Honoring Principled Resistance (and a Tongue-in-Cheek Proposal)

IMG_4577In 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. 

Inclusion at the Core of the UMC Constitution and Tradition

IMG_4576With another General Conference quickly approaching, and as a delegate, I have spent some time re-reading our constitution in the Book of Discipline (BOD).  Interestingly, it is all about unity! We see this theme in almost every paragraph.  It is clearly stated that “dividedness” is a hindrance to our witness.  We are called to confess, in humility, our brokenness and seek opportunities for reunion, “in the confident assurance that this act is an expression of the oneness of Christ’s people.”  We are then to “strive towards unity…at all levels of church life.” I wonder how we could have strayed so far?

As a matter of constitutional proclamation, we are also called to work towards inclusion, “without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition.”  Scriptural Unity is not to be found by dividing into like-minded camps or by excluding others.  It is not found in our agreement over things that do not “strike at the root of faith,” but in our coming together in environments where we can practice our calling to love with patience, kindness, humility, and without insisting on our own way. That glorifies God!

The BOD gives us powerful guiding principles for how we can strive for this unity of spirit. Later in the BOD, we are challenged to seek unity in the midst of both continuing “historic tensions” and as “new issues continually arise and summon us to fresh theological inquiry.” In this light, we affirm our rich diversity of perspectives and see this as a sign of health within the Body of Christ.  We affirm that “our faith is enriched by indigenous experiences and manners of expression.” As a guiding principle, in this diversity, we believe that “we are held together by a shared inheritance and a common desire to participate in the creative and redemptive activity of God.” I wonder what conferencing would look like if we were more faithful to this charge?

By taking a small leap, we can also say that inclusion is at the heart of our tradition, defined as the living faith that honors those who have gone before us rather than the dead faith of the living.  With this definition, I do not think we should use the word “traditional” to describe the policy (It is no longer a plan) that is before us.  This policy is built on a mandate to exclude, punish, and strengthen stances that cause harm.  Even the Judicial Council has likened this policy to an “inquisitional court.”   This policy does not honor our living tradition. I would love to re-claim this important word for all of us rather than letting it be co-opted to describe one segment of the church and for the only purpose of judging some among us as incompatible. That seems so unconstitutional to me – not to mention unchristian.

The abuse of the Book of Discipline (BOD) in times of contention is similar to the abuse we see with scripture – proof-texting, selective literalism, and focusing on the letter of the law rather than the spirit.  It is used too often to announce the speck in the eye of some while ignoring the ways that others do not follow our discipline and doctrine.  That list is long for all of us.  We hear cries against disobedience when we could acknowledge that principled resistance is a legitimate approach within our covenant and our democratic process of discernment.  Where some practice this kind of resistance by pushing through a plan known to be unconstitutional, others resist rules and language believed to be exclusionary and incompatible with both the spirit of the BOD and the living tradition of the church,  Our covenant can honor this tension as we continuously strive for unity around the values of faithfulness and love.

Rather than using the BOD against one another, we could see it as a resource to help us build a church that truly glorifies God.  As we approach another General Conference, I would encourage us all to prayerfully read the constitution before we get too involved in all the legislation that will come our way.  There is something to be said about putting first things first.