Recently, many have argued the need for stricter enforcement and obedience to the Order of the United Methodist Church. Ministers, they have suggested, have entered voluntarily into covenant relations with the Church and have knowingly signed onto the standards of the United Methodist Discipline. As such, they claim, there is no justification for disobedience to these standards, and we need to do whatever is necessary in order to make sure that those who disobey are held accountable.
This is a good abstract argument, but I would like to suggest a practical problem for those who make it. According to the Social Principles in the Book of Discipline: “We [the UMC] affirm our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love for persons.” Less absolute, but sitting in a position of greater pride in United Methodism, The General Rules require that one “do no harm” by “Drunkenness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity.” Further, the Discipline specifies that chargeable offenses include all “disobedience to the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church.”
Now the practical problem is that none of those who I have seen arguing for the enforcement of Order have made any move to bring ministers who drink occasionally up on charges in the UMC. Indeed, many of those (I don’t know how many, but I know some) who are making arguments for obedience to and enforcement of the Order of the UMC, are more likely to order alcohol than to obey the Order of the Church on alcohol.
The problem here is a practical contradiction. If one is going to argue for the importance of Order per se, then one is required, on pain of contradiction, to hold this position for the entire Order in the Discipline.
Now, I suspect that, for many who face this practical contradiction, the problem is that when they are speaking about the need for Order, they are not thinking of the need for Order per se, but are being selective about the elements that they wish to see enforced and obeyed in the Order of the Church. They are, we might say, Cafeteria Disciplinarians. In particular, they want to see the enforcement of the Order of the United Methodist Church on issues of homosexuality, but not on others.
There is nothing wrong about thinking that some issues in the Discipline should be enforced and others should not. Indeed, as we can see, that is clearly the de facto position of the Church at the present time. However, if one wants to make an argument for the qualified position that some of the discipline should be enforced, and this should include activity X, but not Z, it is necessary to do something more than point to the covenantal obligations of UMC clergy and the need for Order in the Church. One needs, at least, to find some relevant distinction between the standards that should be enforced from those that should not.
Until we have such a distinction on the table, or the advocates for Order start taking self-proclaimed, practicing, occasionally drinking ministers to trial, we need to stop appealing to the principle of Order as if it resolves our discussions about what to do with homosexual weddings and ordination.
After some initial helpful discussion of this post, I find it necessary to qualify in two ways.
First, I should note that the language in the Social Principles does speak of a qualified form of “support” for “those who choose to consume alcoholic beverages, judicious use with deliberate and intentional restraint, with Scripture as a guide.” However when read in context, this does not suggest that the Social Principles mean to say that this activity is correct. It is more like if I said to my child: “Don’t have sex, but if you do, use protection.” In this case, my saying “use protection” does not indicate my approval of my child having sex. It is a qualification intended for those who have already decided not to obey the original command. This is the sense in which the Discipline “supports” judicious use of alcohol. Such support is for those who have already decided not to follow the original position on the issue.
Second, it is clear that the Social Principles are not called Church Law. However, there is an ongoing question of whether, or which of the requirements therein function as chargeable offenses in the Church. For some of the history and ambiguity here, it is useful to see Jeremy Smith’s post on the subject.
This appears to me to be the sentence in Judicial decision 833 that suggests that portions of the Social Discipline do constitute chargeable offenses.
“Under ¶ 15, the General Conference has the authority to speak on connectional matters, and, when this authority results in a legislative enactment stated in mandatory language, it is the law of the church, notwithstanding its placement in the Discipline.”
“notwithstanding its placement in the Discipline” is where the Judicial Council allows that content from the Social Principles can function as chargeable offenses.
The question then, would be whether the statement “We affirm our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love for persons” counts as “mandatory language.” As Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards has pointed out, the language of “shall” is the “gold standard” for the Judicial Council to attribute mandatoriness. While other language may yet indicate that a provision is mandatory, it seems doubtful that the Judicial Council would find the statement on alcohol in the Social Principles to be mandatory. At this point, I am forced to admit that while it is possible that the statement in the Social Principles constitutes a chargable offense, it is doubtful that the Judicial council would accept the claim. I appreciate those who offered critiques of this post and required me to become clearer on this point of UM polity.
I am still investigating the status of the General Rules! We have such a fascinating historical process for setting aside our social standards that it takes a while to dig through! So, I may update later on this clause.
However, for those who do not find drinking to be a plausible chargeable offense, Jeremy Smith has provided a list of 25 other cases where clergy violate the Discipline and would not be charged. Since those advocating for Order have not taken up the enforcement of any of these charges, the above argument would still work with any one of them functioning in the place of “drinking” above. I personally am struck by the idea that those arguing for Order should start bringing charges against those who fail “to celebrate all six churchwide special Sundays with offerings, especially Peace with Justice Sunday and Native American Ministries Sunday”!