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Life Saving Stations

Life Saving Stations


Romans 12

People in the United Methodist Church, especially people who have been very involved in the debates and battles over sexuality, are frustrated, tired, hurt, and mad. Open Facebook or read a few blogs and you will find a yearning on both sides for “the split” to finally happen so folks can be done with pain and in a place where everybody thinks like them, they don’t have to argue, and they feel comfortable. Two churches in Mississippi just took this route.

I understand this yearning to be done, to feel free, to be with those with whom you have a lot in common, speak the same language, around whom you feel comfortable and welcome. You get to be in a place where people are no longer either disregarding The Book of Discipline or are no longer using the same book to try to kick people you love and respect out of the church. Where we don’t wait on pins and needles for Judicial Council decisions. To stop the arguments, the pain, the constant explanations and dealing with people who are so wrong.

The problem is, to follow through on this yearning is to leave the Church and create a country club. A country club is a place that exists for the comfort and good feelings of its members. But the Church is all about following Jesus Christ, which according to Scripture is not about being comfortable (Jesus says take up your cross (Matt 16:24; Luke 9:23), Jesus predicts pain and problems for his followers (Matt 10:34-39; Luke 9:57-62; John 15:18-25), Paul’s list of degradations in 2 Corinthians 11:22-28, and many more examples). Following Jesus, instead of promising peace and tranquility, is something to which we give our lives for God’s purpose.

A place where we are comfortable is a place that is all about us. Rather, God has created us to be part of the Body of Christ – a bunch of different people working together with Christ as our head. When we are living together as the body what holds us together is not feeling comfortable around other people, not having the same experiences or having gone to the same seminary. What holds us together is the One, the Head, Jesus Christ. When we go to other bonds we turn to idols. What seems like comfort, even in the face of our pain, hurt, and anger, can be such an idol.

Living as the body of Christ is a challenge because we are so very different, and therefore we really, really need Jesus. We come from disparate parts of the world (even, or especially, within the United States). A person who was raised in Boston is going to be different than a person from West Texas, who will be different than someone from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or South Korea. These differences are to be expected, not surprising.

There is an immense, yet very understandable, misunderstanding that the church is a place where everyone becomes the same. The opposite is the case. We are a body, with different gifts and different functions. Only in one place in the book of Acts does the church have peace. The rest of the New Testament is people figuring out how to deal with each other.

These differences are God given. We have been created to have different gifts as a part of Christ which we bring together as the body. As Paul has said, the eye cannot say to the hand “I have no need of you” (1 Cor 12:21). God made us all to be a We. We, as United Methodists, are Arminian. We believe God did not create anyone for the purpose of being rejected. Instead, we are all created to be a part of the Kingdom of God (The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made, Psalm 145:9). Our purpose (which we are free to reject) is to be with Christ and each other. None of us are exactly like Jesus, but God made us with parts necessary for the Body. We need each other to function as the Body. We need each other’s personalities, each other’s experiences, each other as a part of Christ, so that we can function as the life-saving community of Jesus Christ. When we reject each other for the comfort and stability of the country club we are rejecting the Body of Christ.

Some of our differences are theological. There are people in the United Methodist Church who have very different understandings of Scripture. The easiest thing would be to create different country clubs where we can comfortably be with those who think the same as ourselves. However, as the body, we are called to come together and figure out our differences. This is difficult, but we are following Jesus Christ, not a call to comfort.

There is an old story some of you know about a Life Saving Station. A community bands together to save those on ships who have wrecked nearby. However, as the Life Saving Station expands and gets better at what it does, the drive for comfort shifts the focus of the station from the people needing to be saved to the comfort of those called to do the work. The Life Saving Station is then transformed into a country club. I know both sides feel that if they do not win the life-saving work of the Church will not be done. However, if we split so each side can finally get around to doing the work only with those with whom they are comfortable, we have created two country clubs, rejecting the body.

Instead, God calls us to figure out how to be the body. To figure out how to be reconciled to each other as Christ has reconciled us to God. To figure out how to work with each other even when the other drives us nuts or causes us pain. Jesus never gave up on us, even when we crucified him. He came back after his torture and death to continue the work of reconciliation and building the body. Let us continue that work in our present circumstance, instead of opting for the broad road and becoming comfortable country clubs.

This post is by Eric Schubert, an elder in the Iowa Annual Conference and pastor of Greenfield UMC.  

The Order of Elders

The Order of Elders


“The disciple of the Spirit is bidden to announce what he has learned to the elders of the Church of Christ, that is, to those who, owing to their capacity to receive spiritual doctrine, possess a ripe endowment of wisdom.”  -Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles IV.11

What is it that ails us?  And how may we amend?  There are as many answers to these questions, it seems, as there are United Methodists.  Each partisan theology, each new trend from the pop sociologists, each “national conversation,” each personal biography furnishes another.  For myself, I favor those which eschew managerial technique for spiritual discipline (as from their different regions of the Church in their different ways Trey Hall and Timothy Tennent both recommend).  How can it be, after all, that the Church, which is the body of the Son of God, formed by his Spirit, can be healed apart from a spiritual healing?  We are not what we are because we were born flesh and blood.  We are what we are because we were born from above, through the One who came down from heaven, and the heavenly Holy Spirit, and the Holy One who is in heaven.

