What Really Happened with the Schaefer Decision

The Judicial Council for the 2012-16 Quadrennium pose for a group photo during the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. Seated, from left: Belton Joyner, J. Kabamba Kiboko, N. Oswald Tweh Sr., and Kathi Austin Mahle. Standing from left: Ruben T. Reyes, Dennis Blackwell, Beth Capen, William B. Lawrence and Angela Brown. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.
The Judicial Council for the 2012-16 Quadrennium pose for a group photo during the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. Seated, from left: Belton Joyner, J. Kabamba Kiboko, N. Oswald Tweh Sr., and Kathi Austin Mahle. Standing from left: Ruben T. Reyes, Dennis Blackwell, Beth Capen, William B. Lawrence and Angela Brown. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

Facebook and Twitter are abuzz with reaction to the Judicial Council decision released Monday to affirm the reinstatement of Frank Schaefer as an ordained elder. Schaefer’s ordination had been revoked by a trial court in Eastern Pennsylvania that found him guilty of disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church for performing a same-sex wedding for his son.

This decision does nothing to change The United Methodist Church’s position that marriage is between one man and one woman, that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and that clergy are forbidden to perform same-sex marriages or unions.

What the decision does do (unless the Discipline is changed) is push trial courts (juries) to be more punitive in the penalties they assess for those found guilty of offenses in church trials (for any reason, not just on same-sex marriage). Had the Pennsylvania trial court simply revoked Schaefer’s ordination or issued a one-year suspension, the penalty would have withstood appeal.

Instead, the trial court attempted to be gracious, giving Schaefer time to discern his new “calling” as an advocate for LGBTQ persons and causes. After 30 days of discernment, if Schaefer had determined that this calling did not allow him to maintain his conduct within the requirements of the Book of Discipline, he was to surrender his credentials of ordination. Schaefer did determine that he could no longer uphold the requirements of the Discipline, but he refused to surrender his credentials, so the Board of Ordained Ministry revoked them.

The impulse motivating the trial court was a noble and Christ-like attempt to give an offender a second chance. However, that impulse is what got the penalty overturned. One cannot blame the trial court for their error in levying the penalty, since there was nothing in the instructions given to them about penalties that told them they had to choose only one penalty. By the Judicial Council’s reading of the Discipline, a trial court must choose to 1) revoke a guilty clergy’s credentials, 2) suspend the person for a set amount of time, or 3) levy some lesser penalty. Since the trial court levied a suspension (even though it was fully paid), they could not also revoke Schaefer’s credentials. (This reading of the penalty requirements would preclude other common-sense penalties, such as suspending a pastor convicted of embezzling funds and also requiring them to pay the money back.)

So, because of a legal technicality, Schaefer’s penalty was overturned. But this decision did not alter the position of the church on this contentious issue.

Schaefer is quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “Justice was done. This really signals the entire Methodist church is interested in keeping the dialogue going, rather than just outright banning a minister who speaks up for LGBT rights. This is definitely a step farther down the road.”

With all due respect, this was not a decision of “the entire Methodist church.” It was a decision of one body – the Judicial Council – and perhaps as few as five of the nine members of that body.

It was also not a “signal” that the church wants to “keep the dialogue going, rather than … banning a minister who speaks up for LGBT rights.” It was a technical decision that disallowed a particular penalty. And Schaefer was not “banned” because he spoke up for LGBT rights. He was penalized for his act of disobeying church policy. There are plenty of pastors who “speak up for LGBT rights” and who are not “banned.”

What is sad about the outcome of this case is that it adds one more instance to a litany of occasions when church leaders have not been held accountable for violating the vows they took. We have learned that, when a bishop or pastor is determined not to abide by church policy, if they have the support of colleagues, they can escape any consequences for their unfaithfulness. What secular company would ever allow such a thing? Yet the church has been repeatedly unable to compel its leaders to abide by the policies determined by the General Conference through the processes we all agreed upon.

As the Good News statement said, “An ordained elder who has stated publicly that he cannot uphold the covenant that governs our life together as United Methodist clergy is still actively serving in ministry. Such an outcome betrays the dysfunction in our denomination and the inability to hold members accountable to the vows they have made.” This lack of integrity in our system is a corrosive acid, eating away at the trust that holds our connection together. It affects many local church ministries and is the reason many United Methodists have left and are leaving our church.

This decision, while from one perspective it may be technically correct, further undermines the confidence that ordinary church-goers have that the church can uphold its own policies. This trend puts even more pressure on the 2016 General Conference to resolve the impasse and bring about renewed accountability. Absent such a resolution, our church is headed for disintegration.

