I long for us to argue better. I long for us to seek holy ends by holy means. How we go about this conversation matters; I do not believe coercion is a legitimate strategy for intra-church debate. We are not utilitarians, and “anything that works” is not Christian logic.
So let us argue as sisters and brothers in Christ, both in form and content. By re-narrating this debate in terms of our views of divorce, binding and loosing, and holiness, we might find a more fruitful debate. We might even find a surprising unanimity among otherwise disparate factions.
I yet hope that our decades-long fight can be over. I hope we can find a way to welcome our LGBTQ neighbors more fully into the life of the church. I likewise hope that this can be done in a way that does not drive away folks who are evangelical or traditionalist. – Drew McIntyre, “3 Theological Reasons the UMC Should Reconsider Its Stance On Same-Gender Relationships”, Ploughsares Into Swords, May 2, 2016
This second offering of things to consider as we head into Portland, OR and General Conference, should, perhaps, have been written first. Before anything else, we are the Church, the Body of Christ, specifically the inheritors of those John Wesley called “the people called Methodist”. As the Church, our first aim always and everywhere should be to remain faithful. Before we consider anything, we should reaffirm our faith, prayerfully considering how we have neglected this or that or the other part of our collective confession, asking for guidance and strength as we go forward.
Prayer is the practical side of our declaration of faith. St. Paul insisted we should pray without ceasing. To that end we should in all times and places where we gather together seek in and through prayer to remain faithful to the God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who creates us, saves us, and gives us life and new life. How would it be possible to deliberate as the Church if we did not pray and confess our faith together?
For a very long time there’s been a whole lot of talk about the place of confessing the faith within the life of the United Methodist Church. Ours is, after all, a non-creedal Body. There is no distinctive United Methodist Confession of Faith. Over 20 years ago, some people bemoaned this part of our life and formed The Confessing Movement, to the end that the programs and ministries of our Church be held accountable to the confession of Jesus Christ as Son, Savior, and Lord. While some, including me, have wondered at some of the things the Confessing Movement has written and said, their goal shouldn’t be all that controversial. After all, if there is no guidance and limit to what we as a corporate Body preach and teach and witness, why call ourselves as “Church” at all?
Doctrine, a word much misunderstood and abused, is an expression of our collective identity. Too often used synonymous with “theology”, Christian Doctrine is the collective profession of our identity as this Church, this particular living Body of Christ at work in the world. Much bandwidth and ink has been spilled over the status and role of Doctrine within the life of the Church. I sometimes think arguments like this, substitutes for our real grievances against one another, are more entertaining than anything else. That it, until some either dismiss our Doctrinal Statements completely or insist that Christian Doctrine is some unchanging “thing”, existing since time immemorial, vouchsafed to us only to defend and pass on, unmarked by time and circumstance. At these points, I think we’ve entered loony land.
Doctrine is now as it has always been, our collective expression of our identity. People what to know what it is to be a Christian, what that means, all we really need to do is point to our Doctrinal statements and say, “Read this.” The words, their interpretation, different emphases (for example, our particular Wesleyan emphases on grace and Christian Perfection, on mission and discipleship) are always changing because languages change, people change, history changes, circumstances dictate what should be shouted from the rooftops and what should be whispered in secret. This is neither interesting nor surprising.
Gathering in Portland our delegates have a duty to reaffirm our collective profession of faith. In so doing, they should also prayerfully ask that our Doctrinal Standards be their rule and rod, their guide and limit for all they deliberate and decide. Only thus, in an attitude of prayer and in full knowledge of that which marks us as distinct, can our deliberations and decisions be understood as the fruitful outcome of faithful living, prayerful deliberations, and mutual love.
While I still believe that at least some of the emphasis upon Doctrine has been either code for calling those with whom they disagree heretics thus outside the bounds of Christian fellowship or a distraction from other matters, it needs to be repeated and emphasized: We either stand together under our collective expression of identity as professed in our Doctrinal Standards or we shall always be divided by the winds of whatever controversy comes down the pike. We cannot forsake our profession of faith and remain the Body of Christ, regardless of the outcome of our deliberations.
