UM Consultation Examines Court Ruling on Pastoral Authority
- Consultation examines court ruling on pastoral authority
February 28, 2007
A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)-A ruling about pastoral authority by the
highest court of The United Methodist Church revealed conflicts over
church membership criteria, ecclesiology and the authority given to
Those conflicts were explored as pastors, bishops, theologians,
seminary deans and denominational staff members gathered Feb. 15-16 in
a consultation over implications of Judicial Council Decision 1032 in
the case of a Virginia pastor who blocked a homosexual man from church
membership. The consultation was sponsored by the United Methodist
Board of Higher Education and Ministry, which oversees the church's
licensed and ordained leadership.
The Rev. Edward H. Johnson, senior pastor of South Hill (Va.) United
Methodist Church, was placed on involuntary leave of absence in June
2005 by a vote of fellow clergy of the Virginia Annual Conference
after he refused to receive the homosexual man into membership, saying
the man would neither repent nor seek to live a different lifestyle.
The Judicial Council ruled in October 2005 that United Methodist
pastors have authority to decide who becomes a member of a local
church and reinstated Johnson. Johnson has since been appointed pastor
at Dahlgren (Va.) United Methodist Church.
Specifically, the Judicial Council ruled that "the pastor in charge of
a United Methodist Church or charge is solely responsible for making
the determination of a person's readiness to receive the vows of
membership." The word "solely" has especially generated emotionally
and politically charged conversations throughout the church about
pastoral authority and the power of United Methodist bishops.
The Rev. Jerome King Del Pino, top executive of the Board of Higher
Education and Ministry, said the heated debate highlights the need for
focused, careful and continuing dialogue about the theological,
ecclesial and pastoral implications of the council's action.
"The church craves clarity about how to understand and live out its
mission that is at once coherent and compelling for an unbelieving
world," said Del Pino. "Judicial Council 1032 has created a defining
moment in the life of people called United Methodists."
Florida Conference Bishop Timothy Whitaker said reactions to the
ruling have exposed "weaknesses in the life of our church" and
declared that "we have much work to do in examining and renewing our
discipline of membership in the church."
The consultation was called to provide a "hospitable space" for
church-wide conversation on the issue. Discussions centered on
theological implications of how the decision relates to United
Methodist understanding of membership, pastoral authority, the nature
of the church and the role of Scripture.
Participants sought to model civil discourse and offered position
papers to clarify the council ruling in relation to the denomination's
Book of Discipline, Constitution and Social Principles-all of which
govern the church and its members.
The Rev. Robert Kohler, a staff member with the Board of Higher
Education and Ministry, said the constitution is fundamental to United
Methodist identity and cited Article IV's emphasis on church
inclusiveness. He said the article "takes precedence over everything
else that you see in the Discipline which covers the authority of the
pastor and the responsibility or the bishop or anything else."
Kohler said there are "fundamental ecclesiological conflicts" over
membership and inclusiveness. One perspective receives a person into a
community of faith if they repent of their sins, are affirmed by the
fellowship and promise to grow in faith. Another view welcomes a
person into the fellowship in hopes that, over time, that person will
learn what it means to be Christian.
The Rev. Martin McLee said African-American churches have a different
perspective on the meaning of fellowship based on black culture.
During worship, the invitation declares that the church's doors are
open. Anyone seeking redemption through a leading of the Holy Spirit
may come forward, receive the right hand of fellowship with the pastor
and gain entrance into the faith community after taking their
"Judicial Council Decision 1032 robs people of potential to be in
community," said McLee, pastor at Union United Methodist Church in Boston.
The Rev. Elaine Robinson, a professor at Brite Divinity School in
Forth Worth, Texas, said The United Methodist Church differs from
other denominations because it "does not have clear ecclesiological
standards." In some traditions, "canon law is the equivalent of
Scripture in authority," she said.
Robinson said the Book of Discipline also contains conflicting
criteria for membership. "We don't have the clarity in hierarchical
lines of authority as do some traditions," which can be both a
weakness and strength, she said.
The Rev. Cheryl Jefferson Bell, a district superintendent of the
Kansas West Annual Conference, said church membership means belonging
to or being part of a body. "It is the place people come to give their
lives to Christ (and) experience the real love of God."
