In response to leaders among us who have formally rejected requests for a moratorium on charges and trials based on the measures passed at the last General Conference, I start my reflections with a “tongue-in-cheek” proposal (you can’t put your tongue in your cheek without winking. Try it!). Maybe this will help us re-focus.
What if hundreds of us file a complaint against ourselves for ways that we have violated the discipline and doctrine of the church? It would not be hard to find examples. Almost every Sunday I go out to eat, violating the prohibition against “buying or selling” on the Lord’s Day. Likewise, I cannot claim “a case of extreme necessity” for some of my choices of drinks. I also wonder about “uncharitable or unprofitable conversations, particularly about magistrates and ministers.” After watching the news these days, or reading some statements from leaders, this one is increasingly difficult. Likewise, I could probably include “wearing costly apparel,” “needless self-indulgence” and “laying up treasures upon earth.” I probably look at my pension statement too often these days.
Concerning pastoral leadership, I have never reported to the “Church Council the names of members who have been neglectful in keeping their baptismal and membership vows.” I also don’t “keep copies of membership records off-site and secure.” That might be a good thing to do. I have definitely failed “to celebrate all six churchwide special offerings.” And then there are things like “fasting.” I would be in trouble.
If I wanted to point fingers at others, I could actually address some more serious concerns around re-baptizing, not using United Methodist curriculum, being unwilling to fully itinerant, and interfering in the ministry of another pastor.
All are mandates within our doctrine and discipline. And yet, I would wholeheartedly agree that most of these charges would be frivolous and harmful to the body. I would also say the same thing about charges made possible by the draconian measures passed at the last General Conference. Why would we allow a legalistic approach to gender identity or sexual orientation negate factors that are clearly the work of God in a person’s life – a desire to practice faithfulness and to grow in God’s love as a part of the community of faith? Why focus on sexuality rather than on virtues and calling? Why actively cause this harm – perhaps as a scapegoat to intentionally ignore the many boards in our own eyes? Why would we not honor a call for moratoriums when we are moving towards such big decisions except to hold the peddle down on the forces that seek to exclude and silence others?
In this light, I have the utmost respect for leaders who engage in principled resistance to policies that are about to take effect. Principled resistance can be an honored approach within our democratic process of discernment. Such resistance is in our spiritual DNA, going back to when Wesley ordained Coke and Asbury. At other times in our history we have witnessed this approach around slavery, segregation of conferences, and women in ministry. And we can actually use our doctrine and discipline to guide us, as opposed to frame such resistance as a violation.
As a part of our doctrine, Wesley commented on the harm that can come from following the letter of the law rather than the spirit. He says, “…if we adhere to the literal sense even of the moral law, if we regard only the precept and the sanction as they stand in themselves, not as they lead us to Christ, they are doubtless a killing ordinance, and bind us down under the sentence of death.” Likewise, Wesley consistently says that the building of faith on opinions and the belief that we are more “right” than others – is not to build our spiritual home on sand, but on the “froth of the sea.” This is part of our doctrine.
Complaints, Charges, Church Trials. Let us resist this approach and the selective legalism that undergirds it. May our resistance be empowered by opening our lives to the Holy Spirit rather than resisting the Spirit’s consistent call to unity not uniformity and to the transformation of heart that leads us to make room for all, as challenging and messy as this can be. As a United Methodist Christian, a pastor, and a delegate to General Conference, I want to work towards that.