“Will You Enforce the Discipline?”

James C. Howell, pastor of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte is one of our church’s most effective and thoughtful pastors. Now James is the Western North Carolina Conference’s endorsed candidate for election as Bishop. James recently published a blog in which he noted one of the most frequent questions put to him was “will you, as bishop, enforce The Book of Discipline?
Of course, everybody in the UMC knows that the question is really will you enforce the few paragraphs in the Discipline that refer to sexual orientation?

I was reminded that this was a frequently asked question of me before I finally blew my stack and said, “That’s insulting. As a bishop I would promise to administer the rules of my church. It’s like asking, ‘As a bishop, will you promise not to commit adultery?’ Besides, of all the stuff in The Discipline about mission, evangelism, pastoral effectiveness, why are these the most important paragraphs to ‘enforce.’”

In his thoughtful response to this less than thoughtful question, James said:

Now, if you had never laid eyes on The Book of Discipline, but only heard Methodists talking about it, you might assume it was (1) a law code, and (2) an exceedingly short one. Yes, you might overhear other unhappy United Methodists yearning for that very short law book to be changed, although in gritty but defeated resignation. Either way, you’d think it was very brief, and focused on one law.
A common question asked of episcopal candidates is “Will you enforce the Discipline?” This is code language. Although the Discipline is far from a short book, bulging at more than 800 pages, the Discipline to be “enforced” is no more than a page, three paragraphs really, the only portions we vest any emotion in. The little sliver of the Discipline that commands our attention, the insistence on enforcement, and also the craving that it might one day be changed, is about homosexuality in general, and marriage and ordination in particular.
I wish we wouldn’t speak in code. Or if we are so deadly earnest about the Discipline, press for the full 800+ pages to be enforced. But the whole idea of “enforcement” should trouble us all. Something feeling like “enforcement” is required when we have illegality, evil run amok – and it sounds punitive. Bishops then are asked to function as a robed police force.
But Jesus established a different kind of community that trades not in force and punishment, but in love and reconciliation. If you actually read the Discipline, the bishops are charged with theologically robust tasks, like vision, pastoral care, renewal, and prophetic transformation. Maybe we can expect them to “uphold” (rather than “enforce”) the Discipline and all its lofty dreams.
Besides, when we have rules, and a genuine need for order, what are theologically meaningful processes to restore order? Punishing, like public censure, the loss of income, or permanent removal from ministry, seems so very secular. Should church authorities dispense punishment? Or offer something better? Aren’t there wise ways to uphold the Discipline and honor our covenantal relationships forged through it?….
Aren’t there creative, humble, healing ways to uphold the order established by the Discipline – as it must be upheld? If a pastor re-baptizes, for instance. Yes, we could eradicate his income or fire him from ministry. But perhaps, we could send him to the Jordan River with a veteran pastor who would befriend him and help him understand the overwhelming power of God’s mercy and grace…. Of course, there are egregious infractions that harm others (like child abuse) or break the law (like embezzlement), and the Discipline rightly deals firmly with those, although even with a criminal action we would, as Jesus’ people, still pray and yearn for redemption.
Reflecting a little further on rule-breaking:  we have in our country and in the long history of the Church a tradition of civil disobedience.  Once in a while you see disobedience with malevolent intent.  But most rebels I know who break rules with some real theological gusto are noble in intent.  They show considerable courage, and risk-taking, and quite often are zealously advocating for somebody who’s been marginalized.  We don’t suffer from an excess of courage in ministry – so are there ways to uphold the Discipline and yet in some fashion uphold the holy boldness and willingness to bear the cost in a pastor who with some agony feels it is God’s hard will for her or him to choose covenant with God over covenant with fellow clergy?
Let’s be candid about what the Book of Discipline is, and what it isn’t. I recently decided to read the thing, cover to cover. It is in quite a few places surprisingly profound, theologically rich, downright compelling, and it is everywhere very much obsessed with our common mission to be the Body of Christ in a lost world. As best I can tell, Wesley and the early geniuses of Methodism fixed our need for such a book so we could get organized for mission, so we would never forget how connected we are in our labors for Jesus. But who notices, or alludes to the dominant content of the Discipline nowadays?
.…let’s acknowledge the Discipline is not divinely inspired Scripture. Who is the author of this book? Several hundred people, clergy and laity, working through translators in nine different languages, meet every four years, and after considerable rancor, debate that involves no listening whatsoever, and backroom manipulation, and in an exhausted, cranky mood, finally take a vote, and the winner, maybe with nothing more than 50% plus one of that vote, becomes the Discipline.
….after the majority vote, we don’t excommunicate or murder the losers. We are the Body, with different members. We disagree, and then we get this book that I will never for a moment believe enfleshes God’s will in any perfect way….
And have we even understood the Discipline’s own humble claims for itself? The preface to the Social Principles, that chunk of the Discipline that contains the few paragraphs we treat as if it’s the whole book, plainly and rather invitingly declares “The Social Principles, while not to be considered church law, are a prayerful and thoughtful effort to speak to human issues from a sound biblical and theological foundation… They are a call to faithfulness and are intended to be instructive… a call to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice.” This doesn’t sound like an ironclad decree to be enforced. It sounds like a holy conversation starter.
If I could wave a magic wand and change our relationship to the Book of Discipline, I’d say Let’s actually read the whole thing; it is profound and highly motivational. Let’s be humble about it; its composition happens during our denomination’s most embarrassing moments. Let’s treat it as a covenant between us all…. Let’s find ways for this book to be a joyful liberation to launch us into exciting and transformative ministry in today’s hurting world. The Discipline truly can be a book of good news and great joy.

