Bishop Scott Jones of the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church (encompassing Kansas and Nebraska) recently strongly declared his commitment to uphold the denomination’s ban on same-sex unions.
In a January 15 gathering of all ministers (elders, deacons, licensed local pastors, and associate clergy members) of his conference, he forthrightly addressed the challenge our church is facing with the nationwide, secular-supported campaign of renegade United Methodist clergy performing publicity-stunt same-sex unions in hopes of testing, besieging, and overwhelming our denominational accountability structures. Such activists have been emboldened by not only the quiet and not-so-quiet encouragement of a few radical bishops, but also by the perceived weakness of the UMC Council of Bishops as a whole in terms of its expected unwillingness to stand firm against strong liberal challenges.
In declaring his commitment to uphold the UMC’s standards, Bishop Jones reported being asked “what if 100 of us do same-gender unions?” The bishop’s answer was refreshingly direct: “Then there will be 100 suspensions from ministry during the supervisory response followed by 100 trials.”
Bishop Jones made clear that he “want[s] to do everything I can to avoid trials,” which can cost about $100,000 apiece. But responsibility for avoiding trials “is primarily in the hands of the clergy who should remember and abide by their sacred promises to live by the discipline of our church.” For “not to hold a trial when a chargeable offense occurs and a just resolution cannot be achieved is to violate our United Methodist identity.”
He also noted that the clergy defendant in a church trial “may be spending up to $50,000 of personal money.” That may give some renegade clergy second thoughts about provoking a trial against themselves.
Citing Paul’s exhortation for Ephesian Christians “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” Bishop Jones outlined “three fundamental, non-negotiable and basic characteristics of our unity.”
The first is doctrine. He reminded his elders that they “have all made a sacred promise to preach and maintain our doctrines,” noted that congregations expect the pastors he sends them to teach the church’s faith, and characterized the UMC’s internal theological diversity as something that must remain within the boundaries of this core doctrine.
The second is the UMC’s 2008 revised mission statement: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Bishop Jones stressed that this rather than any hot-button social issue must be kept “the main thing” for the church.
And the third is the UMC’s discipline, through which “power is lodged in our conferring together.” While “[t]here will inevitably be disagreements” with regional and General Conference decisions, Bishop Jones explained that the denomination’s connectional, discipline-shaped identity means that “we are [nevertheless] loyal to the decisions we make together” and the process by which we make them.
He noted the increasing polarization in American society and the UMC on not only homosexuality but also abortion, reminding his clergy of the existence of congregations in the conference with strong views on opposing sides.
Bishop Jones told the conference’s clergy: “If a disagreement with the Church’s teaching or discipline is highly important to you and if you have given up hope of changing the church’s doctrine or discipline” – which describes the position of a growing number of pro-homosexuality UMC clergy now resorting to the renegade disobedience movement– “you have to decide either to live with it or to leave and find another church that better expresses your understanding of the Christian faith.”
Some of the bishop’s “extreme center” and unity-in-diversity rhetoric cries out for a deeper engagement with exploring the content of the UMC’s effectively unchangeable core doctrine and examining how much theological diversity can be sustained within the boundaries of biblical, historic Christian faith.
But such a clear statement from an active U.S. United Methodist bishop declaring that he will not be intimidated by the antics of church-disrupting, secularizing activists, reminding his clergy of their sacred obligation of loyalty to the church’s faith, and warning them against joining the movement of breaking our denomination’s biblical covenant is very refreshing and needed at this time. The address by Bishop Jones is worth reading in full here.
Will other bishops have the moral courage and spiritual integrity to stand with Bishop Jones in issuing similar statements?