UMC: Clergy Ethics

I continue to read and hear about UMC clergy who are championing disaffiliation from the denomination. Some have already led their congregations out of the UMC, and others are at some point in the process of doing so. Yet, they retain their credentials as UMC clergy, voting in regular and called sessions in their Annual Conferences about matters in a church they no longer support.

Questioning the propriety of their actions, I turned to my friend David Gushee, a leading ethicist in the world today, asking for his sense of what they are doing. [1] With his permission I share what he wrote to me…

“Your question is about the morality of what they are doing. I would say this. Clergy who are leaving the UMC to join a new confession/denomination should leave in peace and should leave their former community in peace. They should accept that two communities are now being formed where there was once one. They are choosing the new community. Once having made the choice to enter the new community, they should allow the affairs of their former community to be decided by those who remain in it. While there may not be a rule against the tactic of voting in the old community having already decided to enter a new one, such a tactic is obviously unethical. It is wrong because it is meddling in the affairs of another faith community. It would be like initiating a divorce, moving out, and getting involved in a new relationship – while meanwhile actively sabotaging the spouse left behind.”

In his response, David takes us to the heart of Christian ethics—to the place St. Paul had in mind when he wrote that some things may be permissible, but not good or edifying (1 Corinthians 10:23) In a nutshell, morality is a higher virtue than church polity. Clergy proclaim the higher way; we should live there. The day a clergyperson’s heart moves outside the UMC, should also be the day they cease voting inside the UMC.

It’s the ethical thing to do.

[1] Dr. Gushee is past president of the American Academy of Religion. His books are standards in the field of Christian ethics. He is currently Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, Chair in Christian Social Ethics at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, and Senior Research Fellow at the International Baptist Theological Study Center in Amsterdam.

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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