In August a formal complaint by United Methodist clergy against then Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the administration’s border policies was dismissed by church officials in Alabama where Sessions’s church is located. The officials, without commenting on how border policy might contravene church principles, ruled Sessions’s governmental role wasn’t under church jurisdiction. This week Sessions resigned as Attorney General.
Christianity Today in August asked Will Willimon, former bishop of North Alabama, and me to pen opposing columns about the church’s dismissal of the complaint against Sessions. CT recently quoted from but didn’t run the columns. So they appear below.
Bishop Will Willimon:
I was excited about the possibility of complaining against a Methodist’s theology, so I welcomed the complaint against US Attorney General Jeff Sessions. I have spent my whole career trying to get Methodists to stop arguing about sex, finances, and clergy pensions, so I welcomed the prospect of an argument about theology and biblical interpretation.
In citing Romans 13 to support his draconian immigration policies separating parents from their children, Sessions provoked many Christians to complain about his abuse of our scriptures.
Still, I was unsurprised that the complaint against him, signed by hundreds of fellow Methodists, was dismissed. Formal complaints against laity are rare in the United Methodist Church (UMC), virtually unknown for any cause other than charges of gross sexual misconduct. Yet I was surprised, even confused, by the reasons given by the UMC district superintendent for the dismissal of the complaint.
Like many Methodist members of America’s second-largest Protestant denomination, I find Sessions’s opinions and actions to be reprehensible. His policies on immigration are an embarrassment to our church. Though President Donald Trump’s degrading, humiliating comments about his Attorney General almost give make me feel some modicum of Christian sympathy for him, I’m still complaining about him rather than sympathizing.
So while I could fully understand the informal complaints about Sessions, and though I didn’t expect much success for the formal complaint (my church is in such doctrinal disarray, anyone attempting to prove that a Methodist is guilty of “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the [UMC] standards of doctrine of the United Methodist Church” has got their work cut out for them), I don’t understand the church official’s rationale for the dismissal of the complaint.
The District Superintendent who dismissed the complaint said that, “In this matter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was carrying out the official policy of the President and/or the United States Department of Justice.” And: “A political action is not personal conduct when the political officer is carrying out official policy.”
What? I know of nothing in UMC discipline and doctrine that says the President and Department of Justice overrule church doctrine and scripture.
Wesleyans have a long tradition of actively resisting and working to overturn “the official policy of the President and/or the United States Department of Justice.” A major motivation for my own call into ordained leadership was the witness of some valiant Methodists in South Carolina who, unlike Jeff Sessions, knew when official governing policies were contrary to the gospel. Whatever happened to, “We must obey God rather than human authority” (Acts 5:29)?
“Political actions are not personal conduct.”? What’s that supposed to mean? What’s the basis in scripture for such a statement? John Wesley was big on “social holiness” and railed against separation of personal piety from public piety. Liberalism (in philosophy and then in theology) attempted to make the Christian faith “personal” and “private,” something you do with your interiority (Schleiermacher).
This liberal move effectively sealed off the life of discipleship from public responsibility, making the Christian faith irrelevant to matters of great importance. It also implied that our personal convictions ought to be laid aside when we are dealing with political matters.
I know of nothing in our Book of Discipline that bifurcates personal behavior from public, politically motivated behavior. It’s been interesting for me, as a post-liberal, to watch the gyrations of some evangelicals who dismiss concerns about our President’s adultery and business shenanigans with the defense, “That’s his personal behavior, which is between him and God.” Or, “We didn’t elect him to be our pastor. He’s our commander-in-chief.” (Franklin Graham)
Really now, do we want to argue that a person’s character is irrelevant to that person’s performance of public responsibilities or that public, political actions are immune from Christian judgments?
Sessions ought to know that one of the big challenges of following Jesus is that Christ doesn’t just want our “personal” lives or the inner thoughts of our hearts. Jesus wants all of it. The whole world and everyone in it — including those beyond our national borders, including white Southerners with bad ideas – belong to him. And He shall reign.
The dismissal of the Sessions complaint cited no UMC judicial precedents or doctrinal standards because there is no UMC justification for the stated grounds for dismissal. Whatever happened to, “We must obey God rather than human authority” (Acts 5:29)?
I can see how any Bible-believing Methodist is offended that Sessions dragged St. Paul into his attack on immigrant families. After all that the poor Apostle suffered— (three times beaten with rods, shipwrecked, pelted with stones (—2 Corinthians 11:25)—, now Jeff Sessions drags in Paul to justify his pernicious separation of hundreds of little children from their parents.
Almost I hear Paul saying, “Poor United Methodists, Jeff is your thorn in the flesh. Three times I prayed to be delivered of mine, and the Lord refused; but maybe you will have better luck being delivered. If the UMC complaint process doesn’t work, try prayer.”