In prayer and profession, only there are we truly The United Methodist Church.
In an effort to shine some light on a couple dark spaces, I’m going to say out loud what others have shared privately. I am also going to tell a very unflattering story about myself. Finally, I am going to answer a question someone has asked me several times.
Let’s start with the question: “How would adults act?” Because I often lament the lack of adults in the United Methodist Church, I think it is important to talk about what adult actions might or would or should look like. In order to do that, I’m going to tell a story about me not acting like an adult, and learning the hard way that tattling on others is far more wrong than any action someone feels compelled to tattle about.
I was in Seminary. It was evening. There was a night class getting out and I could hear through my open window a lot of animated talking. Interesting but not unheard of. Nothing animates people like sitting in a large classroom setting and hearing things that challenge your faith. A couple people walked by my room – I sometimes liked to leave my door open – and I saw two people in a hushed discussion. They looked upset. Curious (mistake number one; it wasn’t my business), I went out and asked them what was going on. I was told that discussions in the class were heated; afterward, one of the students was heard to complain about “c***s in the pulpit” and “uppity n****** teaching classes”. It shouldn’t be hard to imagine how shocked I was (mistake number two; don’t be shocked by others’ words or actions).
I was filled with righteous anger. Someone should do something about this! If not me, then who? If not now, when? (you guessed it, mistake number three; never ever ever envision oneself as some kind of righteous hero because you’re just being an ass) The next day, having given the matter no thought and less prayer, I went to the Dean of Community Life. I told her what I had heard. I insisted “something had to be done” as if that was within my particular range of responsibilities. She made a reasonable request. She wanted me to convince the person who had told me, who had heard it first hand, to come forward. Filled with the righteousness of a quest for justice, I went and did just that: I went to the person who had told me, trying to convince this person to do what I’d done. I failed utterly. And for good reasons.
The person who relayed those statements to me made it clear that he might well have misheard what was said; he might ha heard that person relaying with disapproval something someone else had said. For all this person knew, those statements relayed to me might well reflect that person’s views but it wasn’t up to us to make a spectacle out of it. At the time I was sorely disappointed. I had to go to the Dean and tell her I had failed; at the time I still felt that “something” should be done. I was heartbroken, not least because this chance I had to be some kind of hero by exposing bigotry among the student body had been dashed by what I felt were “technicalities”.
I am much older now. I am, I hope, a bit wiser. I am ashamed of how I acted. Indeed, I’ve never related this story before in full to anyone precisely because . . . yes I look like a jerk. Being upset and angry that another student said such things about others, specifically faculty members, is fine. Believing it was my bounden duty to “do something about it”, however, were childish delusions. Those delusions, because they were childish, led me to do something I regret: I tattled.
Do I think someone willing to express such extreme views has a place in the pulpit on any church? Of course not. The nice things is, the hoops and stunts, committee meetings and papers, the sermons and lesson plans that candidates for ordained ministry need to complete are many, various, and spread across years. Everything from psychological evaluations to background checks are done. Going in front of a District Committee on Ordained Ministry, say or the Board of Ordained Ministry is never easy. A person who surrenders to the urge to speak in such a way about people doesn’t have an excess of self-control. The proper venue for acting on information that a person has said thus-and-such about others clearly isn’t a Seminary; and what that action might or might not be isn’t up to someone far more concerned with displaying his righteous anger than with getting at the real facts of the matter. I had no business doing what I did. That I can feel shame for doing so is a sign that, at the very least, I’ve learned one lesson in life.
It has been whispered in secret, in hushed conversations, but rarely been made explicit that when Drew McIntyre, Stephen Rankin, and Evan Rohrs-Dodge wrote their letter to the Bishop and District Superintendent of Western Michigan regarding the actions Ginny Mikita took, it was nothing more than tattling. It isn’t that they found Ms. Mikita’s actions wrong or in violation of the Book of Discipline that bothers people; I think most folks, including Ginny, understand that actions have consequences, consequences she was willing to face had proper procedure been followed and the proper actors been offered the opportunity to do so. As Ginny’s role in this was not a secret or hidden, those responsible for dealing with her as they saw fit – the pastor of her local church; her District Committee on Ordained Ministry – certainly had the information available to take whatever actions they deemed appropriate. Rather than allow such actions to unfold as they are set out in the Discipline, these men decided to act, not trusting the processes set out in the very book they claim to defend. They became both judge and jury, determining what her actions were and what the appropriate response from church authorities ought to be, due process and due diligence be damned.
