Thursday, October 7, 2021

Why I'll Still #BeUMC part 3 - Spirit vs. Letter

I remember when I first read the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. The principles articulated were spot on. Progressives, Centrists, and Traditionalists would all receive something less than they hoped for but more than they feared. That makes for a good compromise. It felt like leaders were actually able to make progress despite our lack of trust and our theological differences. 

Then the legislation came. Then the disconnect.

Regionalization, such as the Christmas Covenant, is an integral part of the Protocol principles. You can still read it at the link above. Because of technicalities, that was not put into the legislation that was proposed. I still support the Protocol, including its legislation, as the least bad choice we have. But conversations over the last several months have reminded me again and again of one reason I could never join the new denomination and must stay United Methodist

Reason #3 - The Spirit of the law is more important than the Letter of the law.


Without getting into the weeds, the Protocol alone does very little for centrists like me and for progressives. It suggests an abeyance on charges (which is significant but which some bishops are choosing to ignore). Long term, what really matters to us is regionalization like the Christmas Covenant. The principles of the Protocol assume this will happen but the legislation omits this. There is an easy solution. In the spirit of the Protocol principles, either 1) debate and pass both the Protocol and Covenant at the same time or 2) Pass the Protocol first with the understanding that traditionalist delegates would either leave the general conference floor or abstain from voting if they cannot in good conscience support the Covenant. With a spirit of cooperation and helping each group do what they need to do we could get that done.

I can't recall hearing a single traditionalist endorse what I just described. Instead, over the last year I've heard only excuses for why this isn't workable. The letter of the law is that a delegate should stay and vote as they were elected to do. The spirit of the law is that a delegate would allow an alternate, who also was elected, to vote instead so that we can all move forward. 

I can honestly say that in all the conversations that I've had with progressive and centrist leadership since 2019 there has been no talk of how we can "get" or "take advantage" of traditionalists. There are many who, if general conference happens, would like the Covenant to be passed  before the Protocol because traditionalists have not demonstrated good faith in allowing the Covenant to pass. None of those people have said they would support the Covenant and then actively try to prevent the Protocol passing for the traditionalists. In other words, progressive and centrist leadership is still trying to abide by the Spirit of the law.


I would argue that this is one of our fundamental differences in interpretation of Scripture. This is why a traditionalist might quote Romans 1:26-27 to point out homosexuality as a sin without continuing on to Romans 2:1, "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself..." The letter of the law in Romans 1 names more than 30 ways in which people sin, including what is sometimes translated as homosexuality. But the spirit, the whole point of the passage, comes in Romans 2 that we are not to condemn.

In Galatians 3:28, Paul says, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." The letter of the law limits our equality to those three factors; nationality/ethnicity, status as free or slave, and gender. The letter of the law allows division on any other basis. The Spirit of the law recognizes that the point of the passage is to tear down the divisions that Paul's readers have experienced or even perpetuated. Paul was not writing down an exhaustive list of divisions, he was demonstrating a principle.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." He then promptly contradicts the letter of the law with his, "You've heard it said...but I say to you..." sayings. How can he do this? Because Jesus also taught that the law is ultimately fulfilled in the Great Commandment to love God fully and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That's the spirit of the law. Love. 

I want to be part of a church that strives to follow the Spirit of the law, whether we're talking about church politics or Holy Scripture. 


  1. You say there are no situations where progressives or centrists "take advantage of traditionalists." Let me give you one. In the Michigan Annual Conference, where I am a delegate, votes related to the issue of same sex marriage are always about 2/3 progressive, 1/3 traditionalist. While only 13 of the AC delegates are traditionalist, probably 50% of Michigan United Methodists are traditionalists, and that number, in my opinion, is possibly as high as 60-70%. Based on AC delegates it is, at a minimum 33% traditionalist. Between General Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, and alternates, Michigan has 20 delegates elected at Annual Conference. Every one of those delegates, every single one, is a progressive. There are no traditionalist delegates. Progressives TOOK ADVANTAGE of the Michigan Annual Conferences voting system to deny traditionalists any representation in the upcoming General and Jurisdictional Conferences.

    1. I missed this comment. To clarify, I'm talking about at a national or global leadership level. I can't speak to Michigan, of course. I can tell you that your experience there is replicated in almost every other conference, both on the theological left and right. There's no doubt that our system is broken, which is why with much regret I agree with so many others that a separation is necessary.

    2. I don't know much about the Michigan conference. What's the breakdown of your clergy? The AC structure gives clergy much more representation than laity- which is one of the frustrations often voiced by traditionalists, who feel our clergy have been biased by 'liberal' seminaries.

  2. Should read, at end of 3d line, "While only 1/3", not "While only 13." Sorry.