Friday, October 2, 2009

We are under authority

Every year the Tenn. Conference Board of Ministry (BOM) interviews, in person, candidates for probationary service as pastors, called commissioned ministers, and serving commissioned minister who are ready for ordination either as deacon or elder.

The BOM also sends a member to the seminaries where most Tennessee Conference candidates matriculate to talk to the Methodist students about going before the BOM. Candidates are interviewed by the entire BOM twice, first for commissioned status and later for ordination. These interviews take two days.

When I was still working toward my M.Div. At Vanderbilt, the BOM's representative visited and spoke to us for some time. One of the things he talked about has stuck with me all the years since. I can't quote him exactly after so long, but this is very close to what he told us:
One of the things you need to understand about going before the BOM is that there are some things we are flexible on and some things we are not. We are not necessarily of one mind on things such as the theology of worship, for example, but there are other things for which we will be entirely inflexible.

One of those things is baptism of infants. I need to let you know as clearly as I can that if you do not unambiguously affirm to the BOM that you will baptize infants, you will not be commissioned or ordained. Believe me when I say that the BOM makes no exceptions for any reason.

Despite the fact that we always emphasize this fact when we send BOM members to talk to seminary students, every year there are always about two candidates who appear before the BOM and say that they cannot bring themselves to baptize infants. And they always seems to think that they have a compelling or new argument in their favor that will convince us to approve them. Or they think that their candidacy record is so strong in other areas that the BOM will excuse them for not affirming they will baptize infants.

They are always wrong. I need to be very clear: there is no argument you can possibly present that will justify your unwillingness to baptize infants in the United Methodist Church. And the strength of the rest of your candidacy will not be relevant to this issue.

Ministers of The United Methodist Church baptize infants, period. If you cannot do that, save yourself a lot of time and trouble and withdraw from candidacy now.
You can see that this was an unusually blunt advisory, but as he indicated, it needed to be. And yet when I went before the BOM, one of the seminary students who was sitting at my table on that day told the BOM he would not baptize infants. And the BOM voted "no" on his continuation.

It behooves us now and then to remember that, as the centurion told Jesus, we are under authority in the church. Even if we were an independent congregation, not affiliated with any denomination, we still could not simply make up our own rules and call ourselves a church. The New Testament can't be ignored nor can the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

As United Methodists, we are bound by the UM's Book of Discipline, which sets forth the doctrinal standards of the Church and many matters of local-church governance and organization. For example, the Discipline directs that every charge shall have certain committees and be structured certain ways. (A charge is one or more congregations who have the same pastor.) We cannot decide to ignore the Discipline in these matters or in others where the Discipline is directive.

The Discipline is not directive in every part; some of its sections say "should" rather than "shall." Even so, it is the Discipline that makes us a United Methodist Church rather than a generic Protestant one. Our challenge is to remember that we are under authority when it seems burdensome, for it is no merit to do obey instructions that are pleasant to us.

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