From the Worldwide Faith News archives

UMNS# 092-Consultation examines court ruling on pastoral authority

From "NewsDesk" <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Wed, 28 Feb 2007 16:47:48 -0600

Consultation examines court ruling on pastoral authority

Feb. 28, 2007

NOTE: Photographs are available at

A UMNS Report By Linda Green*

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)-A ruling about pastoral authority by the highest court of The United Methodist Church revealed conflicts over church membership criteria, ecclesiology and the authority given to appointed leaders.

Those conflicts were explored as pastors, bishops, theologians, seminary deans and denominational staff members gathered Feb. 15-16 in a consultation over implications of Judicial Council Decision 1032 in the case of a Virginia pastor who blocked a homosexual man from church membership. The consultation was sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, which oversees the church's licensed and ordained leadership.

The Rev. Edward H. Johnson, senior pastor of South Hill (Va.) United Methodist Church, was placed on involuntary leave of absence in June 2005 by a vote of fellow clergy of the Virginia Annual Conference after he refused to receive the homosexual man into membership, saying the man would neither repent nor seek to live a different lifestyle. The Judicial Council ruled in October 2005 that United Methodist pastors have authority to decide who becomes a member of a local church and reinstated Johnson. Johnson has since been appointed pastor at Dahlgren (Va.) United Methodist Church.

Specifically, the Judicial Council ruled that "the pastor in charge of a United Methodist Church or charge is solely responsible for making the determination of a person's readiness to receive the vows of membership." The word "solely" has especially generated emotionally and politically charged conversations throughout the church about pastoral authority and the power of United Methodist bishops.

The Rev. Jerome King Del Pino, top executive of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said the heated debate highlights the need for focused, careful and continuing dialogue about the theological, ecclesial and pastoral implications of the council's action.

"The church craves clarity about how to understand and live out its mission that is at once coherent and compelling for an unbelieving world," said Del Pino. "Judicial Council 1032 has created a defining moment in the life of people called United Methodists."

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy Whitaker said reactions to the ruling have exposed "weaknesses in the life of our church" and declared that "we have much work to do in examining and renewing our discipline of membership in the church."

Church-wide conversation

The consultation was called to provide a "hospitable space" for church-wide conversation on the issue. Discussions centered on theological implications of how the decision relates to United Methodist understanding of membership, pastoral authority, the nature of the church and the role of Scripture.

Participants sought to model civil discourse and offered position papers to clarify the council ruling in relation to the denomination's Book of Discipline, Constitution and Social Principles-all of which govern the church and its members.

The Rev. Robert Kohler, a staff member with the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said the constitution is fundamental to United Methodist identity and cited Article IV's emphasis on church inclusiveness. He said the article "takes precedence over everything else that you see in the Discipline which covers the authority of the pastor and the responsibility or the bishop or anything else."

Kohler said there are "fundamental ecclesiological conflicts" over membership and inclusiveness. One perspective receives a person into a community of faith if they repent of their sins, are affirmed by the fellowship and promise to grow in faith. Another view welcomes a person into the fellowship in hopes that, over time, that person will learn what it means to be Christian.

The Rev. Martin McLee said African-American churches have a different perspective on the meaning of fellowship based on black culture. During worship, the invitation declares that the church's doors are open. Anyone seeking redemption through a leading of the Holy Spirit may come forward, receive the right hand of fellowship with the pastor and gain entrance into the faith community after taking their membership vows.

"Judicial Council Decision 1032 robs people of potential to be in community," said McLee, pastor at Union United Methodist Church in Boston.

The Rev. Elaine Robinson, a professor at Brite Divinity School in Forth Worth, Texas, said The United Methodist Church differs from other denominations because it "does not have clear ecclesiological standards." In some traditions, "canon law is the equivalent of Scripture in authority," she said.

Robinson said the Book of Discipline also contains conflicting criteria for membership. "We don't have the clarity in hierarchical lines of authority as do some traditions," which can be both a weakness and strength, she said.

