News and Views

UMs ask: What is doctrine, what is law and what is right?

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By Thomas Starnes

Editor’s Note: When the Judicial Council meets Oct. 24-27, it will be considering petitions brought by the Denmark and California-Pacific annual conferences that argue that the language in the Discipline that deems “homosexual practice” to be “incompatible” with “Christian teaching” violates the denomination’s constitution.

Treating Christian teaching as synonymous with Christian doctrine, those annual conferences reason that General Conference legislation that purports to make new proclamations of Christian teaching violates our Constitution’s “First Restrictive Rule” (found in paragraph 17 of the Discipline), which states that the “General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.”

One of the briefs filed with the Judicial Council on this issue was authored by Tom Starnes, who is the son, brother, nephew and cousin of United Methodist pastors, and now also the uncle of an aspiring pastor, scheduled to graduate from Wesley Theological Seminary next spring.

Starnes was careful to inform the Judicial Council that the views presented in his amicus brief were not being offered in his capacity as Chancellor of the Baltimore-Washington Conference (a position Tom has held since 2004), but rather “as a life-long United Methodist who, besides having . . . a working knowledge of (and deep appreciation for) Methodist polity, finally became exhausted by our church’s seemingly interminable debate” over human sexuality issues.

“Our Constitution, properly understood, actually deprives the General Conference of jurisdiction to define church doctrine,” Starnes says in his brief, which provides a history lesson in how the church, and who in the church, decides what United Methodists believe. The brief can be read in its entirety below.

In the piece that follows, Starnes explains how he came to address this issue, and how he thinks the viewpoint advanced in his brief might assist the church in remaining united, notwithstanding its diverging views on human sexuality issues.


Additional information

Amicus Briefs:

Earlier this year, two of the largest United Methodist congregations in the United States announced that they were terminating their affiliation with The United Methodist Church. Citing the “heartbreaking” divide over human sexuality issues, those congregations announced that they had “no desire to continue to engage in these divisive debates, or to be forced to face the crossfire between multiple front lines,” and so they were choosing “to withdraw” and to focus “instead on our mission of connecting people to Christ and to one another.”

I know the feeling. I was confirmed as a member of The United Methodist Church in 1970. Two years later – still barely a teenager – a majority of the church’s General Conference voted to declare that “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” And so it began: for the ensuing 45 years – which is to say, for the entirety of my adult life – our church has been embroiled in a sustained tug-of-war over sexual orientation.

The unremitting controversy has taken its toll. Even lifelong Methodists are increasingly wondering aloud if it is “time to face reality” and part ways. Remaining together demands too much, they argue, requiring either (A) that one “side” or the other capitulate on its principles; or (B) that we continue to tolerate barely concealed defiance of the Discipline, along with the damage that inevitably attends any church trial proceedings initiated in response.

Presented with such miserable options, many think the more principled solution is an amicable divorce, akin to the rupture over slavery in 1844.

I understand this reasoning. I, too, am exhausted by the debate. But I don’t want us to separate. It is profoundly important to me that we are a denomination whose members openly acknowledge their differences, even on vital issues, but who nevertheless choose to heed their founder’s admonition that they remain “united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that [we] may help each other to work out [our] salvation.” (Discipline, ¶ 104.)

By the same token, I question whether the answer lies in simply down-streaming to annual conferences the debates that have taken center-stage at General Conference for nearly a half century. Annual conferences – even single congregations – are themselves profoundly divided on human sexuality issues, so giving each conference flexibility to adopt its own rules governing ordination and marriage runs the risk of fragmenting the debate, without resolving much, and perhaps even intensifying the “crossfire between multiple front lines” that is driving some congregations away.

While lamenting this dilemma, it recently occurred to me to ask: How in heaven’s name did we Methodists ever come to accept the notion that something as sacred as “Christian teaching” (of all things) is reliably and authoritatively revealed by a mere show of hands of a bare majority of General Conference delegates gathered together at any given time?

Previously, I had simply accepted that “resolving” doctrinal disputes was among the General Conference’s authorized functions, but that proposition suddenly struck me as unlikely. Ask yourself: Does it seem even remotely plausible that John Wesley (of all people) intended to bestow upon any body of men and women the right to “vote” on religious truth – to decide church doctrine by ballot?

Against that backdrop, I studied a wealth of historical and scholarly material and am now convinced that the conventional wisdom – that the General Conference has authority to define church doctrine – is simply wrong. In truth, the record leaves little doubt that our founders deliberately placed Methodist doctrine “beyond the reach” of the General Conference in 1808, when it first became subject to the Constitution, which included the First Restrictive Rule. The precise purpose of this rule was to ensure that our then “present existing and established standards of doctrine” – as bequeathed to us by John Wesley himself – would “be preserved sacred and inviolable.”

The historical support for this perspective is abundant, but Professor Thomas Oden expressed things succinctly: “Once decided, as it was in 1808, the matter of doctrinal standards needed no further mention or definition because this matter [had been] decided as absolutely and irrevocably as any constitution-making body could possibly act.”

Why is this important? It is important because it illuminates a path forward that promises to allow us to remain united, but with fidelity to core Wesleyan principles and without requiring any of us to renounce or submerge our sincerely held doctrinal beliefs.

If we can recover the bedrock principle that we are not empowered to impose our doctrinal perspectives on one another by legislative fiat, then we are freed to rededicate ourselves to the fundamentally Methodist perspective that our inevitably imperfect doctrinal understandings are to be grounded in the first instance on the foundation laid by Wesley, but are otherwise to emerge as living, biographical realities – to be “worked out” in community, as our General Rules indicate – through the day-to-day application of our multi-faceted conferencing processes.

One such uniquely Methodist process, of course, is the one that has always culminated in reserving exclusively to the clergy members of each annual conference the final responsibility of deciding, on a case-by-case basis, which men and women are suited to being ordained as ministers of the Gospel and appointed to serve United Methodist pulpits. Under a proper reading of our Constitution, our clergy may freely vote their consciences in implementing that process, and their exercise of their independent judgment should not be subject to short-circuiting – in one direction or another – on the ever-evolving doctrinal perspectives of a bare majority of General Conference delegates.