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7 Reflections on the United Methodist Church’s Discipline Against Rev. Frank Schaefer

It may have been lost on us who hang out in only Baptist circles that our brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church (UMC) had a fairly serious dust up last month.  For me, I have many friends in the UMC, some of whom are ordained by the church.  In fact, it was one of my ordained friends that passively brought my attention to the situation when she posted on her Facebook page a request for people to pray for the situation.  Furthermore, my wife and I have United Methodist ties in our past.  So, I am always interested about what’s going on with that denomination.  Indeed, all of us who are Christians should be concerned with what’s going on in the United Methodist Church because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ and stand as the largest mainline denomination in America.

Last month on November 19, Rev. Frank Schaefer of Pennsylvania was found guilty by a United Methodist court of a practice declared by the denomination to be incompatible with Christian teachings.  What did he do?  He officiated his son’s homosexual wedding in Massachusetts back in 2007, which is an act in direct conflict with the United Methodist Church’s governing laws called The Book of Discipline.  In paragraph 2702 of the 2012 version of that book, we read the following:

“A bishop, clergy member of an annual conference, local pastor, clergy on honorable or administrative location, or diaconal minister may be tried when charged (subject to the statute limitations in 2702.4) with one or more of the following offenses:  (a) immorality including but not limited to not being celibate in singleness or not faithful a heterosexual marriage; (b) practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings including but not limited to:  being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies; (c) crime; (d) disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church; (e) dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church; (f) relationships and / or behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor; (g) child abuse; (h) sexual abuse; (i) sexual misconduct (j) or harassment, including, but not limited to racial and / or sexual harassment; (k) or racial or gender discrimination.”1

To be honest, there was nothing the court could do if it was to have any integrity at all but convict Schaefer, and convict him they did.  He was given a chance to repent of his actions and pledge never again to perform a homosexual union, but unashamedly he replied, “I cannot.”2

The subsequent penalty could have been an immediate removal from UMC ministry, but instead the court was gracious, giving him a 30-day suspension.  However, that suspension was to be spent thinking about his future with the UMC because the penalty of suspension was followed by an ultimatum to be in force when the suspension is over:  comply with church law or surrender your credentials as a United Methodist minister.

With just a week and a half left in the suspension, most everybody expects Schaefer will choose to surrender his credentials, including Shaefer himself who told reporters that he had no intention of changing his mind.3  He now sees himself as an advocate for the LGBT community (I think there’s also a “Q” for questioning added nowadays to that abbreviated list representing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) and says that he will never be silent on the issue of homosexuality again.4   I’m not sure exactly where this story is going or where it will end, but I do know that it is not going away.

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In response to the UMC’s discipline against Rev. Frank Schaefer, I have the following reflections:

1)  I rejoice that the United Methodist Church upheld its biblical convictions and disciplined Schaefer.  Here we have a man in Schaefer who has been called of God and vowed to be His minister but is instead leading people astray from God by performing and blessing homosexual marriages.  I’m reminded of the wicked prophets in the days of the prophet Micah who were leading God’s people astray (Micah 3:5).  Instead of celebrating and blessing homosexual marriages by officiating them, Schaefer should be saying, “I love you two men dearly, but according to God in the Scripture, what you are doing and seeking is sin.  It is incompatible with Christian teachings.”  However, he has chosen to affirm people in their sin. Nevertheless, the UMC has made a decision on the side of Scripture here to uphold biblical Christian doctrine.

This step, however, was not only the right thing to do biblically, but also the right thing to do organizationally.  For any organization to function, it must have a set of agreed upon standards.  For the UMC, that is The Book of Discipline, 2012, which leaves no wiggle room here.  A United Methodist clergy may not do several things, but particularly in reference to this case, he or she may not conduct ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions or perform same-sex wedding ceremonies.  If they do, charges may be lodged against them with the denomination, which is what happened with Schaefer.  In the end, the UMC acted in accord with its governing documents by disciplining Schaefer, which was right, and I rejoice in that.

