Nineteen Questions-12: Do You Approve of Our Church Government and Polity?

Do you approve of our church government and polity?

Having studied the United Methodist form of discipline and polity, the question now shifts to approval. I just right-clicked on the word “approval” and took a look at the suggested synonyms. synonyms.pngThey include words such as endorsement, support, sanction, consent, and agreement. So having studied the structure, government, and polity of the Church, am I ready to endorse it? Am I ready to support it? Am I ready to consent to it? Obviously the answer is yes. I’ve counted the cost and am willing to submit myself to the government and polity of this denomination.

To me, this is a question of loyalty and accountability. During the service of ordination, the Bishop will ask those of us being ordained and commissioned a question that, I believe, applies to this historic question:

Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?

I bolded some words there. If I desire to be an ordained minister in this tradition, it requires loyalty to the Church, acceptance of its order, defending it, and committing myself to be accountable. That’s a big commitment. This colossal level of obligation beckons an answer to the question: Do you approve of our church government and polity? If one doesn’t approve, agree, endorse, support, etc….then submission and loyalty is difficult to achieve.

I do approve of our church government and polity. There may come a day that I feel like Commissioner Gordon did in Dark Knight Rises: “There’s a point, far out there when the strutures fail you, and the rules aren’t weapons anymore, they’re…shackles…”, but if that day comes I pray that my brothers and sisters in the order of Elders will hold me accountable to the vows I have made and that I’ll have the personal integrity to work for positive change and not undermine or ignore the covenant I’ve agreed to.

Do you approve of our Church government and polity? I do so approve.

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Nineteen Questions-11: Have You Studied Our Form of Church Discipline and Polity?

Have you studied our form of church discipline and polity?

After I became a disciple of Jesus Christ and joined the local United Methodist Church, I was enrolled in confirmation class. I was the oldest one in the class by a couple of years, but the way I saw it I needed to absorb as much as I possibly could about the faith I knew I was called to preach. Three local churches combined their confirmation classes to give us the best experience possible. One Sunday afternoon, in the basement of Benld United Methodist Church, we had a guest teacher. He was the student pastor at Staunton UMC. He genuinely seemed excited to be talking to us about “discipline”. That’s when it happened. He pulled out a thick, hard bound book…The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. I started flipping through its pages. Quite frankly, I was overwhelmed by the complexity of what I was reading; but I was so interested. In my hands was the book that governed our lives together as United Methodist Christians. When I got home, I asked my parents to order me my own copy. I laugh now to think of the nerdiness, or methonerdiness, of a 15 year old kid who read the Discipline from cover to cover. Through the years I’ve even acquired some old Disciplines, such as the last one from the Methodist Episcopal Church and the first one of The United Methodist Church (I’m a geek, I know).

BOD

I have studied it. I’ve absorbed it. I feel that I have a pretty good handle on our form of discipline and polity. I probably don’t have the grasp of say…Chris Ritter (seriously, I don’t know how he finds the time to know the Discipline as well as he does….check out his webpage), but I can hold my own.

There are two separate things we’re talking about when answering this question. First is discipline. What a scary word to so many people. The discipline that makes up our Church really is about covenant. These are the policies by which we agree to be in covenant with one another as a connectional church. What is at stake with Church discipline is accountability. We’ve agreed as United Methodists, clergy and laity alike, to be accountable to one another when it comes to this discipline. Our discipline spells out how we agree to be accountable to conducting ourselves in the Church…through evangelism, administration, worship, mission and more.

Second is polity. Polity is the way the Church is organized and governed. We certainly have a strange system of Church government….but I still love it. We are an episcopal Church where Bishops provide supervision and oversight and have the power to deploy pastoral leadership through the appointment process. General Conference is the only body that speaks for the whole Church…and when it gathers every four years, the Bishops have no vote. So in that way we’re kind of strange for an episcopal body. We have a judicial council which functions as our supreme court. We have general boards and agencies which carry out the initiatives of the denomination. We’ve got jurisdictions, central conferences, annual conferences, districts and at the foundation of it all is the local church where the real action happens. All of these structures are spelled out in the Book of Discipline in our Church polity. I could go on and on but it’s getting late  and not everyone loves the Book of Discipline as much as I do.

It’s clear to me from studying the discipline and polity of our Church that we have tried very methodically to organize ourselves in such a way that makes us an effective tool in God’s hands to fulfill our mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Could we do a better job? No doubt. But our polity and disciple bind us together as ONE Church. This is the United Methodist Way that I agree to be accountable to.

Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? I have.

Nineteen Questions-10: Will You Preach and Maintain Them?

Will you preach and maintain them [the doctrines of The United Methodist Church]?

This question presupposes a positive answer to the previous two. It presupposes that the candidate has studied the doctrines of the UMC and also believes that they are in harmony with Scripture.

This is an important question. One cannot preach and maintain doctrine that they do not fully embrace. There would be no authority or power, not to mention genuineness, behind preaching of doctrine that I do not or cannot affirm. I really see two paths represented in this question.

First, if you cannot affirm our doctrines, do not attempt to preach or maintain them. If it’s something that isn’t protected by the restrictive rules, work to have that doctrine changed. Whether it can be changed or not, do not ignore our doctrine and preach your own. This is unfaithful to the vows made at ordination. I can recall several instances just since I became a United Methodist where there were pastors who refused to baptize infants because they personally only affirmed believer’s baptism by immersion. This stands in opposition to our nuanced belief in Baptism being God’s gracious action. This is just one example.

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Second, preach it, preach it, PREACH IT. I can’t tell you how many United Methodist Churches I have been in where very faithful laypeople have no idea what distinguishes their Church from any other Church in the neighborhood. The doctrines of The United Methodist Church highlight the unique contribution that Wesleyan theology has made to the Church Universal…we need to teach them! We need pastors who are proud of the doctrine that they have studied and found to be in harmony with the Holy Scriptures…and they need to share that teaching with the people so that they can see and understand how these doctrines impact their lives as disciples and what these doctrines mean in relationship to Scripture.

Affirm, teach, preach….live by our doctrines!

Will you preach and maintain them? I will!

Nineteen Questions-9: After Full Examination, Do You Believe that Our Doctrines are in Harmony with the Holy Scriptures?

After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?

This is an important question for me—the question reveals that our hope as United Methodists is that our doctrines are in harmony, in unity, in agreement, in accord, in sync with what is revealed in Holy Scripture.

Scripture is very important to me and to the Church. John Wesley famously wrote “Let me be a homo unius libri”—a man of one book. one book.jpgOf course this didn’t mean that Wesley intended to only read the Bible or expected that of his preachers. Rather, he wanted them to read all sorts of books, but Scripture was supreme as the authority for the faith. United Methodists hold that “Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine.”[1] Scripture is interpreted through the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience. Scripture is informative and transformative for the community of faith. All things necessary for salvation and growth in holiness are revealed in God’s Holy Word.

I believe that pastors and laypeople must be students of Scripture and theology. The Church must always examine its doctrines in light of Holy Scripture to make sure that they stand in harmony with God’s revelation through Scripture and not in opposition to it.

Obviously, I feel that that doctrines of the United Methodist Church are in agreement with what is revealed in the Bible. I am proud to be a part of a tradition that takes Scripture so seriously and finds its doctrinal expression through what is revealed in God’s Word.

After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? I believe that they are.

[1] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/theological-guidelines-scripture

Nineteen Questions-8: Have You Studied the Doctrines of The United Methodist Church?

Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?doctrine.png

I first became a Christ follower during a week at a non-denominational Church Camp. When I got back to my hometown, there wasn’t a non-denominational Church for me to attend. My family had some very loose ties with the United Methodist congregation up the road. I started to get involved. They had some different practices from the non-denominational churches represented back at camp. I wanted to understand those differences and attempt to discern what fit best with what I was learning and experiencing in my own study and growth.

Obviously I ended up in The United Methodist Church, so that should say something about where my discernment led me…but that’s for a different reflection.

The United Methodist Church holds in common many doctrines with Christians everywhere. The Articles of Religion begin to spell out what it is that we affirm as United Methodist Christians.  The unique doctrinal heritage of The United Methodist Church comes in the form of practical divinity. This means that we best express our doctrinal beliefs in the way that we allow them to be expressed through the way we live our lives. This is putting our faith into practice. The Book of Discipline states that “the thrust of the Wesleyan movement and the United Brethren and Evangelical Association was ‘to reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.’”[1] The Wesleyan emphasis on grace is something that particularly drew me to ministry in The United Methodist Church.