“The health of an annual conference corresponds to the health of its order of elders.”  These are words I heard often spoken by Bishop Scott Jones, now of the Texas Conference, when he served my own Great Plains conference.  He meant them in reference to the order of elders whose shape and character is outlined in our Book of Discipline, the order from whom so many of our pastors are drawn and which holds the place of leadership and primacy among our clergy, the visible order of elders.  In this essay I would like to apply them to the invisible order of elders, the one which is marked off not by stoles and ordinations but by the witness of the Spirit and the holiness of heart and life.  This is the true order of elders, as the Church Father Origen points out in the epigraph above, and I propose that our current situation of discord within our denomination proves Bishop Jones’ words even truer with respect to them.

But what is this business of a visible order of elders and an invisible one?  Well, let’s go over some history.

As the Church grew in the early centuries it recognized the need for a stable institution of leadership which could be passed down in an orderly fashion and command respect regardless of the person who occupied it.  In the second century, authors such as Irenaeus of Lyons appealed to this institutionalized leadership of bishops and elders as an important check on the esoteric spiritual elitism of Gnostic groups like the Valentinians.  The existence of a solid, recognized order of elders preserved the unity and catholicity of the church, whereas a reliance on charismatic spiritual leaders had the potential to fragment the body of Christ in a thousand directions.

However, even as the Church acknowledged and committed to the importance of this visible, institutional clergy, it was recognized by many that the true authority and true leadership in their communities rested with the spiritually mature, whether ordained or not.  While the visible orders of bishops and elders came to be necessary for the good functioning of the Church in this world, authors like Origen reminded the early Christians that this world was not their home:  the true nature of the Church is spiritual and heavenly, not earthly and institutional.  As such, it was those who lived spiritually already in this life, suffused with the divine love of the Holy Spirit and truly walking in the way of Christ, who were the true elders and the true bishops.  Sometimes these true elders also served in the positions of institutional authority, but sometimes, although true priests in the spirit, they were laypeople in the visible flesh.

This wisdom of the early Church, acknowledging the need for visible, institutional elders and bishops while pressing the truth that the real elders and bishops of the church are the spiritually mature, was recognized by John Wesley, a student of the early Church and, in time, a spiritually mature man himself.  This was one of the reasons why he put lay Christians, men and women, in charge of classes and bands and even gave them the authority to preach.  It is why he felt the Methodist movement was necessary for the Church of England in his day, where there were visible elders and bishops aplenty but all too few of the invisible, true, and spiritual ones.

And indeed the Church in certain times and places has gone through dry spells where the true elders and the true bishops are absent, even as she never goes without the visible, institutional ones.  These are the times which Amos calls famines of the Word of God, for it is in the lives of the true elders, the spiritually mature, that the Word of Christ dwells richly.  It is through their lives, their witness, and their prayers,  that we are fed with the spiritual Bread who has come down from heaven, Christ himself, just as it was by the disciples’ hands that the 5000 tasted of the five miraculous loaves.  Without their spiritual pastorate the flock of Christ is led astray and wanders into all the thorns and thickets of worldly delusion, just as when they are present to shepherd us even the corruption or fecklessness of the visible clergy cannot quench the life of the faithful.  They are the leaven without which we cannot rise; it is they who have received the mind of Christ and where the mind is gone the body possesses no direction.

Can our present straits then be anything other than a sign that in United Methodism this true order of elders is not strong?  As the fleshly and visible health of an annual conference or a denomination corresponds to the health of its fleshly and visible order of elders, so its spiritual and true health is tied to the health of the spiritual and true order.  Without this true health of the spirit, even a healthy body would amount to nothing, a lump of institutional flesh, an agglomeration of buildings and books and bonds with no life to animate and move.

And how would our efforts change if we acknowledged this?  We would acknowledge once and for all that an end to what ails us does not lie in reorganization of our visible institutions.  We would acknowledge that it does not lie in doctrinal formulae and legal enforcements.  Indeed, we would humbly confess what we ought to have known, that the Kingdom of God is within us.  We would pray not so much for bishops and pastors who hold to our preferred school of theology, but rather in whom the Spirit of God is pleased to dwell.  Indeed a step further, if we became converted on this score it would demand that we stop putting all our faith in visible leaders and visible efforts, period.  It would demand that we start praying rather to God for spiritual elders, saints all among us, whom the Spirit of Holiness has molded into vessels of honor.