What Ginny Mikita did, was it right, was it wrong? I haven’t a clue. I haven’t a clue because I’m not competent to make that determination. Furthermore, that isn’t my job. Were I truly outraged at a lay member receiving an online ordination in order to perform a wedding ceremony, I would contact that person personally and ask (a) why that person did it; and (b) does this person realize that in so acting this person has risked losing membership in the United Methodist Church. Let me type part of that again: I would contact that person. I wouldn’t tattle on them. I wouldn’t decide I knew better than others what ought to be done. I wouldn’t look at news reports and believe I knew all that needed to be known to make a determination that someone was wrong and “something needed to be done”. That’s the answer to the question about how adults would act. An adult would have gotten in touch with Ginny and say something like, “I saw this news report and I’m troubled. Could we have a conversation so that we both understand the full circumstances and implications?” If that request was denied, the matter should be dropped.
The harm done to the institutions of the UMC that flow from this letter are difficult for those outside to imagine. Imagine being a DS and fearing someone will write them a letter demanding action based upon what amounts to rumor, gossip, and hearsay. Imagine being a lay person who purchased an online “ordination” to help out a family or friend. Imagine knowing that out there are people who scrutinize every news story, every little blog post and might well find something wrong with it. While the actions taken against Ms. Mikita may or may not have been wrong, the thing that got this whole ball rolling, that letter, is morally repulsive, antithetical to any serious ethical consideration. That there are many in our denomination who think what they did was justified breaks my heart; to have such a skewed moral compass as to think that acting on rumor and the words of tattle-tales who weren’t even present for the events they report is acceptable . . . what are we becoming?
This is why tattling is just so wrong. This is a lesson some of us have had to learn the hard way. It is far worse than anything the tattlers believe has been done. We have so much to do to clean up this mess. Not the least have people start acting like adults.
According to The Book of Discipline , the instrument for setting forth the laws, plan, polity, and process by which United Methodists govern themselves, neither bishops or district superintendents have the authority to excommunicate lay persons from the church, nor to remove individuals from candidacy for ministry.
In choosing to become ordained in The Universal Life Church (ULC), Ms. Mikita elected to change denominations. This action automatically withdrew her membership in The United Methodist Church and as a certified candidate for ministry. – Statement from Michigan Area Press Office, United Methodist Insight, September 10, 2015
[T]he fact is, she withdrew herself from the denomination. The response from RMN may be rhetorically effective, especially to like-minded readers, but it is inaccurate. The spirit of the RMN response was picked up by blogger Jeremy Smith, who has developed a network of conspiracy theories regarding the attempted expulsion of progressives from the UMC. Apparently, the pastors who wrote the letter to the West Michigan Conference officials were attempting to expel one more progressive. The funny thing is, they didn’t have to. She expelled herself.
Misinformation, inflammatory rhetoric, the idolatry of “winning,” the subordination of truth to ideology, the politics of shame… These kinds of tactics ultimately serve no one. And yes, I know that this is not simply a progressive tactic. I have seen evangelical, conservative, and self-described centrists do this, too. I lament what our discourse has become. I don’t know what the future of our church is, but I pray that whatever it is, we can find better ways of talking to one another. – Rev. Dr. David Watson, “More Thoughts On Christian Public Discourse”, Musings and Whatnot, September 5, 2015
I took a few classes on law as an undergraduate. While not at all making me knowledgeable about the law, it offered a window in to the practice of law. Law is a profession concerned with the meaning of words. Do the words of a particular statute apply to a particular set of facts? How do they apply? It isn’t an accident that a lot of law schools recommend the study of English as a prerequisite to law school, along with a course or two in logic. It all boils down to how we use words, and whether or not a particular set of described facts is a subset of a particular set of described prohibited acts. Like that song from My Fair Lady, “Words, words, words . . .!”
