On the disciplining of bishops

February 21st, 2023

In an article in his Firebrand magazine, “On Bishops and Governance in the Global Methodist Church” (January 10, 2023), David F. Watson vents his spleen on the failure of United Methodist bishops to act like bishops. Which for Watson is mainly a matter of defending the faith and enforcing the laws of the church. The dean of United Seminary surveys the few biblical texts about bishops and invokes a couple of ancient examples (like Hippolytus and Irenaeus of Lyon) whom Watson thinks define what bishops are for. Curiously, Watson overlooks the creative and decidedly missional ways that American Methodism redefined the historic episcopacy. His limited definition of the episcopacy could have been enriched by a look at Francis Asbury on the subject of itinerant, mission-leading, church-planting bishops.[i]

Watson takes aim at contemporary Methodist bishops:

What we have seen on multiple occasions is that, if bishops wish to enact practices and policies that violate the decisions of the General Conference, they can do so without consequence. Traditionalists could win every vote at the General Conference, and it would not matter. Such bishops—bishops for life, by the way—act as if they are responsible only to their own judgment. 

I assume that Dr. Watson is speaking of the failure of the Council of Bishops (COB) to discipline the errant former bishop of the Houston and Great Plains episcopal areas. Many have lamented the betrayals by this bishop.[ii] His removal from the Southern Methodist University board for “a breach of fiduciary responsibility” was a warning to the COB that here was a bishop who, in the words of Watson, was “responsible only to their own judgment.”   

Like Watson’s article, I neither mention the name of nor do I defend the inexcusable actions of the Texas bishop. However, I would make a couple of comments about Watson’s criticism that United Methodist bishops fail to discipline misbehaving bishops.

Dr. Watson, who doesn’t care for my thoughts on the current state of the church (see my Don’t Look Back: Methodist Hope for What Comes Next), asks me, “Have there been other periods in Methodism when bishops have wielded such unchecked power over annual conferences, clergy, and congregations?”

True, the Texas bishop’s annual conference was powerless in the face of the bishop’s schismatic, secretive, determined actions. Who knew that while the bishop was in the employ of The United Methodist Church, he was surreptitiously helping to write a Provisional Book of Discipline for a new denomination hoping to supplant the UMC? 

“Have there been other periods in Methodism when bishops have wielded such unchecked power over annual conferences, clergy, and congregations?” 

The answer is simply, Yes. Historically, some bishops have wielded all sorts of power in various ways, for good or ill. Dr. Watson, check out any of the fine histories of American Methodism by scholars like Russ Ritchie and David Hempton, and you will find numerous instances of Methodist bishops wielding what their detractors no doubt called “unchecked power.”

For starters, see Dr. Lovett Weems’ wonderful piece on some of the important—and laudatory—moments when Methodist bishops and their annual conferences resisted and protested votes of the general church (on issues like women’s ordination, racial inclusion, and smoking) in order to work for the greater good of the church.[iii] As someone from South Carolina who had a bishop who used his power to desegregate our Conference, thank God, these courageous bishops’ power to do good was unchecked.  

I heartily agree with Dr. Watson that, 

We should conceive of the office of bishop as a crucial element of our rich Christian heritage. It has been given to us by God, prescribed through Scripture and embodied in tradition, as a gift for the upbuilding of the church and the salvation of the lost…. we should conceive of bishops as pastors, evangelists, and defenders of the faith… and the Spirit of governance God pours out upon bishops is for the church’s spiritual care. Let business managers handle business. Let attorneys handle the law. Let bishops lead the church in word, sacrament, and order.

Agreed. A duly consecrated bishop, actively employed and now pensioned by the UMC while plotting and working to dismantle the UMC (while denying doing so) is an offense against the historic episcopacy.

As Watson says, bishops, 

...have no authority except what the church gives them, and to the extent that they defy the church, they do not act with episcopal authority. The Spirit of governance is a gift God gives to the church for its order and wellbeing, not a weapon to create disunity.

Amen! I hope Dr. Watson spoke out about the scandal of a bishop working to dismantle the church that elected and employed the bishop. If he did, I missed it.

I fully agree with Dr. Watson that, “If a bishop steps outside the boundaries of the church’s core teachings, that bishop has exceeded his or her mandate and authority” and therefore “should step down. If he or she will not do so, the church should take steps to make this happen.”

Currently, the Council of Bishops is busily carrying through a process of church discipline related to a complaint against a popular, prominent bishop. I suppose that Dr. Watson would applaud the work of the COB in this and deplore that this process was not followed in regard to the bishop in Texas.  

Why did the Council of Bishops of the UMC, unlike the Board of SMU, fail to hold their brother bishop to account? Possibly, the bishops found it difficult to believe that a bishop would behave in such a fashion. Many of the council no doubt held the aforementioned bishop in high regard for some of his earlier contributions. Who could have predicted that the bishop, after claiming that he was not working to encourage churches that were planted by and owned by the UMC to leave the UMC, would do just that? Now he has unashamedly taken his full pension with him and has become the first bishop of the denomination formed from the UMC. I expect the UMC COB was caught off guard by such arrogance. Maybe they’ll do better in the future. If the COB erred, in regard to the schismatic bishop, at least it erred on the side of grace.

Imagine the shock throughout the UMC if an officer of a seminary—planted and faithfully funded by the UMC to produce pastoral leaders for the UMC—was found to be working and for the establishment of a church that has contempt for and aspires to replace The United Methodist Church? 


[i] Watson’s skewed argument could have been strengthened and corrected by consulting, John Wigger, American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists, Oxford Press, 1979; Ashley Boggan, Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe, Jean Miller Schmidt, American Methodism (Rev. ed), Abingdon Press, 2022; and even Will Willimon, Bishop, Abingdon Press, 2012.

[ii] See the Rev. Dr. Stan Copeland’s “Bishop What Took You So Long?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zsg6wuFPiu8. Copeland says, “It has been a tough season for the church, in which dishonest and self-serving political agendas have ruled the day. History will write quite the story of the great Texas Annual Conference and how actions and inactions led to half of the churches therein disaffiliating.”)

[iii] Lovett Weems, “Methodism’s History of Rejection of General Conference Actions on Issues Other than Homosexuality,” Methodist History, Vol. 60, No. 1, 2022.  Also see Lovett Weems, https://www.umnews.org/en/news/disobedience-didnt-start-with-sexuality-debate



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