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Riley Case: How Much Do We Trust Our Bishops?

This came in my email inbox, from the Confessing Movement in the United Methodist Church. I don’t usually reprint things like this, but i thought there were several good points in here, so I’m re-posting the whole thing.

By Dr. Riley Case
    Presently proposed legislation to United Methodism's 2012 General Conference would greatly expand the role of the bishops in UM life.  This legislation is as follows:
      1) A set-aside bishop, without the responsibilities of an area to serve.  This person would serve as a sort of chief executive officer for the denomination.   Some persons have said this person would feel very much like a United Methodist Pope.
       2) The end of guaranteed appointments.  Presently any ordained member of a conference who is in good standing is guaranteed an appointment, regardless of how effective or ineffective the person is.  The key person in deciding whether a pastor should or should not be appointed would be the bishop.   Since decisions could be made on subjective factors, this would open up the appointment system to abuse.  Meanwhile, the bishops themselves, elected for life, would keep their own guaranteed appointment.
      3) The restructuring proposed by the Interim Operations Team (IOT), which would
increase the presence of bishops in the governance of the agencies.   The proposal would combine nine major general agencies under four "ministry centers," which would operate under another coordinating agency, a Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry, which would operate with a 15-member board of directors.   The coordinating agency would have authority not only to direct the work of the center but also to allocate funds "in consultation with the bishops."  It is the "in consultation with the bishops," as well as the fact that the bishops would have a hand in picking the 15 members board, that bothers people.
     As has been said before, at least from an evangelical perspective, it is not structure that is the church's major problem.  It is moral and doctrinal confusion and an inability of church leaders to articulate a Biblical vision for the church.  Or to put it another way, it is a 100-year capitulation to theological liberalism and moral ambiguity and compromise.   But having said that, structure matters.  Generally, for evangelicals, the less institutionalism and top-heavy bureaucratic structure, the better.   Many churches feel they pay a lot of apportionments for general church agencies but are not convinced the benefits warrant the expense.  Evangelicals could support any structure that would cut costs, would be theologically balanced, and would benefit the local church. 
    Which brings the matter back to bishops.   There could be support for new structure if it were thought that leaders-in this case bishops-would be committed to the United Methodist doctrinal standards, would be competent in their duties, would avoid the pitfalls of institutionalism, and would be fair toward all theological perspectives, particularly to evangelicals. 
    This, it appears, might be too much to ask, given the church's history with its bishops.
    Methodism, at least at the beginning, thrived under bishops.  Bishops deployed preachers like commanders deploying troops.  They inspired; they rode the wilderness trails along with their preachers.  They truly did believe the purpose of Methodist preachers was to save souls, and they set the example by their own preaching and convictions.   For the most part they were exceptional men able to assess gifts and graces and to make appointments accordingly.  For all of its claim for reform and its arguments for a more republican form of church government, the Methodist Protestant Church, which had its beginning in 1822 in rebellion against bishops, never did thrive, partly because of the lack of governance authority.
    But bishops, like the church generally, increasingly became attracted to prestige and power, became institutionally protective and cautious, and less effective.   Bishops did not handle prophets and mavericks well.  In the run-up to church division before the Civil War, bishops denounced the evangelical abolitionists as trouble-makers, and thus lost those who formed the Wesleyan Methodist and Free Methodist Churches.   The bishops' position on slavery was not unlike the bishops' stand on homosexual practice today.  To appease the slaveholders they took the attitude that there were differences in the church and the church was not of one mind (the same argument used in homosexual practice discussions today).   The bishops, ever protective of their own, refused to hold accountable the slaveholder, Bishop Andrews, despite the Discipline's stand on slavery.  The bishops' plan for dealing with the 1844 General Conference crisis was to call for tabling all slavery matters and talk for four more years.   In this leadership vacuum the church split disastrously.  The differences were probably irreconcilable but an amiable division would have been better than the animosity that developed out of a chaotic situation.  The Methodist Protestants, who did divide amiably, were able to reunite in 1878.  It took the M.E.s until 1940.
