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A Commentary on the Council of Bishops' Pastoral Letter

A Commentary on the Council of Bishops’ Pastoral Letter
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker

     On Nov. 2, 2005, the Council of Bishops presented a pastoral letter to The United Methodist Church. The pastoral letter is a statement by the bishops to the Church following Judicial Council Decision No. 1032.

     We believe that our statement is necessary to provide a larger perspective than is possible in a decision by the Judicial Council on one particular case. The role of the Judicial Council is not to establish the doctrine and discipline of the Church or to enact legislation, but to determine an appeal of a bishop’s decision on a question of law. The role of the bishops is to provide pastoral oversight of the whole Church and to teach and uphold our doctrine and discipline.

     In Decision No. 1032 the Judicial Council reversed the decisions of the bishop in the Richmond Area and affirmed the right and responsibility of a pastor to exercise judgment to determine who may be received into church membership.

     The Council of Bishops acknowledges that pastors have the responsibility to exercise judgment on the readiness of persons to become members of a local church. Without the authority to exercise judgment pastors cannot fulfill their ministry of guiding persons in professing faith in Jesus Christ and living a life of Christian discipleship in the Church.

     The Council of Bishops also reminds the Church that all ordained persons exercise their ministry in covenant with all who share their ordination and accept the supervision of their district superintendent and bishop. The Judicial Council rightly states that a pastor should exercise “responsible judgment” in determining who may be received into membership. The statement of the Council of Bishops emphasizes the covenant of mutual accountability that exists among all ordained persons and reminds the Church that “responsible pastoral judgment” is better insured when pastors cooperate with their superintendents and submit their personal judgment to the wisdom of other ordained persons in their annual conference.

     Since the person seeking membership in the particular case before the Judicial Council is identified as a “homosexual” in his orientation and practice, this case implies that the Church faces a complex of issues pertaining to grace, repentance and Church membership.

     The gospel of Jesus Christ is that the grace of God is “the free gift” (Romans 5:15) of forgiveness, reconciliation and righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and all are saved by grace rather than by “the result of works.” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

     Hearing and believing the gospel involves repentance, which is a radical reorientation of our lives according to the purposes of God. Repentance is not a single event, but a continuous process as we grow in our knowledge of God and ourselves.

     The Church is the community that is created by the proclamation of the gospel. In this community we learn to live in gratitude and praise, to order our desires, and to practice forgiveness, justice and kindness. The Church is the people learning together how to repent as we hear the gospel.

     A church has to establish a discipline or a method for determining who may be received into membership that is ordered according to both God’s free gift of grace and God’s call to repentance.

     In the Wesleyan tradition of evangelical mission, entrance into the community is based primarily upon the response of faith to the free gift of grace. In the original Methodist societies the only condition for membership was the desire “to flee the wrath that is to come.” Once one became a member then one lived in a community of mutual support and accountability and grew in faith and repentance by participating in means of grace, including searching the Scriptures, receiving the Lord’s Supper and praying. The evangelical mission of the Methodist societies of inviting persons to come “just as I am” and then to grow in grace has shaped the form of discipline for membership in The United Methodist Church.

     The pastoral letter of the Council of Bishops states that “homosexuality is not a barrier” to membership in the Church because “God’s grace is available to all.” Membership is offered to homosexual persons because the condition of membership is the same for all persons — trust in the free gift of God’s grace by profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

     In the Christian community all of us come together as fallible and unfinished persons with our different temptations and struggles to appropriate the grace of God that heals and transfigures us into the image and likeness of God. What is a struggle for one of us may not be a struggle for the rest of us. We recognize that God’s grace operates in each person according to God’s purpose and God’s time and according to each person’s ability to respond to God’s grace. We do not judge one another, but we encourage one another as together we are summoned “to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).

     The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ our Lord and savior. This mission is given to the Church by the living God who offers the free gift of grace in Jesus Christ to all for our forgiveness, reconciliation and transfiguration into God’s image and likeness.

 The United Methodist Council of Bishops issued a statement on the recent Judicial Council ruling to reinstate a pastor who denied membership to a gay man. For the full statement, click here