What is the Book of Discipline?

One of the beautiful and cherished features of the Methodist tradition is the way in which the pastors are brought into a shared covenant with one another. The whole appointment system under an episcopal form of government (bishops and district superintendents) is made possible because of a shared covenant. We pledge to stand together. We all live as those under authority. If, in the wisdom of the bishop’s council, our services and ministry is needed in another location, we pledge to go – and do it with joy – because we believe in the shared covenant which undergirds the wonderful biblical principle that ministry is not about “us.” It is about building the church of Jesus Christ. A covenant, both in the biblical tradition, as well as in modern day United Methodism is not some vague notion, but it is rooted in specific agreements which, in our case, is outlined in the Book of Discipline. The Book of Discipline is what binds us together and provides the “grammar” of that covenant. This has served us well since 1784.

It is, therefore, with dismay that Bishop Mel Talbert has called upon United Methodist pastors to defy the Book of Discipline regarding homosexual practice as being “incompatible with Christian teaching” and, instead, begin to marry homosexual couples. Yet, to do this defies the very covenant we have all agreed to follow. For a bishop to openly declare his defiance against the Book of Discipline and to receive no rebuke from the Council of Bishops is truly startling.

I am not writing this to focus on the homosexual issue per se, though that is the presenting issue which Bishop Talbert has thrust upon us. It applies to pastors who raise doubts about the bodily resurrection of Christ, or the efficacy of the cross, or a whole host of other examples which also break with the Book of Discipline. Bishop Talbert’s open defiance of the Book of Discipline is particularly worth noting because he is a bishop of the church. If a bishop is allowed to openly defy our discipline, then our covenant is broken and no minister can be held accountable. When a bishop is consecrated they take a vow before God to “uphold the discipline and the order of the church.” If this covenant is broken, then the Methodist church becomes a sea of independent churches with no shared faith or doctrine or experience. I applaud the Asbury Seminary graduates who pastor some of the largest churches in the country who initiated the open letter to the bishops asking why Bishop Talbert has not been held accountable (see www.faithfulumc.com). We eagerly await a response from the Council of Bishops. I was not a part of the letter which these pastors wrote, but they must have felt almost ashamed to write it. It is like people from a small town gathering together and pleading with the duly elected sheriff of the town to please uphold the law.

What many in the church long for is a church which is faithful to historic Christianity. What we long for are pastors and episcopal leaders who once again share in a common covenant. What we long for is a growing confidence in the Word of God, the supremacy of Christ and the power of the preached gospel in our ranks. What we long for is a faithful church, even as we recall the words of John Wesley when he said, “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.”

How long, O Lord, must we wait? Have mercy upon us and deliver us in this hour of need.