The trial no one wants

Jay Voorhees of The United Methodist Reporter has written a preview column about the upcoming trial of Frank Schaefer on charges that he violated the UMC’s Book of Discipline when he presided at a gay wedding for his son.

In the column, Voorhees continues a line of argument that has gained a lot of traction recently:

And yet, as we face another trial, we have to ask ourselves if this is REALLY the way that Jesus intended for the world to know of his love? Are church trials reflective of our love, one for another, a love which Christ said would be a means of revealing his love to the world? Is not our accountability supposed to be done in love rather than in a court of law?

The column raises a good question. How did Jesus teach us to deal with members of the community who sin? How did Jesus suggest we deal with such things?

Here are my thoughts.

Jesus said if a person who has sinned comes and asks for forgiveness, we should forgive. But Rev. Schaefer proclaims that he has not sinned and does not seek forgiveness from his clergy colleagues.

Jesus said that if a person sins we should go to them, and if they do not repent, we should bring another to speak with that person, and if he still will not repent, the entire church should witness to the issue. If the person still will not repent, Jesus said, they should be as a pagan or tax collector to the church. But, again, Rev. Schaefer and his allies deny he has in any way sinned.

Jesus also told us how to handle situations of dispute with a brother or sister:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:23-26, NIV)

But, again, Rev. Schaefer does not think his fellow clergy have any grounds for “having something against him” or that he is under any compulsion to settle things with his adversary, because he denies that his brothers and sisters have any right to claim he has done anything wrong. Indeed, if he agrees with retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, he believes that it is the church that is evil and oppressive.

As I understand our process, there have been many opportunities for the pastor and those appointed in supervision above him and the person who filed the complaint to talk and conference and find a solution that does not end up at a trial. I believe I read that Schaefer was offered a chance to resolve the matter if he promised in the future to keep his ordination vows to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the UMC. But he refused.

So, I am left wondering what teaching of Jesus or the apostles should guide the conference as it responds to the actions of the pastor.

I’m sure people who are calling for no trials have thoughtful answers based on Jesus’ teachings to not judge and to remove the speck of sawdust from our own eye.

But here is the thing.

The place to have that conversation is not the disciplinary process.

It is at General Conference.

And, of course, the church has had exactly those conversations and debates for several decades at General Conference. We’ve had passionate debates about where the church should follow the teaching of Matthew 7:1-6 and where it should be guided by Matthew 18:15-17. For better or worse, we settle our debates on such matters by voting.

It will be bad public relations for the UMC to have a trial. No one wanted this dispute to come to a trial. But this trial could have been avoided had Schaefer wanted to avoid it. In the end, he has demanded his day in court because he is convinced that he is right and the General Conference is wrong.

If you think Schaefer is correct, you applaud calls to cancel the trial, compare Schaefer with Martin Luther, and compare the church — as Voorhees does in his column — to the Spanish Inquisition. You probably cluck at the notion that willful violation of his vows of ordination could be described in terms of sin. You probably see this as a case of justice vs. legalism.

If, however, you think he has sinned by breaching his ordination vows and by spreading false teaching, then you will not give up trying to turn him back from his sin and toward life. You might say, in fact, that the loving thing is to try to turn him from his sin. You will not stop praying for him. But if he is placed in a position of authority in the church and declares his sin is righteousness, you will say that the church cannot ignore this.

And so, I think I understand why many people are saying we should not have a church trial this week. But I don’t think they truly understand why so many United Methodists reluctantly disagree with them.

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10 thoughts on “The trial no one wants

  1. Nicely summarized. If one side sees a sin where the other does not then what we see here will become the default option wherever this conflict comes up. As unhealthy as these trials are I believe that pastors who are oath breakers are even more unhealthy for The UMC.

  2. good word, Duane. Many times I have asked my congregation while preaching to consider carefully whether we KNOW God or know about God. For far too many years I believed I was a friend of God’s because I preached and went to seminary. But I was lost and blind.

    The most troubling aspect of all of this for me is what troubled most of the biblical writers throughout all of Scripture: I see no fear of God (Rom. 3:18). Pride is the great disease of our churches and pastors and parishioners, and it is so very deadly because it is the least visible of sins, yet most destructive to ourselves and most offensive to God.

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