Commentary: Why excluding people makes bad church law

UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey

Protesters led away by police at the 2000 United Methodist General Conference in Cleveland, OH
UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey

by Dr. Thomas Edward Frank*

The 2016 General Conference faces a daunting task of acting on hundreds of legislative reports and petitions in only ten days. But no task at hand is more important than correcting 44 years of unconstitutional and exclusionary church law on human sexuality.

The Wesleyan tradition has always been much more successful at welcoming people than excluding them. Our native openness – an open communion table and open hearts responding to the abundance of God’s grace – derives at least in part from John Wesley’s basic admonitions in the General Rules of 1743: to do no harm and to do good in all things. Efforts to exclude a certain undefined class of persons termed “homosexuals” from the fullness of church life and ministry have inflicted incalculable harm on our church, our polity, our church law, and above all, on professing members and constituents of our own congregations.

The acts of exclusion began in 1972. It all started with oddly vague language added to the newly proposed Social Principles, carefully crafted by a General Conference commission but now subjected to an amendment from the floor. The new sentence stated that the church does not “condone” something called “the practice of homosexuality” and considers it “incompatible with Christian teaching” (¶161.F). The church did not “condemn” this, did not name it a “sin,” and did not connect it in any way with our doctrinal standards, but only asserted that this undefined “practice” was somehow “incompatible” with an unspecified “teaching.” The sentence was adopted after a brief floor debate, without any informed study or consideration that would solicit voices and views from across the church.

From that time forward, church laws on this subject have continued to produce neologisms and contortions that have no place in our Book of Discipline. Search just the term “homosexuality” in the Judicial Council decisions posted on umc.org and you will turn up 51 decisions. Obviously the church is not of one mind on this question or even how to address it.

  • The exclusion of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” was added in 1984 to the ordination paragraph addressing “frailties of the human condition” in ordained ministers (¶304.3). The language came as a minority report from a legislative committee and passed by a margin of only 525-442. This sentence was adopted as a sheer assertion, without any rationale or basis in our constitution or doctrinal standards. Its only implicit reference is to the Social Principles, which explicitly are not church law (p. 103). Bishops, boards of ordained ministry, and the Judicial Council have wasted untold hours trying to interpret these indecipherable terms. In particular, General Conference has never adopted any definition of “practicing.” An especially activist Judicial Council tried to assert the language of “genital sexual activity” as a definition in a 2001 opinion which the Council had no authority to issue (920) (the Judicial Council is not a legislative body and cannot write Disciplinary language). Subsequently such language has crept into guidebooks for superintendents and BOMs, but General Conference has had the good sense and modesty not to put such a voyeuristic and pornographic phrase in the book. The term is useless in any proceeding, since no one knows what it is and no one is authorized even to try to define it (common BOM procedures notwithstanding). A “wink-wink we all know what this is” gesture may get a church body through this conundrum in the heat of the moment, but just ask what a “practicing heterosexual” is if you want to hear some profound silence.
  • The exclusion of funding for “any gay caucus or group” (where did the word “gay” pop in from?) or “to promote the acceptance of homosexuality” was added in 1992 (806.9). What does “acceptance” mean here, and who “promotes” it? Does this eliminate support of a group that, for example, helps gay and lesbian youth reconcile with their parents, or cope with feelings of suicide stirred by rejection at home or church? Is a group working to overturn civil laws that discriminate against gays and lesbians “promot[ing] acceptance?” Do same-sex partner benefits for church agency employees fall under this funding ban or under “rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation?” (162.J) Judicial Council has ruled for the latter (1264), but the ambiguity of such a church law serves only to create a climate of fear and suspicion.
  • The exclusion of “homosexual unions” from UM churches and pastoral practice was added to the “Unauthorized Conduct” paragraph under pastoral responsibilities and duties (¶341.6) in 2000, following its original placement in the Social Principles in 1996. But the church has never defined what constitutes such a “union” or what exactly a pastor is not allowed to do. This again has led to bishops and conference bodies inventing a menu of actions allowed (prayer of blessing?) and disallowed (declaration of union?), without any authorization from General Conference. And performing such a “union” is virtually the only specifically pastoral act that is excluded for UM pastors.
  • The exclusion through chargeable offenses and church trials of any clergy who are “self-avowed practicing homosexual[s]” or who “celebrate homosexual unions” or perform “same-sex wedding ceremonies” was added in 2004. These offenses are listed between “immorality” and “crime” (2702.1). This sentence lists both “homosexual unions” and “same-sex wedding ceremonies” and thus appears to differentiate between them. But the latter are not mentioned anywhere else in the Discipline. How can a pastor be subjected to a church trial for a pastoral act that is not excluded by any paragraph of church law? Such “unions” and “weddings” are the only specifically pastoral acts that have been designated as “chargeable offenses,” and that came by a margin of only ten votes in General Conference. Should the church add a chargeable offense that so obviously creates division in the body?