Defenders of the expulsion of Ginny Mikita from membership in the United Methodist Church, including the Press Office of the Michigan Area Episcopal Office, insist the word “excommunication” is hyperbole, used erroneously, and does not at all describe what actually happened in this case. Others, including me, insist the word properly describes the actions taken to punish Ms. Mikita. So the question is simple: Who’s right?
Let’s consider the word itself. “Excommunication” literally means “no longer in communion”. The practice of excommunication was used to expel persons from the central means of grace, the Eucharistic table at Mass. As a social practice, it also meant those still in communion could have no private or public intercourse with such persons. Rooted in the ancient doctrine of extra ecclesia nunc salus, “outside the Church there is no salvation”, excommuncation not only left individuals social pariahs. Unless such persons renounced the specific heresy or practice for which they were originally were tossed out of the Church, sought absolution and acted upon whatever penance was meted out, excommunication meant damnation. One’s soul was forfeit along with one’s social position.
In the modern and contemporary age, the practice has largely been dispensed with. Protestants of most stripes no longer practice it, save for the Amish and their practice of shunning. There is no formal process for the practice set out in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. There is, however, a description of formal action to be taken in the case of an individual who is a member of the UMC and also a member of another denomination. The statement from the Michigan Area Press Office quotes it:
If a pastor is informed that a member has without notice united with a church of another denomination, the pastor shall make diligent inquiry and, if the report is confirmed, shall enter “Withdrawn” after her person’s name on the membership roll and shall report the same to the next charge conference.
Now, the pastor of the church where Ms. Mikita is a member left a comment in which he stated that he has not, in fact, entered “Withdrawn” by her name on the membership rolls. For official bodies of the Michigan Area to inform Ms. Mikita that she was no longer a member of her local UMC is factually inaccurate. Their insistence, however – echoed by David Watson of United Theological Seminary – that she is indeed no longer a member by dint of her own actions ignores the statement of the BoD regarding the process to be undertaken in such an instance. Disregarding proper procedure, summarily declaring Ms. Mikita’s membership forfeit without having done due diligence in regards to the clear process outlined in the Discipline is best described as “arbitrary and capricious”. It also amounts, for all intents and purposes, to excommunication. That the Conference outlines steps she can take to return to membership as well as become a candidate for the ordained diaconate is neither here nor there; the Church has always offered steps to return to full communication to those cast out.
Is it hyperbole or factually inaccurate to describe as excommunication the actions taken against Ms. Mikita? While I believe this is a matter best left to Church lawyers, in my opinion it is not. Others might well disagree, and as I say the final arbiter should be our Judicial Council. All the same, it’s important to be clear that the choice of this word is not arbitrary, nor is it a rhetorical tactic used to shame anyone. It is also quite relevant that one of the persons who instigated action against Ms. Mikita has publicly endorsed the practice of excommunication. It may not be definitive, but it does show that using the word is hardly something taken from nowhere.
This is an ongoing matter. For the sake of clarity it is important to be definitive about how we describe the events in question. Are emotions involved? Of course, but also irrelevant. That this was an instance of excommunication is clear from the facts of the matter. The choice of whether or not to use the word is not a rhetorical decision to shame supporters of Ms. Mikita’s expulsion. It is only used to call an action by its name. If they feel shame, that isn’t anyone’s fault but their own.
What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgement goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings. – Hosea 6:4-6
It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. – Karl Barth
The first time I spoke out publicly against the United Methodist policy regarding sexual minorities was 1988. To say I was in a distinct minority would not only be accurate; it would perhaps demonstrate my embarrassment at my earnestness and honesty. Nonetheless, in the 27 years since I have not changed my position. I have not deviated from my firm belief that our lesbian, gay, other-gendered, bisexual, and queer/questioning brothers and sisters are of right and ought to be full persons within the life of the church. Our church has no business denying ministry and pastoral care to any of our members because of bigotry or blindness rooted in faile devotion to alleged Biblical injunctions or the arcana of church law.
