I am, by nature, a rule follower. My grandmother, who often cared for me as a child, used to say that she would take me to a United Methodist Women’s circle meeting, put me in the corner with a few toys, instruct me to play and stay put…and I did. Honestly, I was probably aware that homemade cookies were in my future if I followed her instructions. Following the rules can bring great reward!
Following the rules is a good and necessary skill in life. I teach my children to follow the traffic laws, to attend to the discipline code at school, to meet deadlines. As a United Methodist pastor, there are a lot of rules to follow. Recently our congregation voted to build a new building. But that vote came only after a lot of procedure and rules mandated by our Book of Discipline.
Long ago I remember hearing Father John Claypool say that every positive in life has a shadow side and I’ve come to see the truth of his statement with respect to following rules/laws. By and large I agree with the notion that if you are going to be a part of a particular community (e.g., The United Methodist Church), you should be willing to abide by the rules of that community. Yet in recent days I have stated publicly in the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate that if one of my church members or constituents asks me to preside at their same-sex wedding, I will do so. Our Book of Discipline is, in the eyes of many, giving conflicting mandates to clergypersons who are charged with pastoring LGBT persons. And the current restrictions on clergy to officiate at such ceremonies are simply unjust.
But what about the Bible? Elsewhere I have written a paper regarding all of the biblical texts that are used to justify the current position of our church. A strong case can be made that texts associated with homosexuality in the New Testament are, in fact, talking about the practice of pederasty, that is sexual relationships between adult males and adolescent males, something often condoned in the Greco-Roman world. As far as the often-cited texts in Leviticus, we seem to be willing to allow for a growth in our understanding of what is classified as “clean” and “unclean” in these texts with the exception of same-sex practice. So, for instance, we have no rules prohibiting persons with shaved heads from our worship spaces. Nor do we check fabrics at the door and disallow someone to be ordained if they are wearing a robe made of several kinds of textile fibers. And, for goodness sake, we try our best to do just the opposite of the Levitical passages as we welcome persons into our communities who are suffering brokenness in body rather than simply labeling them as unclean. In other words, we have learned some things along the way. And we’ve learned something that simply was not articulated in the days of the writing of the New Testament. We’ve learned about sexuality. And we’ve learned that covenantal love is possible between two persons of the same gender. Just as I would now never say to young parents whose child is dealing with a seizure disorder that their child needs an exorcism, so would I not say to an LGBT person that if they choose to be married they are unclean. We must come to embrace our learnings about human sexuality and realize how hurtful our practices are as they are currently defined.
Throughout our history we’ve been in places where our learnings have not kept up with our rules. And here’s the struggle for me: rules had to be broken in those times for renewal and redemption to take place. Our church’s mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That last part demands we stand up to rules on occasion. It’s not easy, especially for persons who like to follow the rules!
Last Monday I had the honor of introducing a speaker to my local Rotary Club who was arrested in the 1950s with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the city of Atlanta. The speaker and his seminary classmates had gone to a lunch counter to ask for a sandwich. When they refused to leave they were taken to jail. They broke the rules. They didn’t leave their country to find one more open to their cause. Nor did they acquiesce to the injustice they saw in the rules. They broke them. And thank God they did. Their efforts were combined with so many others and, I daresay with the Spirit of God, and change was wrought.
I do not in any way put myself in the same category as those brave and courageous ones. I’m just a rule following pastor who believes our covenant community is breaking its commitment to minister to all of God’s children. Sometimes the rules need to be broken. And even rule followers like me are compelled to stand up for the transformation of the world…and the church.