Principled Disobedience Requires a New Form of Unity

Principled disobedience by bishops and conferences is the most significant threat to the current form of unity found in The United Methodist Church. For the first time since 1844, bishops and conferences are deliberately disobeying the will of the General Conference. This requires a new form of unity.

All parts of the UMC need to understand that the actions of these persons are principled—they are done out of personal conviction about the gospel. These bishops, jurisdictional conference delegates, and members of annual conference clergy sessions believe that some of the doctrines and discipline of our church are wrong and that obedience to Christ requires disobedience to the Church. Because we are all brothers and sisters in the Lord and because they are acting out of principle, others should respect the crisis of conscience they face.

The deep problem posed by such behavior, however, is that bishops are the executive authority for our denomination’s mission. Our polity has legislative, judicial and executive branches. The General Conference and the Judicial Council have no enforcement mechanisms other than bishops. In personnel matters, bishops are required to follow the decisions of annual conference boards of ordained ministry and clergy sessions. Our missional effectiveness is threatened when each bishop does what is right in her or his own eyes.

When bishops choose, for whatever reasons and however highly principled, to disobey the order and discipline of the church, we are in schism. That is our situation today. Some bishops face difficult dilemmas because their clergy sessions are voting to violate the discipline. They are forced to choose between competing parts of the Discipline. Yet, obedience to Christ as discerned by the whole church is their first and highest obligation.

The Book of Discipline says that bishops are to “uphold the discipline and order of the church” (¶403). The consecration of bishops requires them to “exercise the discipline of the whole church.” All elders are asked in their ordination liturgy to “be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline.” For these reasons, disobedience to the order and discipline of the church is a chargeable offense (¶2702.1). It normally results in repentance or surrender of credentials.

The problem we face today is that systems of accountability are so weak that the general church has no practical way to respond appropriately to principled disobedience when colleges of bishops and entire annual conferences choose that route.

The task of the special session of General Conference in 2019 is to develop a new form of unity that will give freedom for progressive bishops and conferences who cannot in good conscience fulfill their ordination and consecration vows. The whole church needs to free those people for service to Christ in accordance with their consciences. There are different types of unity in the body of Christ, and we need to craft a new way to serve God together in a Wesleyan movement that respects different practices on these issues.

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