This essay was originally posted in July, 2016 as I was leaving the pulpit. As we approach the special General Conference in a few weeks, it is a reminder of the great crisis in the UMC (and it’s not about sex). It has been edited for proofreading and reposted.
The pastor steps off the plane bringing him from a Las Vegas book signing on stewardship…jumps into the back of the limo and while the driver speeds along the pastor changes into blue jeans and t-shirt. Arriving at the church just in time to take the stage following a rousing, rocking, musical exhibition, and, as the spotlight hits, he begins to speak on behalf of a God who said, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is thekingdom of heaven…”
The comedy is that nobody laughs.
The pastor arrives at a guaranteed appointment in a $40,000 automobile which is essential for towing a $25,000 boat. Drapes a $200 rainbow stole over a $400 robe with hand sewn black Velvet panels which covers all of the worldly raiment except for the $175 shoes. All of which were made by children in an Asian sweat shop. Then, she climbs into the pulpit to speak on behalf of a God who said, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have your reward…”
The tragedy is that nobody cries.
Thus are the symptoms of corruption in the Church which permeates her in North America as much today as in the days of Chaucer’s Canterbury. By corruption I do not mean deceit, dishonesty, nor fraud. To the contrary, the corruption is in the open, agreed upon, and generally approved. It is called decadence. It is represented in those who justify and celebrate a moral and cultural decline while enjoying the comfortable indulgences to which their position affords them. It comes from a forgetfulness of holy purpose followed by diverting the resources intended to build the City of God into private construction projects.
The corruption is evidenced in Bishops and common clergy who are abided with when they deny the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, and even the atoning blood of Christ. They are permitted to participate in and promote carnal lust and licentiousness. Nothing will disturb their pleasurable estate as long as they know the one rule—the one offense which must not be tolerated—the one cause that will bring abrupt consequences to even the most privileged of their number: “Don’t touch the money!” Keep the cash flowing to the denominational Rome and you have purchased your position.
These are the ones who have never offered an altar call in their entire career. These are the ones who console the troubled sinner with the words, “Don’t worry. Jesus never changed my life and he won’t ask you to change yours either.” These are the ones who make people comfortable on the road to hell. “Put on a good show. Keep the parish quiet. Send in the money, and take out enough for yourself for a Holy Land cruise or a Las Vegas symposium on stewardship.” These are the Bishops who close the churches that cannot provide properly for the clergy rather than providing the clergy to properly care for the churches.
When voices such as these call for unity it is not unity in Christ of which they really speak. It is neither unity of purpose nor of mission. They seek a unity of property…a unity of the purse. Their unity is that of a contractual obligation which can be enforced in civil court.
Whether it is Chaucer’s Canterbury, Luther’s Rome, or our North America, Christ has left us a path to follow. It is the path that has been proved by those such as Martin Luther and Thomas Moore: Faithfulness through Christ’s Holy Church and speaking plainly.
First, if I were to change churches every time someone said something stupid or did something wrong then I could never unpack my bags. I remind you that if Churches didn’t have serious problems then we would only have four books in the New Testament. Yet, separation is not schism. Separation is a cure for schism. Until a general separation can be arranged, it is my responsibility to remain faithful to my part of the covenant and let others be accountable as they may.
Second, and closely related to the first, faithfulness requires that I neither refrain from doing anything which God commands nor do anything which God forbid–even if there are those who would attempt to compel me otherwise. I have concluded that I cannot fulfill those two conditions as a United Methodist pastor, and I will no longer accept an appointment from a United Methodist bishop. (When the superintendency requires me to compel the local church to abide by the Discipline while those giving the order consider themselves exempt, then they require me to participate in that which Christ forbids. When they require me to solicit funds, ostensibly for one purpose with full intent to distribute them otherwise, then they require me to participate in that which Christ forbids. When they restrain me from supporting ministries because the money doesn’t pass through their hands, then they restrain me from that which Christ commands.) I will continue as a member of the United Methodist Church. As long as I can so continue, then no matter what others may do, I have no moral right to break my ties with the church. Even if I were free, the illness is a North American one and not a uniquely United Methodist complaint. It would serve my soul no good to run from a crumbling building to one already fully ablaze.
Third, faithfulness to what God commands requires that I continue to pass on to the General Church that which is rightfully theirs—but not one penny more. This is a hard truth, but it is a truth. Until such time as those ties are severed, or we are released from those obligations, I am covenant bound by God to keep the vows between us made. I am not permitted to atone for their sins by committing a new one of my own. Let the same God whom I trust will judge me faithful in my giving also judge those who steward what they receive. I must be content with that.
Fourth, I must repent. I have been satisfied with living a quiet and peaceable life as a country preacher. I have taken pleasure in Bishops not knowing my name nor being able to find my churches without a road map. Perhaps, if I had been more vocal with words of encouragement earlier then there would be less need for words of condemnation now. At least in some part this is my most grievous fault. So let me not fall in to the temptation of Elijah to run off to a cave, but remember the promise of, “seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal.” Beginning with myself, I will no longer permit anyone, regardless of rank or station, to use vague speech to avoid hard questions. Rather, speak plainly and know that silence implies consent.
Finally, I neither defend nor support boards, agencies, clergy, or bishops who have acquired power without authority. I do not deny their authority–they have denied it. When they deny the voice of the church through General Conference then they deny the source of their authority. They are left with only temporal power over the instruments in which they have been given charge, and I will actively witness against them. Until they can be removed, bishops, boards of ordained ministry, and each of our institutions must be feared as any temporal power is to be feared when it is governed not by any rule but only by what they perceive to be their conscience when they wake in the morning.
I will support with my prayers, presence, gifts, service, and most audible and distinct witness those who are already doing the hard work of creating a new United Methodist Church.
There are far more than Elijah’s seven thousand in the United Methodist Church that have not bowed to Baal. They will, with God’s help, shortly establish a renewed church by whatever name it will be known. Knowing that this path may well cost me friendships, reputation, livelihood, and pension–if this is all that Christ requires of me in return for the good he has blessed me with through his church–I throw my lot in with them.