By Byron Bufkin
Recently I received a phone call from a former congregant (and dear friend) who was deeply upset after meeting with her district superintendent. During the meeting she had asked how the conference was preparing for the change that was coming to the denomination in light of next year’s General Conference. The DS’s response was to say, “What will actually change for your church?”
Among many people – laity and clergy alike – I have heard this line of thought as a challenge to traditionalist churches considering the path of separation from the UMC. My friend, however, was caught unaware. She had no ready answer and left the meeting feeling angry and depressed that she had not “been ready in season and out.”
At its root, however, I believe this is a very prevalent, very clever question that should be given proper discussion. The DS was absolutely correct in his assertion that on a day-to-day level, there will probably not be any noticeable difference for traditionalist congregations that stay in the United Methodist Church. At least for the short term.
In truth, however, the answer to this question is at the heart of the current dilemma facing our local churches. But I do not believe this is a fair question without the proper context.
My counter-question is this: do the polity, doctrine, and theology of the United Methodist Church mean anything? Beyond ecclesial disobedience at the jurisdictional and national level, does our Book of Discipline have any practical merit on the work of the pastor? I would make the claim that the Book of Discipline is very clear on the subject of sin, rooted in the Wesleyan tradition that Scripture contains everything needed to lead a Christian life. This statement is double-edged, because the Bible – the only reliable, accepted testimony of our faith – addresses the attributes of righteousness and discipline as well as the challenges of temptation and sin. Within this qualification, Paul explains in 1 Timothy 1:8-11 that homosexuality (the presenting concern of this deeper issue) is as much a sin as murder, slave trading, lying, and perjury. And a substantial component of his solution is having sound doctrine.
By extension, therefore, and since the Bishop is the one who appoints pastors to charges, does a pastor’s doctrine of sin have a practical, day-to-day affect on what they preach, teach, and uphold? Certainly churches may be spared having an openly LGBTQIA+ minister or be forced to host same-sex marriages if they so choose, but these matters are not the full weight of the issue. Pastors are charged with the spiritual direction and nurturing of their respective flocks. How they understand and discuss sin is not only critical to the execution of this position, but it is foundational to our identity in Christ. That’s why John reiterates Christ’s promise of salvation, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).
The obvious truth is that our polity is pointless if it can be worked around or changed in order to fit popular opinion – if it is not rooted in sound doctrine. Twenty years ago, most traditionalist churches never dreamed that we would be in the situation currently facing us. What other issue currently considered “out of bounds” could not be accepted twenty years from now under the precedents currently being forged? Of course, there’s no guarantee of what will be done and I clearly can’t speak for those who hold an opposing or contradictory viewpoint. But Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). We cannot afford to simply put our heads in the sand and hope things work out in our favor. Paul further exhorts us not to be “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people” (Ephesians 4:14). That certainly includes any premature conclusions about how the “new” UMC will act, but also regarding the life of the community of believers. The importance of sound doctrine is especially essential for the leaders who will have authority and responsibility for our spiritual growth, both individually and as a church.
So what are we going to do about it? Paul asked in Romans 6 (1 and 15), “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? … Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” More to the point, shall we decide what God considers sinful? The answer to all these questions is clear and decisive: by no means! Our experience should be considered as we understand scripture in order to live out our faith, but we must also be informed by reason and the doctrine that is the foundation of our tradition. Then we can readily be encouraged by the author of Hebrews: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1).
Byron Bufkin: Has served as a pastor since 2008 (Supply Pastor to start, Local Licensed Pastor in 2009, Provisional in 2012 and Ordained in 2015) and was part of the founding of the East Ohio WCA, where he has been the secretary. He takes very seriously my oath to fulfill and defend the Church as the body of Christ
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