Bell said the idea of a pastor denying fellowship to an individual
"scares me" and called the denial "a sin." She said Scripture suggests
the criteria for membership are belief in the heart and confession by
Added Robinson: "John Wesley would have found the idea of denying
Presentations to the group sought to bring theological light to the
consultation, which participants said was not designed to be a
"referendum on homosexuality" but rather a focused debate on the
nature, practice and integrity of the church's leadership. There was
consensus that church membership is a means or form of grace and that
the church exists by the grace of God.
The Rev. William (Billy) Abraham said the controversy suggests the
court ruling represents "a vision of holiness that is rejected by a
passionate minority within the church as a whole."
Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas,
Abraham compared holiness with the denomination's 30-year proscription
that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian
teaching. "Holiness rules out the practice of homosexuality," shifting
the debate to readiness for membership, executive authority of pastors
and "rival visions" for the authority of power of bishops, he said.
The Rev. Pamela Lightsey, dean of students at Garrett-Evangelical
Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., asked what inclusiveness
means. "Is it receipt of all people or receipt of all behaviors?"
This, she said, points to biblical authority.
Lightsey said homosexual practice "points our church to the greater
issue: What is the role of biblical authority in informing and in
shaping the way we go about doing the business of the church?"
Lightsey said she believes an "understanding of the Bible and the use
of the Bible in conjunction with our canon law helped to inform and
shape" Johnson's decision to block a homosexual man from church
membership. That decision, she said, "was not arbitrary, capricious or
was done with ill intent."
The Rev. Gregory Stover, pastor of Armstrong Chapel United Methodist
Church in Cincinnati, said the pastor's authority to use responsible
judgment in determining readiness for local church membership "plays a
critical role in the pastoral work of providing spiritual guidance and
counsel." Without opportunity for discernment, he said, the local
church is directed by the intentions of the individual seeking
membership, opening the door to possibly compromising the integrity of
membership and the covenant of the church.
McLee said the decision does not define "reasonable pastoral judgment"
in giving the pastor discretion to determine membership readiness.
Giving sole power to pastors is "troubling," he said, because it
disconnects the long-held partnership between laity and clergy.
"The United Methodist Church is a laypersons church. Ours, as clery,
is itinerant," McLee said. "Pastors come and pastors go. Laity holds
the church together."
What happens when the pastor makes a mistake? "Who are we to know the
heart of another," Bell asked. "The church does not belong to the
pastor, members, district superintendent or bishop. The church belongs
to Christ, (and) the Scriptures tell us that God shows no partiality."
A 'flashpoint' for other issues
Abraham said the court ruling has become a "flashpoint" for other
issues in the church. "We have got to grow up and realize that we are
a church; we are not a movement," he said.
Abraham said United Methodists are "ambivalent" about their status as
a church, while priding itself on placing spirituality above
institutions. "We live and act like a church or a denomination, but we
are not too sure we are one, or even want to be one," he said, adding
that Judicial Council Decision 1032 "explodes this mythology about
The Rev. Leicester Longden, a professor of evangelism and discipleship
at the University of Dubuque (Iowa) Theological Seminary, said United
Methodists often think of themselves "as a movement of reformers,
prophets and evangelists rather than a church institution with its own
canonical agreements on doctrine, liturgy, sacraments, polity,
membership and so forth."
Ruling 1032 is forcing the church to face up to its confusion, recover
its ecclesial character of church membership, and "reform our lax
habits of membership reception," Longden said. This reformation
requires confronting "our cultural accommodation and fear of being
Longden said the Discipline contains "chargeable offenses" for lay
people in the church and the provision of trial. While not used, their
inclusion indicates that violating those restrictions can result in
removal from the membership rolls. Membership, he said, "has never
been an end in itself-an achieved status. It has always been seen as
participation in a journey of discipleship on the way (to) holiness."
Hendrick Pierterse, director of scholarly research at the Board of
Higher Education and Ministry, hopes the consultation prompts United
Methodists around the world to engage in similar theological
conversations. To facilitate further discussions, consultation
presentations and related issues are accessible at
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@....