7 Reflections on the United Methodist Church’s Discipline Against Rev. Frank Schaefer

by Ben Simpson on December 11, 2013 · 22 comments

It may have been lost on us who hang out in only Baptist circles that our brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church (UMC) had a fairly serious dust up last month.  For me, I have many friends in the UMC, some of whom are ordained by the church.  In fact, it was one of my ordained friends that passively brought my attention to the situation when she posted on her Facebook page a request for people to pray for the situation.  Furthermore, my wife and I have United Methodist ties in our past.  So, I am always interested about what’s going on with that denomination.  Indeed, all of us who are Christians should be concerned with what’s going on in the United Methodist Church because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ and stand as the largest mainline denomination in America.

Last month on November 19, Rev. Frank Schaefer of Pennsylvania was found guilty by a United Methodist court of a practice declared by the denomination to be incompatible with Christian teachings.  What did he do?  He officiated his son’s homosexual wedding in Massachusetts back in 2007, which is an act in direct conflict with the United Methodist Church’s governing laws called The Book of Discipline.  In paragraph 2702 of the 2012 version of that book, we read the following:

“A bishop, clergy member of an annual conference, local pastor, clergy on honorable or administrative location, or diaconal minister may be tried when charged (subject to the statute limitations in 2702.4) with one or more of the following offenses:  (a) immorality including but not limited to not being celibate in singleness or not faithful a heterosexual marriage; (b) practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings including but not limited to:  being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies; (c) crime; (d) disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church; (e) dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church; (f) relationships and / or behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor; (g) child abuse; (h) sexual abuse; (i) sexual misconduct (j) or harassment, including, but not limited to racial and / or sexual harassment; (k) or racial or gender discrimination.”1

To be honest, there was nothing the court could do if it was to have any integrity at all but convict Schaefer, and convict him they did.  He was given a chance to repent of his actions and pledge never again to perform a homosexual union, but unashamedly he replied, “I cannot.”2

The subsequent penalty could have been an immediate removal from UMC ministry, but instead the court was gracious, giving him a 30-day suspension.  However, that suspension was to be spent thinking about his future with the UMC because the penalty of suspension was followed by an ultimatum to be in force when the suspension is over:  comply with church law or surrender your credentials as a United Methodist minister.

With just a week and a half left in the suspension, most everybody expects Schaefer will choose to surrender his credentials, including Shaefer himself who told reporters that he had no intention of changing his mind.3  He now sees himself as an advocate for the LGBT community (I think there’s also a “Q” for questioning added nowadays to that abbreviated list representing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) and says that he will never be silent on the issue of homosexuality again.4   I’m not sure exactly where this story is going or where it will end, but I do know that it is not going away.

____________________
In response to the UMC’s discipline against Rev. Frank Schaefer, I have the following reflections:

1)  I rejoice that the United Methodist Church upheld its biblical convictions and disciplined Schaefer.  Here we have a man in Schaefer who has been called of God and vowed to be His minister but is instead leading people astray from God by performing and blessing homosexual marriages.  I’m reminded of the wicked prophets in the days of the prophet Micah who were leading God’s people astray (Micah 3:5).  Instead of celebrating and blessing homosexual marriages by officiating them, Schaefer should be saying, “I love you two men dearly, but according to God in the Scripture, what you are doing and seeking is sin.  It is incompatible with Christian teachings.”  However, he has chosen to affirm people in their sin. Nevertheless, the UMC has made a decision on the side of Scripture here to uphold biblical Christian doctrine.

This step, however, was not only the right thing to do biblically, but also the right thing to do organizationally.  For any organization to function, it must have a set of agreed upon standards.  For the UMC, that is The Book of Discipline, 2012, which leaves no wiggle room here.  A United Methodist clergy may not do several things, but particularly in reference to this case, he or she may not conduct ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions or perform same-sex wedding ceremonies.  If they do, charges may be lodged against them with the denomination, which is what happened with Schaefer.  In the end, the UMC acted in accord with its governing documents by disciplining Schaefer, which was right, and I rejoice in that.

