Reconciling Congregations and Covenant Breaking

By Wesley Putnam

Sunday, February 27, was the day when University United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, was going to vote on becoming a Reconciling Congregation. The vote had been heralded three months previous through The Daily Texan with the headline: “Methodists to vote on GLBT inclusion.” GLBT is the acronym for “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender.”

According to its website, Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) is committed to overturning the historic stance of United Methodism’s biblical position on ordination standards, human sexuality, and marriage between a man and a woman. According to its website, “RMN works for full equality in membership, ordination, and marriage for God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children.”

One of the primary problems with this vote is that it is clearly forbidden by Decision #871 of the United Methodist Judicial Council: “A local church or any of its organizational units may not identify or label itself as an unofficial body or movement.

“Such identification or labeling is divisive and makes the local church subject to the possibility of being in conflict with the Discipline and doctrines of The United Methodist Church.”

Additionally, Judicial Council Decision #886 has bearing on this matter: “[A]nnual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.”

When it became public that University UM Church was planning this vote, I notified the pastor that he was moving the church in a direction that seemed to be in clear violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. He indicated he was determined to continue and had already discussed it with his district superintendent.

I then contacted the office for the District Superintendent in the Austin District, citing the relevant Judicial Council Decisions. I never received a response.

Next, I contacted Bishop Jim Dorff of the Southwest Texas Conference and informed him of the plans of UUMC. In his email response, the bishop assured me that he appreciated my concern but then went on to state his belief that “it is permissible for a congregation to be affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network.” He was, apparently, making a distinction between being “affiliated” and “identification or labeling”—explicitly prohibited by Judicial Council rulings. He even stated, “It is often difficult to keep this distinction clear in everyone’s understanding.”

I fail to see the difference. Affiliating with a group is identifying with a group. And Judicial Council Decision #871 simply says that Annual Conferences, local churches, and units within churches (Sunday school classes, UMW groups, etc.) are forbidden to “identify or label” themselves as “an unofficial body or movement.”

The entire point of not labeling your congregation is because it is “divisive and makes the local church subject to the possibility of being in conflict with the Discipline and doctrines of the United Methodist Church,” as the Judicial Council made clear.

Rainbow crosses and pink triangles
After several email exchanges with Bishop Dorff, I decided to attend the vote at University UM Church as an observer. I also attended the morning worship service just before the church conference.

The lovely sanctuary was comfortably full with between 250 and 300 worshipers. The congregation that gathered was multi-generational. I was met by friendly greetings from several members as I made my way to my seat.

I noticed that rainbow crosses and pink triangles were displayed on many lapels.

The pipe organ was belting out a rousing call to worship and the sound reverberated off the ample hardwood surfaces of the room. The atmosphere was celebratory as the congregants anticipated the purpose of this day.

The style of worship was traditional. There was a lot of liturgy and ancient hymns, plus also a couple of more recent songs from the hymnal supplement.

Everything in the service was designed to lead up to this historic vote. Even the children’s sermon was a call to remember that there are many different pieces that make up a puzzle.

“When God’s peace is at work, even though we are going in lots of different directions, God brings us together and gives us God’s love,” the pastor told the children. “To love each other, care for each other, and be reconciled to each other. We want to be with all different kinds of people, not just people just like us,” he said.

The last statement seemed to be directed to the adult congregation more so than it was to the children.

The Rev. John Elford of University UM Church is a tall man with a quiet and conversational speaking style. In remarks sprinkled with humor, he emphasized that UUMC is a “welcoming congregation” and the people there are “learning more and more every day” about all that term means.

Ironically, the Scripture Pastor Elford chose to speak on was “Blessed are the peacemakers”—on a day when he was leading the church to take a divisive action.

I certainly didn’t disagree with everything he said. He spoke of the hard work Jesus calls us to of reconciling the world to God. He said it is not always easy to make peace. Peacemaking can be back-breaking work in which we must trust God’s providence for success.

Pastor Elford said we need not fear as we do this work because evil is being overcome with good. He declared that the forces we are up against are what Paul called “principalities and powers.”

Regrettably, the context of the day infused Pastor Elford’s words with a meaning that differs from the church’s historic proclamation of the gospel. Ultimately, the pastor of University United Methodist Church was challenging his congregation to “make peace” with what God’s Word has declared to be sinful. In this new meaning of things, a person cannot be truly “welcomed” unless his or her behavior is affirmed and even endorsed.

Pastor Elford was calling his church to celebrate behavior that has been prohibited for thousands of years—in both the Old and New Testaments.

Further, he was asking them to violate the spirit of our denominational Book of Discipline and the clear intent of the UM Judicial Council by joining an unofficial group whose statement of purpose is opposed to church law.

The controversy over how the church will treat homosexual behavior has been “front and center” in every General Conference for four decades. The United Methodist response has been consistent, clear, and gracious. We view homosexuals—as we do all people—as being of sacred worth, but we recognize homosexual behavior as being contrary to the teaching of Scripture and the established body of doctrine held by the church. That is our stand.

It is not the prerogative of a pastor or local church to purposely crusade against settled church law, while suggesting that everyone who opposes them (including, by implication, the UM Judicial Council, the General Conference, and every orthodox UM member) is a part of the “principalities and powers” of darkness.

But led by their pastor, and with the district superintendent present, this is precisely what University United Methodist Church did. After the 11 a.m. service, by a vote of 228 to 15, UUMC became affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network.

Why this matters
“I can assure you that they will not vote to become a reconciling church,” Bishop Dorff responded to me in a later email. “Their vote will be only whether or not they join the Reconciling Ministries Network.”

Ultimately, University UM Church did both.

The wording of the ballot made it clear that the ruling of the Judicial Council had been violated. By calling itself “a member of RMN” and placing the phrase “A Reconciling Congregation” on its website and other communications, UUMC has identified or labeled itself as an unofficial body or movement.

When this Church Conference was called for, District Superintendent Bobbi Kaye Jones should have ruled the meeting out of order. She did not.

When he was made aware of this action, Bishop Dorff should have upheld and enforced the Judicial Council decisions and the Book of Discipline. He did not.

Why does the action of University UM Church matter? In a word, it’s all about covenant. As an elder in the United Methodist Church, I am in covenant with all other elders, bishops and district superintendents included.

The Discipline defines that covenant in Paragraph 306: “An order is a covenant community within the church to mutually support, care for, and hold accountable its members for the sake of the life and mission of the church” (emphasis added).

This is serious business.

This whole debate began in the 1990s when my home conference in Northwest Texas voted to become a “Confessing Conference.” This action was challenged and the Judicial Council rulings cited above were made. Any church or conference that had declared itself as affiliated with the Confessing Movement or Reconciling Movement were asked to remove any mention of it from their signage and printed materials.
The Confessing Movement churches and conferences complied. But as the Reconciling Ministries Network continues enlisting churches in its cause, the bishops are turning a blind eye.

Because of the vows I took as a member of the order of elders, I am compelled to speak up. I will not be silent.

Wesley Putnam is a full-time United Methodist evangelist and a member of the Northwest Texas Annual Conference. He is the former president of the National Association of United Methodist Evangelists.