As we can expect, the debate continues in response to the recent “A Statement of Counsel to the Church – 2011” signed now by 36 retired United Methodist bishops. One noteworthy response comes from UM pastor and blogger Bernard Rosario in an open letter to Bishop Daniel Arichea (retired), one of signers of the statement. Rosario’s letter expresses his disappointment that Bishop Arichea signed the document and raises some important questions about its content. As a follow-up, Rosario posted an email response from Bishop Arichea which briefly defended his move to sign the statement. I was struck by this statment in the Bishop’s response:
And finally, I have met so many people who I believe have genuine calls to the ministry and who cannot serve in the UMC because of our rules, and so have to find the fulfilment of their ministry elsewhere. There are others who have to deny who they are in order to be faithful to their call to ministry (emphasis added).
I was struck by this statement for two reasons. First, a genuine call to ministry is not the only requirement for ordination in the UMC. As United Methodists, we understand that a call is not enough to be entrusted with oversight of the Church. Calls can be betrayed and the privilege of oversight to which we are called can be forfeited. There are moral expectations that we have for those ordained in our denomination. One of the reasons it often takes the better part of a decade or more to become ordained in the UMC is because the call, life, gifts, and graces of the ministry candidate must be evaluated and confirmed by the Church. Ministry is not a right; it is a privilege, and the privilege brings moral standards and expectations.
Second, I was struck by Bishop Arichea’s specific use of the langauge of self-denial, which appears to imply that he does not think faithful ministry should require it. I was struck because scripture speaks clearly to the importance of self-denial for Christian discipleship. Indeed, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). It would seem that self-denial is not only prerequisite for ministry but is a first step for any who desire to be called a Christ-follower.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had some specific things to say about self-denial as well. In his note on Matthew 16:24, he wrote:
But if any will be a Christian, it must be on these terms, Let him deny himself, and take up his cross – A rule that can never be too much observed: let him in all things deny his own will, however pleasing, and do the will of God, however painful. Should we not consider all crosses, all things grievous to flesh and blood, as what they really are, as opportunities of embracing God’s will at the expense of our own? And consequently as so many steps by which we may advance toward perfection? (emphasis added).
Wesley even wrote an entire sermon on “Self-Denial” from Luke 9:23, in which he said:
It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our coming after Him and following Him; insomuch that, as far as we do not practice it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of Him, but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after Him, but after the world, or of the prince of the world, or of our own fleshly mind (emphasis added).
The reality is that faithful ministry and faithful discipleship both require all of us to practice self-denial. This practice may have different emphases in different people, but there are certainly common elements for all, and the practice is certainly a common condition for all who desire to be Christ-followers. I fear that the current debate in the UMC is the result of placing the authority of personal experience and reason on par with scripture, which has led to a conflict between authorities. So, once again we see that the issue is not so much about human sexuality as it is about authority, and the present debate is what happens when authorities collide. To which authority will we grant supremacy? The authority of Christ mediated through scripture or the idol of personal experience and self-preference? Commitment to self-denial is not merely a prerequisite for ordained ministry; it is an ongoing and essential element in the lifelong process of Christian discipleship. Jesus is clear on this, and Wesley understood him. Why do we seem to have so much trouble with it today?