And those of us who are ordained and called pastors and bishops (or any for that matter who are named, we might say, to commissions) might learn to distrust the vain glimmer of our authority, having learned that it is poor and impotent because it is visible and fleshly.  In its place we might seek that true authority, whether for ourselves or acknowledged in others, which is spiritual and therefore mighty.  Let us see our Peters running to the house of Cornelius, that righteous man whose alms were remembered by God, whose prayer went up like sacrifice, who was visited by angels!  And let us see our Peters giving their own hours to prayer and the dreaming of dreams which the Spirit promises.  Let us seek the Lord while he may be found, the kingdom which is the Spirit (and the Spirit’s to give) and its righteousness, which is Christ himself, and with him God will also give us all things.

Charles “Austin” Rivera is a provisional elder in the Great Plains conference and PhD student at Yale University studying Patristics.

Image: The Angel Appearing to Cornelius the Centurion, by Jacob Backer (1608-1651)

Can We Agree in Love?

Can We Agree in Love?


In this blog’s statement of purpose we assert that when theological points are discussed in the United Methodist Church we talk past each other instead of to each other. What does this mean? It means we use words that have a different definition for one side than another. We use terms which only have meaning within a certain theological context that not all parties understand. When we talk the only people who can understand us are the ones who already agree with us.

One of the words with which this happens most often is “love.” This word is used with disparate definitions which leads love to be used in varying ways. Because people don’t often appreciate how others are using the term, we dismiss each other as sinful, heretical, hateful, or abusive. What are these definitions of love, and how can we get on the same page?

Some people use a definition of love derived from John 14:15 and similar verses in Scripture: “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Love is following God’s commandments, and loving other people is helping them also follow God’s commandments. This entails warning them when they are going against God’s law and helping them get back on the correct path. This is a Biblical version of love which comes from good intentions but can be perceived as abusive. If one does not agree they are going against God’s law using love in this way does not bring the perceived offender into the body of Christ. Instead, using love this way comes across as condemning someone for an action or belief which God does not oppose. Hence, the person trying to love the other into right action is not seen as helpful, but hurting.

Others use a definition of love which is derived from the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and verses like it in Scripture: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” This is a love which lifts up the oppressed, which liberates people from bondage, which gives freedom to those who are imprisoned by injustice. In the context of the debates over sexuality, these people believe that since God made people’s sexuality to reflect God’s gracious love to live into that sexuality is to live into God’s liberating love. A person is liberated from the injustice of a heteronormative society and able to live into God’s good plan for them. Because we approach the issue of sexuality from vastly different anthropological perspectives (this is for another post), this way of using and defining love can come across to others as heretical and sinful. If someone believes gay marriage is wrong, they will not be convinced that God liberated them into sinful action.

Are these two definitions, so often at odds with one another, all that “love” can mean for us? One aspect of Biblical love which I have not heard in our discussions is that demonstrated in Philippians 2:3-8: “…regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” Neither definition of love described contradict these verses. Nevertheless Paul’s words in Philippians open to us a new way of loving one another. In these verses, the true nature of Godly love is incarnation. Jesus emptied himself to be with us. Jesus came to walk our walk, to feel our joy and pain, to literally take us on to himself so that we can know what true love is. The act of self-emptying makes love known.

The reason we don’t talk about this kind of love is because we as a church we have not emptied ourselves for each other. Instead we have taken sides. Imitating our political climate, we learn enough about what the other side thinks so we can counter with our own one sided position. We have not lived with, loved, and walked with those we don’t understand or disagree with. We speak from afar, through condescending blogposts, or by trying to get 51% of the Annual or General Conference to vote our way so we can win. We create organizations filled with people who already agree with us.

This is not emptying ourselves. This is not what Jesus did. Jesus gave up heaven, a place where God’s will is done perfectly, to come to earth with all its violence, arguments, sin, and despair, so we can know God’s love.

Imitating incarnational love is not most people’s first reaction. It certainly does not usually feel good to be in a place where people disagree, misunderstand, and are in conflict. In fact, it is difficult to be where people are not “us”. However, coming into those places is exactly what Jesus did, and this is the type of love we are to imitate. Jesus did not stay in heaven where everyone agreed with him and there were no theological controversies. He did the opposite. He came to where the need was greatest: to earth, among conflicted peoples, Jew and Gentile, and loved them. Let us show the same love for each other. Let us figure out how to talk to each other. Let us love as Jesus loved.

Eric Schubert is an elder in the Iowa conference and pastor at Greenfield UMC in Greenfield, Iowa.

Maintain the Discipline?  Or Create One?

Maintain the Discipline? Or Create One?

The 2012 edition of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS
The 2012 edition of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS


“Why would anyone form a group to maintain the teachings and standards of an institution that they are already a part of?

This line, from Chad Bowen’s piece published here last week, has stuck with me from the moment I first read it in an early draft of his essay.  It speaks to something essential to the current strife and discord in United Methodism, but which has not always been visible.  It encapsulates both the frustration of traditionalists [1] with the impotence of certain denominational structures and the indignation others feel as they see an energetic minority of conservatives intent on realigning the identity of the denomination.  In this piece I hope to puzzle out some of why this line strikes me so.

