Commentary: Council Stands Guilty of Legislating from Bench
- Commentary: Council Stands Guilty of Legislating from Bench
A UMNS Commentary
By Jim Lane*
Nov. 29, 2005
A lot has been in the news lately about selecting candidates for
appointment to the United States Supreme Court. One of the most often
heard criteria is that the person be someone who will not "legislate
from the bench."
The role of the highest judicial body in the United States is to
adjudicate cases based on whether or not they meet the test of
In a recent ruling, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist
Church (our highest judicial body) issued a ruling that, in my
opinion, was blatantly "legislating from the bench."
A pastor of a United Methodist church denied membership to a person
who came into the church, joined the choir, and became a part of the
fellowship, because the pastor found out that the person was a homosexual.
Paragraph 4, Article IV, of our church Constitution, contained in the
Book of Discipline says: "The United Methodist Church is a part of the
church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist
Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons
without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic
condition, shall be eligible to attend its worship services,
participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be
admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the
Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the
connection. In The United Methodist Church, no conference or other
organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude
any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race,
color, national origin, status or economic condition.
Key words in the second and third sentences are "all persons." I do
not think that the caveat "without regard ..." was ever meant to be
exclusive of any characteristic not stated.
In my humble opinion, Article IV of our Constitution sets the
precedent for anything that follows, in the Discipline, relating to
church membership. The pastor in question, the Rev. Ed Johnson of
South Hill, Va., should have applied this prior to his decision to
deny membership. I would think that this statement on inclusiveness
would "trump" any further disciplinary definition, such as the one
Pastor Johnson and the Judicial Council hung their hats on.
In the decision dealing with the authority of a pastor, the council's
ruling stated that Paragraphs 214 and 225 of the Book of Discipline
are "permissive and do not mandate receipt into membership of all
persons regardless of their willingness to affirm membership vows."
The operative word in both paragraphs, the ruling says, is that
persons "may" become members. Decision 930 established the premise
that "shall" cannot be used to replace "may" in the Discipline. Thus
the General Conference has determined that any person "may" become a
member of any local church in the connection. This also applies to
people who want to transfer into the United Methodist Church from
another denomination, as was the case in Virginia, the council ruled.
Who are the judge and jury in our church when the paragraph says
"may?" What was the mind of the General Conference when the "may" was
inserted in these paragraphs pertaining to membership? Did it depend
on a decision on the part of the person coming for membership or a
decision by the clergy person?
The Judicial Council has now determined that the local pastor is the
judge and jury, no matter what his district superintendent and bishop
may advise or direct in the matter - or, for that matter, what the
members of the congregation might think.
This ruling by our Judicial Council could start a witch hunt in the
church. Suppose that this person had admitted to infidelity within a
heterosexual relationship or admitted to committing a crime of theft?
This debate makes you wonder just whose church this is. We seem so
proud of our open communion and open baptism. Our national media
campaign talks about open doors, open hearts, and open minds. Who are
we kidding? We only mean that if "whoever" is just like us (whatever
I have been honored to be a part of the delegation to the General
Conference five times. Each time, this topic has been debated and
debated, and what we now have in our Book of Discipline is our effort
to state what we, at this point in history, believe about it.
There is one thing that I have never heard or read in all of my
experience in dealing with these issues at the General Conference, and
that was that we would deny membership to anyone because we knew of a
particular thing about them that we perceived as "sin."
Our biblical and historical mandate as a people called Methodist has
always been to receive people just as they are, relate them to a
loving God, train them to be disciples of Jesus Christ, and then send
them out to lead others to the water that quenches all thirsts.
Our Judicial Council has failed us in this decision. Immediate plans
should be made to appeal the decision and give the church an
opportunity to dialogue with this group of people who serve at our
pleasure (we elect them at the General Conference) and let them know
that we do not want them "legislating from the bench."
Judge Jon R. Gray, a Judicial Council member and a sitting judge in
Kansas City, said this about the decision in his dissenting opinion:
"Having fully mastered the difficult task of judicial interpretation,
my colleagues in the majority have now chosen to direct their talents
to the meticulous work of authoring legislation. I choose not to join
them in that endeavor."
When the council members said in their decision that the "operative
word is that persons 'may' become members," they went far beyond the
intent of any preceding General Conference in addressing the issue of
eligibility for membership in the church.
In my opinion, the "may" is now and always has been answered by a
loving and caring Savior.
*Lane, of Sherwood, Ark., is staff associate for the Witness program
at the Foundation for Evangelism and is past president of the National
Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders. A five-time General
Conference delegate, he delivered the Laity Address to the 1996
assembly. He can be reached at jim@....