2)  I am saddened to see a minister of God in direct rebellion against God and the church.  As I said a moment ago, Frank Schaefer claims to have been called by God to serve God ministerially, but in this aspect of his life, he is in direct rebellion against God.  Again, God has basically said, “Tell them ‘no’ to homosexuality,” but Schaefer is saying “Yes!”  This behavior is so sad.  Even after the church has disciplined him, Schaefer has arrogantly said that he would be open to doing a same-sex wedding even during his 30-day suspension.5

He has not been humbled in the least!  Undoubtedly, some will and probably already have painted Schaefer as some kind of hero who has been metaphorically martyred by the intolerant church, but he is no martyr.  He is rebel against his church and against God.  Schaefer would do well to listen to Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren, who recently told CNN’s Piers Morgan that he cannot see himself ever supporting homosexual marriage and gave this as his reason to Morgan, “I fear the disapproval of God more than I fear your disapproval or the disapproval of society.”6 Oh how I wish the same for Schaefer because it saddens me to see a church minister fearlessly rebelling against God.

3)  I am grieved by the pain that this situation is causing those who struggle with the sin of homosexuality.  Undoubtedly, cases like this one with Schaefer highlight the pain that those who struggle with homosexuality face.  They not only have to deal with the inner conflict their lifestyle causes with their conscience and the toll it takes on their bodies, but then there is massive pressure from the outside as well.  Indeed, homophobia, bigotry, and bullying are still real problems.  Furthermore, there are those who go about ministering to the homosexual community in an unloving way.

All of this grieves me.  Jesus said that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and didn’t say, “except for those faggots and dykes.”  No, indeed!  We are to love those who struggle with homosexual sin.

But how?  Simply affirm them in their homosexuality?  No, that would be unloving as well.  When we do that, we are adding to the pain that homosexuals will face because to harden oneself in the practice of homosexuality will bar a person from Heaven, placing them in the pains of Hell forever (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

We have to find that middle ground where we truly show kindness and love to people struggling with homosexuality while never affirming their sin and consistently calling them to repentance and faith in Christ.  I’m not saying that when a person struggling with homosexuality repents, it will be painless for everybody.  It’ll probably be incredibly painful in some sense, but as Paul said, For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal,” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).  It will all be worth it!

4)  I am reminded how easy it is to let sentimentalism cloud our understanding of truth.  People often hold an opinion until the situation hits them personally.  Maybe you’ve heard before, “Oh, you’ll think that way until it happens to somebody you love, and then you’ll change your mind.  Do you even know anybody who is gay?”

The Washington Post reported that Schaefer has four children, and three of them are gay.7 That adds a ton of pressure on a person!  It’s enough to lead someone to say, “I mean, if a father really ‘loves’ his children, what else is he to do but affirm them in their homosexuality?  Right?”  That’s how sentimentalism works, and it clouds truth.

I’m not sure what Schaefer’s stance on homosexuality was before he was a father, but the sentimental desire to affirm his children certainly played a part in him openly and knowingly going against church law to perform his sons same-sex marriage.  We every one should take note lest sentimentality trumps truth in our lives. We are all prone to it and are probably already doing it some area of our life.

5)  I praise the Lord for the international delegation of the United Methodist Church.  Every four years the United Methodist Church meets for its “General Conference” where denominational decisions are made by majority vote of the attending delegates.  The last one was in 2012.  As Lisa Wangsness of the Boston Globe pointed out, “Its centralized lawmaking body, the General Conference, is made of up of delegates from around the world, assigned roughly in proportion to lay members and clergy in each geographic region. Almost one-third of the delegates now come from Africa, where homosexuality is widely considered immoral, if not illegal.”8

So, thanks largely to the more conservative international delegation to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the biblical line has been held on homosexuality.  In fairness, one has to note that the line has been held in the face of  much opposition, but thanks be to God that due to demographic shifts and the spread of Methodism abroad, statistics show that the UMC is actually becoming more conservative.9

6)  I recognize that this battle inside the United Methodist Church is not over.  To be honest, the UMC has a long and arduous road ahead of it.  There seems to be a growing, irreconcilable rift in the denomination.  Each passing day, it seems that another fissure emerges.  Of course, the situation with Frank Schaefer is not over.  He’s still on suspension, and I believe he has the option to appeal the ruling.

