate worship and corporate prayers that we offer, the guidance of the Spirit is still ineffective. Perhaps there is some guidance, but not enough to overcome either their sin or ignorance. Or perhaps some are guided by the Spirit more directly, but there are not enough of such people to make a difference. After all, at every General Conference since 1972, delegates have voted down legislation to liberalize the denomination’s position on human sexuality. If this decision is wrong, then it is hard to say that the Spirit has been at work in guiding the General Conference to make proper moral decisions. My guess is that most of these leaders believe that General Conference is primarily a political event, and that an event so tainted by political machinations is incapable of arriving at proper moral judgments.

Of course the General Conference is not infallible. No one has ever said that it is or should be. Yet it should be trustworthy if this is to be our venue for making important moral decisions. If it is not trustworthy, then we should take all serious decisions out of the hands of the General Conference. If it is not guided by the Spirit, and if it is incapable of making proper moral judgments about one of the most pressing issues of our day, then why in the world would we trust this body to make any serious moral judgments on behalf of the church? Why should we trust its position on war, abortion, or the environment? Why should we place any value in the Social Principles? Are these not tainted as well?

The UMC’s position on human sexuality cannot be separated from its larger moral decision-making capacities. Do we have in place a body that can make moral decisions on behalf of the church? If not, what are we going to do about it?

12 thoughts on “Can the General Conference Make Reliable Moral Decisions?

  1. In the the great hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”, Charles Wesley wrote about our “bent to sinning.” As a church modeled after the American government which theoretically is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”, our “bent to sinning” is evident. I honestly believe that our democratic polity is not well-suited for the governance of a Christian church. As the Wesleyan movement collapses, we should look to alternative structures that will preserve the integrity of the Gospel. Catholicism (with it’s pope and magisterium) and Orthodoxy (with it’s casting of lots to make leadership decision) offer us some proven, more Biblical models to consider.

  2. The UMC is woefully broken. General Conference cannot cure our ills. We are a divided, deeply broken church. I see no option for us but to break apart. Dissolution and proactive dismantling of our organization could be a way for renewal. May God raise some Wesley’s and Asbury’s to lead us.

    “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you,” 2 Cor 6:17

  3. Our source document is the Bible. If the Church has leaders that promote sin, remove them from leadership. Next question?

  4. I must say that any means of governing will see its share of corruption. However, the models that have been immediate and most effective are the episcopal models of the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches. This means that bishops are put in charge of matters of legality and morality directly, and their obligations are to remain true to canon and Scripture (of which punishments of particular actions are stated specifically). There are no mock trials or drawn out times of conversation. If a person violates polity and Scripture, that person is called to repentance by the bishop. If they repent, they are likely put on an extended suspension and then allowed to return to their duties. If they don’t repent, they are removed.

    Now, the question then is who legislates the bishop? Answer: The council of bishops. Any bishop who acts out of turn will be subject to them.

    • As we saw with Bishop Talbert the Council of Bishops has no authority to hold individual bishops accountable. They have to ask the parent jurisdiction to do so. If the jurisdiction refuses to take action then there is little more that can be done.

      • The Council of Bishops DOES have the authority. They just chose to ignore it.

  5. Do we even have a coherent tradition within which we might engage in moral inquiry together? Our problem is not that we no longer have the mechanisms to make moral decisions. We no longer even have the ability to have intelligible moral discourse with each other.

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