(This blog post continued from here).
In Part 1, I argued for Christian freedom internal to covenant relationships within the Church. More specifically, I argued against the prohibition of freedom of conscience and against a presumption that would place greater restrictions on this freedom than existed internal to the civil rights movement. In this part, I will move beyond the discussion of freedom, following the general model reflected in Paul Ramsey’s work in Christian Ethics and the Sit-in and in Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail to articulate a view of the relation between freedom and order within covenant relationships both in civil and ecclesial settings.
I wish that we could stop with a discussion of freedom. One day, we confess, the discussion will not need to go further. In full freedom, we will worship together knowing and accepting the order of God. The order of the Kingdom will be the order of freedom, and we shall know of no division between the two. But that day is not today. If it were, no defense of freedom of conscience would be necessary.
Until the order of the Kingdom comes, our covenantal relations are in tension. This tension is an expression of the grace of God which both uses institutional order to preserve us in the midst of a sinful world and calls us to the continual reformation of order to realize fuller and fuller extents of justice in love.
When functioning within the scope of God’s mandates, institutions provide the context in which sin is restrained by determinate limits (rules) on all participants. In a sinful world, institutions create the space within which loving relationship is possible. At the same time, these institutions are necessarily imperfect. They are imperfect in that they must, in order to be viable, reflect the overlapping, partial, and finite conceptions of goods that their members live out. They are also imperfect in that, to avoid anarchy, their rules must at times be imposed upon some members.
Our freedom within these institutions is similarly double sided so long as sin endures. It is our freedom that allows us to see the call of our suffering neighbor who is not being treated with justice within our institution. Thus, our freedom is the ground for the continual reformation of our institutions. But it is also our freedom which allows us to confuse our own good with the good of our neighbor, to confuse our worship of cultural idols with the worship of God, and to overstep in thinking that we can bring infinite justice to our finite institutions. Thus, in part, it is our own freedom that our institutions protect us against.
The Christian cannot reject any part of this tension. It is the tension of the “already” and the “not yet,” which is present within and between our freedom of conscience and the order of our institutions. This is the dynamic relationship of our always already broken covenant relationships in the World. This is the dynamic relationship of our covenant relationships being redeemed.
This tension is beautifully reflected at the intersection between the statements in the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith concerning the civil government. Article XXV emphasizes the obligation of obedience to the institution of government, but the Confession emphasizes the role of the Christian in holding civil government accountable, inasmuch as it derives its authority from God. Putting both statements together we find the full tension of every covenantal relationship; the goodness and imperfection of the institution, the need for both obligation and critique from each individual.
So if this is how our covenantal relationship to civil government works, what can we say about our relationship to the government of the Church? There is no doubt that the Church is a special institution for Christians. It has a distinctive mandate. It should be about the business of sharing the grace of God with the World, creating and catechizing disciples, and witnessing an alternative order to the World. At the same time, who that has worked in a church can doubt the Worldliness of the Church? Who does not know that the Church is deeply imperfect? These two question point to facts that the Church must repent of, and which it ought to apply itself to addressing, but they also point to facts that will not go away entirely until the coming of the Kingdom. This pressure is only heightened by the special place of the Church’s mandate. If the Church is to stand in special relationship to the order of God, continual criticism and reformation will be absolutely necessary. In short, despite differences, our covenant relationship with our Church reflects the same tensions as exist in other covenant relationships.
How, then shall we make sense of ecclesial disobedience? It is a possible expression of our freedom in love. It is a an important part of the ongoing effort to reform the Church. Yet, it cannot be undertaken without respect for the order which preserves the possibilities of the present, even if this order shall eventually fall away. Disobedience from the law must never be severed from respect for the law. There are multiple ways in which this respect may (and perhaps must) be paid. The dissenter should seek to target her or his disobedience as narrowly as possible so as not to bring undue harm to others, the dissenter has an obligation to consider the proportionality of the goods and evils that will come out of her or his actions, the dissenter ought not aim to bring about the complete collapse of the order in which she or he is protesting, etc. But perhaps most significantly, the dissenter shows respect to the law by accepting the punishment dictated by the law. To quote Martin Luther King Jr.:
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law … That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
What is remarkable about the permissivist endorsement of disobedience and rejection of judicial proceedings and punishment is not its insistence that ecclesial disobedience is a viable form of witness to the Church. What is remarkable is its denial of this principle of respect for the law.
Ironically this denial ultimately compromises the very witness that the permissivists attempt to protect. As any study of the civil rights movement will show, civil protests were often successful in engaging people and changing minds not only because they highlighted the reality of segregation, but because they highlighted the deep imperfection of the mechanisms that were necessary to maintain segregation. King knew well that it was in part the sight of suffering humanity in the punished protester that called forth moral indignation. In short-cutting the full process of conflict, the permissivist position fails to carry the witness of the protesters to its full extent.
There have been few times in the history of Wesleyanism when the need to have productive disagreement has been more pressing. I pray today that we can stop avoiding our conflicts and learn to live in and through them in covenant relationship. Neither permissivism nor prohibitionism will make conflict go away. To whatever extent such positions succeeded in papering over the conflict in the Church, it would only erupt again in another location, and with a vengeance. Witness present calls for schism within the denomination. What I have articulated here is another route that the Church could have taken, and perhaps could yet take in finding options to move forward without allowing conflict to destroy it. With all of my readers, I suspect, I pray for the Church and its ability to continue its witness.