23 thoughts on “What Really Happened with the Schaefer Decision

  1. I agree with the above post by Tom Lambrecht and I stand with the accepted definition of “marriage” being between one man and one woman. Any attempt to change the definition of a word after thousands of years of accepted understanding is ill advised and brings us closer to the actions in “1984” and wholesale changes to our language. There can be no “new” or “old” definition of marriage – only THE long accepted definition of marriage. The 2016 General Conference must either change the discipline, enforce the discipline or discard the discipline. If it has no integrity in one area it has no integrity in any area. With no integrity there is no “United” Methodist Church so members may as well seek other avenues of faith and worship. Meanwhile, the UMC clergy must be forced to abide by the existing Discipline or let the exodus begin.

    1. The exodus has begun. The only question is: will conservatives be able to salvage anything from the dissolution or be forced to simply walk away.

  2. I couldn’t help but notice that in your recitation of Book of Discipline references to homosexuality, you left one out. This one: “Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth.”

    Is it significant that this one was overlooked?

    1. Thank you, Steve. I thought about including it, but that assertion is not being contested right now. Both evangelicals and progressives agree that homosexual persons (ALL persons) are individuals of sacred worth. I also did not mention the affirmation of respect for everyone’s civil rights, which I take it that most would agree on, as well.

      1. Ok, well, thanks for the reply. Here is the reason I commented as I did: It seems (at least in social media discussion/debate) that the traditional/orthodox side of this discussion is only interested in the parts of the issue that separate “us” from homosexuals (LBGTQ). This is fodder for the other side to say characterize your side as distant, hateful, condescending, etc.

        The leaders I’ve known over the years on “that” side are not distant, hateful, or condescending.


        1. Steve, It seems you need to consider the facts. General Conference has been disrupted many times by folks who have no concern for anyone who disagrees with the vast majority of UM’s. The only way a case can be made for inclusion of the practice of homosexuality in our denominatuion it by denying the truth of Bible.

          My conference (NIC) is controlled by those on “that” side. of this issue. I have known Local Pastors who were booted out for being vocal about upholding the BoD on this issue.

          You are wrong to promote the notion that the majority side of this issue is only about homosexual issues. You accusatrions only paint you with the notions you have promoted here.

          Mike Peters

          1. Mike, perhaps I didn’t express myself well. My point was that it appears that the Good News side (to summarize) references all of the places the Book of Discipline refers to homosexuality EXCEPT the one about us all being “individuals of sacred worth.”

            The way I understand your (Good News and others) point, though, is that your primary concern is about fidelity to our common covenant as clergy, and leadership (Bishops’) upholding the Discipline as it currently stands. Referring to all but that one Disciplinary passage, though, comes across as though you (they, whomever) doesn’t care about all the individuals.

            In sum, perhaps, actively, publicly care about LBGTQ people (and perhaps even their civil rights), and your case for faithfulness and leadership could help your cause.

    2. The statement “are individuals of sacred worth” is elemental basic Christian (and Jewish) theology. It’s accepted by everybody as a matter of course. Who in the world doesn’t believe it???? It really goes without saying. I’m really mystified why that sentence is made so much of. Its as if somebody is going to denigrate somebody over anything, when everybody knows that a Christian is to live his or her life in a gracious life affirming way to everybody they come in contact with. Its elementary.

    3. “Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth.”

      This is technically incorrect as we are not created to be homosexual or heterosexual PERSONS. These are are expressions of sexual conduct.

      Ontologically we are either male or female. (Ge 1:27)

  3. I believe all this does is to say to UMC that if you do something against the Discipline, ABSLUTELY NOTHING will be done, If the UMC does not vote to split next year at the 2018 World conference…..Then many, many long time Methodists will leave the denomination and I am one of them….They want to change our church/Denomination instead of forming their own……ANOTHER DENOMINATION GOES THE WAY OF THE WORLD!…THEY WILL NOT STAND FOR JESUS AND THE WORD OF GOD

  4. It is a sad thing to see believers in Christ abandon the One True God. If believers compromise with sin, and accepting the practice of homosexuality is compromising with sin, a sin no different than adultery, murder, or stealing, then those Christians have abandoned God. They have become friends with the world. And as the Apostle John wrote, friendship with the world is enmity towards God. This far supercedes the issue of Sacred Worth. And to use the argument of sacred worth to justify the acceptance of a sinful lifestyle and ignore the commandment of righteousness is a SACRILEGE!

  5. I am constantly astounded at the warm and inclusive statements here and elsewhere giving their lovingl support to the idea that two people might want to pledge eternal devotion to each other! Loving words like “damnation”, “SACRILEGE” to mention only two of the more Christlike epithets noted. If we could get this argument out of the Dark Ages where people had little idea of how humans are made up, it would be nice to focus on discipleship, finding the hungry, and moving the Kingdom forward for everybody here and now. A Loving God won’t condemn you to eternal damnation if you don’t spit vitriol at people who sincerely believe that they are doing the work of Christ, but faithfully believe differently than you on some issues.

