Many United Methodists were surprised to learn that it is possible to file complaints against a lay member of the church for disobedience to the Discipline, a course of action that could lead to a church trial for a lay member.
On June 18, more than 600 United Methodist clergy and laity filed a complaint against the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, over the “zero tolerance” immigration policy. The uniqueness of church charges filed against a United Methodist politician stem from the deeply controversial policy – later rescinded by President Trump – to separate children from parents at the border. Even religious supporters of the Trump Administration such as the Rev. Franklin Graham called it “disgraceful” and “terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit.”
Sessions is a lay member of Ashland Place UM Church in Mobile, Alabama, and attends Clarendon UM Church in Arlington, Virginia. Also signing the complaint were the two bishops who preside over those churches, David Graves (Alabama-West Florida) and Sharma Lewis (Virginia). In addition, the two district superintendents who supervise those churches also signed the complaint, the Rev. Debora Bishop (Mobile District, Alabama-West Florida Conference) and the Rev. Catherine Abbot (Arlington District, Virginia Conference). The fact that these four signed the complaint is significant because they would all potentially have a role in the process of resolving the complaint through a “just resolution” negotiated with the parties or in pursuing some form of trial.
Filing formal complaints against a lay member of the church is an extremely rare occurrence. I was involved in one situation where a complaint was filed, but the member left the church before it could be forwarded on to a trial process. That is what normally happens when there is a member who is alleged to have done something serious enough to warrant a complaint.
Also extremely unusual in this case is that the complaint is filed not over what Sessions is alleged to have done personally, but over the policies that he is alleged to have promulgated and enforced as Attorney General. The specific alleged violations are:
- Child abuse – including separating “young children from their parents” and “holding children in mass incarceration facilities with little or no structured educational or socio-emotional support”
- Immorality – including “the use of violence against children to deter immigration,” “refusal of refugee/asylee status to those fleeing gang or sexual violence,” and “oppression of those seeking asylum”
- Racial discrimination – including “stopping investigations of police departments charged with racial discrimination” and “targeting incarceration for those engaged in undocumented border crossings … with a particular focus on those perceived as Muslim or LatinX”
- Dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church – including “the misuse of Romans 13 to indicate the necessity of obedience to secular law”
The Rev. Tracy McNeil Wines, pastor at Clarendon United Methodist Church where Sessions and his wife, Mary, attend in Virginia, addressed the issue on Sunday. She reportedly told her congregation “that she does not agree with the ‘zero-tolerance’ immigration policies that led to family separations, but urged the United Methodist church in northern Virginia not to be torn apart by political differences.”
According to CNN, “Wines told CNN she had a ‘long and excellent’ private conversation with Sessions earlier this week. The attorney general is technically a member of a United Methodist congregation in Mobile, Alabama, but has attended services at the church in Clarendon since his days as a senator. Wines called him a ‘very regular guest.’” Any further processing of the complaint will be up to Sessions’ pastor in Mobile.
It is hard to conceive of a more emotionally volatile hot-button issue than the zero tolerance border policy – even for those who press the case that children are often used by human traffickers in order to enter the country illegally.
In a church trial, however, it could be challenging to prove that Sessions is guilty of child abuse or immorality, depending upon the facts that could be established. What signifies “oppression” to one person might be interpreted by another as merely the strict enforcement of the law. Doubly difficult could be making the case of racial discrimination, based on policies established by the Justice Department. For example, the “particular focus on those perceived as Muslim or LatinX” could be due to the demographic makeup of those attempting to illegally cross the border.
While it garnered a good deal of analysis or protest from Christian commentators – both on the right and the left, the most difficult charge to prove is that Sessions’ use of Romans 13 constitutes “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine” of our church. Our doctrinal standards include the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, and Wesley’s Standard Sermons and Notes on the New Testament.
The 1939 General Conference enacted legislation interpreting Article XXIII of the Articles of Religion, stating “It is the duty of all Christians, and especially of all Christian ministers, to observe and obey the laws and commands of the governing or supreme authority of the country of which they are citizens … and to use all laudable means to encourage and enjoin obedience to the powers that be” (2016 Book of Discipline, p. 72). Sessions’ supporters would contend that is exactly what the Attorney General was attempting to do, and it can be argued that he was fulfilling the doctrinal standards rather than contradicting them.
Is it incumbent upon Christians to obey unjust civil laws? Ethicists differ on that issue, but I would say there is a strong biblical case to be made for not obeying civil laws that contradict or restrict our ability to live out the Gospel. In Acts 4:19-20 Peter places obedience to God above obedience to human authority. At the same time, I Peter 2:13-14 commands that we “submit [our]selves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men.” As with many Christian ethical dilemmas, there is a balance required here, one that involves each person’s (and the church’s) prudential judgment, and upon which heartfelt and sincere Christians can disagree.
Are the immigration policies of our country appropriate and morally sound? There is again a balance between helping the “widow and orphan,” the refugee and the poor, while at the same time fulfilling the responsibility to preserve and protect the United States. While Christians can (and do) disagree about where that balance lies, it is most certainly appropriate for the church to lift up principles about how we are to treat others with love and respect, showing love to neighbor, against which specific policies can be measured. And we ought to learn all we can about the challenges of legal and illegal immigration, so as to inform our judgment about what the right course is to take.
United Methodism attracts Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, those on the left, right, and middle. The church ought not to be identified exclusively with one political perspective, whether liberal or conservative. Nor should the church be used as a pawn in a political disagreement. In the end, these questions seem best left to the political process to sort through. We can express our opinions through advocacy and through the ballot box. In the meantime, we can accept that Christians will have different opinions and judgments on these political matters.