I have allowed myself to continue being and worshiping as a United Methodist for all these years because I watched as we struggled and argued and charged and counter-charged. I saw our country opening itself to the possibility of full inclusion to sexual minorities; surely if our secular, godless society can be so open and accepting, a denomination that is rooted in an understanding of the wideness of God’s mercy can’t be far behind. All the arguments have been made and positions both well rehearsed and firm. We as a people seem to have been moving on to perfection in love on this matter.
Then came the widespread news of a woman from Western Michigan who, after receiving “ordination” from an online “church” not only was removed from candidacy for the diaconate; she was removed from membership in the United Methodist Church all together. Both actions were taken without the specific actions outlined in our Book of Discipline. There was no meeting with her District Committee on Ordained Ministry. Her local pastor did not meet with her, or research the charge thoroughly before writing “Withdrawn” after her name on her local church membership roll. Summarily cast out, she was for all intents and purposes excommunicated from our denomination for the crime of being audacious. She loved her clergy so much that rather than put any of them at risk, she received a barely-legal certificate – recognized only by county clerks around the country; something many people do to perform weddings for friends or family – so that two men she supported could be married surrounded by their friends and supporters.
Her removal was prompted from a complaint not made by anyone in her local church. It wasn’t made by another clergy member from Western Michigan. Three men from different jurisdictions wrote a letter to her District Superintendent. Three people who knew nothing of the facts, nothing of the people, nothing of the actual circumstances of the matter have managed not only to destroy a woman’s hopes for serving the United Methodist Church. In their zeal to uphold one part of our Book of Discipline, they prompted actions that violated other, far more important and central parts. In their desire to punish anyone in the United Methodist Church who might seek to be in loving ministry to sexual minorities, they have rendered our denomination a laughing stock. Not a laughing stock for the Gospel; this is no stumbling block for the earnestly faithful or foolishness to the wise. This action shows the world the hollowness of our alleged commitment to the expansiveness of God’s Grace and Wesley’s first rule: Do No Harm.
And so we arrive at yesterday. Angry and hurt, I prayed about how I could worship in truth and humility when I would be in a place that had not only committed this horrid act of injustice; I would be doing so in the full knowledge that there are people in our denomination who would not see any need to confess this sin and seek to change their lives so that no such thing would ever happen again. I would be approaching the table set before humanity by a prodigally loving God knowing full well that some in our denomination believe and have acted in such a way as to restrict access to a table that isn’t ours to begin with.
I wrote my thoughts on Facebook and many insisted that I should attend anyway; that all of us are broken and sinful; that we have unclean lips in a land of unclean people. All of which is true, of course, but also beside the point. Our worship is not about me or any other individual. It is about all of us. It is about us in our local congregation. It is also about all of us as we are connected through the Holy Spirit. The confession we make is not about how many times we’ve taken the Lord’s name in vain or looked upon another with lust in our hearts. Our confession is our failure to be the Church of Jesus Christ incarnate in the people called Methodist. We are all tied together in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit; I can no more separate myself from other United Methodists around the world than I can separate myself from my arm or leg. The actions taken by those three men; the subsequent actions taken by the District Superintendent and Bishop in Western Michigan sit upon all of us. If not, then our profession as a connectional people is hollow and our confession of the communion of the saints is a lie.
That our church is broken is beyond question. I have told myself we have been moving slowly, inexorably, toward healing. The arc of history bends toward justice, even if that arc does indeed move slowly. I could not, however, worship in Spirit and Truth when I knew that I was part of a corporate body that had acted so cruelly, prompted by just a few people who sought punishment for others not because of who they are or what they did but rather because these three men consider themselves arbiters of who and who should not be a United Methodist. They would see no need to confess their sins. How, then, would our worship as a body be true? How would the sacrifice we offer – ourselves as a living sacrifice – be acceptable when we have not only permitted but participated in such injustice?
