Originally created 10/14/00

Sisler: When moral foundations are abandoned



A SCHISM IS developing in the United Methodist Church in Northern California and Nevada. Because of a fundamental difference in the way biblical standards were being upheld (or torn down, depending upon which side of the debate you find yourself), five conservative pastors withdrew from the denomination. Most of the members of their congregations went with them to start new churches, leaving the buildings and property behind.

Ed Vitagliano, news editor for the American Family Association Journal, writes, "Conservatives have long been troubled by the leftward leanings of the leadership which oversees churches in Northern California and the state of Nevada." The conservative pastors were outraged when 67 other UMC pastors took part in a ritual blessing which trespassed the historic faith of the denomination.

The ministers who participated in that ceremony stated they knew their actions were in violation of the Book of Discipline, the guideline for faith and practice of the United Methodist Church. Considering the guidelines - which are based on Scripture, and on the denomination's historic positions - to be non-applicable to modern society, they deliberately disobeyed them. A denominational investigating committee refused to recommend a trial at which the ministers could be disciplined.

In response to the creeping liberalism, six pastors refused to pay their churches' annual assessments to the conference. According to the United Methodist News Service, those yearly fees are used to support the Cal-Nevada Conference's operations and ministries. By extension, those pastors believed that paying their apportionments was tantamount to supporting action which violated God's Word.

Conference Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, who stood firmly behind the 67, filed complaints against the six, and at least one of them had his ordination suspended. In the wake of these actions, five pastors withdrew their membership.

I was once a member of a denomination which believed it was wrong for their members to attend movies (based on what splatters on the silver screen these days, they may have a valid argument). As a pastor in that denomination, I promised to uphold that and all other practical faith commitments. When it was learned that I violated that directive, I was, very properly, called into the overseer's office and disciplined. The rightness or wrongness of the denomination's position was not the issue. I had given my word. I lied. I was punished. When a bishop is apostate, however, there is little accountability.

On one side of this struggle, certain pastors violated church law by failing to pay denominational assessments, and were punished. On the opposite side, certain other pastors deliberately violated church law, and were not punished. "The real issue," says Rev. Greg Smith, "is the authority of Scripture and our continued reliance on Scripture."

Richard Cohen, writing for The Washington Post, said, "When I was a younger man, I had rules. They were hard-and-fast rules, rules that could not be broken and that I thought would see me through life. One of them was that if a girlfriend cheated on me, I would stop seeing her instantly. Then one of them did - and I didn't. It turned out I loved her more than I loved my rule. So I took my rule about infidelity and substituted another to which I have adhered, without exception, ever since: It depends."

Truth has no expiration date. Moral principles have not changed, only our adherence to them. As a society, we are accepting standards of behavior and practice today that a generation ago would have been roundly, soundly and loudly condemned. Does that mean the truth of morality has changed, or that we simply no longer practice morality?

If we reject the solid foundation of unchanging rules as written by the Lord God Almighty, when our lives lurch and wobble - and they will - where will we go to find stability? When we break God's Commandments, we do not really break them. They break us. We cannot build a life, either for time or for eternity, on "It depends."

ONE PASTOR said, "I really wish the conservative pastors had stayed. If we all acquiesce, the evil one has his way." There comes a time however, when it is time to leave. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, in a sermon on schism, preached, "In churches where ungodliness and apostasy prevail, the evil of schism rests on those who make it impossible to stay."

The author is a local free-lance writer.

E-mail address: david@mirkids.com