Covenant in United Methodism

While many have added their voice and reflection to the recent trial of United Methodist pastor Frank Schaefer, I’d like to offer a conversation on covenant.

If you are not familiar with these recent events, Rev. Schaefer was found guilty by a United Methodist church trial on November 19th for violating the United Methodist Book of Discipline by officiating at the same-sex marriage of his son.  The United Methodist Discipline prohibits United Methodist clergy from officiating at any same-sex marriage.  Rev. Schaefer is suspended from ministry for 30 days and must decide if he will abide by the Discipline or face relinquishing his credentials.

In the past I have tried to reflect Biblically on same-sex unions so I will not do so here.  But I do want to help us consider the covenants we make with God and with each other.

Each time Scripture communicates the concept of “covenant” it is speaking about our relationships.  A Biblical covenant is described as a “formal and legally binding declaration.”  Covenant is a relational agreement not just between people but between people and God.  The Old Testament is full of covenants.  In the New Testament Jesus instituted a new covenant – one that is based upon faith.

Probably the most well-known covenant humans make is the covenant of marriage.  In this covenant, a man and a woman commit to a life-long relationship with God at the center.  Another important covenant is the one which led to the trial of Rev. Schaefer – the clergy covenant.

As a United Methodist, I, along with every other clergy person, make a commitment to uphold our theology and practice outlined in the United Methodist Book of Discipline.  As we have seen with this recent trial, there are consequences when the covenant is broken.

But there is another covenant that has been broken.  It is a covenant that I think was not widely communicated in this trial – the covenant of church membership.  The story of Rev. Schaefer was ultimately revealed because of an apparent disgruntled church member.  As I understand the story, Rev. Schaefer performed this same-sex marriage ceremony seven years ago.  It was known by his local church and went no further.  In the years since that event a long-time church member was fired from a staff position in Schaefer’s church. Obviously upset, the son of this parishioner (who himself was not an active member) revealed Rev. Schaefer’s actions to local denominational authorities giving way to the charges and trial.

What is at stake here is the covenant of membership – to be loyal to the United Methodist Church and to support it by our prayers, presence, gifts and service.  In this trial are we missing a conversation about covenantal accountability?  While Rev. Schaefer must himself be accountable to his clergy vows (and confronted if not kept) shouldn’t each church member also be held accountable to their vows (and confronted if not kept)?  Did this woman and her son break a covenant by seemingly reacting out of their undesired experience?  Shouldn’t they too be on trial for actions leading to division and disunity of both their local church and their denomination?

Do we as United Methodists take our membership covenant seriously?  Do we hold one another accountable when we are not loyal?  When we do not support the church with our prayers, presence, gifts and service are we faced with consequences?  Ultimately this becomes a conversation about accountable discipleship and the relationship we have with one another.  Mr. Wesley took covenants seriously and from historical evidence, it seemed to be healthy for the Methodist movement.  If the United Methodist Church desires to see health and prosperity again perhaps its time to reconsider the seriousness of the covenants to which all members commit.

 I am no longer my own, but thine. 

Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,

exalted for thee or brought low for thee.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

thou art mine, and I am thine.

So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth,

let it be ratified in heaven.

Amen.

Wesley’s Covenant Prayer

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