We will have much for which to answer. We’ve always known that. For the moment, however, it might yet be an excellent idea if we remembered that ours is a God of justice, not morality. Ours is a God of mercy, not arbitrary and punitive excommunication. When we gather and offer our confession to God, all of us no matter where we are, need to repent for being part of a body that would allow this action to take place, and seek repentance not only by preventing such a thing from ever happening again. We should actively seek to right this wrong. Until then, we show we don’t have love, and all our words are noise, the clanging cymbals of a faithless generation.
While Ginny knowingly placed her future ordination at risk in this act of Biblical Obedience, Ginny could not have imagined that her membership in The UMC would be threatened as well. However, on August 27, Ginny’s District Superintendent, Rev. Bill Haggard, informed her that her candidacy for ordination and her membership in The UMC were revoked weeks ago as a result of a letter penned by three United Methodist clergy in other states demanding that such disciplinary action be taken against her. The stated-rationale for such action insists that Ginny was excommunicated when she acquired an online designation necessary for the legal pronouncement of marriage. – “Clergy Candidate Removed From Ordination Process And Membership In The United Methodist Church”, September 4, 2015
One final thing that troubles me is that the structure of the United Methodist Church states that we are accountable to our local and regional bodies. Instead of trusting that a pastor who is seen as errant would be held accountable, these clergymen interfered across annual conference and jurisdictional lines. It should be noted that clergy trials of late have all been initiated by localcomplaints, certainly not by ones far-removed from context. While such an action is allowed in United Methodism, not all that is legal is good.
My hope is that other individuals who seek to take it upon themselves to accuse others in the United Methodist Church instead allow the local or regional response by their clergy peers to go forward. Our accountability is to the annual conference, and to trust that process. It’s a shame that there’s a group of Methodists trolling online articles for people to bring charges against. May we all be better. – Rev. Jeremy Smith, “2/3 Of The Via Media Methodists Wrote A Letter To Remove A Laity From Local Church Membership,” Hacking Christianity, September 4, 2015
I think congratulations are in order! To the three gentlemen who comprise Via Media Methodists, you managed to make names for yourselves! To the District Superintendent and Bishop in Western Michigan, many thanks for demonstrating such zeal in upholding our Book of Discipline!
In seeking to uphold the letter of our law, they have only instilled contempt for it. In acting out of a dedication to our connectional system, they have stripped the word of any substantive meaning. In seeking to reinforce the integrity of the United Methodist Church, they have left us a laughing stock. In a denomination that claims, at the heart of our worship – the communion table – that all are welcome at God’s table – they have demonstrated the reality that some people just aren’t welcome at all. And of course, in seeking to make names for themselves as Important People in the United Methodist Church, they have threatened not only the District Superintendent in Michigan, but as my wife – a DS in Northern Illinois – made clear, any Superintendent now may find him- or herself facing pressure to act in similar ways. You demonstrate the emptiness both of your so-called “middle way” as well as the viciousness at the heart of the attack both upon sexual minorities in our denomination as well as those who support them.
I am quite sure you folks – at least the folks at Via Media – are proud of yourselves. You Accomplished Something. As I say: Congratulations! And I know Rev. Drew McIntyre doesn’t quite get the irony that he’s the author of a blog entitled “Uniting Grace”.
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. ‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. – 1 Corinthians 8
After I wrote yesterday’s post I got thinking about the tensions inherent in a position such as the United Methodist District Superintendent. When Lisa began her appointment, I thought of the position as roughly akin to corporate middle management with all the headaches that entails. Over the past couple years, however, my mind has changed. It isn’t at all like “middle management”. While certainly existing within the tensions from above and below, unlike corporate managers, Superintendents in the United Methodist Church also exist within networks not only of prayer, but far more important, the bonds of Christian love and fellowship that tie clergy to clergy, congregation to congregation, Bishop to local church, and local Church to our global church. Rather than cursed with unwinnable and untenable struggles, District Superintendents are blessed to be the face of that thing local churches far and wide keep hearing about – “The United Methodist Church”. Rather than not having a congregation to serve, Lisa serves nearly 70 of them, the clergy and laity the largest she may ever serve. With all the drama and politics, all the headaches and complaints, all the sorrow and joy, in a very real sense the Rockford District is her congregation.