Now, there is a certain genre of writing, native to the internet, in which, starting from such a beginning, I would now promise to uncover for you here some secret meaning, some hint of conspiracy, and inform you on “What’s Really Going On.”  That is not the aim of this piece nor its genre.  That is a sort of writing which not only sheds more heat than light but even obscures things by the heat it creates.  The times call for something better than such games.  They call for us to look things straight in the face.  They ask us ever to strive for clarity in our discussions and our deliberations and so I hope merely here to express clearly for you what I think Chad has put his finger on with that excellent line.

The group in question, formed to maintain the teachings and standards of an institution that they are already a part of, is of course the Wesleyan Covenant Association.  They and their fellow travelers would have a ready answer for why one would form such a group.  The United Methodist Church has teachings and standards, they would say, but these are not respected in the actual administration of church discipline nor indeed are they held to by many leaders in the church.  Thus there is need for the formation of a group to advocate for the maintenance of teachings and standards which exist but are not enforced or, rather, which are more honored in the breach than in the observance.

This is a case obviously convincing to many and it possesses a fine coherence.  Beneath it, however, is an assumption about the nature of the UMC’s teachings and standards which can easily go unacknowledged.  This assumption is that the teachings and standards of the UMC are a set of documents.  For the sake of argument it must also be assumed that the interpretation of these documents is not in question.  In some way or other, these documents are also generally assumed to be those contained in the Book of Discipline.

It is because these teachings and standards are believed to be contained in documents that they can be contrasted with the administration of discipline in the denomination—discipline can be compared with Discipline.  The documents can serve as instruments to help adjudicate which versions of Methodism are authentic.  But because the standards are simply words on a page, they are also entirely impotent to bring the living community into conformity with themselves.  Hence it is this assumption which allows us to imagine a situation in which the teachings and standards of the group are one thing and its actual practice another.

This is not the only way, however, to imagine our teachings and standards.  One could say that the teachings and standards of the UMC are what the UMC actually teaches and how it actually orders its communal life.  That is to say, the teachings and standards are not documents, but the actual lived reality of United Methodism.  If one imagines the teachings and standards in this way, then it becomes completely nonsensical to imagine a smaller group being formed within the larger group for the sake of maintaining the larger group’s teachings and standards.  For under this definition one could not be a part of the larger group without participating in the maintenance of its teachings and standards.

I am not a historian, nor does this argument depend on claims of history, but it would be a fruitful exercise to inquire into whether the documents of the Book of Discipline have at any point corresponded exactly to the lived reality of what Methodists have taught and how they have lived.  Those statements of the Discipline which are enforced at any given time (and those things not written in the Discipline which are enforced with equal tenacity) are better evidences of the teachings and standards of the denomination than the text of the Discipline itself.

For example, John Wesley’s advice that preachers get up at 4 in the morning every day to pray remained in the Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church until the 1939 merger and had been removed by the Southerners at an earlier date.  Shall we then assume that such a practice of prayer was a standard or an ideal in the northern church and not in the southern church?  Likewise there is the constant and disingenuous formula, with which we are all familiar, that the church has condemned homosexuality “since 1972,” that being the year the language appeared in the Discipline.  Really, I would defer here to a student of American queer history, but I would be quite surprised to find that Methodists did not tenaciously enforce anti-gay norms within their community prior to having some words written about them in 1972.

When we view things in this way, then, it might be better to say that a group like the WCA exists not to uphold or maintain the current standards of the UMC, but to create new ones.  Now when something like this is written by a certain sort of commentator (the kind I mentioned above), we would be in for a sort of fearmongering conspiracy story about how the evil evangelicals are out to steal your church.  That is not my aim.  My aim is clarity and an analysis tending not to excitement but sobriety.

Now if we take the purpose of the WCA to be the creation of new standards and teachings, there seem to me to be two ways that can be understood.  The first is that they disagree with the current teachings and standards of the United Methodist Church and wish to change them into something more in line with their own theology and discipline.  This is the idea held out by the peddlers of conspiracies.  Were this the case, then the WCA would be rightly described as a non-United Methodist organization and those who do agree with the teachings and standards of the UMC would rightly see it as a schismatic agent of discord which must be cut off and cast out.  No pleasant thought.

There is, however, another way.  The WCA could seek to create new teachings and standards because they do not perceive there to be any in the UMC of the present day (more precisely, there are no teachings and standards for the denomination as a whole).  In going about this task, they have sought to begin with the documents in the Book of Discipline which have already been a part of our communal life.  They advocate that these be used in a new way, that they be invested with a new positive authority to create teachings and standards in the life of the church.  They argue that we can fix what ails us with tools near to hand, if we but use them in a new way.

This second understanding accords more closely with what I have heard and read from United Methodists sympathetic to the WCA or actively participating in it.  In a way, it is less fearful than the first.  If this group is seeking to provide for our denomination something which is lacking and whose lack has had debilitating results, then they are doing needed work.  The project is a creative one and its fruits could prove a gift to all United Methodists.  It is an effort to save the denomination.

And yet to me this second way is far more chilling than the first.  For if teachings and standards must be created because there are none, then there is no United Methodist Church and we are already in schism.