    1. Rather than “believe differently” those who uphold so-called LGBTQ “rights” are in error as to what it means to be a male or a female created in God’s image. This is no small matter to be blown off by such distractions as “discipleship, finding the hungry, and moving the Kingdom forward…” It cuts to the very heart of what it means to be human. The Lord Himself affirmed this in his discourse with the Pharisees in Mt 19:3,4.

      It’s most important to remember that homosexuality is a behavior, not an identity. Human sexuality is not what one is by nature, it’s how one behaves.

      To this end it would behoove the United Methodist congregations to affiliate with the Restored Hope Network.
      http://www.restoredhopenetwork.com and do the Lord’s work of supporting ex-gays and ministering to those who are disaffected with same-sex attraction.

    2. Issues matter. We form or join a community based on an agreed set of issues, in this case called The Discipline. When we change our mind on an issue it is irrational to expect the entire community to automatically agree with us. If our new understanding of the issue is now a personal core belief not endorsed by the community, the wise and gracious thing to do is to seek another community where we can find acceptance and affirmation on this core issue. To do otherwise is to seek to harm the community which heretofore has warmly accepted and affirmed us.

  6. I so wholeheartedly endorse what Sonja LeVon stated. If the Methodist Church changes the definition that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, I will leave the denomination. I am accountable to God and not to man!

  7. Morris, the desire of two people (or three or four, for that matter) to “pledge eternal devotion to each other” is not the issue. In America, they can pledge whatever they want to whomever they want whenever they want. The issue is whether or not such pledges are permitted and supported by the Discipline and the polity of the organization from which a pastor receives ordination and appointments. In this case, Frank clearly and admittedly violated the Discipline.
    I am equally astounded that anyone who supports traditional marriage and the Discipline of the church under which we operate is accused of spitting vitriol and damning people eternally. There are many of us who sincerely believe that our Discipline is clearly founded on the Bible and scriptural principles. Are all people who speak out for traditional marriage and who support our Discipline mean-spirited? The Bible and Discipline are not diametrically opposed. Both speak of love and grace, but also call us all to an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and repentance when we violate the principles we profess and seek to live by.
    All of us are sinners who need grace. No one on either side of this issue disputes that. The question is whether on not we can knowingly and deliberately violate the Discipline we operate under without consequence.

  8. I was raised in a theological liberal United Methodist church through my childhood. During my first year of college, I opened my heart to Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord. In the larger picture, all that I received from Christ prior were spiritual seeds of God’s Spirit within me. Jesus brought His eternal life within me by faith in Him through His death upon the cross for my sins – and His resurrection over death. When Jesus called me into full-time Christian ministry, He called me into the United Methodist Church. I believe in Him. I trust Him. I made covenant with Him through our beloved UMC in doctrine, polity, and The Book of Disciple of the UMC. I expect my clergy colleagues to possess this same heart, integrity and will which comprise our common clergy Covenant of Ordination to: 1] Preach the Word; 2] Administer the Sacraments; and 3] Maintain the Order of the Church as[defined in The Book of Discipline of the UMC.

    As these events unfold: 1] Vocal teaching and prejudices of the “progressive theologians” who claim to know Jesus better than anyone who is not of their persuasion – hence their name as “progressive;” 2] the outright defiance of clergy to fulfill their ordination vows by refusing to obey The Discipline of the UMC – as well as “refuse to relinquish their ordination credentials; and 3] our Bishops and Judicial Council – who speak and act with absolute divided disloyalty and integrity to Christ Jesus and to the United Methodist Body of Christ – as accepted in their own ordination vows, I am ashamed and disappointed in my colleagues. In spiritual leaders, the Apostle Paul teaches: “Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle” [I Corinthians 14:8].

    My heart has changed significantly across my active ministry of 39 years – retiring in 2008. I, too, affirm our Social Principles statement that: “Homosexual persons – as well as heterosexual persons – are persons of sacred worth – and in need of theministry and guidance that only the church can give… Irregardless of gender, I welcome all persons into membership of the UMC – living out that first portion of the Social Principles Statement. However, I cannot celebrate nor condone the practice of homosexuality. I find it incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, I cannot / will not marry persons of same gender; nor recommend them for Ordained Ministry. I can love them as individuals whose sacred self-worth was given to them by God – apart from the practices God’s Word does not condone.

