Scott T. Kisker, Professor of Church History, Associate Dean for Residential Programs, United Theological Seminary
The saying goes that a fish rots from the head. That may be true of fish. It is not true of the people called Methodist. I hear a lot of complaints that the United Methodist bishops have lost the ability to hold themselves accountable to the vows they made. The bishops are not where lack of discipline began. The reality is that Methodism, with regard to discipline, in our time and historically, began rotting from the body.
This was true in our split with regard to slavery. We first stopped holding ordinary lay Christians accountable to the Discipline. The rule that Methodists could not own or trade human beings was on the books, but as we began to grow and reach into higher echelons of society we started to relax that standard to be culturally relevant.
For a while we held on to the standard that clergy needed to be movable and acceptable to any part of the connection. Clericalism crept in. A gap in discipline and expected holiness (not in vows and office) opened between clergy and ordinary Christians. Then that began to relax, and although technically on the books, the church began to look the other way, even when ordained itinerant preachers might own a slave.
The church then resorted to a kind of regionalism, where certain parts of the discipline that spoke about slavery were left out of the printed Book of Discipline in certain parts of the church. South Carolina’s Annual Conference declared that slavery was a civil issue, not a moral one, and the church did not have anything to say about the matter.
All this was leading to a split, but the church did not finally split until the lack of discipline reached the level of bishops. Slaveholding by a bishop finally split the church. The head was rotten. We seem to be repeating history.
I write this as a person who needs to be held accountable to discipline for my own behavior with regard to avarice (the deep issue at play in the practice of slavery), lust, wrath, sloth, and the rest of the seven deadly sins as well. Recognizing the need to hold ourselves to discipline is not to become Pharisees. It is actually an acknowledgement in humility that none of us can stand on our own.
Every Christian, precisely because we are sinners, needs to be held accountable to the outward manifestations of sin, whether slaveholding, or pornography, or “gaming,” or gossip. Our attempts to justify some outward manifestations of sin, generally those to which we are prone, while looking down at those who struggle with besetting sins to which we are not, is true phariseeism.
There is talk about reform of our Methodist Church that will institute means of accountability to the episcopacy. While that may be necessary, it will not matter unless we retrieve what makes us Methodist, which is that discipline is not something for the bishops, or for the clergy, but for Christians. If the body of Christ is not willing to be held accountable to a standard of holiness they cannot live up to on their own, there is not reason for the church to exist. It is no longer a salvific alternative to the destructive forces in the society around it, and there is no point to reforming its episcopacy.
The true head of the church is not rotten, cannot be rotten, for he is perfect love. But the true head of the church, in perfect love, may dispose of a rotten fish. That is what happened to the Methodist Episcopal Church and it may happen to The United Methodist Church if we do not, all of us, return to the discipline of the Church.