2)  I am saddened to see a minister of God in direct rebellion against God and the church.  As I said a moment ago, Frank Schaefer claims to have been called by God to serve God ministerially, but in this aspect of his life, he is in direct rebellion against God.  Again, God has basically said, “Tell them ‘no’ to homosexuality,” but Schaefer is saying “Yes!”  This behavior is so sad.  Even after the church has disciplined him, Schaefer has arrogantly said that he would be open to doing a same-sex wedding even during his 30-day suspension.5

He has not been humbled in the least!  Undoubtedly, some will and probably already have painted Schaefer as some kind of hero who has been metaphorically martyred by the intolerant church, but he is no martyr.  He is rebel against his church and against God.  Schaefer would do well to listen to Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren, who recently told CNN’s Piers Morgan that he cannot see himself ever supporting homosexual marriage and gave this as his reason to Morgan, “I fear the disapproval of God more than I fear your disapproval or the disapproval of society.”6 Oh how I wish the same for Schaefer because it saddens me to see a church minister fearlessly rebelling against God.

3)  I am grieved by the pain that this situation is causing those who struggle with the sin of homosexuality.  Undoubtedly, cases like this one with Schaefer highlight the pain that those who struggle with homosexuality face.  They not only have to deal with the inner conflict their lifestyle causes with their conscience and the toll it takes on their bodies, but then there is massive pressure from the outside as well.  Indeed, homophobia, bigotry, and bullying are still real problems.  Furthermore, there are those who go about ministering to the homosexual community in an unloving way.

All of this grieves me.  Jesus said that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and didn’t say, “except for those faggots and dykes.”  No, indeed!  We are to love those who struggle with homosexual sin.

But how?  Simply affirm them in their homosexuality?  No, that would be unloving as well.  When we do that, we are adding to the pain that homosexuals will face because to harden oneself in the practice of homosexuality will bar a person from Heaven, placing them in the pains of Hell forever (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

We have to find that middle ground where we truly show kindness and love to people struggling with homosexuality while never affirming their sin and consistently calling them to repentance and faith in Christ.  I’m not saying that when a person struggling with homosexuality repents, it will be painless for everybody.  It’ll probably be incredibly painful in some sense, but as Paul said, For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal,” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).  It will all be worth it!

4)  I am reminded how easy it is to let sentimentalism cloud our understanding of truth.  People often hold an opinion until the situation hits them personally.  Maybe you’ve heard before, “Oh, you’ll think that way until it happens to somebody you love, and then you’ll change your mind.  Do you even know anybody who is gay?”

The Washington Post reported that Schaefer has four children, and three of them are gay.7 That adds a ton of pressure on a person!  It’s enough to lead someone to say, “I mean, if a father really ‘loves’ his children, what else is he to do but affirm them in their homosexuality?  Right?”  That’s how sentimentalism works, and it clouds truth.

I’m not sure what Schaefer’s stance on homosexuality was before he was a father, but the sentimental desire to affirm his children certainly played a part in him openly and knowingly going against church law to perform his sons same-sex marriage.  We every one should take note lest sentimentality trumps truth in our lives. We are all prone to it and are probably already doing it some area of our life.

5)  I praise the Lord for the international delegation of the United Methodist Church.  Every four years the United Methodist Church meets for its “General Conference” where denominational decisions are made by majority vote of the attending delegates.  The last one was in 2012.  As Lisa Wangsness of the Boston Globe pointed out, “Its centralized lawmaking body, the General Conference, is made of up of delegates from around the world, assigned roughly in proportion to lay members and clergy in each geographic region. Almost one-third of the delegates now come from Africa, where homosexuality is widely considered immoral, if not illegal.”8

So, thanks largely to the more conservative international delegation to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the biblical line has been held on homosexuality.  In fairness, one has to note that the line has been held in the face of  much opposition, but thanks be to God that due to demographic shifts and the spread of Methodism abroad, statistics show that the UMC is actually becoming more conservative.9

6)  I recognize that this battle inside the United Methodist Church is not over.  To be honest, the UMC has a long and arduous road ahead of it.  There seems to be a growing, irreconcilable rift in the denomination.  Each passing day, it seems that another fissure emerges.  Of course, the situation with Frank Schaefer is not over.  He’s still on suspension, and I believe he has the option to appeal the ruling.

Furthermore, there are many more trials coming up on the docket.  When you couple this activity with the passionate homosexual advocacy groups in the UMC like Reconciling Ministries Network (rmnetwork.org and rmnblog.org) who have as their mission to see homosexuality normalized at every denominational level, you have a growing problem that I believe is going to get very ugly.  Sadly, the infighting is long from over and is actually only beginning to heat up.

7)  Nothing like this would ever happen in the Southern Baptist Convention.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that some Southern Baptist pastor or church hasn’t been or won’t be tempted to affirm people in homosexuality.  In fact, some have been tempted and gave into the temptation.  However, I’m just saying that after looking fairly closely at the polity of the United Methodist Church, their polity operates so much differently than we Baptists operate, such that what we’re watching in the UMC not only would not happen in the SBC, but also could not happen.

