Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Should pastors have the right to pick and choose members?

Good News has issued a press release taking sides in the case of the Virginia pastor who was placed on involuntary leave of absence as the consequence of his refusal to allow an openly gay man to join his church in spite of his district superintendent's instructions to receive him.

The Rev. James V. Heidinger II, president of Good News, said the involuntary leave voted by the Virginia Conference's executive clergy session "screams with injustice." He calls the Rev. Edward Johnson "a faithful pastor who was seeking to enforce the policies of our Book of Discipline..."

Given my understanding of sexual orientation (see here, here, and here), I obviously strongly disagree with the idea of excluding anyone from church membership because of her or his sexual orientation.

I think our Discipline could not be any clearer about people being welcome into membership regardless of their sexual orientation. Paragraph 4 of the Book of Discipline says, "The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. Therefore all persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, to participate in its programs, and, when they take the appropriate vows, to be admitted into its membership in any local church in the connection."

Also, in the statement on "Human Sexuality" appearing in "The Nurturing Community," a section of the church's Social Principles, Paragraph 161G, the Discipline says: "We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons."

So I disagree with the basic assumption behind the press release issued by Good News. What part of the Discipline does Good News think the pastor was enforcing by denying a gay man membership?

But, independently of this, I am surprised by the position Good News has taken because of what it seems to say about the role of pastors.

As a pastor I have always felt it was my responsibility to make reasonably sure that potential members understand, so far as possible, the church's membership questions. If they then are willing to answer them appropriately, I have not assumed that it is my responsibility to judge the sincerity of their answers. I think this would be presumptuous on my part.

Over the years I have doubted the motivation of one or two people who chose to join a church where I was pastor at the time. Once had to do with an insurance salesperson who I suspected was at least partly motivated by greed. I think he saw the congregation as a prospect list. I spoke earnestly to his membership class about what it means to commit ourselves to Christ through church membership, but I did not deny him membership. Why not? Well, I may have been wrong to define his ambition to sell insurance to church members as being driven by selfish motives. I may be wrong that greed, as I define it, is a sin. Then, too, I am not so self-confident about the single-mindedness of my own motivations that I can presume to judge others on this.

Shane Raynor at Wesley Blog has an interesting reaction to this question of judging someone's qualifications for church membership. He suggests that if we are going to accept anyone who presents himself or herself for membership unconditionally we ought to do away with the concept of membership all together. But, he adds, if we are going to continue having members and ask them to say vows, we should make sure the vows are taken seriously.

Doing away with a category of participants called "members" is an interesting idea. My churches have always included people who were not officially members but who were active in the congregation's worship, programs, and mission. Some of these were folk I considered to be the best of members, even though they officially weren't. There were always others who were officially members but who did not participate in church ministries the way they said they would when they joined. What church does not experience this? So why bother distinguishing between members and non-members?

Although I would not consider it an essential characteristic of the church, I think asking people to commit to participation is helpful, and I think membership is an okay way to articulate our commitment. Some churches are beginning to ask people to sign on as partners rather than members, but I don't think this changes the basis principle of inviting people to make a commitment to the congregation.

According to Shane's thinking, if we ask somebody to make a commitment, then someone needs to judge whether that person's commitment is sincere and serious before we accept him or her into membership or partnership or whatever we want to call it. This is where I disagree. I am not sure any of us are qualified to make this kind of judgment about someone else.

And even if I did agree that we ought to judge people's sincerity and honesty, then I do not think it should be the decision of any one person, not even the pastor (maybe especially not the pastor). If we are going to judge sincerity before we receive members, we need a jury to do it. We all have our own peculiar biases and subjective definitions of things like sin. No one should take on such a task unilaterally.

So then we would need a convoluted structure for membership screening and testing and maybe even complaint procedures and trials to determine whether membership promises are being kept adequately. Yuck.

Jesus' parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30 seems instructive. We just aren't smart enough to go pulling up what we think are weeds without risking that we will uproot the good wheat as well.


Blogger St.Phransus said...

I think that something we run the risk of missing in the church today is that God has given us a gift in each aspect of his creation. Even (maybe especially) the "other" has and is "gift" from God. So by not allowing that gift in the church- we reject grace that God has blessed us with.

Thanks for your post dean.


11:02 PM  
Blogger Douglas said...

