I am not a United Methodist polity expert. I am by no means an expert on the Book of Discipline, or really anything for that matter. What I can do however is read, and in doing so, discover the plain meaning of the words that are on the page. This has brought up for me a question that I have been pondering for some time. What if the whole Commission on a Way Forward and all of the hard work that has come from it (let’s be honest here. No matter what you think of the options that have been forwarded, it was hard and difficult work) is invalid because of the nature and rules of the United Methodist Church? The Book of Discipline contains the faith and the rules of the church. I know, I know, we all bristle at the word rules, but the reality is that they are there. The rules I want to bring forward are called the restrictive rules which were meant to protect the faith and doctrine of the church and guard against antinomian influences, which Wesley cautioned against on many occasions and, that going back to the first Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, was warned against. The restrictive rules say the following: “¶ 17. Article I.—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.” The question then becomes is there something in the standards of faith that speaks to the arguments that the UMC is having over sexuality. I examined this at some length and the answer is yes. Mind you, this examination was far from exhaustive, and there are many more examples of ways in which the UMC standards of faith speak to sexuality.
I ave written a great deal about the problems in the UMC and the effect that they are having. I have been critical of the plans submitted by the way forward. I have called the idea of contextualization selling ones soul to the devil. I have been exceptionally hard on the centrists. I have publicly and privately asked how the beliefs of some groups fit with the standards of faith to no avail. I have spoken of the current situation in the church as a marriage. I have even written about how much of the UMC resembles Hugh Hefner more that Christ, who is the head of the church. I list all of these things because there is a theme that courses through it all. That theme is that the way things are in untenable, and now it seems that even the solutions offered are possibly against the letter of the law, and if not, then certainly against it’s spirit. The often used Wesley quote comes to mind, but not as a warning, rather as the reality of where the UMC is. “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” Words that were meant have warning proved to be prophetic regarding the future of the Methodist church.
So what is the answer then? As always, I think we find the answer in the teachings of scripture, in this case, the parable of the rich young man found in the Gospel of Matthew 19:16–30, the Gospel of Mark 10:17–31 and the Gospel of Luke 18:18–30. The rich young man has done all according to the law. He has kept the commandments faithfully, etc. By all accounts, he has done all that is correct and required. Jesus sees into the heart of the man however and, recognizing that he loves the world more than he loves God, calls upon him to sell all that he owns and give it to the poor. The young man is unwilling to have salvation at such a high price. “If thou desirest to be perfect – That is, to be a real Christian: Sell what thou hast – He who reads the heart saw his bosom sin was love of the world; and knew he could not be saved from this, but by literally renouncing it. To him therefore he gave this particular direction, which he never designed for a general rule. For him that was necessary to salvation: to us it is not. To sell all was an absolute duty to him; to many of us it would be ali absolute sin. The young man went away – Not being willing to have salvation at so high a price.” (Wesley’s NT notes) The situation in the church is a parallel here I think. No matter what it is that you believe, the vast majority of people are faithful, doing all that they believe to be right. Jesus however, as the head of the church, has looked into many and seen what Wesley called the “bosom sin”, and that sin is love of the institution over love of the church. The institution must change so that it can continue. This is precisely the type of thing that the restrictive rules were put in place to resist. It would seem to me that Christ is calling upon us to sell our zeal and love of the institution and give it to the church. To many it seems are walking away because they are unwilling to have the church at so high a cost.
As I said above I am not a polity expert, nor am I an expert on church law. As has been said many times, over and over, there are different interpretations about much that is in scripture. The problem is that we seem to be to busy reducing this to our interpretation vs. a different one instead of looking to the interpretation of the church. That is the question here, not what I, or you, believe, but what the church claims as truth. There may be loopholes or technicalities that allow for what is to come, but if we look to the plain meaning and intent of the words, it seems rather clear that the doctrine being proposed is contrary to the standards of faith. One could make the argument that the standards of faith are up for interpretation as well, but if we are being honest, if the standards of faith mean everything, then they mean nothing at all. If even the standards that set the boundaries for our faith mean nothing, then the church has ceased to be no matter what the institution may decide.