A couple days ago, Scott Kisker wrote an article that is making the rounds on how the bishops of the United Methodist church are potentially usurping the ecclesiological status of the denomination. In delaying the votes at the 2016 General Conference on matters pertaining to sexuality and discipline, when it looked like there was going to be a clear movement towards the traditional, historic view of sexuality in Christian history to a specially called General Conference in 2019, the idea was justified as a way to work through the issues that divide United Methodists.
And indeed, I celebrated it because while I largely stand with the traditional, historic view, I lamented because the very nature of enforcing church discipline through such legal mechanisms while occasionally necessary, should at all be avoided if possible due to the unnecessary pain it can create. It was my personal hope and prayer that it would be an opportunity to simultaneously provide clear definition to the theology and ethos to the United Methodist church while simultaneously extending meaningful grace to those who stood in on the other side; I didn’t know how exactly that would occur, except that I favored something akin to a Methodist communion. Furthermore, it was my fear that a traditional, evangelical “victory” on sexuality would lead to a potential hardening and oversimplifying on the realities sexuality and gender. But whatever the way to accomplish a hopeful future for United Methodists, that would entail a truly creative spirit that would be open to dramatic changes, as the current system is perfectly designed for the present dysfunction of the United Methodist church. The 2016 GC would not have been able to accomplish such, as mild tweaks weren’t going to be able to break the dysfunction that both affirming truth and grace. However, as indications are coming that the bishops will be recommending a “contextualization” option, where the traditional statement on sexuality will be removed and the practices pertaining to marriage will be, it is becoming increasingly clear that we will not make the needed types of changes. “Contextualization” only tweaks things and in a way that doesn’t really address the root causes of our theological and ethical conflict. While we need to wait and see what formally comes out, if indications are true, then we are facing more than a theological or ethical crisis; we are the midst of an ecclesiological crisis.
That we are in an ecclesiological crisis is witnessed by the fact that the option that the bishops as a whole seem to be preferred is the option that in the end, best suits all their interests. The movement towards affirming the traditional stance on sexuality and enforcing the church discipline would cut against the interests of many bishops with more progressive leanings. Moving towards a “Methodist communion” where we have separate branches that each define themselves but are united at the higher level would also take away much of the power of bishops through the change and restructuring. Contextualization is the “safest” option and one that best preserves the interests of the bishop.
In making this criticism, however, I am not criticizing the bishops as persons nor am I criticizing all of them as individuals (in fact, as far as I know about his leadership, I appreciate the bishop of Mississippi), but rather the power the role has upon anyone to form what their values, interests, and how they relate to them. Therefore, it is a criticism of the very nature of our ecclesiology. Our ecclesiology as United Methodist is essentially a combination of governing principles contained in monarchy and in democracy. Firstly, our Wesleyan roots are rooted in the Anglican form of episcopacy, which derived from Roman Catholicism, treating power as flowing from the top-down from a kingly figure, the pope, and then moving downward. The power of the bishops largely rests on more monarchical principles, although without a singular pope-like figure. On the other hand, as Methodism was so entangled with the spirit of the thriving American democracy, it’s ecclesiology began to adopt democratic principles, particularly in the legislative power given to the Annual and General Conferences. What we have witnessed with GC 2016 and now probably in the Commission on the Way Forward is the battle between these democratic and monarchical principles of church government.
Why is this a problem? I would strongly contend that the early church neither worked under monarchical or democratic principles but existed more as a charismatocracy, where the more general leadership of the church was bestowed upon those who evidenced special giftedness from God via apostolic and prophetic callings. There was no regular order of succession as in idealized versions of monarchy or transitions of power via a majority vote and put into place through bureaucratic-like rules as in more democratic ways of ordering power. The spiritual leadership of the wider church Church was a gift from God given to the church and bestowed various individuals, but it was not a regularized possession of the Church itself. While the Pastoral letters in the New Testament, which I do take to be from Paul, suggest one could aspire to leadership within the context of an individual body of believers, there was no regular set of rules and processes by which people would attain to leadership within the wider Church; apostolic and prophetic leadership was not a matter of ambition but it was bestowed upon people through a special calling. This calling would be confirmed, as the church in Antioch sent out Paul and the other apostle’s recognized him as containing divinely-given authority; it was not to be marshaled by mere claims of such a calling of ambition to pursue. Furthermore, even as apostles had authority, the basis of the authority they had over the churches they oversaw was a further recognition of their spiritual status; it entailed the local churches recognizing the authority of the apostolic or prophetic authorities; Paul’s correspondence with the church in Corinth, particularly his second epistle, establishes their authority was constantly up for negotiation and that his apostolic authority would have to have evidence of such authority, to which Paul appeals to his likeness to Christ in his suffering. Wider leadership in the Church came from calling of the individual, sending form a local church, confirmed by other apostolic authority, and reestablished in the local churches. There was never a point where the spiriutal leadership has any basis for their authority in the wider church except based upon the on-going recognition of God’s enabling.