The Rev. Cheryl Jefferson Bell, a district superintendent of the Kansas West Annual Conference, said church membership means belonging to or being part of a body. "It is the place people come to give their lives to Christ ... (and) experience the real love of God."

Bell said the idea of a pastor denying fellowship to an individual "scares me" and called the denial "a sin." She said Scripture suggests the criteria for membership are belief in the heart and confession by the mouth.

Added Robinson: "John Wesley would have found the idea of denying membership foreign."

Theological context

Presentations to the group sought to bring theological light to the consultation, which participants said was not designed to be a "referendum on homosexuality" but rather a focused debate on the nature, practice and integrity of the church's leadership. There was consensus that church membership is a means or form of grace and that the church exists by the grace of God.

The Rev. William (Billy) Abraham said the controversy suggests the court ruling represents "a vision of holiness that is rejected by a passionate minority within the church as a whole."

Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Abraham compared holiness with the denomination's 30-year proscription that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. "Holiness rules out the practice of homosexuality," shifting the debate to readiness for membership, executive authority of pastors and "rival visions" for the authority of power of bishops, he said.

The Rev. Pamela Lightsey, dean of students at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., asked what inclusiveness means. "Is it receipt of all people or receipt of all behaviors?" This, she said, points to biblical authority.

Lightsey said homosexual practice "points our church to the greater issue: What is the role of biblical authority in informing and in shaping the way we go about doing the business of the church?"

Lightsey said she believes an "understanding of the Bible and the use of the Bible in conjunction with our canon law helped to inform and shape" Johnson's decision to block a homosexual man from church membership. That decision, she said, "was not arbitrary, capricious or was done with ill intent."

The Rev. Gregory Stover, pastor of Armstrong Chapel United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, said the pastor's authority to use responsible judgment in determining readiness for local church membership "plays a critical role in the pastoral work of providing spiritual guidance and counsel." Without opportunity for discernment, he said, the local church is directed by the intentions of the individual seeking membership, opening the door to possibly compromising the integrity of membership and the covenant of the church.

McLee said the decision does not define "reasonable pastoral judgment" in giving the pastor discretion to determine membership readiness. Giving sole power to pastors is "troubling," he said, because it disconnects the long-held partnership between laity and clergy.

"The United Methodist Church is a laypersons church. Ours, as clery, is itinerant," McLee said. "Pastors come and pastors go. Laity holds the church together."

What happens when the pastor makes a mistake? "Who are we to know the heart of another," Bell asked. "The church does not belong to the pastor, members, district superintendent or bishop. The church belongs to Christ, (and) the Scriptures tell us that God shows no partiality."

A 'flashpoint' for other issues

Abraham said the court ruling has become a "flashpoint" for other issues in the church. "We have got to grow up and realize that we are a church; we are not a movement," he said.

Abraham said United Methodists are "ambivalent" about their status as a church, while priding itself on placing spirituality above institutions. "We live and act like a church or a denomination, but we are not too sure we are one, or even want to be one," he said, adding that Judicial Council Decision 1032 "explodes this mythology about ourselves."

The Rev. Leicester Longden, a professor of evangelism and discipleship at the University of Dubuque (Iowa) Theological Seminary, said United Methodists often think of themselves "as a movement of reformers, prophets and evangelists rather than a church institution with its own canonical agreements on doctrine, liturgy, sacraments, polity, membership and so forth."

Ruling 1032 is forcing the church to face up to its confusion, recover its ecclesial character of church membership, and "reform our lax habits of membership reception," Longden said. This reformation requires confronting "our cultural accommodation and fear of being judgmental."

Longden said the Discipline contains "chargeable offenses" for lay people in the church and the provision of trial. While not used, their inclusion indicates that violating those restrictions can result in removal from the membership rolls. Membership, he said, "has never been an end in itself-an achieved status. It has always been seen as participation in a journey of discipleship on the way (to) holiness."

Hendrick Pierterse, director of scholarly research at the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, hopes the consultation prompts United Methodists around the world to engage in similar theological conversations. To facilitate further discussions, consultation presentations and related issues are accessible at

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or


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