GC2016 — What Are Rules For?

A question United Methodists seem to love to hate is about our rules.  Are our rules, mainly delineated for us in our Book of Discipline, made to be followed or to be broken?  Are rules absolute and unquestionable or are our rules evolving and bendable?  Why have rules if we do not follow them?  If there are no consequences to breaking rules, why even bother having them?  But if rules are never challenged or violated, how can we “move onto perfection?”  In our history, we have had rules about owning human beings, borrowing and lending at interest, authority and acceptability of female leadership, divorce, and segregation — all rules that we elected to change for a wide variety of reasons and justifications.  We have had to create rules to prevent child abuse, domestic violence, gambling, and labor rights because our Christian brothers and sisters weren’t clear that we shouldn’t do these things.  The point is, our rules are created by us to give us guidance and define boundaries, but they are not now and they have never been fixed, static, and concrete, and without exception the catalyst to change the rules came through a process of bending, forcing, violating, and breaking them until change was made.

The root of the word rule — regular — means “a straight stick,” or more loosely, “a pattern.” What defines the straightness of a stick?  In a broad and general sense, we can say a stick is straight.  At a fine and microscopic level, virtually no stick is completely straight.  There is “wiggle room” in what straight means.  And this drives us crazy.  We want a definitive, absolute, yes or no.  A stick is straight or it is not.  We can’t work well with “a little straight” or “straightish.”. We deeply desire the total elimination of ambiguity.

This is one of the reasons why we want to use the Bible to settle our “ish-nesses”.  If the Bible says it, then that settles it!  Except the Bible is a straight stick.  We have some who read the Bible as infallible, absolute word.  This approach wants to “honor” our clear biblical standards for moral purity.  However, this is a slippery slope.  Divorce, slavery, child abuse, money-lending/borrowing at interest, civil rights, etc., make this a tricky and dangerous approach.  People who want individual freedom to interpret scripture as they please concerning homosexuality look for a standardized one-size-fits-all condemnation that would “settle” the issue for all time.  Consistency and avoiding a double standard would essentially clear the churches and close our doors.  The day we close our doors to sinners is the day we end the Christian faith for all our members.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  We would not need a Savior if we weren’t an imperfect people.  Sinners belong in church because God so loves the whole world that Jesus was sent to save.  So rules that restrict who we offer the saving grace of God to are deeply problematic.

Rules used as weapons are destructive and do not reflect a healthy spiritual tradition through the Hebrew as well as the Christian church.  Rules are tools; tools are used to create, what they create reflects the core values of the rule makers.  But tools are means to ends, not ends in themselves.  We should not become so enamored by our human-developed rules that we elevate them to the level of sacred writ and holy scripture.

We are working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.  Much of what comprised conventional “rules” twenty, sixty, and a hundred years ago no longer apply.  Many things not considered important in the same time frames is now “the will of God” and “Christian tradition.”. The reason we have a Book of Discipline is because our mores and morals do evolve and change.  Why divorce, homosexuality, masturbation, mixing bloodlines, and adultery were sinful in a pre-modern cultural context has very little (if anything) to do with the post-Enlightenment/Puritanical/Victorian modern morality we force on them.  Virtually no one today would create rules to justify and defend slavery, though the whole canon of our scripture takes it as normal and acceptable.

It is very possible that God’s Holy Spirit is actively working in and through God’s Christian people to speak to our contexts and cultures.  It could well be that there are not a set of universal truths and moral rules that apply equally to all people in all places at all times.  It could be that God works through us in community to reveal to our discernment what is right and good and helpful and useful to make us faithful and fit for the tasks of Christian discipleship.  Rules are made for God’s people, not God’s people made for the rules.  We work together to do the very best we can to comprehend, understand and perform God’s will.  Rules cannot make us who we need to be, but as we strive together to become who we need to be, our rules could very well take care of themselves.

2 replies

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Dan. As a leader of the Wisconsin conference, you are in part acting as my voice and representing my church at General Conference. For that reason you are in my prayers, and for that reason I write.
    Obviously our rules (within the BoD) are made to be followed, not broken. They give our local churches the earthly organizational framework needed for the divine ministry of Christ. And you are indeed correct; the “wiggle room” regarding rules drives us crazy, and we deeply desire the total elimination of ambiguity. Why do rules have “wiggle room”? Why are rules changed? Because rules (in any earthly organization) are written by humans; imperfect people whose feelings, thoughts, and understanding continually change. Thus anything we write will be imperfect and allow ambiguity. Our living God is perfect in all of His ways. He is Holy, Just, Righteous, and His Law cannot be mocked. If a pastor, bishop, or any church leader does not agree, then why are they in ministry? How can they teach about, worship, or serve a God whom they do not know?
    It is not a slippery slope to stand on the authority of scripture; it’s a slippery slope not to. What you’re basically doing in this article is using scripture to say this: Did God really say that? How can you be sure you understood correctly? Maybe He’s holding something back from us. Let’s try playing by our own rules. (read Gen 3)
    The further the BoD becomes from God’s Word, the less He will bless the UMC. God cannot bless an organization that allows and endorses fleshly desires. Don’t misunderstand me, if I or the church refuses to offer the saving grace of Jesus to anyone, we will be held accountable. Currently there are no rules within the BoD that do this, only rules that ensure church leadership will not live in or promote a lifestyle of sin, effectively refusing the saving grace themselves, and rendering their ministry contradictory. Again don’t misunderstand me, we cannot obey God’s Laws on our own “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.” His Law leads to death and destruction within us, but we cannot change God’s Law like we try to do with the BoD. We need a savior to fulfill the demands of Gods law and take the full weight of sin’s consequences upon Himself. We are either under the Law, or saved by Grace. We either need to obey all of God’s Law, or die to every passion, thought, desire and identification that we hold to and trust in Jesus to save. Jesus saved us from sin, not to return to a life of sin lived proudly in direct opposition to His righteousness.
    Dan, go ahead and change the BoD to fit your viewpoint and the culture’s desires. If so, I will be weeping for a church that is no longer among the body of believers. I will still rejoice because in the end church doctrine does not unite us, it’s the Doctrine of Christ that unites us.
    Praying always for you and the General Conference,
    -Seth-

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