    I was born a “person of sacred worth” – but out of relationship with God [original sin]. Therefore, I cannot
    demand that everyone rejoice in my [“sinnerness” – being born out of relationship with God].
    Jesus Christ died for my sins. He rose from the dead to offer me eternal life. He offers His gifts of
    forgiveness, transformation, and eternal life to me. I must choose by my own free will to accept these gifts
    from God through Christ. They are not “automatic” without my act of free-will.

    Lastly, in Jesus Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, the workers ask the Landowner: “Do you want us to pull out these weeds and throw them away?” The Landowner says, NO – if you tear them out, you will hurt / destroy the wheat, too. Just leave them – and I will take care of them at the harvest”

    Beloved colleagues, should we not listen and trust Jesus fully in His Word. All of us are in Jesus’ hands. Although we cannot celebrate what God’s Word condemns, we can celebrate our common sacred self-worth – knowing that Jesus will deal justly with each of us “at His harvest.” Let us join with the Psalmist who testifies: “My heart says of You, , ‘Seek His face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek” [Psalm 27:8].

  9. Tom Lambrecht’s response is excellent. What I woold note is that Frank Schaefer, while “off the hook” on this particular violation, is still under his vows. If he performs another gay marriage he can be brought to trial again. It would be a different case.

  10. Just a thought, in response to some of the above:
    I suspect, not long before Schaefer’s call for neuter-ality
    Fades into the distant, dusty annals of irreverent irrelevancy,
    Another will receive his relay, and resume, a renewed call to arms –
    To ‘enlighten’ the minds of our then neuter-al-ized and austere poster-i-ty.
    Whose generation will then be next to unwind or rebind our sacred trust?
    Put another way, ‘If we dismiss all the rules of the road, will we all
    Love you all.
    Jim Fox, Hastings, Michigan

  11. Tom – well written report. Thanks. I’m asking the same question as Dave Samelson. The exodus from the UMC has been going for some time and many seekers don’t come when they read of the dysfunction. The wallet exits before the body. Dave is right to ponder whether they will be much to salvage for orthodox Methodists when a split occurs – certainly out here in the West that is a concern.

  12. I think we all love and care about out “gay” friends and relatives and pray for them often.
    However we need to consider the fact that Jesus spoke and taught his disciples the truth on this issue.
    Our Book of Disciplines reinforces our denomination’s understanding of the teachings of Christ and his apostles.
    So before we even discuss making changes to or just ignoring the Book of Disciplines WE MUST first look at our primary source of information regarding the topic in question, the New Testament and see what Jesus and his apostles had to say on this subject.
    I suggest that everyone do that before making up our minds or taking any side in this debate.
    Please prayerfully reread:
    Mark 10: 6-8
    Romans 1:18-32
    1 Corinthians 6:9-11
    1 Timothy 1:8-10
    Jude 1:7

  13. As with abortion, this is yet another tragic case where the ambiguity of statements in our Book of Discipline has thrown the door wide open to all kinds of sins and abuses that supposedly were not intended. But I have to wonder, if they were not intended, if there was no intention to leave the door open, why were our statements not made clearer and stronger? It seems that the more we try to find a middle ground on things, the more we try to sit on the fence, the more we fall–and it seems that we always fall on the side of sin and disobedience to God’s word. When will we learn to listen to the words of Christ that if we are not for Him we are against Him? There is no middle ground and there can be fence sitting.

    What happened with the Schaefer decision?

    Well, I have to wonder if it is a coincidence that right before this decision, at least a couple of pro-gay lobby bishops declared that the BoD must be obeyed when it comes to matters of human sexuality. Then along comes this decision, based on a mere technicality that totally ignores the fact that Schaefer broke our covenant and did so with great defiance and openness, as he continues to do. Then the bishops come out with a statement, following their fall meetings, that they are broken because they are not of one mind on human sexuality. In the meantime, still nothing has been done about Melvin Talbert, the first (but probably not the last) UM bishop to break the covenant by uniting a gay couple.

    To me, this seems to add up to the denominational powers that be bunkering down and protecting each other without actually doing anything about a problem that is destroying our church, even while they call for prayer, unity and of course more dialogue.

    The time for conversation is past. This matter has been talked to death. I think we’ve said all we have to say about it on both sides. God has said all He has to say about it and what He says is clear: homosexual practices are sinful, all sinners need to repent of all their sins and believe in the Risen Christ for salvation, and there are no exceptions. Our call as Christians is to make disciples, meaning teaching them to observe all Christ has commanded us.

    The more we talk about this, the more we hurt each other and damage our witness in the world, what’s left of it.

    In the words of the great theologian Elvis Presley, “A little less conversation a little more action.” I’ll paraphrase: A lot less “holy” conversation, a lot more holy action.

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