Please do not blame Sessions’s past preachers! I’ve had parishioners who refused to submit to good biblical instruction and sound teaching. Maybe he missed his pastor’s eight-week sermon series on Romans.
(Postcript from Willimon: Sessions’s one virtue was not his knowledge of scripture but rather his loyalty to the Constitution. Our President appears to have no knowledge of or commitment to either the Constitution or scripture. Jeff Sessions, we’ll miss you!”)
And here’s my response:
What lessons are there for Christians from United Methodism’s declining to discipline church member Jeff Sessions over his defense of the U.S. border family separation policy?
Hundreds of United Methodists endorsed a formal charge against Sessions, a lifelong Methodist, accusing him of “child abuse,” “immorality,” “racial discrimination” plus “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine of the United Methodist Church.”
The complainants’ chief provoking incident was Sessions’ having cited St. Paul’s “clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” Many liberal Methodists discomfitted by the state’s ordained punitive duties prefer to ignore this scripture.
Avoiding debate over Romans 13, United Methodist officials in Sessions’ native Alabama rejected the complaint, narrowly noting: “A political action is not personal conduct when the political officer is carrying out official policy,” and so is not a “chargeable offense” for laity under United Methodist law.
Some critics quickly compared this reasoning to Nazi war criminals who insisted they only followed orders. Others noted the church rationale reflected a “superior orders” tradition in which government officials aren’t held fully responsible for implementing policy.
These critics read too much into the dismissal. United Methodism historically pursues charges against clergy for personal immorality or dereliction of church duty, almost never against laity, though it’s theoretically possible.
No Methodist to my knowledge in history has been ecclesially punished for political views or actions. Church members were sometimes disciplined for owning slaves, which Methodism opposed. But Methodist laity weren’t punished for politically supporting slavery or, if in government, for upholding it.
Should they have been? Should members of any church be punished and potentially excommunicated for participating in political or state acts violating church teaching? What church does so? Some Catholics argue the Eucharist should be withheld from pro-abortion rights Catholic lawmakers, but it almost never happens.
United Methodism is an historically liberal denomination with a long list of official political stances, including opposition to enforcement of all restrictive U.S. immigration law. But a few of its stances are conservative. It opposes same sex marriage in civil law and abortion in many cases, such as partial birth. Likely few if any of the complainants against Sessions would file charges against liberal office holders on these issues.
Like many denominations, United Methodism often makes general political appeals to office holders but makes no demands on dissenting church members. Historical examples of churches specifically punishing magistrates are notable but few. St. Ambrose withheld mass from Emperor Theodosius over the Massacre of Thessalonica in the fourth century. Pope Alexander excommunicated the knights who murdered Thomas à Becket in 1170, and King Henry II performed public penance.
In modern times Catholicism has opposed but rarely if ever disciplined repressive dictators or their agents who are church members. The same is even more true for Protestant churches. But how many churches effectively discipline church members even over personal immorality?
Church reluctance to punish church members over acts of state typically isn’t so much about “superior orders” as fear of disruptive controversy, lack of will and internal cohesion, plus a sometimes genuine pastoral concern to keep the errant within the fold of ministry. Would Hillary Clinton have renounced partial birth abortion if her lifelong United Methodism had brought her to church trial?
On abortion, should churches defer to “superior orders” of liberal Western countries with permissive abortion laws? Or should churches ecclessially discipline members collaborating with those laws?
Church trials and excommunication of wayward Christian politicians likely would be mostly ineffective, even if plausible. But churches shouldn’t be silent when their members are politically complicit in what the church deems public evils.
The Church Universal in all its traditions is called to articulate an alternative Kingdom of justice and righteousness always at odds with the earthly status quo. It must admonish all its members to recall their calling to this transcendent Kingdom.
And when the Church does so, it should abjure contemporary partisan assumptions, avoid dogmatism on issues for which the church has no fixed dogma, and strive to speak authoritatively in compelling situations on select public policy topics about which Christian teaching is clear.
Then the Church, if faithful and judicious, maybe heeded and respected, as by Theodosius and King Henry II.
(My postcript: I first met Jeff Sessions when he was a delegate to the 1996 United Methodist General Conference. We have stayed in touch across years because of mutual concerns about our denomination. He’s a sincere Methodist who unlike some other politicians doesn’t loudly sound his own trumpet about God. Criticized by both Religious Left and Right, he has a particular view of the public good deeply shaped by his lifelong Methodism. Ideally his comments about Roman’s 13 would facilitate serious conversation about the state’s primary duty for security as opposed to the contemporary focus on government as cornucopia for goods and services.)