So indeed may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, preserve and protect us always, that not one of his little ones be lost.  Amen.


[1] I refer the reader to Chad’s note on usage of this term.

Charles “Austin” Rivera is a provisional elder in the Great Plains conference and PhD student at Yale University studying Patristics.

Should the WCA Affirm the Discipline?

Should the WCA Affirm the Discipline?

A photo by Hide Obara. have expressed disbelief at the characterization of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) by Bishop Ough’s statement following the July meeting of the Council of Bishops. In the statement, the WCA was included with annual conferences who have made declarations of non-compliance with The Book of Discipline and the election of Karen Oliveto as realities that have “opened deep wounds and fissures within the United Methodist Church and fanned the fears of schism.”

Critiques have also been lodged more broadly as other commentators have laid out their cases for perceived problems with the WCA:

  • that the issue of homosexuality is THE issue of the WCA (Jack Harnish, Jeremy Smith),
  • questions about their views on scripture (David Livingston, pt.2, Jeremy Smith)
  • a perceived precarious future of women clergy (David Livingston, pt.3)
  • that the WCA is doing harm to the UMC by creating a proto-denomination with its own publishing house, membership standards, and membership dues, and will likely cause increased fragmentation of the church (Jason Valendy, Jeremy Smith)

Responses to these criticisms by Kevin Watson and David Watson emphasize the WCA’s desire to be faithful to current, established United Methodist (UM) beliefs. Posts by Shane Bishop, Bob Kaylor, and Chris Ritter express their anticipation that the WCA could come alongside the UMC in the same manner that the people called Methodists once sparked a revival in the Church of England. The WCA has also posted on their official website in response to some of these developments.

These posts share a desire to defend the intent of the WCA, stating that its purpose is to maintain current Methodist teaching while renewing it with some of the best of the practices that got us started in the first place. There is a strong, consistent effort to say, “We’re not working towards division, we want to gather, covenant, and labor with others who want to be faithful and are working with a similar definition of fidelity.”

Nevertheless, there is a powerful sense that something new and different is happening. Bob Kaylor says that his conference and jurisdiction chose the “nuclear option, rendering moot the work of the commission” by electing Karen Oliveto to the office of bishop.  He likewise quotes Billy Abraham, who argues that the stated goals of the Bishop’s commission to (a) revise the disciplinary language concerning human sexuality and (b) maintain the unity are at odds with one another.  Shane Bishop says, “the storm is not going to pass. I am jumping right.”

The official channels of the WCA are reiterating that they have no intentions to divide the church. Meanwhile, one of their primary leaders denies that there is any discernible way forward for our denomination while others use terms like “nuclear options” and “storms” to describe our current state.  This may seem at first like double-speak, but there is more going on.

There is a tension between the WCA’s desire for unity, that’s no secret. But the nature of that tension has yet to be clearly named.

Those attracted to the WCA are ready for doctrine and discipleship to be the primary foundation of their covenantal community.  (For a powerful articulation of this idea, see Carolyn Moore’s post this week in which Carolyn Moore shares Don Haynes’s thoughts on emphasizing “doctrine and discipline.”) These are the things which they can adamantly affirm about the UMC and its Discipline.

The fact of the matter, however, is that the foundation of UMC unity is not doctrine and discipline, but on property and process. We have standards for belief and behavior, but they are functionally insignificant when viewed in light of our policies and procedures.

Bill Arnold states the case quite bluntly:

“The accountability of our polity is broken.”

The brokenness of our polity is the best tenable explanation for the existence of the WCA.  Why else would anyone form a group to maintain the teachings and standards of an institution that they are already a part of?  Jack Harnish is right that the catalyst for the WCA is the issue of same-sex practice. But the WCA hopes to be much more than a one issue community; it desires to be a source of renewal for the people called Methodists.

Even as the WCA emphasizes its alignment with UM doctrine and practice, it needs to honestly assess whether it cannot affirm UM polity in its current iteration. Broken polity should not be affirmed, it should be repaired. The tension about division emerges when one considers whether our polity is beyond repair, and what members of the WCA might do if such corrections cannot be implemented.

The reality for  traditionalists[1] is that affirming the central teachings of the UMC and following the rules no longer assures one that they will be “at home” in the UMC. The General conference speaks for the whole church. But what we say at General Conference and what we do as jurisdictional and annual conferences, are no longer in accord.

Traditionalists have had the votes. They’ve successfully maintained disciplinary language about sexuality quadrennium after quadrennium. They’ve won elections for any number of boards, agencies, and councils. Our standards are clear, but there is no means of accountability.  In terms of polity, The Book of Discipline is not a friend to traditionalists. As long as due process is followed, there is no way to question the judgement of the conference.  Our polity has proven incapable of ensuring fidelity to the standards established by the General Conference. That means we don’t have standards; we have guidelines or suggestions.