First, every single Southern Baptist church is autonomous, which means that no denominational body has control over a local church.  Every single church could call even a homosexual pastor this very day if they wanted to, and nobody outside of the church can stop them.  Certainly, the local association, the state convention, or the Southern Baptist Convention itself could kick out churches who support homosexuality, but that’s it.  They have no authority over the local church and what its ministers do.

Second, there would be no denominational trial.  We as the SBC simply do not have this sort of apparatus in our governance.  Now certainly, somebody may lodge a complaint against another church or an individual, and there might be an investigation to see if the complaint has merit, but as I stated it above, the denominational bodies force no decision upon a church.  These bodies would simply determine if they will allow a particular church to continue to be affiliated with the denominational body, and even then, for better or for worse, each denominational body would make its own decision and would have no bearing on the others.  For instance, a church could be removed from the local SBC association but remain in good standing with the state convention and national convention.

Third, there would be no denominational body threatening to remove ministerial credentials.  Ordination in the SBC is done by the highest authority in the SBC, namely the local church.  There are no standards or prerequisites other than what has been laid down in the Bible for the office of pastor, the calling of God on the man’s life, and the recognition of that calling by a local congregation.  A church may ordain whomever it wants to at any point it wants to.  This process is, of course, very different from the UMC process of ordination.  You can read about the process here.  Maybe you’ll be less confused by it than I was when I read it.  Nevertheless, it’s clear to me that the main difference is who confers and retains authority over a person’s ordination.  For the UMC, it is the denomination, which is an impossibility in the SBC.

____________________
In closing, I’m watching what our United Methodist brethren are going to do in the coming months over the issue of homosexuality.  I’m praying it will God-honoring, which is to say that I pray it will be Bible-honoring because one cannot honor God if he or she does not honor His Word.

~Ben Simpson  :  @JBenSimpson  :  JBenSimpson.com  :  West Main Baptist Church

 

1The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2012, accessed online at http://www.cokesbury.com/forms/DynamicContent.aspx?id=87&pageid=920&rank=15&txtSearchQuery=book+of+discipline, 776.  Please forgive me if I misrepresent any of the United Methodist Church’s polity.  Their polity is, I admit, a bit confusing at points to my Southern Baptist self.

2Michael Rubinkam, “Frank Schaefer, Pennsylvania Methodist Pastor, Suspended After Officiating Son’s Gay Wedding,” The Huffington Post, published online 19 November 2013, accessed online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/19/frank-schaefer-pastor-gay-marriage_n_4306009.html.

3Ibid.

4Ibid.

5Michelle Boorstein, “Methodist pastor who officiated at gay son’s wedding is suspended for 30 days, The Washington Post, published online 19 November 2013, accessed online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/lively-testimony-in-penalty-phase-of-trial-for-pastor-who-officiated-at-gay-sons-wedding/2013/11/19/f5402942-5146-11e3-a7f0-b790929232e1_story.html.

6Billy Hallowell, “Rick Warren Stands Up to Piers Morgan: ‘I Fear the Disapproval of God More Than I Fear Your Disapproval’,” The Blaze, published online 9 December 2013, accessed online at http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/12/09/rick-warren-stands-up-to-piers-morgan-i-fear-the-disapproval-of-god-more-than-i-fear-your-disapproval.

7Boorstein.

8Lisa Wangsness, “Among Methodists, schism over gay rites,” The Boston Globe, published online 24 November 2013, accessed online at http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/11/24/church-divided-rift-over-homosexuality-threatens-viability-methodist-church/VN0qmmdBKP88HGVIlOiIwL/story.html.

9Ibid.

1 John Fariss December 11, 2013 at 4:34 pm

I was recently accused of “always being against anything conservatives in the SBC said or did.” I think my accuser was wrong; at any rate I affirm your article and your position.

John

2 Dave Miller December 12, 2013 at 4:12 pm

Oh, John, you are always against anything conservatives in the SBC say or do.

(Sorry)

3 John Fariss December 16, 2013 at 10:31 am

I’m just a grinch, against everything anybody says or does. Equal opportunity.

John

4 Rob Ayers December 16, 2013 at 12:04 pm

At least smile when you say that :-)

Rob

5 David R. Brumbelow December 11, 2013 at 5:40 pm

For those who want to keep up with conservative United Methodists, check out the following website, and subscribe to Good News Magazine:

http://goodnewsmag.org/

Also, if you know any Methodists, let them know about this magazine and this conservative Methodist organization.