Through my years as a Christian, as a student of religion both in undergraduate college and Seminary, I have become a bit of a doctrine nerd. I believe that doctrine is extremely important to the life and growth of our Church. Unfortunately, today, it seems as if doctrine has taken a back seat. Many people in our churches are simply unaware of basic Christian doctrine and the unique contribution that United Methodism makes to doctrinal matters.  I believe that we must wake up from our slumber when it comes to doctrine. “The time has long since past when we can pretend that basic Christian teaching is irrelevant to continued growth in grace and faith.”[2] John Wesley also believed that doctrine was important to our task of spreading scriptural holiness. He once wrote:

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.[3]

I believe that doctrine is extremely important. It’s extremely important for our pastors and laypeople to be able to clearly articulate, understand, and live out United Methodist doctrine.

Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church? I have studied them.

 

 

[1] Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2012, ¶ 102, p. 64.
[2] Abraham, William J. Waking From Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in the United Methodist Church. P. 74
[3] Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” in Works (Jackson), 13:259

Nineteen Questions-7: Will You Keep Them?

Will you keep them [the general rules of our church]?

This question makes me chuckle. Remember back in elementary school when there were those kids that seemed to have the answer to the teacher’s question before he or she was even done asking it? As soon as the teacher started to speak their hand would shoot up in the air “ME! ME! I KNOW! PICK ME!” It was always sickening when they got the answer right.

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It was always interesting, though, when they either actually got the answer wrong or the teacher had a follow up question…oh, follow up questions—how I loathe you! Their hand would slowly retract, their bright eyes would turn cold, and their gaze would shift to the floor. I call this phenomenon “checking your shoes”.

It’s like when the pastor says “Who in here loves Jesus and wants to serve Him?”

Everyone can get on board with that, they are eager to lift their hand and be counted.

Curveball follow-up question: “Good, who’s ready to chaperone the youth mission
      trip?”

Everyone suddenly needs to see if their shoes are tied.

This question—to me—is a bit of a “check your shoes” question.

“Do you know the general rules of our Church?”

     “Yep! Sure do! I can recite most of them for you right now if you’d like, Bishop.”

“Will you keep them?”

             “You know, you’ve got some lovely shoes on, Bishop.”

It’s one thing to know the general rules of the Church. It’s another thing entirely to keep them. I mean, there’s a lot contained in those broad categories of do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.

I shudder to think how many times I’ve engaged evil in ways that do harm to my relationship with God, with others, and with myself. I shudder more to take stock of the ways and places where I’ve failed to do good. I shudder most when I realize that I have not always availed myself of the means of grace in ways that help me stay in love and grow deeper in love with God.

Yeah, I know the general rules of our church. I know the standards of Scripture upon which these rules were written. When it comes to keeping them….there have been some really good moments in there….but there have been some moments where I have been an absolute failure as a follower of Jesus Christ. My relationship with Him and with His Church and with the world for which He died has been a stumbling, bumbling mess.

But you know what? Even in writing that honest confession, I feel grace. I feel God saying “Yes, son, there have been times that you’ve made a mess of things. I forgive you. I am far from done with you.”

For me, the shuddering moments are a sign of a warmed heart, of one who is going on to perfection. If God wasn’t at work in my life, I wouldn’t care. But since God is at work and through the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit making me more holy each day…I can get up each day and work at these general rules all over again.

I don’t have to check my shoes. I am an imperfect follower of Jesus Christ. But by His grace, I am going on to perfection.

Do you know the General Rules of our Church? I do.

Will you keep them? I will so endeavor.

Nineteen Questions-6: Do You Know the General Rules of Our Church?

Do you know the general rules of our Church?

Rules? Ugh. I hate rules. Okay, that’s not completely truthful. At the end of the day, I do see the need for rules. I love baseball, and I can’t imagine the chaos that would ensue if there were not clear parameters and rules to govern and protect the integrity of the game. So it would probably be more fair if I said that I hate unnecessary rules.

The general rules of the United Methodist Church[1] are the general rules that Wesley crafted for the members of the early Methodist societies. John Wesley believed that these rules were to be followed as evidence of a continued desire for salvation.

According to the rules, there is only one requirement for admission: “a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.” The fruit of that desire is summed up in the general rules themselves; broken into three broader rules:school-of-the-north-for-the-love-of-god-25-728

Do no harm…”by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced”

Do good…”by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men.”

Attend upon all the ordinances of God (Stay in love with God) …
-The public worship of God
-The ministry of the Word, either read or
expounded.
-The Supper of the Lord.
-Family and private prayer.
-Searching the Scriptures.
-Fasting or abstinence.

“These are the General Rules of our societies; all of which are taught of God to observe, even in his written Word, which is the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these we know his Spirit writes on truly awakened hearts.”

Do You know the general rules of our Church? I do. 

[1] All quotations in this reflection come from this link.