In an open letter to Texas bishop Janice Huie, advocates for full inclusion of gay persons in the life of the church asked a number of questions about church trials and the harm they perceive being done. You can read the full letter, and their questions, HERE.
Many of us clergy and lay people are hoping and praying that a strong, concise, clear voice would emerge from the chaos surrounding our church trials. Please, lead us! I am not sure if the bishop has responded to these questions. I have taken the liberty of responding below in a way that myself and many others wish our bishops would respond to such questions (I have not addressed all seven from the original post, but only the first three).
- How does the Council of Bishops’ call for another trial do good for this broken body of the United Methodist Church, and for our witness to the world? How does another trial further our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?
These questions prompt questions of my own: How does the outright rebellion of Methodist pastors, who publicly and arrogantly break the covenant they have made with both God and the Church, help to further our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? Or, how does our celebration of and approval of sin help anyone make a disciple of Jesus Christ? Who is being transformed, and into what are they being transformed?
We have biblical guidance when it comes to handling those who choose not to repent from their sin. Jesus instructs us in Matthew 18 that if a person does not listen to private rebuke, nor to the rebuke of a council, nor to that of the church, then they are to be dismissed from the assembly. Paul insists that one of our duties is to judge those inside the church. Those who persist in sin while claiming for themselves the name “brother” are to be “purged” from among the assembly (1 Cor. 5:11-13). If we do not follow these biblical commands to enact church discipline then we, too, would be in sin, as our acquiescence would be an implicit approval of those who continue practicing sin (Rom. 1:32).
We believe that our commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ involves far more than providing a space of tolerance where any and all can gather for the purpose of doing good works. While our doors are open to all, once inside we expect that lives will be transformed by the living God we come to worship. These church trials are necessary because we believe those pastors who are violating our covenant and blessing that which God calls sin are failing to make disciples of Jesus Christ. A disciple, by definition, is one who forsakes their selfish ways, takes up their cross, and follows Jesus (Matt. 16:24). Our Lord himself affirmed that from the beginning marriage was meant to be between one man and one woman (Matt. 19:4-5) and we affirm that any deviation from that is symptomatic of our fallen nature. All of us are broken, and all of us, because of sin, love the wrong things. The church’s mission to make disciples must include a call to die to ourselves along with the loving nurture which helps us all to redirect our desires toward their appointed end: God.
So to answer your question, trials will continue so long as we have pastors who distort our witness to the world by suggesting that they can love whatever or whomever they desire and still call themselves a “brother” or a “sister” or think of themselves as disciples of Jesus Christ.
- How does the Council of Bishops’ call for another trial do no harm – to gay persons, their families, the pastors who serve them? How does it do no harm to the unchurched who are seeking a place to experience the love and grace of God but see instead a denomination putting its own on trial after trial?
When a rich young ruler asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told him to sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and come follow him. This rich man turned away “grieving” and “saddened” because the demands of Jesus proved too costly (Mark 10:17-27). Did Jesus do “harm” to this man? Prior to the demand Jesus makes on this young man’s life, Mark makes it clear that he “loved him.” This love, however, was not of the sentimental sort, wishing not to offend. This was the sort of love that called for radical surrender seeking to transform a rebellious, selfish heart into an obedient, selfless one. Note that Jesus, though loving him, did not chase after this grieving man, softening his demands so that he might gain a new member. When his disciples ask incredulously, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus tells them that with people it’s impossible, but with God, all things are possible.
We confess that we have grown lax in our demands of what being a disciple requires as United Methodist Christians. When our church was at her best it was required of members to be part of a band, or class meeting, where members continually laid their disordered loves at the altar through accountable discipleship. In our zeal to grow our membership we have been swayed by the broad road of culture and have lowered the bar which Jesus set for those who call him Lord. We confess that over the years our mission to see the transformation of the world has been primarily about doing good works to the exclusion of seeing scriptural holiness spread throughout the land. This must change if we are to have God’s blessing upon our church.
We repent of the middle way we have tried to forge over this issue and recognize that by not speaking loudly and boldly about sin we cannot speak loudly and boldly about redemption. In this way we have done harm to gay persons everywhere by not speaking the truth in love to them, just as Jesus did to the rich young ruler. As we endeavor to honor God’s commands we prayerfully expect God to do the impossible among us.
- How does the Council of Bishops’ call for another trial keep us – clergy and laypeople, and the United Methodist Church itself – close to God?
By calling the church to repentance, and by enacting church discipline as already described above, we create space for God to fill us anew. Christians are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and we cannot expect God to dwell in the midst of rebellion, discord, and unrepentant sin. Jesus said that his friends are those who do what he commands (John 15:14). How can we expect to draw ourselves, let alone others, close to God if we do not obey his word? If we were to approve of that which God calls sin we would be inviting God’s judgment, not friendship.
For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be above reproach…holding firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:7-9).