Why I won’t sign the covenant

June 3, 2014

In local United Methodist news, a group of clergy colleagues from the North Georgia Conference have drafted a “Unity Covenant,” which asks North Georgia United Methodists to affirm their opposition to schism in the United Methodist Church. Its drafters are inviting both clergy and laypeople to sign it. One colleague reached out to me personally today: would I please consider signing it?

I did consider it, but I won’t sign it.

The statement includes the following:

Though there are some issues about which we profoundly disagree, we are united in our opposition to schism in the United Methodist Church.

I’m not opposed to schism if the alternative is anything like the status quo: clergy breaking their ordination vows and bishops refusing to discipline them. For me to affirm, as this statement does, that the status quo isn’t “entirely sufficient” would be tragic understatement.

We have, at times, failed to keep true to our covenant as United Methodists, preferring the easy work of disruption and covenant-breaking to the difficult work of discipline.

Well, yes…

Any statement I would sign, however, would also need to say something like this: “While clergy may work within the system to change our church’s doctrine on human sexuality, we deplore any effort to subvert our Book of Discipline or break the promises we made to God and one another at ordination.”

Likewise, we have, at times, failed to recognize the sacred worth of each of God’s children.

Really? How so? If nearly two millennia of biblical interpretation and Christian reflection on the subject of human sexuality is correct that homosexual practice is spiritually harmful—indeed, a grave sin—then surely it would be unloving not to say so. Love can’t be mere acceptance. It’s because we recognize the sacred worth of each of God’s children, and God’s desire to save them from sin, that we urgently warn all sinners to “flee from the wrath to come.”

Sentences such as this one imply a false choice between love, on the one hand, and calling sinners to repentance, on the other. They are, in fact, one and the same.

Regardless, any statement I would endorse would have to acknowledge that people of good will on my side of argument also love LGBT people when they warn that homosexual practice per se is sinful. You may argue that we’re mistaken all you want; but that doesn’t make us homophobes.

Here’s one example of this problem. A recent Facebook thread about schism included a fellow United Methodist pastor posting the following:

[T]his endless denigration of LGBT people must end. It simply MUST end. How do we hold ourselves in one body when some of us INSIST on demeaning and excluding others of us. Should they not be told to end their destructive behavior toward other “family members.” It’s an abusive family. Shouldn’t the abusers be held to account?

So to be clear, just by virtue of holding to our church’s traditional view of sexuality, people like me are “denigrating,” “demeaning,” “excluding,” and “abusing.” We are engaging in “destructive behavior.”

In my fellow pastor’s defense, at least she believes, along with me, that the question of homosexual practice cannot be a matter of theological indifference—that the stakes are too high. So neither of us will sign the covenant. At least we have that in common!

But I’m not so different from my fellow pastor. My heart grows hard from arguing sometimes, and I easily forget that fellow clergy who disagree with me on this issue are also beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.

13 Responses to “Why I won’t sign the covenant”

  1. don haynes Says:

    My brother, you make several valid points. I applaud the principle that you are witnessing–“liberty of conscience.” I did sign on to the covenant though I am not a member of the North Georgia Conference, and I did so for the same reason–granting liberty of conscience to a continued United Methodist Church. I fear that a new church, founded on opposition to gay marriage would refuse liberty of conscience to people for any number of reasons. I fear that one division will lead to a series of future divisions, based on disagreement on doctrinal or social justice issues. I am seventy nine years old and not gay and really do not understand the emotional dynamics of gay marriage, but “vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.” I don’t agree with my liberal brothers and sisters who say they will leave the UMC if the 2016 GC does not change the BOD language. I take “liberty of conscience” very seriously. When I was twenty, I broke fellowship with anyone who said that the virgin birth of Jesus was not crucial to their theology. I still believe in the Virgin Birth, but I have dear friends who don’t. Let’s keep this old ship together or we will set in motion a spirit of divisiveness, not harmony.

    don haynes

    • Chad Holtz Says:

      Don, my struggle with this is that one day I will stand before God, whom you rightly remind us that “vengeance is His,” and have to answer as a leader/teacher, for which I am held to a higher standard. One day my Lord will ask me, “Why did you either implicitly or explicitly approve of what I called sin?” or “Why did you not obey my command to separate from those who call evil, good?” (1 Cor. 5, Matt. 18, etc).

      Without holiness no one will see the Lord. If we as a church cannot even agree on what a disciple looks like, or what makes one holy, we are not of “one mind” and therefore should not expect the Holy Spirit to fill our churches and bless our work. We may unwittingly become the tool of Satan rather than God.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Right, Chad. Didn’t you write something a while back about how the schism that already exists in our church—not to mention our church’s ineffectiveness in making disciples—is God’s judgment on us? Something like that?

        Regardless, we will each face God’s judgment for our faithfulness, and we pastors will be held to a (frighteningly) higher standard. For me, this can’t be a matter of indifference, a “non-essential” on which we may tolerate “liberty.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks, Don!

      Two thoughts: I’m not arguing for founding a new church “on opposition to gay marriage.” I simply want my current church to uphold its doctrines on human sexuality and enforce its existing laws.

      Also, “liberty of conscience” is irrelevant. As I say above, the issue isn’t that people disagree on church doctrine; it’s that they are breaking their promises, breaking church law, and not being held accountable.

    • Geary Rowell Says:

      Don,

      A schism, if one should occur, will not because one part of the United Methodist Church “founded (a new denomination based) on opposition to gay marriage”. It will be a denomination based on the authority of Scripture, a basis upon which the Methodist Episcopal Church was originally founded.

  2. Chad Holtz Says:

    I wouldn’t have signed it either and for the same reasons. My AC begins Sunday. I wonder if similar things will go around.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Given the splash this document has made in Methodist circles, I can’t imagine that something similar won’t go around. Well, at least it will keep Annual Conference interesting, right? 😦

  3. Lynn Swann Says:

    God bless you

  4. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, thanks and congratulations for staying on the “straight and narrow path.” Keep up the good work! “But there must needs be divisions among you….”

  5. Susan Roach Says:

    Amen and Amen!

  6. Austin F. Says:

    I am currently at annual conference and a couple Legislative items have came up to “pray” for this…. I can see the 2016 GC having this BOD rewritten on the agenda to “Discuss.”


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