David R. Brumbelow

6 Ben Simpson December 11, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Thanks so much, David, for that link!

7 Jake Barker December 11, 2013 at 10:22 pm

This sort of thing has been going on in the UMC for decades now. In 1996 I was part of a group that formed the “Confessing Movement Within the UMC”. In early 98 or late 97 there was a group of UMC “clergy” and I use that term in the loosest possible sense of the word, that performed a sodomite wedding ceremony in Oregon. Two UMC female clergy from Oklahoma participated in it. I filed charges in church court against the 2 since I was a member of a UMC in Oklahoma. There was overwhelming evidence against the 2. Then Bishop Bruce Blake, presiding bishop of Oklahoma, against his will, removed one of the clergy’s credentials. She immediately became clergy in the UCC. Another one was allowed to take a sabbatical and then retire at the end of her sabbatical. The corruption runs to the core of the UMC in spite of the faithful groups that try to bring about a reformation to the UMC. I left the UMC in 2000 and probably in my lifetime will never return.

8 John Fariss December 12, 2013 at 2:44 pm

With all due respect, Jake, I believe your statement, “The corruption runs to the core of the UMC” is a bit over the top. I realize that “corruption” has a variety of meanings, and I presume that you are using it in the sense of some core problem which speaks of decay or rot. However, most people read that term and understand it in a political/financial sense of bribery and malfeasance. I hope you will take a lesson from Louis’s comments below which are much more succinct and exact.

John

9 Jake Barker December 12, 2013 at 9:54 pm

John,
I said what I meant and meant what I said. The UMC is corrupt and most of the bishops tolerate and or sanction the corruption. Tithes and offerings are used to promote sodomy, abortion and other unsavory items…..such as the late Nelson Mandela’s African Nation Congress. I suggest that if you have not been a UMC’er and participated in activities meant to reform it (the UMC) then maybe you should investigate before you stick your nose in it.

10 Rob Ayers December 17, 2013 at 5:31 pm

Jake,

My uncle is a member of FMC Tulsa which I believe was the source of the “Confessing Movement” – I wonder if you are familiar with the church and some people there.

Rob

11 Jake Barker December 17, 2013 at 8:41 pm

I am familiar with FUMC. The 1995 or 1996 conference worship session was held in the church, if my memory does not fail. Dr. John Ed Mathison from Montgomery preached. The senior pastor was involved in this also, for the life of me I can’t remember his name but his son is now pastor of a UM church in south Tulsa. Can’t remember his name either but that is a product of age. I was a member of a UMC south of Tulsa in Eufaula at the time. Around 2000 or so I gave up on reforming the UMC and converted to those heathen southern baptists.

12 Louis December 12, 2013 at 9:27 am

The Good News Methodists are great people. They have labored, and are laboring, mightily to maintain a faithful Christian witness in the UMC and to bring about change.

I have a relative who worked for one of the Methodist organizations. They have several, United Methodist Publishing House, the Board of Discipleship, the Upper Room, United Methodist Communications etc. My relative worked for them 15 to 20 years ago, and the organization for which my relative worked had as its President, or Executive Director, an open, avowed lesbian.

I don’t know what that portends for the future of faithful Methodism. I do not give up hope, but I am not optimistic either.

It’s not just the question of homosexuality. The bigger question for denominational or quasi denominational groups is whether they are going to preach the Gospel and make disciples, as commanded by Jesus, and teach them the things that Jesus taught his followers, as set forth in the NT, or whether the spiritual and theological teachings of the Christian faith are going to be minimized, ignored or revised. Groups who are not faithful to Jesus will then hijack the faith and use it for the propagation of earthly, political causes and power.

This has been a historic temptation throughout the history of the church. It will always be the temptation for all types of groups, whatever the orientation.

In our day, in the U.S., the primary manifestations tend to make Jesus sound more like Marx than himself. And many of the moral teachings are completely rejected if they do not fit with whatever the popular craze may be.

This is essentially the choice we faced in the SBC years ago. The battle line in the SBC was over “Inerrancy,” which seemed to some to be a battle merely over obscure and technical theories of biblical interpretation. People who were prescient understood the stakes. Those who did not understand the ultimate aims of those who wanted to see the SBC continue along the line of the so-called mainline denominations were naive. In some cases, I believe the ignorance was feigned.