Furthermore, there are many more trials coming up on the docket.  When you couple this activity with the passionate homosexual advocacy groups in the UMC like Reconciling Ministries Network (rmnetwork.org and rmnblog.org) who have as their mission to see homosexuality normalized at every denominational level, you have a growing problem that I believe is going to get very ugly.  Sadly, the infighting is long from over and is actually only beginning to heat up.

7)  Nothing like this would ever happen in the Southern Baptist Convention.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that some Southern Baptist pastor or church hasn’t been or won’t be tempted to affirm people in homosexuality.  In fact, some have been tempted and gave into the temptation.  However, I’m just saying that after looking fairly closely at the polity of the United Methodist Church, their polity operates so much differently than we Baptists operate, such that what we’re watching in the UMC not only would not happen in the SBC, but also could not happen.

First, every single Southern Baptist church is autonomous, which means that no denominational body has control over a local church.  Every single church could call even a homosexual pastor this very day if they wanted to, and nobody outside of the church can stop them.  Certainly, the local association, the state convention, or the Southern Baptist Convention itself could kick out churches who support homosexuality, but that’s it.  They have no authority over the local church and what its ministers do.

Second, there would be no denominational trial.  We as the SBC simply do not have this sort of apparatus in our governance.  Now certainly, somebody may lodge a complaint against another church or an individual, and there might be an investigation to see if the complaint has merit, but as I stated it above, the denominational bodies force no decision upon a church.  These bodies would simply determine if they will allow a particular church to continue to be affiliated with the denominational body, and even then, for better or for worse, each denominational body would make its own decision and would have no bearing on the others.  For instance, a church could be removed from the local SBC association but remain in good standing with the state convention and national convention.

Third, there would be no denominational body threatening to remove ministerial credentials.  Ordination in the SBC is done by the highest authority in the SBC, namely the local church.  There are no standards or prerequisites other than what has been laid down in the Bible for the office of pastor, the calling of God on the man’s life, and the recognition of that calling by a local congregation.  A church may ordain whomever it wants to at any point it wants to.  This process is, of course, very different from the UMC process of ordination.  You can read about the process here.  Maybe you’ll be less confused by it than I was when I read it.  Nevertheless, it’s clear to me that the main difference is who confers and retains authority over a person’s ordination.  For the UMC, it is the denomination, which is an impossibility in the SBC.

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In closing, I’m watching what our United Methodist brethren are going to do in the coming months over the issue of homosexuality.  I’m praying it will God-honoring, which is to say that I pray it will be Bible-honoring because one cannot honor God if he or she does not honor His Word.

~Ben Simpson  :  @JBenSimpson

 

1The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2012, accessed online at http://www.cokesbury.com/forms/DynamicContent.aspx?id=87&pageid=920&rank=15&txtSearchQuery=book+of+discipline, 776.  Please forgive me if I misrepresent any of the United Methodist Church’s polity.  Their polity is, I admit, a bit confusing at points to my Southern Baptist self.

2Michael Rubinkam, “Frank Schaefer, Pennsylvania Methodist Pastor, Suspended After Officiating Son’s Gay Wedding,” The Huffington Post, published online 19 November 2013, accessed online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/19/frank-schaefer-pastor-gay-marriage_n_4306009.html.

3Ibid.

4Ibid.

5Michelle Boorstein, “Methodist pastor who officiated at gay son’s wedding is suspended for 30 days, The Washington Post, published online 19 November 2013, accessed online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/lively-testimony-in-penalty-phase-of-trial-for-pastor-who-officiated-at-gay-sons-wedding/2013/11/19/f5402942-5146-11e3-a7f0-b790929232e1_story.html.

6Billy Hallowell, “Rick Warren Stands Up to Piers Morgan: ‘I Fear the Disapproval of God More Than I Fear Your Disapproval’,” The Blaze, published online 9 December 2013, accessed online at http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/12/09/rick-warren-stands-up-to-piers-morgan-i-fear-the-disapproval-of-god-more-than-i-fear-your-disapproval.

7Boorstein.

8Lisa Wangsness, “Among Methodists, schism over gay rites,” The Boston Globe, published online 24 November 2013, accessed online at http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/11/24/church-divided-rift-over-homosexuality-threatens-viability-methodist-church/VN0qmmdBKP88HGVIlOiIwL/story.html.

9Ibid.

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