Is punishment the primary vocation of a bishop?

Is punishment the primary vocation of a bishop? April 29, 2016

"La tortura de Cavalletto," Wikimedia C.C.
“La tortura de Cavalletto,” Wikimedia C.C.

Drew McIntyre is not a bad person. I got to know him on a mission trip to Peru eight years ago. He has a different set of things that push his buttons and a different sense of his role as a United Methodist elder than I do. But that doesn’t make him any more self-righteous than I am. Every time I’ve interacted with Drew in person, he has listened to other people and expressed himself with humility and thoughtfulness. Nevertheless, I am disappointed in Drew’s recent response to United Methodist episcopal candidate James Howell’s post about “enforcing the Discipline.”

I agree with Drew that Howell was taking a risk as an episcopal candidate by writing what he did, but I don’t think that Drew has offered a fair interpretation. In fact, Drew’s response exudes precisely the reductionism that Howell was addressing. For Drew, the sole purpose of Howell’s post was to signal that he would not “enforce” the Discipline by defrocking pastors when they marry the gays. He even came up with a clever phrase for it: “preemptive abdication.”

The irony of Drew’s reductionist hermeneutics is that Howell’s post was a protest against reducing the rich, beautiful document of the Discipline to a handful of paragraphs and the complex pastoral office of the bishop to a single task:

Now, if you had never laid eyes on The Book of Discipline, but only heard Methodists talking about it, you might assume it was (1) a law code, and (2) an exceedingly short one.  Yes, you might overhear other unhappy United Methodists yearning for that very short law book to be changed, although in gritty but defeated resignation. Either way, you’d think it was very brief, and focused on one law.

Both Drew and I had drilled into our heads at Duke Divinity School the importance of charitable hermeneutics. It’s particularly important if you disagree with somebody to try to understand what higher principle is motivating their argument instead of dismissively caricaturing their words with a clever phrase that allows you to make the point you want to make.

Charitable hermeneutics is very hard in the blogosphere. We skim through dozens of articles every day and probably don’t read all the words in any of them. Our instinct is to fly through all the carefully worded nuance that we attribute to “posturing” to find the “real point” underneath the “coded language.” Are you on my side or on the other side? I look for particular catchphrases to let me know, and that determines whether I interpret the rest of the “fluff” cynically or charitably.

With that in mind, it’s probably true that I would be just as cynical and unfair in my reading of a carefully-worded, pastoral document from a marriage traditionalist like Bishop Scott Jones as Drew is about reading James Howell. But I still think we need to hear what Howell has to say. Shouldn’t it bother us that a carefully worded document like the Discipline forged by thousands of hours of prayer and wordsmithing should be reduced to a single issue?

Howell writes:

Let’s be candid about what the Book of Discipline is, and what it isn’t.  I recently decided to read the thing, cover to cover.  It is in quite a few places surprisingly profound, theologically rich, downright compelling, and it is everywhere very much obsessed with our common mission to be the Body of Christ in a lost world.  As best I can tell, Wesley and the early geniuses of Methodism fixed our need for such a book so we could get organized for mission, so we would never forget how connected we are in our labors for Jesus.  But who notices, or alludes to the dominant content of the Discipline nowadays?

I’m preaching on the Prodigal Son this weekend. There are multiple ways in which that story is not an appropriate analogy for the United Methodist debate about gay marriage. But I have been thinking a lot about the rage of the prodigal son’s older brother at seeing his father’s refusal to punish. Few things make us angrier as human beings than seeing other people getting away with things without punishment. That’s why we needed to crucify Jesus, so that somebody would pay for all that sin. Maybe it would help those who are angry about pastors getting away with gay marriage to pop in a copy of Mel Gibson’s The Passion whenever they need to see their punishment.

The most infuriating thing about the Book of Discipline as it currently stands is that it doesn’t prescribe a specific consequence for gay marriage, which means that bishops aren’t required to defrock pastors for gay marriage. They aren’t actually disobeying the Discipline by not defrocking as many have incorrectly assumed. They can opt for a “just resolution,” which Drew calls “just bullshit.” That’s why some folks are gunning for a “mandatory minimum” clause to be added to the Discipline to tighten the screws and hold the bishops’ feet to the fire.

One difference between Drew and me is that I’m a father. That doesn’t make me any better or wiser than he is. It just means that my mind is constantly swimming with memories of all my failures to exact retributive justice against my two sons with perfect precision. Interestingly, it’s my younger son who both gets in the most trouble and needs the most badly to see his brother punished whenever he tattles on him. Often when he runs into the room to tell me that his brother called him “stupid” or said “shut up,” I’ll say “I’m sorry” and turn back to whatever I was doing. If I were a better father, I would have charted out in my mind a complex casuistry of offenses and corresponding punishments along with calculated adjustments for every variety of mitigating circumstance. It just feels too complicated.

Instead of having a perfect judicial system, I usually threaten consequences as a negotiating tactic when my sons are being stubborn. If something serious happens, I’ll take away a privilege like the iPad or dessert. But I always find myself offering to renege on the revoked privilege in future negotiations. I’m always declaring a punishment in response to bad behavior and taking it back as a reward for good behavior. To further complicate matters, my younger son will sometimes throw himself into a genuine hyperventilating panic attack when he’s confronted with his misdeeds. So my focus has to shift to hugging and reassuring him so he won’t stop breathing. When I’m sitting with him gasping and sniffling in my arms, I often lose my resolve to make sure he pays the price for whatever he did. I really do worry that I’m setting him up for a life without discipline, but I’m such a sucker for giving out mercy.

I suspect that when Drew becomes a father, he’ll find it less complicated than I have. Perhaps it’s a bad analogy to compare my parenting struggles with the task of being a bishop. But my gosh, bishoping seems so much more complicated than adjudicating arguments over who said “shut up” first. Do you really want to throw away whole congregations of people who stand behind their gay-marrying pastors when you try to “enforce the discipline”? Does it really not matter how many non-believers decide not to come to church because their evening news is dominated by church trials? How many thousands of lost Christian disciples is it worth? Should it matter if the overwhelming majority of your annual conference vehemently disagrees with the Discipline on this issue? Do you close 30% of your churches if 30% of your pastors participate in gay weddings? Is it really nothing more than “preemptive abdication” for an episcopal candidate to long for “creative, humble, healing ways to uphold the order established by the Discipline”?

For some bishops like Scott Jones, the answer is straightforward. Every gay-marrying pastor will have a church trial, period. Because otherwise the church would be thrown into chaos. I respect that standing on your principles against a tidal wave of changing public opinion is a lonely and difficult thing to do. But I do mourn the way that people like Drew have reduced the bishops’ job description to a single task. I would never want that job, and I admire the brave souls who are willing to step into the helm of a rapidly sinking ship. Especially those who speak candidly about their reservations so that no one can say they were surprised or deceived. The southeast jurisdictional delegates know where James Howell is coming from and they can decide whether he’s the kind of bishop they want in the United Methodist Church.

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