Wesleyans are, by theological tradition, believers in perfection. This is one of the traditions greatest strengths, and one of its greatest weaknesses. It is a strength inasmuch as it has led Wesleyans to unwavering social and evangelical missions in pursuit of personal and social holiness. It is a weakness inasmuch as it obscures acceptance of the enduring impact of sin (which is also a part of the Wesleyan tradition) and makes us particularly bad at negotiating the limitations of a fallen World, both within and outside the Church. As such, United Methodists tend to enthusiastically embrace one part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dictum — “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice” — while forgetting that King also warned about the length of that arc. We live within that arc, longing for its culmination. But it is long. We do not save the world. God in Christ does. We do not have all answers, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do.
One unfortunate side effect of perfectionism is that it makes conflict within the world hard to manage realistically and productively. The temptation for the perfectionist is always to resolve conflict prematurely so as to maintain the appearance of perfection. We want now to separate wheat and the weeds, which exist within each of us and within our world (Matt 3:12; 13). We think that we know with the knowledge of God which are the wheat and which are the weeds. We tend to want resolution without conflict, either by fiat or by rules which prohibit disturbance. But what do you do when disagreement arises in an imperfect world? How do you allow for reform? How do you maintain order? What is allowed in terms of structural disagreement within the Church?
I have advocated for a “middle position” in the United Methodist Church which allows for the development of structures that allow for disagreement in our ecclesial polity concerning several issues around the morality of homosexuality. What I advocate for in this post is neither entailed by the middle position for which I have advocated. Nor is this post focused upon the issue of homosexuality. The current struggles over the polity of the UMC with regard to homosexuality are the presenting cause for this post, but are only contingently the subject of the post. Thus, this post is oriented strictly toward the question of whether, and to what extent ecclesial disobedience should be allowed and potentially punished or supported within the United Methodist Church.
I wish to distinguish my own position from two other positions that have been suggested by other participants in our denominational dialogue. On the one hand is what I will call the permissivist position. Permisivists emphasize the call to divine justice which transcends any particular denominational structure in the world. This, they find, can justify disobedience to established Church order. Further, permissivists lament the divisiveness of most denominational mechanisms to hold those who participate in ecclesial disobedience responsible to Church order. Thus, they reject judicial inquiry, punishment, and restriction or elimination of denominational participation for those who violate the order.
On the other hand is what I will call the prohibitionist position. The prohibitionist emphasizes the structured covenant which clergy have agreed to in entering the ministry. Given the significance of this covenant, and the voluntary nature of entering the covenant, the prohibitionist claims that any knowing participation in ecclesial disobedience is morally reprehensible. Following from this, prohibitionists advocate for enforcement of the order of the Church against any who violate their covenanted duties by turning against the order. Such violators should be held publicly responsible, and should have either to renounce their participation in disobedience or face punishment, potentially including defrocking and functional expulsion from the Church.
Both of these positions, in my judgment, seek to reach for perfection and resolve conflict too quickly. The permissivists shortcut conflict by setting aside accountability. The prohibitionist shortcut conflict by rejecting the viability of any disruptive disagreement. In contrast with these, I will argue for an alternate position. This position is heavily influence by the ethics of civil disobedience that developed during the civil rights movement in the United States. The goal is to allow for productive conflict within the limits of dynamic but structured ecclesial relationships. It recognizes the right to ecclesial disobedience while also holding that those who participate in disobedience ought to be held accountable to the present order of the Church.
I will develop and argue for this position in two further blog posts — Part 1: Freedom in Covenant, and Part 2: Covenantal Order — followed by a brief conclusion. My arguments against prohibitionism are found primarily Part 1; my arguments against permissivism primarily in Part 2.