Bishop Talbert Defies the Discipline

Monday, November 4th, 2013

Those who follow United Methodist news will be well aware that on Saturday, October 26th, retired Bishop Melvin Talbert defied the Discipline of the United Methodist Church, the Scriptures, and the pleading of the resident Bishop of Alabama, Debbie Wallace-Padgett, and performed a same sex marriage between Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw near Birmingham, Alabama. Bishop Talbert has broken covenant not only with the Bishop of the North Alabama Conference, but with all United Methodist ordained clergy who have promised to uphold the Discipline in our ordination vows. I have been asked repeatedly in the last week what my thoughts are about Talbert’s actions and the silence from the Council of Bishops.

First, I think the editorial by Good News President Rob Renfroe entitled “Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett Deserves Better, and So Do We” found in the November/December 2013 issue of Good News magazine sums up my feelings quite well. The silence (as of the posting of this blog) of the Council of Bishops is almost as stunning as the act of defiance by Talbert. There are hundreds of men and women who have been called into the ministry who are contemplating whether or not to give their lives in service to the United Methodist Church who are waiting to hear what the Council says.

Second, this whole ordeal is part of what earlier Christians called “sloth.” Sloth is one of the Seven Deadly Sins in Roman Catholicism and refers to the state of spiritual apathy. It is to confuse our devotion to Christ with devotion to an institution. It is to cry “peace, peace” when there is no peace. It is the inability to distinguish between the searing truth of God’s Word and the bland pabulum of compromised clergy. We all know the routine: Someone defies the Scriptures and shatters the unity of the church. This is followed by the deafening silence of the leadership, followed by seemingly endless institutional deliberations, finally resulting in some lame statement using murky phrases, all in a desperate attempt to find a way to “make everyone happy.” These are the sure hallmarks and signposts of the Kingdom of Sloth. It beckons all of us in a thousand ways.

My favorite summary of this is from Karl Barth who in his chapter on The Sloth of Man (Dogmatics, vol. 4, 2, p. 413) describes the “man of Sloth” this way:

“He is asleep when he should be awake, and awake when he should be asleep. He is silent when he should speak, and he speaks when it is better to be silent. He laughs when he should weep, and he weeps when he should be comforted and laugh. He always makes an exception when the rule should be kept, and subjects himself to a law when he should choose in freedom. He always toils when he should pray, and prays when only work is of any avail. He always devotes himself to historical and psychological investigation when decisions are demanded, and rushes into decisions when historical and psychological investigation is really required. He is always contentious where it is unnecessary and harmful, and he speaks of love and peace where he may confidently attack. He is always speaking of faith and the Gospel where what is needed is a little sound common sense, and he reasons where he can and should commit himself and others quietly into the hands of God.”

Well said, Dr. Barth! The Kingdom of Sloth advances by masquerading as the Kingdom of God. May God grant us wisdom and discernment to know the difference.