At this point, we’re experiencing multiple systems failure: boards of ordained ministry, annual conferences, and the Western Jurisdiction have all disregarded standards set forth in The Book of Discipline. And that is possible because the standards are subordinate to the discernment of those groups.

This applies not only to standards related to sexuality, but all standards of discipline and doctrine.

Our polity puts us into silos of annual conferences and jurisdictional conferences.  And if an entire conference goes astray, we are learning that there is no means for the general church to correct the course. Annual conferences own the property and are responsible for maintaining clergy ministry standards. When they choose to interpret those standards loosely (or disregard them entirely) in matters of ordination, investigating charges, or seeking a “just resolution,” nothing can be done.[2] Representatives of the conference can decide nearly whatever they please, so long as they follow due process.  Similar things are true for bishops and jurisdictional conferences.

The Judicial Council’s hands are tied, rendering them unable to rectify the problem because it is the prerogative of the annual conference to interpret the standards set forth by General Conference. While traditionalists assert that such ordinations are against the discipline, the Judicial Council has repeatedly directed their attention to questions of due process instead of investigating the faithful application of standards. They have rightly refused to insert themselves into the processes of discernment that are explicitly given to other groups by the General Conference.

Efforts such as the one to establish minimum penalties for performing same sex weddings at GC2016 would have proven to be merely a Band-Aid for our deeper issues of polity.

There is no mechanism by which any body (individual or corporate) in the United Methodist Church can say authoritatively regarding essential teaching and doctrine[3]: That conference is no longer aligned with our theology. Their actions are not representative of what we believe. They have wandered too far afield. Their teachings are heretical. They are not United Methodist.


The issue is no longer only about unfaithful individuals or conferences, it is about the viability of the entire connection. And solutions cannot be directed only towards contingency planning for disobedience related to same-sex marriages.

The WCA is seen as a threat to the unity of the UMC because it is a gathering of people who are deeply dissatisfied with our polity.  Traditionalists have pursued and effectively utilized every avenue available to them to establish and maintain standards for ministry. And they still don’t feel at home in their own denomination.  Therefore, they are creating a group that shares the values that the UMC says it has, but cannot ensure.

In this way, Kevin Watson is correct when he says, “The United Methodist Church is not who it says it is.”

If the WCA wants its witness to be coherent, if it wants its efforts to be successful, it must recognize our broken polity and find a way to articulate clear solutions. And it must not get distracted by efforts to maintain its “support of the Discipline,” because the unity currently provided by the Discipline is founded upon property, policies, procedures and pensions, not doctrine and discipleship.

It has proven easy, however, to revert to this cliché of supporting the discipline. Even Bill Arnold, upon declaring our polity broken midway through his article, concludes the same piece by saying, “Through the WCA, I commit myself to uphold and maintain the governance and polity of The United Methodist Church.”

If our polity is broken, no one should not want to maintain it. And if a formal, institutional schism occurs, those who end up chartering new denominations would be wise to avoid codifying the same problems a second time around.

The WCA is gaining steam because our polity is broken. Our doctrine is sound. Our standards for ministry are clearly established.  While we can set and maintain standards for due process, we have proven incapable of doing the same for standards of faithfulness.  That failure dilutes our identity and corrodes our connection, leaving faithful Methodists craving a covenantal community of like-minded people.

There are two logical solutions for our current predicament.

We can alter our language so that we are what we say. We can embrace and acknowledge that we are functionally a confederation of conferences that unite to support our boards and agencies while maintaining local standards of theology and ethics.

Or, we can become who we say we are: we can establish and utilize mechanisms for accountability across the silos of our connection.  The latter would be hard work; it would be an uphill battle of constitutional amendments.

Traditionalists have remained intent on condemning progressives’ actions that ignore the Book of Discipline. In an attempt to avoid being hypocrites, they’ve tried to unequivocally affirm their allegiance to The Book of Discipline. It’s time, however, to make the case that The Book of Discipline is wrong. Discipleship and doctrine should be more constitutive of our identity than property and procedures.

Our polity is broken, and it needs to be mended rather than affirmed.


[1] I use this term as a simple gloss for “those who believe that sex is never faithful outside of the context of heterosexual marriage.” I use this term because there are some who would self-identify as “orthodox” or “evangelical” who have different understandings of sexual practice (e.g., Jack Harnish), and because “conservative” is decidedly imprecise.  “Traditionalist” isn’t perfect either, but we must choose a word to communicate the idea.  If you have recommendations for another, I’d be happy to hear it.

[2] For more on Just Resolutions, see Drew McIntyre’s piece “Just Resolution,” or Just Bullshit.

[3] We also have not, to this point, had a satisfactory conversation about whether or not (dis)approval of same-sex marriage should/shouldn’t be determinative for orthodoxy, an essential of United Methodism. There’s no way to say if it would be adequate reason for something as extreme excommunication.

This post was written by Chad Bowen, the pastor of the Shannon Brewer Charge in the MS Conference.  You can reach him directly on Twitter @chad_bowen.

The Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty...Yesterday, news began to trickle out that Petition 60980-FO-104-G, a petition to add the Nicene Creed to our doctrinal standards, had been voted down in the GA subcommittee (It is still up for consideration by Faith and Order).  As someone who had helped to pen an open letter in support of the petition, this was naturally a frustrating turn of events.  In the course of discussing this petition, many of the same objections have been raised.  I would like to take time this blog post to address some of these objections.  It is my belief that, ironically enough, many of the common objections to the Nicene Creed are actually reasons in favor of including it among our doctrinal standards.First, there is the objection that Methodists have historically stayed away from creeds, that we are not a creedal church.  Why, one might ask, did John Wesley not include the Nicene Creed in our standards from the beginning?  Well, the answer is complicated.  The Apostles’ Creed has always been part of Methodism.  Protestants like the Wesleys preferred the Apostles’ Creed to the Nicene creed because it was believed at the time to be simpler and more primitive.  From the vantage of modern scholarship this is harder to maintain.  The earliest citation of the Apostles Creed comes from the late 4th century, about the same time as the version of the Nicene Creed which is in our hymnal.  We know for sure, however, that earlier versions of the Nicene Creed go back to the third century (Eusebius states that the creed adopted by the Council of Nicaea was based on the creed of his church in Caesarea, Palestine, which had been around at least since he had been baptized in the later third century).  If the early Methodists had been working from the findings of more recent scholarship, they might have preferred to use the Nicene Creed from the beginning!

Second, many object that the Nicene Creed is tainted because of its connection with imperial projects from Constantine through the middle ages to the present.  For many, the very existence of a Creed evokes the kind of Christianity that excludes dissenters by force and uses violent anathemas to police the boundaries of the Church.  Certainly, this history cannot be denied (just as it cannot be denied with the Articles of Religion, which are in our current standards).  It is important to note, however, that the actual Creed, as used in our hymnals and by many Christian bodies throughout the world, does not contain any anathemas.  When the Church took up the Creed, it took up something that was universal and spoke to the heart of our beliefs about God and salvation–and it set aside the more particular anathemas which had been approved alongside it at the actual councils that composed it.  The Creed, as a creed, is a positive statement about who God is and what God has done, not an instrument of exclusion.

Third, some believe that approving the Nicene Creed would limit the range of theology within the United Methodist Church.  They feel it would compromise our treasured ‘catholic spirit,’ which practices unity in essentials and in all things charity.  The Nicene Creed, however, is not as precise and sectarian as our existing doctrinal standards, which are all specifically Methodist.  The Nicene Creed is adhered to by Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant Christians of all sorts of persuasions.  The Nicene Creed was composed by Christian bishops from all over the world and has presided over all the theological diversity of the last seventeen centuries of Christianity; our current doctrinal standards were composed by men from England and North America in the last few hundred years.

Finally, some object that approving the Nicene Creed as one of our doctrinal standards could seem to relativize the authority of Scripture by subordinating it to a Creed.   This was something the first framers of the Creed were themselves very concerned about.  At the Council of Nicaea the most controversial word in the whole thing was homoousios, “consubstantial” (the Son being “consubstantial with the Father).  This word was controversial because it was basically the only word in the creed that didn’t come straight from Scripture.  The Nicene Creed is soaked in the Scriptures:  its basic structure comes from 1 Corinthians 8:6, and, outside of homoousios, nearly the whole thing is made of up quotations from Scripture.  In this it is different from later creedal statements like the Chalcedonian Definition.  Perhaps more importantly, this also makes it different from our current standards, such as the Articles of Religion, which use technical theological terminology (such as “three persons, one substance” in Article 1) instead of plain Biblical language.  In terms of showing the ultimate deference of our doctrinal standards to the authority of Scripture, the addition of the Nicene Creed would be an improvement.

In short, many of the reasons which have been given for opposing the inclusion of the Nicene Creed among our doctrinal standards are actually reasons to favor it.  It fits more neatly with the Wesleyan desire to imitate the earliest practices of the Church.  It is a document which acknowledges the entanglement of Christianity with worldly power and strives to transcend it.  It is an ecumenical document, which has proven capable of uniting Christian of the most divergent viewpoints imaginable.  Finally, it is a document which reaffirms and illustrates the supreme authority of Scripture for our faith and practice.

This post was written by Austin Rivera, a provisional elder in the Great Plains Conference and a Ph.D. student in Ancient Christianity at Yale University.

Remember Me

Remember Me

Remember Me

Tuesday, on the opening day of General Conference 2016 in Portland, Oregon, Love Prevails coordinated an unofficial ordination service for Sue Laurie, who has been denied entry into the candidacy process for 20 years by her annual conference because she is a self-avowed, practicing lesbian.

A statement published by Love Prevails tells of what followed the ordination: “After her ordination, the sacrament of Holy Communion was celebrated. As an act of radical hospitality, we offer to the General Conference the bread and cup consecrated at that service.”

Under signs that read “Remember Me,” the bread and cup from the ordination service were offered simultaneously with the bread and cup consecrated at the altar at which Bishop Bruce Ough presided during the opening worship service of General Conference.

