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The coming debate over membership

The coming debate over membership

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

The coming debate over membership

Sept. 13, 2006    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0546}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

Following Judicial Council Decision 1032 the battle lines over the discipline of membership in The United Methodist Church are already being drawn.

On the one side, there are those who want to convince the church that “sexual orientation” should not be an obstacle to membership. The practical effect would be that no pastor could exclude a homosexual person from membership in the church.

On the other side, there are those who want to convince the church that the practice of homosexuality should be an obstacle to membership. The practical effect would be that no pastor could include a homosexual person in membership in the church.

The prospect is that the 2008 General Conference will be the battleground for these opposing parties.

I believe that would be a mistake. Once again a General Conference would be preoccupied with the controversy over homosexuality. The proposed theme of the General Conference — “Hope for the Future: Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for a Transformed World” — would be kind of lost in the dark energy swirling around the controversy. Political struggles would drain the hope out of the gathering and leave the church in a condition of distraction and disunity.

This may be one of those situations where, ironically, the way forward is by maintaining the status quo. In Decision 1032 the Judicial Council affirmed the authority of the pastor to determine a person’s readiness for membership. Essentially this is a wise approach. It does not legislate who should or should not be a member of the church, but it recognizes the need for the exercise of pastoral judgment in a local situation.

In a previous column I stated that it is important for the church to take a pastoral approach toward homosexuals. Specifically I stated, “This may include receiving into membership those who are in monogamous same-sex relationships and those who define themselves as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’.” When I stated the word “may” I was implying that the decision about membership should be made by the pastor in a local situation.

I am not surprised that my position has been criticized by people from across the church on both sides of the controversy over homosexuality. However, I maintain my position that either absolutely refusing to allow any homosexual persons to join the church or absolutely requiring that all homosexuals persons join the church is a mistake. The proper exercise of responsible pastoral judgment in consultation with the laity and superintendents enables the church to deal with the complexities of every particular case. To try to legislate this matter will either create a nominal approach to membership or a legalistic approach to membership.

The church needs a vision of a holistic system of discipline that is not limited to merely determining who should be allowed to become a member. The whole weight of the church’s discipline cannot rest only upon conditions of membership. The reason we are so focused upon membership is because we have forfeited a system of discipline that allows for the work of God’s grace in us over a long period of time within a community of mutual support and accountability. If we want to have a constructive debate, then let us talk about the creation of a holistic system of evangelical discipline rather than try to codify the discipline of membership one way or the other.


This article relates to Church Membership/Homosexuality.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.