Loyal Disobedience

The various acts of non-conformity which have followed The United Methodist General Conference have been swiftly described as acts of disobedience, which are then promptly labeled as manifestations of disloyalty. Various groups and bodies have attempted to frame the issue this way.Unfortunately, to do so is to misunderstand resistance as a study of nonviolence reveals.

Of course, there are forms of disobedience that are reflective of disloyalty, but to name every act of disobedience as disloyalty is to caricature it–which essentially means dismissing the necessity and validity of nonviolent resistance, and treating it rather as something to be punished.  It is crucial to distinguish between disloyal and loyal disobedience.

I first learned about nonviolent resistance as a student at Asbury Theological Seminary under the guidance of Dr. Robert Lyon, who organized the L.O. Society (Loyal Opposition).  He used the group to teach the principles of nonviolence and to train interested students in the practice of resistance within the context of loyalty.  From Bob (as he wanted us to call him), we learned how to be disobedient and loyal at the same time.  We learned, in fact, that sometimes the highest expression of loyalty is to disobey a particular current reality.

It was the L.O. Society which connected us to the literature of non-violence, particularly the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other nonviolent leaders in the civil rights movement.  We were still in the wake of racial violence (the early 1970’s), and reeling from the murder of Dr. King, so these sources spoke powerfully to our lived experience.  King’s “I Have a Dream” address ignited our vision (as did his speech, “The Power of Nonviolence”), and his book, ‘Strength to Love’ provided a curriculum for the mission to study and practice.

E. Stanley Jones, an Asbury College alum, was additionally instructive through his books, ‘The Christ of the Indian Road,’–‘Christ at the Round Table’–and ‘Ghandhi: Portrait of a Friend.’  Jones introduced me to ahimsa (“no wounding”), and he wrote about how he put it into practice in his Methodist missionary ministry in India, frequently being called disloyal by many of his colleagues in India and elsewhere.

Since those initial learnings about loyal opposition, I have expanded my knowledge of nonviolent resistance through the writings of such people as Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Nelson Mandella, and John Lewis.  Over the summer, I have returned to their writings and refreshed my spirit by my reading of their words.

What I learned decades ago, and continue to reinforce, is that nonviolent disobedience is not an act of defiance, it is an act of conscience. It is acting on the deeply-held conviction that a particular current reality is an impediment to the realization of the Beloved Community, understood in Christianity essentially as the Kingdom of God.  It is acting in relation to agapé, as Jones, King, and even Gandhi emphasized.

I have learned that advocates of a current reality always paint the acceptance of the regulated status quo as a virtue, but it is never virtuous to accept something which does harm to others.  Accepting that is a vice.  Love refuses to do that and becomes confrontational, as Jim Lawson taught, not in physical aggression, but in intellectual and spiritual response.

Moreover, advocates of a controversial current reality misrepresent loyal opposition as an impediment to negotiation, when the fact is, it is a sign that the need to talk is overdue.  Paradoxically, it is the nonviolent resistors who are more willing to talk than the advocates of a current reality, who want opponents to be silent and blend back into the woodwork, or maybe even go away.

E. Stanley Jones experienced this, as advocates of the British and Christian status quo (the two cultures overlapped) no longer invited him to their table.  In response he created his own table–a Round Table–where the Kingdom values of respect, inclusion, and conversation became means for the fruit of the Spirit to exist and have influence.  In the end, the Round Table was more representative of Kingdom values that the cultural tables were.

As Jones and these others make clear, nonviolent disobedience refuses to be quiet or disappear. and all because the love of God and neighbor compels a resistance to attitudes and actions that degrade, divide, and discriminate.  This disobedience is not disloyal; it is profoundly loyal.  And when it is rooted in love and expressive of the other eight aspects of the fruit of the Spirit, it reflects the commitment of the first apostles who, when told by the religious establishment to stop talking, responded by saying, “We must obey God rather than men” (yes, ‘men’ in that context) and then went out from the court continuing their alleged disobedience. There is nothing more loyal than that.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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12 Responses to Loyal Disobedience

  1. Tom Fuller says:

    App. 40% of our Methodist membership have left since 1968, when liberals theology first got its stranglehold onto the Methodist mind. Preachers and Sunday school literature started spouting nonsense, and people began to lead. It sounds noble saying ‘E.Stanley Jones would be on our side,’ and it’s safe to quote a deceased saint. The movement to get practicing homosexuality embraced by the entire church is entirely different from Ghandi’s move to free India from British rule or for equal rights for Blacks as for Whites in America. However, liberals would mislead us to believe the rest of us believe the argument is the same. They refuse to discuss honestly the intrinsic differences between the behaviors. Practicing homosexuality was present in the culture since time began, and since time began, the Bible has condemned it. The Bible condemns it because it is an un-Natural act against Nature, that does nothing but feel good between two people. The dual purposes of sex are to make babies and to bring about warm feelings between the man and woman who are going to raise those children demonstrating God’s two natures: grace and justice. Children used to be valued for their intrinsic worth. Now they are valued for the amount of pleasure they bring the adults in their adults’ lives. Christianity prohibits practicing homosexuality because it would violate the laws of nature in harmful, manifold ways. It ignores God’s directive and demands its own right. 356,000,000 have died of HIV/AIDS, mostly because of homosexual behavior. Proponent of it are not longtime humble servants such as the saints you mention, but church iconoclasts. Liberals pride themselves on how superior they are to conservatives in that they deplore hate language and harassment, and yet virtually every statement I have read or heard from liberals toward conservatives has been hateful, harassing and condescending. Liberals are our modern-day Gnostics. They supposedly have received ‘security knowledge’ not imparted to the rest of us, that announces the Bible is wrong, not right, somewhat like the Mormons .