In doing this, Love Prevails has divided the table of the UMC, providing alternative elements with which to commune with Christ around an alternative table they described as “Queer Communion.” It is difficult to see how this is anything other than a division of the church.

It does not seem that this was their intent.  Their stated intent was to draw attention to the LGBTQ+ people who are already serving in the UMC and to bring attention to the ways in which LGBTQ+ people do not always experience the UMC as a safe place.  For Love Prevails, the offer of an unofficial communion service and alternate table reflects deeply held convictions about justice for and the call of LGBTQ+ people.  They intended, so it seems, to provoke change within a communion with which they find their relationship impaired.

But though Love Prevails’ intent was not schism, its effect was.  Separate ordinations and separate tables are exactly the things that constitute a separate church.

At the end of their statement, Love Prevails says, “We encourage you to take communion at the ‘Remember Me’ stations as an act of resistance to our church’s ongoing discrimination of God’s LGBTQ people and to work for the day when Love Prevails.” But this act of resistance against the church’s discrimination, as Love Prevails sees it, in fact created resistance to the church itself in its oneness gathered around the table.  For Paul, the oneness of the bread and body is essential to the church’s gathered participation in Christ:

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Cor 10:16-17 ESV)

It is insufficient to say that this was to serve as a sign-act of the brokenness already present in our communion, for communion is not only a sign of what we are, but a participation in what we are to become. In a sermon addressed to catechumens on Pentecost, Augustine provides some commentary on Paul’s words from 1 Cor. 10, saying,

“One bread,” [Paul] says. What is this one bread? Is it not the “one body,” formed from many? Remember: bread doesn’t come from a single grain, but from many. When you received exorcism, you were “ground.” When you were baptized, you were “leavened.” When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were “baked.” Be what you see; receive what you are. (Emphasis added.)

Augustine goes on to speak of the cup as well, explaining how the individual grapes in the bunch are all mingled to form one wine.  One bread and one cup, these are the source and the sign of our communion. At the table, we are not called to try to signify our present brokenness. We have already done that and sought peace in the midst of that through confession and reconciliation.

When we offer different breads—that is bread that has been blessed at a different table and offered as an alternative to that which is offered by the one presiding with the gathered body—we are no longer operating as one body that has been united by the water and the Spirit. The sign-act offered by Love Prevails communicates this. To have two different tables is to have two different ekklesia, to have two different communions, to have variant offerings of Christ.

This separate communion is made all the more troublesome by the fact that the UMC has no bar on members of the LGBTQ+ community receiving or serving communion.  In our theology and liturgy, we confess that all who love Christ, repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another are welcome at the table.  And though our church has failed in manifold ways to be faithful to this call in practice, to create a separate “queer communion” entrenches a division that need not be maintained.

With banners that read “Remember Me,” Love Prevails called upon the conference to “remember the people who have been lost to our denomination as a result of the church’s categorical discrimination against queer people,” to “remember all who have been marginalized and violated by the church’s many acts of oppression,” and to “commit to Re-Membering the Body of Christ—to making whole that which has been broken and torn apart.”  But we can only remember and rightly see each other in communion if first we remember Christ himself.  Jesus’ call to “remember me” is about Jesus himself, who in giving himself for us offers us reconciliation and enables us to see the image of God in each other.  Love Prevails’ “queer communion,” however, substitutes LGBTQ+ people for Jesus as the antecedent of “me” and, therefore, as the object of our memories.  We ought to remember all of God’s church, LGBTQ people included, when we gather to be reconciled at the table, but we can only do so by rememberingJesus himself.  By offering a separate communion and undermining the primacy of Jesus in our memory, Love Prevails has further dismembered, rather than re-membered, the body of Christ.

If we are to be one body—if we together are to be transformed by the love of Christ—if we are to be reconciled to each other—then the place where we experience that possibility is when we gather around the Lord’s table, in which we participate as one body with one bread and one cup.

“Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.” May we as Christ’s church share in one loaf even when we share so little else.


Editorial notes:

  • This post is not, in itself, a criticism of all of the work of Love Prevails or all work towards more faithful inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the life of the church. It is a criticism of these two activities.
  • The writers of this article do not take issue with LGBTQ+ persons serving the elements or for any persons authorized by their Board of Ordained Ministry and Annual Conference presiding at the table in the UMC. The objection here is to the fact of alternate offerings, not the people who are offering or receiving.
  • On Wednesday, during the Episcopal Address, Bishop Palmer said, “[O]ur relationships are so superficial, especially in the church, that we won’t even risk saying something that we might later have to apologize for.” This is our attempt to speak boldly, trusting that we can speak the truth in love in the UMC. We humbly acknowledge that we may be wrong in our assessment of these actions, and want this to be a beginning of conversation, not an end.

This article was written by Chad Bowen and Smith Lilley, pastors in the Tupelo District of the Mississippi Conference.  We can be reached on Twitter at @chad_bowen and @fel_jr respectively.