What I hope will be the good that comes from this situation is that those in what some are terming the "Methodist middle" who attend General Conference will finally recognize the fuller implications of the persistent move in a conservative direction relative to homosexuality that has occurred at successive General Conferences since 1972's inclusion of the "incompatibility clause" and finally act to stop this travesty of injustice that has been perpetrated for too long on LGBT persons in and by The United Methodist Church. While I don't count on this happening, since there is still great ignorance and prejudice surrounding homosexuality among many and a reluctance regarding going against even bad precedent in the world, this is, nevertheless, my fervent hope.

Thanks for your post, Dean.

Doug Asbury

9:36 AM  
Blogger John said...

Dean, hypothetically, if a practicing homosexual member of the church repeatedly refuses to cease his sinful conduct, should he not be subject to church discipline?

11:48 AM  
Blogger John said...

Douglas wrote:

...will finally recognize the fuller implications of the persistent move in a conservative direction relative to homosexuality that has occurred at successive General Conferences since 1972's inclusion....

Are you suggesting that before 1972, homosexuals were more widely welcomed and accepted in UMC churches than they are today?

11:49 AM  
Blogger Revwilly said...

Let's say a homosexual couple came to my church, wanted to become members but had not been baptized. Do you think I as a pastor who believes homosexual sex is a sin should baptized them? Let me answer that. How could I when I have to ask them if they repent of their sins and they say they have and I believe they haven't?

2:14 PM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...

Well, revwilly, let's say someone comes to me to get baptized and, in the course of conversation, tells me his greatest goal in life is to make a million dollars by the time he is 40, and he is willing to do whatever it takes. If I suggest to him that this sounds like the sin of greed, and he says he believes this is an honorable and worthy goal in life, and that he does not consider it a sin, what should I do?

If his conscience is not bothered and he does not consider it a sin, do I define his sin for him? Isn't that something each of us has to do for our own self? Who of us can be so confident of our superiority so as to define the sin of another, and therefore determine whether he or she has repented of it? This seems to me a very dangerous responsibility to take on oneself.

When the Clintons attended my church (before my time here), some folk criticized the pastors for allowing President Clinton to receive communion during the Monica upset. One of the pastors who was here at the time said to me: "Could you imagine us trying to decide whom in this congregation of 1,400 people is in an adequate state of grace to receive communion?"

It is our job to teach; not to judge who is a sinner and who isn't and whether they have repented or not.

Here's another question I am curious about: What sins other than those having to do with sexuality would you presume to judge whether someone has repented or not? Gossip? Gluttony? Pride?

What would you do if someone told you "I just like to repeat a juicy story." Or someone said they repented of their gluttony but it seemed to you they have not really done so?

This is an interesting and important discussion. I appreciate you weighing in. My site has moved to www.untiedmethodist.com, so I am going to try to move this exchange over there, if I can. Thanks.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Dean Snyder@www.untiedmethodist.com said...

I missed your question earlier about church discipline. Church discipline is invitational, I think. I am part of a small group that helps me to be accountable, for example. I think we should encourage this kind of chosen accountability as a norm for all members. But I don't think we benefit from targeting people on the membership roles for discipline (except for our three-year long disciplinary process for clearing the roles of inactive and/or nonexistent members). And if you insist on having someone hold members accountable, it should not be the pastor but a jury or committee of peers.

Also, our church has said that gay and lesbian members should be not be rejected. Paragraph 161G of the Discipline says: "We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons." Kicking them out of church or refusing to accept them as members sounds like rejection to me.

I am not saying this makes sense – to accept gay members but not clergy—but it seems to be what our General conference has voted. I think in our heart of heart we know that sexual orientation is innate and given and that caring loving romantic relationships for gay folk must be same-sex. In our heart of hearts we do not want to condemn folk for having what we all want, but we don't want them openly in our pulpits because we are closet Docetists.

10:46 AM  
Blogger toujoursdan said...

So does this pastor also refuse membership to anyone who is divorced (for reasons other than infidelity) and has remarried?

As those people are in adulterous relationships and presumably engaging of the ongoing sin of committing adulterous sexual acts with their 2nd spouse, I would think that in order to be consistent they also should be told to end their relationships and embrace celibacy, reconciliation with their 1st spouse (see 1 Cor 7.10-11) or refused membership.

Or is this a case of picking and choosing?

2:58 PM  

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