    The good thing is, Scripture says all this will happen. There is a difference in standing courageously for a moral, Biblical cause, and standing with merely the appearance of courage for a popular p.c. cause. Many Biblical verses are appropriate:

    “Satan disguises as an angel of light, and his followers follow with a facade of morality.” (2 Cor. 11:14)

    “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” (Mark 13:22)

    “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isa. 5:20)

    “The time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situation…” (II Tim. 4:3-5)

    “Stop living continuously living morphed (downward) to the pattern of this world. Rather, be continuously living metamporphed (upward) by the upnewing of the mind.” (Rom. 12:2)

    “And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.” (Rev. 22:19)

    Scripture says a great battle will ensue, between the faithful few and the conforming majority. In these last days, many liberal clergy agree that Hollywood is wiser on matters of morality than Scripture. Right on cue: rreligious leaders don their religious clothes and announce that the Bible is wrong, and that people can live as they want. All this is predicted in the Word. They are playing the roles in the Script God wrote aeons ago. They are the bad roles of the guys and the fools.

    I want to know: What is REALLY going on? Whose relative is gay? Who feels his ministry is being threatened if he doe not come out with a statement of compromise? Who has decided he/she is gay? The truth will come out eventually, but not until another 40% of our membership have left. I grieve over all this.

  2. Preston Barnes says:

    Yeah, Nelson Mandela’s goal was to end apartheid. He was in prison 27 years; was that apart of the plan in order to achieve the end result? I imagine he would have preferred to stay on the outside rather than going to jail. It was a consequence of the current political landscape and one he served dutifully. His actions were Nobel worthy.

    The current batch of “martyrs” are anything but worthy. I assure you Mandela did not take any oath to uphold apartheid so that he could change it from within, but rather upheld his integrity throughout his ordeal in order to serve the greater purpose. Be the change through the most honorable methods and your Loyal Disobedience will gain followers. The methods being taken do not meet any honor code.

  3. David Brownlee says:

    Steve, Thank you for this post. Bob Lyon taught and modeled away of following Jesus that gave shape to my life and ministry over these four plus decades. I would love to hear his voice today, talking about “in Christ” living in the issues of our current time. I have an idea his Loyal Opposition attitude would be accompanied with a smile and a twinkle in his eye – and a relentless insistence of standing with the least and the last and the outsiders. He would be proud of your relentless support of the same. Blessings, David Brownlee

  4. John Gavin Lewis says:

    These insights are invaluable. Thank you, Dr Harper. I would like permission to circulate the whole article in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. Yours in Christ, the Rev John G Lewis. the same

  5. Excellent post, Steve. I’d like to pick up this one for UM Insight.

  6. joe miller says:

    Loyal Disobedience, Scriptural Obedience

  7. Jeannie says:

    Thank you, Steve, for this statement.

  8. Andy Gartman, it’s important to note that for Dr. King and his followers, getting arrested was intentional and tactical. That was part of consciousness-raising. They were not in any way acknowledging or affirming the rights of the police to lock them up. Nevertheless, they also had lawyers working hard to get the cases thrown out of court and the laws declared unconstitutional. Getting arrested was part of the plan. Staying in prison was not part of the plan. In our UMC controversy over LGBTQ inclusion, having a trial may be a useful tactic, like getting arrested. But losing one’s credentials, like staying in prison (in the Civil Rights comparison) would not be helpful. The goal is not to get punished. The goal is to change the system and make it more just.

  9. Andy Gartman says:

    I love this post, and agree with the ideas of loyal disobedience, loyal opposition, and nonviolence. The confusion I have as the controversies surrounding human sexuality swirl around me is why those in the UMC who have chosen to engage in acts of loyal disobedience seem to be unwilling to accept the consequences of their actions. The practitioners of nonviolence in the American Civil Rights movement were willing to accept that the consequences of their actions might lead to their arrest and imprisonment. When those came, they accepted them. Though the laws on the books were unjust laws, breaking those laws had consequences. Those who nonviolently broke those unjust laws were arrested and jailed. Though the consequences themselves to the breaking of unjust laws were unjust, they were accepted as part of the process of seeking justice.
    Perhaps I’m being too naive, but the questions answered and vows taken by clergy in the UMC throughout the process of ordination include a profession of knowledge of the doctrine and polity of the church and a profession to live by, keep and uphold them. Some clergy have, after taking those vows, now chosen to loyally, nonviolently disobey their vows and act in a manner contrary to the doctrine and polity of the church. Yet, from my limited knowledge, most seem unwilling to accept any consequences for their actions.
    I’d appreciate any comments that can help me with my confusion.

  10. Deen Thompson says:

    It is amazing how when we grow in faith and have new life experiences that our thoughts and outlooks grow and change. When this happens and we go back to read books and even Scripture that we have read before we find new and deeper meanings. I guess that is what Scripture is called the “living word” and it even gives joy in realizing that even Jesus grew in wisdom & stature — in favor of God and man. If Jesus had room to grow what makes one think that they have all the knowledge and no need to grow? It’s a great day to grow in favor with God and all human kin.

  11. Jeff Blake says:

    So much here. Grateful!

  12. Thank you Steve for identifying the option of Loyal Disobedience! And, thanks to Bob Lyon for the gift of the L.O. Society that continues to give the option of creative witness amid institutional destructiveness. In recent social science literature there is the notion of “positive deviance” as a source of finding creative and constructive ways beyond the institutional and cultural brokenness. Your words are a gift to our church — my prayer is they can be heard.

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