For example, Bill Sherman, a moderate leader, was genuinely shocked when the CBF had the dust up years ago over homosexuality. He was also genuinely shocked when Belmont College (now University) allowed a gay and lesbian group to be officially recognized on campus. The younger crowd in the CBF earnestly desires to see homosexual practice removed from the list of “Thou shalt nots.” Whether they will simply put up with people who birthed their organization, like Sherman, or whether they will actually end up reforming people like Sherman, remains to be seen. So there are Baptist churches, and the CBF (a split off program from the SBC) who are also struggling with this issue, homosexuality, and the bigger question of whether to be faithful to the emphasis and concerns of the NT or to have emphases that are primarily secular and political.

The SBC will also face these questions going forward.

I am praying for the UMC but the SBC and other groups, as well.

13 John Wylie December 13, 2013 at 8:45 am

Louis.

I appreciate your comments on this matter for two reasons. First, it would appear that God, like in ancient Israel, always reserves unto Himself a remnant. And second, I appreciate the truth of your words about what happened and is happening in the CBF. I commented on this very issue with CBF on another blog a few years ago and got called a liar multiple times. Thanks

14 Louis December 13, 2013 at 10:37 am

Thanks, John.

I always enjoy interacting with you in the blog world.

15 Matthew Newman December 16, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Quick update: Schaefer will not relinquish his credentials. Interesting to see how the local Conference responds. If they are principled, they will defrock him.

http://www.philly.com/philly/news/breaking/20131217_Methodish_minister_Schaefer_will_not_relinquish_his_credentials.html

16 Ben Simpson December 16, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Thanks for the update, Matthew. I pray they’ll follow through and defrock him.

17 Jake Barker December 16, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Probably promote him to a DS (district superintendent) which means he will be in the bishop’s cabinet giving advice & overseeing other clergy that are doing the same thing he did…..just not out with it. They will leave him there until he has enough time in to retire. I’ve seen this very same thing in the Oklahoma Annual Conference…..I know this, not just exaggerating things.

18 Ben Simpson December 16, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Given the corruption you listed, Jake, I hope that God will raise up a Martin Luther type figure to either bring the UMC back to biblical faithfulness or to begin a new group altogether.

19 Tim Rogers (@Timothy_Rogers) December 17, 2013 at 9:09 am

Ben,

Enjoyed reading this article. Certainly there is one statement that I would take exception with. Some may think it is semantics but I would argue it isn’t. You write; Certainly, the local association, the state convention, or the Southern Baptist Convention itself could kick out churches who support homosexuality, but that’s it.[Emphasis mine] We do not “kick out” churches within the SBC. We “withdraw fellowship” Kicking out gives a “top down” hierarchical approach while “withdraw fellowship” presents more of a body decision approach. Also, the main reason we do not have an apparatus within our governance to bring about a trial and formal charge of heresy is due to our governance. We are congregational in our governance not episcopal, nor presbytery. The latter call for a hierarchical approach were those at the top decide what happens to those at the bottom. Had the UMC had the congregational approach in place I submit to you that Rev. Frank Schaefer would never have gone to trial much less be facing defrocking. While I agree with the UMC’s stand on this I disagree with her approach to the situation. Had this been a truly Biblical conviction of the denomination it would come as a congregational vote. That is how we know the SBC is a “biblical conviction” convention of churches–we all have a say based on the scriptures. Any church that allows their pastor to perform a same-sex ceremony has denied the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. As such the convention removes fellowship with the church we do not remove just the pastor.

20 cb scott December 17, 2013 at 9:42 am

The above comment is true — Every word; Every sentence; Every dotting of an “i” and crossing of a “t.”

21 Ben Simpson December 17, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Tim,

Thank you for the encouragement.

22 Ben Simpson December 19, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Breaking news on this story today…

Rev. Frank Schaefer met with the United Methodist Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference’s board of ordained ministry this morning. He was asked if he would uphold the entirety of the Book of Discipline. Schaefer said that he could not. He was then asked to surrender his credentials, but Schaefer refused to do so. At that point, the board then deemed his credentials surrendered. The Rev. Frank Schaefer is now simply Frank Schaefer.

Schaefer plans to appeal the decision. From what I understand in the Book of Discipline, the appellate committee may either reverse the verdict, order an entirely new trial, or uphold the verdict. We’ll see what happens.

You can read about the news at http://umcconnections.org/2013/12/19/breaking-pennsylvania-pastor-loses-clergy-credentials/.

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