Notably, none of the above problematic sentences was proposed by any commission, agency, or other body authorized by General Conference itself. They came to be considered either as amendments from the floor or as petitions from individuals or churches. They were then put to votes that left a substantial minority of the church without a voice and without any safe venue for continuing conversation about obviously divisive laws.

Because these sentences and terms were never vetted through careful study by the laity and clergy who serve over a period of time on a General Conference commission or agency, they have created mayhem in church law. The addition of the chargeable offense has fostered a prosecutorial atmosphere in the church, turning what should be conversations among people of varied outlooks into adversarial proceedings. Bishops and conferences have regularly turned for advice to attorneys, who often have had difficulty making a critical distinction between the covenants of church law in a voluntary association and the police powers and civil procedure of the state under public laws and ordinances. Bishops have been advised that they must proceed to appointing a counsel for the church based on these charges (even a good county prosecutor has much more flexibility than this in the civil courts); trial courts have been advised that the broader charge of “disobedience to the order and discipline of the church” can be applied to any single pastoral act rather than taking into consideration a lifetime of ministry; and worst of all, a cloak of fear and silence falls over any attempt at open conversation in the churches.

Using church law to exclude rather than welcome persons into the church and its ministries has profound consequences. One of the most significant is the constraint on pastoral ministry. Some bishops have announced to the clergy whom they appoint that church law is a settled matter and there will be no further discussion. From fear of such authority many pastors and boards of ordained ministry have stood by silently as their work was constricted by church law. Our polity is organized to enable sound pastoral judgment to flourish, whether in pastoral acts of preparing couples for Christian marriage or in collegial acts of assessing the fitness of persons for ordained ministry. Under the civil law of the United States, pastors now have active church members of the same sex obtaining a civil marriage license and seeking to ground their marriage in the blessings of God through the church. Should our pastors not be free to be pastors? Countless gay and lesbian candidates for ordained ministry, demonstrating the gifts of intelligent and faithful leadership the church so badly needs, have been discouraged from applying or turned away even by boards of ordained ministry who have known these candidates since they were children growing up in the church. Should not the board of ordained ministry of an annual conference be empowered to do their work of examination and discernment of gifts for ministry?

A second consequence is that exclusionary laws codify the church’s duplicity. With one face the church purports to welcome all with “open hearts.” When the other face turns, however, the church is prepared to exclude persons from the fullness of Christian life and vocation. Which is the real church? Which can be trusted? Is it the church that sings lovingly around the happy campfire? Or the church that uses that same church camp facility as the site of a church trial to expel a pastor from ministry?

This duplicity in church law and practice leads directly to a broader conclusion: the exclusionary laws of the church are profoundly unconstitutional. The constitution of the church is one of our most precious documents. It announces who we are as a church and as an organization. It conveys our very character and the foundation of our practices. The church cannot grandly announce in its constitution that “all persons are of sacred worth . . . [and] shall be eligible” to become professing members (¶4), and then turn around in its legislative paragraphs and attempt to exclude a certain undefined class of persons from full participation.

The time is long past to put a stop to these travesties of church law. We have lived with these contortions for nearly half a century. We must begin by deleting the sentences that have created so much division and heartache in our church community. This will return us to the Discipline that serves us best, in which constitutionally grounded offices and bodies are empowered to do their work, using their best judgment in Christian conference with those who share such responsibilities.

The UMC is at a crossroads in 2016. John Wesley warned of Methodism becoming a “dead sect,” which it will surely be in the next generation if it continues to define itself by exclusionary church law. Differences of perspective on human sexuality are an occasion for open and earnest conversation, not for issuing more laws. It’s time to return to the wisdom of our constitution and strive to be one church for “all persons.”

 

 

 

UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Dr. Thomas Frank
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

*Dr. Thomas Edward Frank is University Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Wake Forest University and the author of Polity, Practice, and the Mission of The United Methodist Church which is used as a standard textbook on United Methodist polity in United Methodist seminaries. Dr. Frank is the son of a United Methodist Bishop, and elder in the United Methodist Church, and a graduate of Harvard College and Emory University. 

