Why do I like the Book of Discipline? Let me count the ways…
As many of you know, I grew you fundamentalist, and a particularly peculiar branch of it. Like many fundamentalists, we did not have a polity beyond the pastor’s moods and whims. Yet, in the United Methodist Church, there is something different. The Book of Discipline, one of the many reasons I still like the UMC, is not simply a guide, but a manual. While some see it as an IKEA manual and others see it as a manual for a 486, I see it as a manual preventing cults of personalities among other heinous crimes.
I disagree with several parts of it. I think the Theological Task is as muddy as the Mississippi passing through New Orleans after a hurricane upriver. It destroys Outler’s creation. Yet, it contains and enshrines the Creed. It tells us how far we can go (admittedly, we have to actually listen to it) and it gives us a way to clean up the mess when people go over those lines. Further, it sets doctrinal standards, connecting us back to our Anglican heritage.
Unlike the Creeds, most of it is not drawn from Scripture. It really can’t be. It is a polity manual designed to allow a large Protestant denomination to function properly in what is now the 21st century. It contains all the things necessary to make the UMC’s local unit, the congregation, administratively function. It does not, however, make us function.
I have found there are several opinions about the Book of Discipline. One, some do not know we have it. Some people think it is our attempt at replacing Scripture (the BoD isn’t even in the Wesleyan Quad!). Others see it as a tool of the oppressor. As someone who did not grow up “cradle Methodist” I see it as a way to prevent a pastor-centric cult, a departure from historic Wesleyan theology, and as a way to insure justice in our administrative life.
Now granted, the Book of Discipline seems to mainly to apply to clergy and local pastors. But, there are parts that apply to the laity as well. After all, we are given the chance to hold our bishops and everyone else accountable for poor administration, bad theology (yes, there is a caveat for that), and for actually breaking the rules. Likewise, the laity can be held accountable as well. While I am, for now, a full member of the laity, I do not have to worry too much about falling outside the Book of Discipline I believe it is part of my responsibility as a United Methodist to see that it is upheld (until it is changed).
It is our mutual covenant to one another. And when it is broken, bent, or tempered, we start to lose trust not so much in it (because it is an abstract object) but in one another.
The Church is not ours. It is held for our children. The Book of Discipline is our Trust Organizer, this generation’s Last Will and Testament setting up the Trust.