     The M.E. bishops, both north and south, did not deal with the Holiness Movement well.  At first supportive, the bishops became alarmed when holiness advocates began to develop alternate structures-periodicals, hymnals, camp meeting associations, ministries to the poor, and independent evangelists.   The ensuing purge, in which bishops took a leading role, drove out some of the choicest people in the church during the 1890s and 1900s, resulting in numerous new denominations, and which led eventually to the Pentecostal movement.   That was when Methodism lost its poor.   Bishops became very much a part of an elitist class, elected often from positions as college presidents and book editors, and increasingly isolated from common ordinary Methodists.  There is something ironic about Methodism's much heralded Social Creed of 1907, pontificated by persons living in the gilded age speaking on behalf of the poor when the church had just driven the poor from its midst.
     In the early 1900s the bishops, always captive to trendy fads, capitulated to theological modernism and were a part of an effort to deconstruct the faith.  In this understanding the goal of the church was not to win souls but to bring in the Kingdom, which looked very much like some form of socialism.  Superstition and ignorance, not unbelief, were the obstacles on the way to the kingdom, and "fundamentalism" a hindrance that needed to be removed.   The strategy during this time was to impose modernism in the seminaries, the course of study, and the Sunday school material, and then force pastors and churches to use only approved "official" resources and training.
      In more recent times, despite a number of excellent bishops, the animosity on the part of some bishops toward evangelicals has been marked.  Good News has documented dozens of cases where pastors and churches were mistreated, often without due process.   Not all of these were evangelicals, but many were.  More discouraging than the mistreatment was the unwillingness of anyone, including other bishops, to hold incompetent bishops accountable.  True accountability for our bishops needs to be part of any restructuring, especially with the increased empowerment they would receive under the plan.     
     In the mid-1980s when the Mission Society for United Methodists was sending missionaries in support of United Methodist and Methodist autonomous churches around the world, the bishops refused to grant special appointments to anyone associated with the board, and discouraged churches from receiving Mission Society representatives in their churches.   In California in 2000 the bishop basically purged 16 evangelical elders and ministerial candidates from the ministerial ranks because they voiced their criticism of the bishop's handling of ministers performing homosexual unions.  In Fairbanks, Alaska, the bishop and conference forcibly discontinued of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in 2002, because the church elected church officers that were not acceptable to the district superintendent and the bishop.   When the book United Methodism@Risk, a book which accused all the evangelical renewal groups of undermining the United Methodist Church was published in 2003, bishops were quoted and one bishop wrote the study guide.    About the same time the bishop who chaired the General Board of Church and Society referred to conservative critics of the board as "enemies." 
      In 2005 Pastor Ed Johnson of Virginia was discontinued as a ministerial member because he resisted the bishop's orders to go against conscience and the Discipline in determining a person's readiness for membership.  When the bishop and the conference action was overruled by the Judicial Council, the Council of Bishops defended the bishop and evidently the bishop's role in reinterpreting the Discipline, criticized the Judicial Council and made sure any council members who voted for the majority would not be reelected.  While no bishops have actively been involved with evangelical renewal groups bishops have continually been identified with groups like Methodist Federated for Social Action, Church Within a Church, Reconciling Ministries and others who have admitted they have problems with the Discipline as it now stands. 
     With this history it is no wonder that many evangelicals in the church (there are others also) are uneasy about giving bishops even more authority under the new proposed structure.    If the bishops were to commit themselves truly to guarding the faith they have promised to uphold,  gave themselves to the mission of the Church which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, hold one another accountable, and respect theological diversity, especially in regard to evangelical theology, evangelicals would be first to join their support group.
    Perhaps it will be possible to work out a compromise with the proposed structure.  Boards and agencies could be downsized, accountability put in place, and a system of effective governance in which all groups in the church work together in order to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. 

     (For a file of past Happenings articles, as well as other writings by Riley Case, go to  

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