 

 

The UMC’s Messy Language About Sexuality: A Rejoinder To Dr. Thomas Frank

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This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
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43 Comments on "Commentary: Why excluding people makes bad church law"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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Don Coffee
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I was a Methodist for 70 of my 76 years. . My professional life was in marketing, so I recognize an ad campaign for what it is. Years ago, when the UMC ‘took in’ the United Brethren, developed the two flame cross logo, and likely old men sat around a conference table and developed the “Open…..” campaign. Open doors, not always true. I’ve known gay men turned away, or asked to be silent. Open minds? Not so much……if bigotry still exists. Open hearts? Yes, please……but not all. The ad slogan is fine…..but has little value if it isn’t lived out,… Read more »
Carla Skidmore
Guest

Sadly, that beautiful slogan, “Open Doors, Open Minds, Open Hearts,” has not been displayed or lived in the UMC/s in my area. It is time to bring that slogan back and truly live by that slogan

Richard F Hicks
Guest

As long as the UMC Inc demands centralized command and control like N.Korea, etc. it will be forever burdened by striving to use its power. A live and let live, you go your way I’ll go mine attitude allows all to serve – locally. Having a centralized command and control system means that that monster must be fed greater and greater amounts of money. Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC

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[…] at ignoring the compelling commentary by Dr. Thomas E. Frank’s in UM Reporter entitled, “Why Excluding People Makes Bad Church Law.” A noted scholar and the son of a United Methodist bishop, Dr. Frank is no obscure voice in the UMC. […]

Carla Skidmore
Guest

Thank you, Dr. Frank! You brought a breath of fresh air and intelligence into the argument that has been plaguing the UMC for 44 years.
I hope that this, upcoming, General Conference will end with us having an inclusive UMC, not the exclusionary church that has had so many people leaving the UMC because they, or their loved ones are LBGTQ. We are all God’s people, not just they people who, at this point in time, whom the UMC see as worthy of being called God’s people.
Again, thank you, Dr. Frank!

Mike Thomas
Guest
Excellent analysis. I believe that if we are to put this issue to rest we will have to confront head-on the erroneous assertion that homosexuality is a “sin.” Otherwise, people will continue to feel justified in their support of discriminatory practices. Sexual orientation is a biological function and not a “choice.” I do not believe God would make people homosexual and then condemn them as deviants. The passage that seem to condemn homosexual behavior in the Bible have more to do with idolatry and the pagan practices of neighboring tribes during their fertility rituals that the Old Testament authors saw… Read more »
Andrew Brighton
Guest

If sexual orientation is a “choice,” what do you think of trans people choosing to switch the gender that they were born into?

Mike Thomas
Guest
The Old Testament did not forbid sex outside of marriage. That stricture came out of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. If it had, then Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, et.al. would have been big-time sinners because they had multiple wives and were always jumping in the sack with concubines and slaves. But God doesn’t seem to have been bothered by this too much, preoccupied as he was with punishing people for idolatry. And as I have noted before, homosexual sex was associated in the minds of the ancient Hebrews with the pagan idol worship of the hated Canaanites. So it wasn’t… Read more »
marber
Guest

We are a NEW Testament Church.

Kevin
Guest

What does that even mean?

John
Guest
On the contrary, we are a church of both Testaments. Articles of Religion VI: “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard who feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in… Read more »
Paulo
Guest
Well, of course the problem with using Paul’s letters to the Romans is again about context. He was writing about coercive, excessive, and predatory same-sex sexual activity practiced by them. Don’t you think, if it had been heterosexual in nature he would have said the same thing? Christian women no longer feel morally constrained to follow Paul’s instruction that their hair should not be cut. We do not insist they cover their heads in church. We even allow them to talk in church which was not permitted. Add to that the fact that the Bible is no longer used to… Read more »
Mike Thomas
Guest

Oh, right. Paul said it, so that settles it. Disengage brain and plow ahead irregardless of the number of people who get squashed along the way.
But Paul also said that women should remain silent in church. How do you tolerate all these women in the ministry in the Methodist Church?

Paulo
Guest

They are not silent in my UMC church. One of “them” even directs the music ministry. And she doesn’t cover her hair (which she gets cut, and styled!!)

Former UMCer
Guest

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were indeed sinners, in other respects besides their multiple wives. God clearly tolerated this because of His larger plan of the lineage of Christ. 2) how many times must the difference between ceremonial laws and moral laws need to be explained? Paul wasn’t just anybody. He was specifically chosen by Christ. 3) A sin is not a sin because it hurts another human being. It is a sin because it offends God.

