November 15, 2013

Denominations Can’t Survive without Rules

A reputed expert on United Methodist polity recently made a very publicized plea to the Council of Bishops urging them to end enforcement of the Discipline’s prohibition on same sex unions, which has been reiterated by many General Conferences.

United Seminary Dean David Watson offers a very thoughtful response to that expert with his defense for upholding the Discipline. He admits widespread disagreement within United Methodism over marriage and argues it’s exactly for that reason the church needs a governing standard if it is to survive as a polity.

Helpfully, Watson notes United Methodists disagree about MANY things. He cites deviations even from core doctrine including the Trinity, Incarnation and Resurrection. He could also have cited the Virgin Birth. For more than a century, many in our official seminaries and among our clergy have disbelieved what our church still officially teaches. Of course, Watson does not celebrate deviation from these teachings but notes they’ve long existed, which is sad but true. Essentially we’ve long fudged our differences over doctrine.

“Ethical matters such as homosexuality, however, while certainly related to theology and doctrine, fall into a different category,” Watson writes. “These are specifically matters of behavior and practice, and, at times, the General Conference has seen fit, rightly or wrongly, to issue clear regulations on ethical matters.”

Watson explains: “Church law emerges specifically because of our disagreement.” Rules will always upset some people, he writes, “Yet without such internal regulations, the UMC cannot function as a denomination.” Spiritually Christians are held together by their common faith in Christ. But denominations “are held together by their internal self-regulation,” and if disregarded, are “no longer a denomination.”

Clergy defying the Discipline are “engaging in de facto schism,” Watson says. Their “de facto division” inevitably will lead to “de jure division,” with “tragic consequences.”

In my own view, clergy engaging in or advocating defiance of the Discipline would be refreshing if they directly declared their intent is to divide the church. Why don’t they? Proposals at past or future General Conferences to agree to disagree, erroneously touted as “compromise” tools for unity, should also be labeled for what they actually are: guaranteed acceleration towards schism.

Anyway, read the rest of Watson’s commentary here:

3 Responses to Denominations Can’t Survive without Rules

  1. Steve Cooper says:

    Well said. The current situation leaves many thinking people outside the church, including us. We left the UMC when the schism became so obvious twenty years ago. The compromises did not call us to unity, but separation. We wish God’s blessings on the denomination, but we’re gone.

  2. Roger says:

    Thank you Mark for this excellent article and follow up to Dean Watson’s plea to the CoB.

    The word schism may not be the best word to be used here. Accountability and responsibility of the individual must become a reality to him or her. If an organization is corrupted by defiant members it must be purged of that person to remain principled and whole. We must look at the book of Nehemiah. Tobias was outside the parameters of the Israelites; yet he was able to occupy a room in the temple until Nehemiah came along and threw him out. This was not schism. This was a curative measure (de jure) toward wholeness of the temple and worship by the Israelites. Unity and wholeness require steadfastness and loyalty.

  3. Davie says:

    Have no fear. If the UMC decides to endorse same sex marriage the bishops will suddenly develop a spine. Schismatic behavior will not longer be tolerated. That is the lesson of the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There is one set of rules for progressives and one from conservatives.

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