Blest Be the Tie that Binds

May 2nd, 2016

During the last four months, I have had multiple invitations to break my vows. Many people have suggested that, in the name of protesting against perceived injustice, I should disobey the discipline of The United Methodist Church and violate the sacred promises I have made at two key points in my life — ordination as an elder and consecration as a bishop.

I decline those invitations.

I will keep my promises.

I will be faithful to God’s calling on my life as a leader in our church.

Because American culture so little values obedience and discipline today, and because too many persons in the UMC are following the culture in this direction, it is important that I explain why such a refusal to participate in disobedience is the right course of action.

When we sing “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love” we express two aspects of our life in Christ. First, it is a life of love for God and neighbor. The love of Christ shapes our minds and hearts. This leads to love for sisters and brothers in the Lord. I deeply respect and love many people who disagree about key issues in the life of our church. They are friends and colleagues.

The second aspect is the binding nature of our unity in the body of Christ. It is Christ’s prayer that followers of Jesus should be one. While the body of Christ is fractured into multiple denominations, it is important to maintain as much visible, organic unity as possible. We believe as United Methodists that we are “united by doctrine, discipline, and mission through our connectional covenant” (¶101, Book of Discipline, 2012).

The gravest threat to our mission and our unity today arises from leaders who deliberately violate our discipline. Some are elders. Some are bishops. Some are annual conference boards of ordained ministry. Violations of the covenant by leaders have consequences and result in broken relationships.

Years ago a located United Methodist elder who was also the teacher of an adult Sunday School class and chair of the evangelism committee began an affair with a woman. He wished to continue the affair, remain married to his wife, and live with her and his children while continuing as a leader in the congregation. My conversation with him was bizarre. He did not understand that violating one’s covenantal promises carries consequences and results inevitably in broken relationships. He was removed from all church leadership positions. Eventually his wife realized the damage his behavior was doing and she divorced him. She did not want the divorce, but it was the least bad thing she could do when he refused to change his ways.

Some violators of our church’s laws will argue they are justified by allegiance to higher principles such as their view of justice. But it is the General Conference that determines our United Methodist definition of justice. Once a leader is permitted to substitute a private or even an annual-conference-wide definition for our connectional covenant, all sorts of violations of the covenant become possible. If individual leaders are allowed to violate the discipline of the church as a matter of policy, our common work as a denomination will be weakened if not destroyed. If such disobedience becomes the norm, what is to prevent the following:

  • Annual Conferences from withholding contributions to the seven general church funds as a matter of principle? 
  • Annual Conferences from ordaining as elders whoever they find acceptable, regardless of which seminary they attended? 
  • Local churches from hiring whoever they wish as their pastor? 
  • Local churches from withholding apportionments as a matter of principle, not inability to pay? 
  • Bishops refusing to appoint elders who are in full connection? 

We are not talking about minor aspects of our discipline that can be violated without danger. When a local church has too many or two few members of a committee there is not a wide impact on our mission or unity. The bullet points above as well as the human sexuality issues are major aspects of our connectional covenant. They cannot be broken without serious consequences following.

The General Conference and the Judicial Council have no enforcement mechanism other than bishops and boards of ordained ministry. It is our covenant along with our doctrine and mission that bind us together. Almost all of us would prefer that some section of the Book of Discipline were different. But our covenantal commitment to the mission of The United Methodist Church requires that all elders and especially all bishops uphold the key aspects of our discipline for the sake of our mission.

When people justify their actions as “civil disobedience,” they are misusing language. It is not disobedience against the government. It is ecclesial disobedience. They are violating the rules of a church they have freely joined when other, similar churches offer acceptable ways of pursuing their calling. If I ever get to the point where I cannot in good conscience obey the key aspects of our discipline — and I pray such a day never happens — it will be time to surrender my credentials as a United Methodist bishop and elder and find some other way to follow Christ. 

Bishop Scott Jones serves the United Methodist Church Great Plains Conference, which comprises all of Kansas and Nebraska.

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