Against Separation, Part 1

When I was ordained, Bishop Oliphint asked me and the other candidates a series of questions inherited from John Wesley. Methodists of various sorts have been asking and answering these questions for a couple centuries now. There’s nothing new here.

  1. Have you faith in Christ? Not, “Is the economy bad and you need a cushy, guaranteed job.” There may be (for a while) something called a “guaranteed appointment,” but if you’re not driven by the work of God in Christ, go somewhere else.
  2. Are you going on to perfection? We stray from this in two ways. First, we laugh it off. Perfection? Ha! There is no such thing. God made us finite. We’re fallible by nature. Wesley’s idea is quaint, but since I want in the club, I’ll say yes. Second, we accept the possibility of perfection but provide the content ourselves. We live up to our own standards, not God’s standards. It like the speaker I heard in one of our chapel events last year: “You can’t expect reason to win the battle against raging hormones.” We define perfection down so that it fits “our” reality.
  3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Here we fine tune the second question, adding a qualitative dimension (“perfect in love“) and a temporal dimension (“in this life”). Love is such a great thing. We reduce everything to love, then define love as we like. Jesus didn’t just say, “Love one another.” He added the line, “as I have loved you.” That short line brings in the narrative of who Jesus is and what he’s done for us. Love isn’t just warm feelings of regard, mushiness, raging hormones, sexual attraction, or commitment (for as long as we can humanly manage). Love is defined by Jesus. When we add in the Jesus component, the “in this life” dimension starts looking a little dicey and we feel the temptation to scale back the requirements, to define perfection down. Ah, but there’s a third dimension here. Notice the passive voice: “be made perfect.” Perfection is a work of grace, a work of the Spirit. We’re not just passive recipients who do nothing; we are recipients of a grace we cannot earn, merit, or achieve, however.
  4. Are you earnestly striving after it? Striving after perfection is hard work when our lives are already so full. Busyness may be the biggest impediment once we’ve gotten the Jesus-vision of perfection.
  5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work? Framed this way, it’s a 24/7/365 job, people.
  6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church? We know them in outline, though I think we’ve lost the function of the rules in early Methodism and shorn them of the contextualization Wesley’s (now largely outdated) examples gave them.
  7. Will you keep them? They’re easier kept when abstracted.
  8. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church? Sure: we have to do make it far enough to be faced with these questions. Well, at least we have to take a class in seminary that stylizes itself as United Methodist Doctrine. But then sometimes we lapse into “we’re not a creedal or confessional church” and treat them only as quaint and dated landmarks from the past.
  9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? Full examination is difficult, again given our busyness. Here we get the added dimension of putting them up against the scriptures. Notice that the question asks about harmony. “Absolute and total agreement” would leave less room for weaseling here.
  10. Will you preach and maintain them? Well of course we will – at least until they conflict with our conscience or beliefs.
  11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? Again, we have to take a course in polity and discipline. Our polity and discipline are very conservative. In the 20th century we grew into a large, bureaucratic institutional church. Adding that on top of the authoritarianism we inherited from Wesley and we have what we call “connectionalism,” The worst sin against the church so conceived is what we call “congregationalism.” In the United Methodist Churches congregations exist, but they don’t just go off and do their own thing.
  12. Do you approve our Church government and polity? How would things go if we answered other than yes? What if we’re allowed to mention our reservations: Apportionments? Infant baptism? Episcopal authority? Identification of the practice of homosexuality as incompatible with Christian practice?
  13. Will you support and maintain them? This follows closely on the heels of the previous question. The spirit of the question includes an implied temporal dimension: “As long as you are part of the connection.” What’s not implied is a list of caveats: Until I become pastor a large church/become bishop/get famous and can reject them, ignore them, or change them with impunity.

There are more questions, but these are the ones that form my response to the separation implicit in the actions of those who inhabit the power structures of the church and increasingly explicit in the words of those who deplore the usurpation of General Conference authority.

A word that occurs nowhere in these questions yet is implicit in all of them is submission. As a good modern and a good American I hate the word – and the idea it stands for. I am an autonomous individual. I am well-educated. I have years of experience at my job and have done well at it. I have a well-formed conscience. It grates on me to have to believe or do what someone else tells me to do – to submit. Yet when I stood before the bishop, the annual conference – and even God(!), that is exactly what I said I would do. No one forced me to do it. I could have said, “This denomination, like every other I’ve investigated, fails to live up to my standards in some way, so I’ll go start my own.” I didn’t. I took the profoundly counter-cultural step of submission.

At least that’s how I took it. It wasn’t just the step of expediency: “I’ve put in all these years of schooling, taken on loads of debt (though I’m not yet embarrassed), and have worked my way through the system. It’s too late now to find another job (especially in this economy.” I submitted. I’ve continued to submit. I’ve even preached submission. I still don’t like it all the time (even doing something I like becomes less palatable when it’s framed as an act of submission), but I do it any way.

So – Bishops who have decided you know better than the polity and discipline of the United Methodist Church: Have you advanced to the place that you no longer need to submit? Is submission only for us lowly peons at the bottom of the System?

So – Pastors of large churches with big crowds and big bucks: Have you advanced to the place where you no longer need to submit? Are you bailing on us?

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