Thanks James. The UMC is blessed that you have been willing to offer yourself for leadership in our church.

Will Willimon

12 thoughts on ““Will You Enforce the Discipline?”

  1. Since James is my pastor, I have come to know him as a complex person. Like most of us, he has a liberal/left leaning stance on some issues and is more conservative on others. He seems to be solidly pro-life with regard to abortion but my guess is that he would take a less traditional view toward sexuality and marriage issues. So, if you are looking for a pure traditionalist, James is not your guy.


  2. Perhaps the frequent questions James gets are referring to 1 Cor 5 about known wickedness and sexual sin in the Church (leadership at the very least). Verses 2-5 says to remove him from among you and hand him over to Satan, so that his sinful self will be destroyed, and his spirit will be saved on the day of the Lord. Or verses 11-13 in which Paul states “But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber–not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to Judge? God judges those outside. ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you.'” The questions then become, are the UMC Bishops “upholding” the Word?


  3. Thoughtful, measured, insightful….still a dodge. James admits he understands the real question/issue even though cloaked in “code”: “A common question asked of episcopal candidates is “Will you enforce the Discipline?” This is code language…Of course, everybody in the UMC knows that the question is really will you enforce the few paragraphs in the Discipline that refer to sexual orientation?”. But instead he shifts from a thoughtful, measured, insightful, and most of all unambiguous answer to the real question (dodge) to an excellent, thoughtful, measured, insightful understanding of the nature of the BOD. So why not give his clear, unapologetic position on the question rather than do what he has said he won’t do and respond with his own “code”. What most folk I think are looking for is straight talk (sincere, transparent, honest sharing). Straight talk doesn’t have to mean simplistic answers or thoughtless buffoonery. Straight talk can and should be thoughtful, measured, insightful, and most of all unambiguous. This election cycle has made this hunger for straight talk abundantly clear. The population at large want/need straight talk. Folks are tired of the art of ‘the dodge, the spin, the expedient answer everything but the question politician. We need leadership


    1. If he was running for a political office and pledged to keep the Constitution (as all have to do) it means little when trying to differentiate one’s political leanings. I think these clergy would like to hear how their political candidates would keep the Constitution; don’t know why it’s a problem to see how asking clergy candidates how they would keep the Discipline is a problem.


  4. Respectfully, if you cannot say “yes” then you are saying NO. There is a difference between a calm and reasoned disagreement over whether the Discipline should say one thing or another. It is a completely different situation to say that you will openly and willingly disobey the rules that we have chosen to live under, especially if you want to retain the benefits and privileges that come with that structure. Even more so if you want one of the most privileged positions in our structure.


  5. The reason that question is asked, Bishop Willimon, is because the issue of homosexual practice and homosexual marriage are the areas that have not been enforced by many bishops, in violation of their vows. Furthermore, it is the specific area that threatens to bring schism to our church. What is thoughtless is this entire article. As a delegate to Jurisdictional Conference, I will not vote for a candidate who will not forthrightly and honestly answer that question. I can guarantee you that I will ask it. True, the candidate doesn’t have to answer my question. But I do not have to vote for him either. Are you trying to help or hurt this candidate?


  6. Oh, my sweet Jesus! The message of Jesus is completely left out of this discussion: love one another. Do not judge,………….lest………Please!


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