Mike Thomas
Guest
The division of the laws into moral, civil and ceremonial categories is not “biblical” but rather an interpretation superimposed later on by various church leaders. Today it is misused by some people to ignore laws that are inconvenient for them while holding fast to the laws they can use to bully and pick on groups of people they don’t like. It is both sad, pathetic and very unChristian. And what a convenient definition of sin you have developed since you clearly know the mind of God better than other people. But I seriously doubt that God is offended by his… Read more »
Former UMCer
Guest

We were created with a sinful nature and He is offended by all sin. So yes, He is offended by His own creation who do not acknowledge their sin and seek forgiveness.

Mike Thomas
Guest

So God made us bad and then punishes us for being bad? And unless we apologize and grovel and jump through various dogmatic hoops we will all get sent to hell… What a sad, empty misunderstanding of scripture. The fact that you think you can summarize God’s plan for humanity without ever using the word “love” should clue you in that you are way off base.

Tim
Guest

God didn’t make people bad, Adam did. Adam brought sin into the world by disobeying God. If you didn’t know this, you need to start from the beginning and read the Bible.

John
Guest
Our inheritance of a sin nature from the time of the Fall is not God’s creation, but is a corruption of God’s good creative work. And as the fullest expression of God’s love Christ took on human flesh, suffered, and died so that all who would believe should have everlasting life. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:18) The “grand depositum” of Methodism, entire sanctification (or Christian perfection) concerns the cleansing of the human heart of… Read more »
Former UMCer
Guest

Oh I thought you already understood that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. That’s His Love. His love is not to let you languish in your sin, happily and comfortably but to save you fro it.

I truly pray for you and everyone like you who have listened to false teachers and more so because you go on to spread the fase teaching. Your pride is huge. May God have mercy on you.

Mike Thomas
Guest

Conservatives seem to disregard or reject the fact that God actually does love the world and they are so obsessed with judging and condemning others for their “sins” that they forget or ignore everything that Christ taught about love, grace and forgiveness.

Paulo
Guest
And He did not send His Son to judge. What makes you comfortable doing so Former UMCer? It’s time the US Methodists moved on. UK Methodists decided to bless same sex relationships back in 2005. 11 years later and here we are in the US still arguing about whether it is actually a sin at all, proclaiming we have Open Minds, Open Hearts and Open Doors, but the reality is some of us don’t have open minds, God knows our hearts, and our doors are actually not quite open, in fact they are shut in the face of some. It’s… Read more »
Former UMCer
Guest
You think it’s time the United Methodists moved on from the Word of God and followed the UK UMC and the world instead ? I do not judge in the sense of condemning, but I do observe and make an assessment. I recognize pride because I know it in myself. The inability to submit to God. Mike Thomas does not believe we should have to jump through hoops and apologize and grovel to avoid going to hell – ostensibly because he thinks the hoops are not from God. But I challenge him that he has instead been jumping through hoops… Read more »
Mike Thomas
Guest

The “Word of God” is to love your neighbors – including your enemies – and forgive those who persecute you. Instead, you are judging, condemning and persecuting a group of people based on misinterpretation of the scriptures and false teaching.

Former UMCer
Guest

No I am not judging or condemning or persecuting anyone. You feel those things because you do not want to hear that the sin you cherish is a sin. I don’t minimize how enormously hard it is for any of us to get to that point. Has there been in the past – is there still – persecution and shunning toward homosexuals? Absolutely. But loving them does not mean telling them that their sin is beautiful in God’s eyes.

jimmie shelby
Guest

“Love” is what Father/Son/Holy Spirit accomplished on the Cross. Offering us a way to be reconciled with Father/Son/Holy/Spirit.

MerrillBender
Guest
Dr. Frank has it all wrong and Chris Ritter’s article has it right. Most Methodists have been loving and we have reaffirmed our belief on Marriage and on Clergy qualifications over and over for 40 years. The LGBT community has been mean spirited and hateful trying to brow beat those who disagree with their modern re-interpretation of Bible morality and sin. They confuse the “free love” approach of the 1960’s with the holy love of the scriptures which includes truth, righteousness and obedience to God’s way of holy living not the world’s latest interpretation. God’s love is unconditional- an unconditional… Read more »
Steven H. Zinser
Guest

Excluding people from certain organizations or activities is as old as humanity and sometimes it makes sense. Sometimes it doesn’t. The argument that the church cannot exclude because churches simply aren’t supposed to exclude is all fluff. They have since the New Testament, they will continue to do so, and it will be based on what passes muster for the group in question.

Mark Mcroberts
Guest

If the offending sections. Especially saying gay folks are inconsistant with bibical teaching is not removed this gay man will celebrate my 50th anniversary of baptism and confirmation this year by burning the bible i was given and i will leave the church forever. Plus i will add to my nightly prayers tha God will find fit to destroy all of the denomination known as the united methodist. What all the meth bureaucrats dont understand you are hurting the gays folk but you are hurting your relationships with our families. I AM DONE.

