Freedom of the pulpit — Responsibility to the covenant

March 4th, 2015

When I was a seminarian, I dreamed about becoming a culturally relevant prophetic preacher who spoke truth to power in such a way that irritated, inspired, and renewed congregations. In practice, some of my preaching was prophetic, though not always when I expected, how I expected, or as I intended. The Holy Spirit’s agenda for the church is beyond my control.

The pulpit (or the platform) allows the Spirit freedom to move through the preacher to challenge the status quo. Rather than freedom of expression without boundaries, however, this freedom in the Spirit expresses what the triune God reveals to the preacher. And for the preacher, this freedom is located within a discerning covenant community that makes room for a living conversation about beliefs and practices.

Sacred trust and a living covenant

The Book of Discipline reminds us that ordination and membership in an annual conference is a sacred trust. This sacred trust involves living well through the rights and privileges of a clergyperson. Typically we mention sacred trust when we talk about sexual ethics. But sacred trust simply includes keeping the covenant, which means committing to our doctrinal standards and general rules. Our doctrinal standards and general rules are protected by restrictive criteria, which state that the General Conference may not “revoke, alter, or change” (¶17) them. This is so the covenant has fixed points in our life together as a community that may not be altered, because we believe the covenant gives purpose to our faith.

For example, the Trinity or the divinity of Christ are core beliefs in an orthodox expression of the faith, and they remain fixed. But other parts of our covenant are part of a living conversation. Our social principles, for instance, are worked out in a dynamic conversation between scripture and experienced realities. The preacher who believes that change must occur is to engage that living conversation, working toward change while tending to his or her conscience and living within the boundaries of the existing covenant. The preacher content with the current principles will articulate why the status quo is the most life-giving means to heal the brokenness of the world. All sides of the living conversation within a covenant community listen to each other and the Holy Spirit because our covenant is alive and dynamic.

The freedom to speak and challenge conclusions reached collectively in the dynamic fields of our covenant is often contentious. At least two sides engage in rigorous debate, or preferably in rigorous discernment, when we seek to form new conclusions. Any side in a disagreement will claim the prophetic role as they express God’s feelings (the pathos) when reminding people of God’s truth (what is real) and generally claim to have insight about God’s will.

Patience, discernment and action

The events that led to the civil rights movement are an example of how discernment within the church works. Since the transatlantic slave trade began in the sixteenth century, the church was actively discerning, working, and offering prophetic words against the practices of slavery and segregation. Convicted preachers, prophets, abolitionists, and civil rights workers risked life and livelihood for what they discerned to be the will of God, hopeful that they would see an end to injustice and oppression in their lifetime. The sobering reality is that it took hundreds of years for society and the church to reach the conclusion that most now agree is God’s will.

The struggle for equality continues. Less than a decade ago, a member from another United Methodist Church called to talk to my senior pastor about “that black associate pastor of yours.” Her daughter and boyfriend, an interracial couple, asked my thoughts on inter­racial dating. I advised that we celebrate racial diversity as a gift. We live with the gift of a color-full world rather than a color-­blind world. My comments provoked a parent’s complaint that “blacks are clearly inferior to us.” That incident reminds us that social change is fragile, that we are still discerning, and that we should not take justice for granted. It’s hard to accept that renewal of church and society takes so long that we may not live to see the promised land. However, unless people of faith have the courage to negotiate and discern God’s intention among others in the covenant life, we may never arrive at the promised land.

Who is right?

I won’t suggest which side is “right.” I am more concerned that all church decisions are matters of discernment, in need of revelation. The first-century religious leaders Jesus encountered interpreted Hebrew scripture (our Old Testament) by utilizing the best current scholarship and gathering wisdom from centuries of tradition. Yet many of their interpretations proved deficient without new revelation in the words and life of Jesus. I propose that we are always in need of that revealed word. We always need to recognize the witness that resonates through the life and faithfulness of Jesus. A prophetic word is often revealed on multiple sides of an issue.

So how will we know which word from God is true or false? Who is right? Who appropriately discerns the truth? Who speaks for God? Here’s the answer: “The prophet who speaks in the Lord’s name and the thing doesn’t happen or come about — that’s the word the Lord hasn’t spoken. That prophet spoke arrogantly. Don’t be afraid of him” (Deut 18:21-22 CEB). If the prophecy comes to pass, it is a valid prophecy. How soon will we know? Sometimes, much to our frustration, it takes a long time. God’s intent will be revealed in God’s time. Sometimes God moves through the community of faith to bring things to pass. At other times a deliverer comes in the form of King Cyrus, the non-believing Persian king who ended the Babylonian captivity. Until then, I will sing as Zan Wesley Holmes Jr. taught me: “We shall overcome today!” Today — instead of someday — believing that God will make us one.

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