Of course, my perception is limited. This is her approach to the position: the Administrative work is always in service to the larger goal of carrying on the mission and ministries of the churches in the District; addressing the needs both of the congregations and clergy, the other Superintendents and the Bishop, are little different except in scale, from those clergy face dealing with various factions, committees, and constituencies within the local church; always making clear to all parties that she both has the backs of the congregations on the District as well as her colleagues and Bishop helps keep her both in the thick of things as well as a voice apart that can help smooth out rough edges and calm frayed nerves. I have always had respect for the Superintendents under whom Lisa has served, both because of who they were and the office. Now, I have an even deeper respect for both because to do this job, one need remember what St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 8: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
The whole of chapter 8 of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is an example of the Superintendency at work. The congregation has issues – boy, does it have issues – and it becomes difficult to discern an answer when Scripture seems unclear on how to proceed. The law against idolatry is very clear; does that mean, however, that sitting in a pagan temple and eating food offered to idols is forbidden? What if one understands that the idols are not gods at all, making the food offered to them just food? Does that mean that person, in the maturity of his or her faith, can eat in a pagan temple?
St. Paul’s response begins with a gentle rebuke to those who seem to believe that, having some kind of “knowledge” that gives them special indulgence, there is no harm done by continuing to fraternize with their pagan friends in their temples. Throughout the chapter, St. Paul seems to agree with the position that eating food sacrificed to idols is fine. Salvation coming through faith after all, it doesn’t hurt the person who does so, and refraining from doing so adds no beneficence.
Still, St. Paul isn’t all that impressed with folks who claim such knowledge. Of more importance than such knowledge is the love members of the congregation should have for one another. Acknowledging the lack of clarity in Scriptures, St. Paul understands the matter to be of little consequence. At the same time, he understands some within the congregation are scandalized by those who continue to act as if they are still believers in pagan gods. Rather than promote either some strict adherence to some principle that, well, just isn’t that clear; or insisting that those who don’t understand simply accept that what some folks are doing is OK whether they feel it is or not; rather than either of these alternatives, St. Paul offers something very different.
Folks in the Corinthian church should love one another. Not some sappy, huggy emotion. They should love in the ways St Paul describes later in the letter, in Chapter 13. Out of care and concern, folks should be considerate of the feelings of others, living their lives not from whatever knowledge they possess, but from the love we all share from Jesus Christ. If some in the congregation are scandalized by others eating in a pagan temple, it’s far better not to do so. Not because those who do so are committing a sin. Rather, because those doing so are creating unnecessary stumbling blocks for others. Knowledge doesn’t matter in the end. Only love matters.
Such advice, I think, needs to flow from Superintendents across the country to those who demand conformity to an orthodoxy that is neither universal nor eternal. It needs to be given to Seminary professors who seem to believe unity in Christ is adherence to words about Christ rather than the Person who has died and is risen, the Savior whose love holds us forever. This advice needs to be offered to those who insist the Bible is clear in its prohibitions regarding same-sex love and marriage. This advice needs to be given to those who insist the Scriptures aren’t so clear if we take a critical look at the Scriptures in question. Remember: Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up.
We need Superintendents like St. Paul who insist that love rather than some knowledge or understanding, some tradition or set of doctrines, should be our guide through the thickets of our struggles. Our unity is not rooted in human words; our leaders are not those with knowledge or understanding; our brokenness will not be healed by appeals to this or that understanding of obscure and unclear Scriptures.
District Superintendents are in the unique position to offer love not just in words but through their example to the clergy and congregations under their care. Particularly in matters where neither Scripture nor tradition seem to offer a way forward, no DS could do better than to remind everyone that our overriding principle is love. Heard in faith, lived in hope, this love is at the heart of who we are together as Christians. This is how Superintendents, like St. Paul, are the tangible face of that all-too-abstract idea of our universal Church.