Carla Skidmore
Guest
Mark, I do not blame you for leaving the UMC, my husband and I now attend a UCC Church which is “Open and Affirming.” We have had a lesbian, and a transgender male as our summer interns on two different summers and they were loved and respected, and are now serving churches, one in the south and one in eastern MA. Remember, Mark, the disrespecting those who are LBGTQ is relatively new to the UMC, and can change any time the PTB decided to change the Discipline. The present UMC seem to lean more on the Discipline, than any other… Read more »
Paul W.
Guest
I’m sorry you feel this way; maybe it is time for you to leave (or at least to step away). I do not know your heart but I perceive no grace in your statement. What God wants and how God defines holiness and righteousness is all that matters, not what any of us wants. The church should never change to conform to our own deceitful desires. At some point, everyone makes their own decision as to whether they will love God more than they love sin. Sadly, many choose to remain in bondage to sin, whether through the deceitfulness of… Read more »
Larry Hollon
Guest

Excellent.

Paul W.
Guest
Complete and total sophistry. What exactly is the point of this incredibly biased propaganda? No one who is not already in the author’s camp will be swayed by or give any credence to this creative and mean-spirited revisionist reinterpretation of the history and context of the issue. If the author truly believes even half of his hateful rhetoric which mocks and completely demonizes those he disagrees with who have done nothing more than try to remain faithful to the Scriptures and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in their refusal to condone sin while providing grace for those struggling… Read more »
Carla Skidmore
Guest

No, the social issues of which you speak are addressed by the Discipline of the UMC, a book that might just change at the end of this coming General Conference.
Jesus said nothing regarding abortion, sex prior to marriage or homosexuality. The Hebrew Scriptures, if interpreted properly, addressed the issue of Hospitality, not Homosexuality.
If you insist that being LBGTQ is a sin, you are standing upon sand, not a rock.

Paulo
Guest
You’ll never understand “how current social issues should trump the Bible or UMC doctrine”??? Reflect on that statement and the changes over the millennia… There are so many examples of things that were prohibited according to the writing in the OT and NT which were prohibited in churches and society at the time, yet they have changed, because of changes in society. What could possibly cause the appointment of women to positions of leadership and authority within the church years ago other than “Social Change”? A dose of reality needed Local Pastor! I am so pleased that the dictate of… Read more »
Paulo
Guest
So terribly sad and a very poor reflection on the UMC that members would turn real human issues into political jibes and jokes. How on Earth have we come to this? That we would mock those who are different to us. I have absolutely no desire to wear a woman’s clothing, but can I possibly know what it is like to be transgender? Would Jesus himself, here as man today, ignore the psychology (and even biology of those who were born with multiple sex organs). I really do wonder how we square our thought processes with our “Open Minds” claim.
Sherrie Lynn Robertson
Guest
Sherrie Lynn Robertson

To be honest I don’t understand the fuss about who goes to the bathroom where. AFAIK plumbing fixtures do not have genders. Perhaps that’s indicative of the disinformation on the subject.

Ann L Locasio
Guest

It’s not about bathrooms, Sherrie Lynn, just as in the past, it wasn’t about drinking fountains either.

marber
Guest

Plumbing fixtures may not have gender but human plumbing certainly does.

Paul W.
Guest
The pro-LGBT RMN activists seem to have discovered this site over the last few days, most likely in response to David Watson’s commentary that was posted a couple of days back. (David Watson seems to be a frequent target of the RMN crowd of late due to the respect and influence he has within the UMC.) The comments posted really do show quite clearly just how divided we are. We are serving different Gods. We are following different Christs. We are proclaiming very different Gospels. What do we have in common other than the UMC label? The great schizophrenic UMC… Read more »
Paulo
Guest
The debate should first be about God’s children. My parents and school friends did not teach me to be gay. When I grew up AIDS was being advertised as a death causing illness and the person I found myself to be was very clearly stigmatised. I was a member of a Sunday Social Group in the Methodist Church, and we went away on social events. The minister’s daughter was a beautiful young lady who apparently had a desire to know me much better than I cared for. I was more interested in another young lad my age, though he would… Read more »
Sherrie Lynn Robertson
Guest
Sherrie Lynn Robertson

Easily. “Sodomy” is a term which is defined in so many different ways that it is meaningless. The confusion is in insisting what people do in bed is other people’s business. There is no “righteousness” in the hatred toward LGBTQIAs except self-righteousness.

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