A Book of Discipline or Punishment?

The General Conference of The United Methodist Church will be meeting next week in Portland, Oregon. Many important issues will be discussed and decided, of course, but what is really on the line this month is the relevance and future of the United Methodist Church.

There is a lot of legislation that will go before the elected delegates—more than one thousand pieces of legislation, if you can believe it—but what most of the UMC will be watching for is legislation that addresses LGBTQ inclusion or exclusion.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a variety of posts, several of them from UMC bishops. Many of them extol the virtues of the Book of Discipline as a book that unites us. They say that it provides guidance and order for how we should work together in a connectional covenant.

I agree that it gives the church a structure for how we relate to each other while outlining some of our fundamental beliefs. But the articles I’ve been reading take the Book of Discipline into a whole other realm. They have exalted the Book of Discipline as some kind of sacred text that is to be followed as if it is the infallible word of God. If that kind of idolatry continues, I imagine future generations of United Methodist clergy will place their hands on the Book of Discipline instead of the Bible as they are ordained.

Let’s get real.

The Book of Discipline has become peppered with judgmental language, outdated mores, and oppressive rules. Instead of guiding us as a community, it is tearing us apart. Those passages need to be removed if the Book of Discipline is to serve as a strong and effective resource for today’s church—one that actually helps us do God’s work together.

Some people have criticized those of us who believe that obedience to God’s call to love all God’s children is to be prized over the oppressive, judgmental language of the present Book of Discipline. They have said that our actions are not civil disobedience but rather ecclesial disobedience.

Maybe they’re right.

After all, we’re not standing up to the US government to demand that they recognize the worth of every person. The United States, through its political and judicial system, continues its struggle to guarantee the rights of every person according to its own book of laws, and while the government may not succeed at fulfilling those rights one hundred percent of the time, the law nevertheless guides it forward to inclusion. It was the Constitution, for example, that led the Supreme Court to declare that same-sex marriage is now the law of the land.

Those who practice “ecclesial disobedience” do so because the purpose of the Book of Discipline has been hijacked from being a tool to guide us, to a weapon to punish those who disagree with its statements.

On page v of the 2012 Book of Discipline the Episcopal Greetings states, “We do not see the Discipline as sacrosanct or infallible, but we do consider it a document suitable to our heritage. It is the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together.”

Those of us who struggle with the Book of Discipline’s oppressive language are standing up against an all too fallible publication, a product of four years of political posturing that begins the day after General Conference ends and continues until the next one begins. Its purpose has gone from serving as a statement of how to live and work together to that of a book that clearly identifies who is not welcome. Until the language and tone of the Book of Discipline change, “ecclesial disobedience” will be the norm. More and more pastors and bishops will continue their ministry to all people, ignoring the policies that attempt to restrict God’s message of love.

I am shocked by how much of this year’s legislation deals with “violators” of the Book of Discipline and dictating the punishments that should be imposed. What the writers of such legislation don’t realize is that keeping the present oppressive language in the Book of Discipline will not make the United Methodist Church stronger or more unified. Instead, such language will only continue to cause hurt and divide the church. The church trials are an embarrassment to many of us and make the UMC look like it is living in the days of the Salem witch trials.

Those who, out of obedience to God’s call, take a stand against the Book of Discipline should not be punished as “violators” but listened to with love, dignity, and compassion as fellow members of the body of Christ.

There are some who ask, “Why don’t you leave the UMC?”

We don’t leave because we believe that the inclusive love of Christ will prevail some day in the UMC. Those of us who have not been forcibly extricated from the UMC by enforcers of the oppressive Book of Discipline will continue to live/love into that new day.

General Conference delegates, give us a Book of Discipline of which we can be proud. General Conference is the only official voice of the denomination. Will it speak in loving tones of welcome and inclusion, or in divisive shouts of exclusion and hate?

We are watching. The world is watching.