You might say as United Methodist’s we have a similar process. People coming for ordination in the United Methodist church are people who feel called, they are recommended at charge conference, which is the meeting of the local church, and they are confirmed as at the district and then ultimately annual conference level. However, the fourth step does not happen, as short of a chargeable offense, clergy will remain in their authority; I remember it crudely being said to by a laity as coming from a pastor who shall be unnamed as “so far as you keep your pants on and keep the finances of the church in check you have a job.” However, while these processes exist, it is really addressing leadership at the local church level as the effective authority of individual clergy is in the individual churches they are appointed to. However, it does not work in such a clear manner in regards to our episcopal authority; they do go through the same process as clergy, since bishops do not form a separate class from clergy, but in matter of actual reality, their movement towards episcopal leadership fails to come under the fourth step of having to routinely establish their authority to the local churches they exhibit authority over. While they are generally limited to 2 different annual conference appointments for 8 years each, a bishop is a bishop for life. As such, they need not continue to “negotiate” and reestablish the divine calling on their present ministry; it is presumed to be their “secure” possession unless they do something egregious to disqualify themselves. So their attention and focus will gradually be shifted in their role towards other interests, including those who try to win and charm the attention of the authority for other purposes; instead, the bishops will need to keep their attention on the churches themselves as much as those people who are closer to them and those situations that are more immediately important to themselves.
Now certainly, in this day and age of a church that has millions of people and in which bishops have oversight over hundreds of churches, you can not expect an individual bishop to constantly validate his ongoing calling from God and persuade every one of them. However, what would be more reasonable and in general alignment with the principle of the ongoing reestablishment of a divine calling is if there was a way that the bishops at both the general and annual conference level (and even jurisdictional?) could be evaluated by the churches over whom they exhibit leadership. If there was some manner in which the leadership of the bishops could be called into question by the churches themselves, and not the bureaucratic process that sometimes does and sometimes does not represent the churches adequately, that the churches as a whole may make a vote of “no confidence” in the leadership, particularly on all the bishops as a unit. In a circumstance like this, it would be in the best interests of the episcopal authority to actually address conflicts and divisions, rather than putting lipstick on the same pig that keeps getting trotted out. They would be accountable for dragging their feet; they would be accountable for how they employed their spiritual authority; they would be accountable for their continued faithfulness to God. The sources of the division must be addressed, rather than subtly stoked by failure to manage. But a mechanism where the churches themselves can hold the bishops accountable might entail having to create many more small annual conference with fewer churches, so this may be some organizational difficulties with such an arrangement on the surface.
Furthermore, and this is a bit more radical, but what if the church was structured that it did not take bishops as an automatic role that the church was to have; rather, the church was less hierarchical in its organization, except that it recognized the possibility that unpredictably on our end persons would be called towards such general authority, but still that this authority has to be strenuously discerned by the individual, by the churches, and by the rest of the authority so that it is never a secure possession to be msrhalled and manipulated by those whom the role falls upon. Maybe that is untenable and maybe the apostolic nature of the early church is not something we should expect today; but I believe that every set of churches that we call a demonation should and that seek to be faithful God and believe the Bible to by inspired Scriptures should constantly wrestle and honestly acknowledge the distinctions between the charismatocracy of the early church and the monarchical and/or democratic principles of modern ecclesial organizations, rather than baptize the modern ecclesiology as true to the work of the Spirit in the early church (maybe because the Spirit is leading in another direction in the present circumstances) and thus automatically assume it represents and fosters the embodiment of God’s will in the church.
However, to summarize, insofar as our power of decision making and granting authority in our church ecclesiology is regularized, we should open our eyes and ears to the possibility that God’s will for the Church can be co-opted by other interests and concerns that have mastered how to control the system of ecclesial ruling principles with effectiveness. The spiritual leadership of the bishops can be coopted and thus I believe it would be wise that we have some way of holding bishops accountable by the churches. Those who lead the larger church are not to be like kings or presidents who have the clear prerogative of authority over others for a lifetime or for a clearly outlined period of time, but in the body of Christ they are to lead insofar as they are capable of being genuine servants, which God’s ongoing empowerment makes possible.