The Significance of the Covenant in the United Methodist Church (UMC) and how it has been broken.

The United Methodist Church is founded on Wesleyan Theology of Grace, anchored in Scripture and based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and the continuing movement of the Holy Spirit.

Covenant is a scriptural word referring to the action of God entering into a sanctified undertaking with individuals or a group and/or congregation. The New Testament or “New Covenant” is that covenant of the saving work of Jesus Christ through the grace of God and the response Christians make in their profession of faith through rituals like baptism, confirmation and holy communion. The UMC Covenant is “…to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world…”

Like any other denomination we have the Articles of Faith (Creed) that serve as a guide of how we maintain the New Covenant. This means that our conduct, teachings and reflection have to be Christ-like. We have the Apostles Creed where we Confess our Faith in terms of Scriptural Authority, Who is God, Who is Jesus and What is the One Holy Catholic Church?

Hebrews 10:15-25 (Christ makes covenant with us and in turn we make it with one another)

The basic tenets of the Christian faith are not up for negotiation, either by individual persons or by individual congregations. The virtue of a denomination is that it has a set of beliefs that are consistent with historic Christian doctrine and vetted by a larger body of people. . Doctrinal accountability can keep our churches faithful to a doctrinal perspective that is valuable and needed in the Body of Christ today. In the case of UMC, the 2016 Book of Discipline.

 

Sadly we have broken the covenant of the UMC as the denomination has failed to govern itself. There is a glaringly lack of denominational accountability that has been in the making for several decades. The starting point are the Seminaries and/or Theological schools that are very liberal thereby encouraging a shift from the traditional Christian Doctrine and that of the denomination itself. Worse still, apportionments are being used to fund seminaries that promote non-Christian religions.

 

While Traditionalists in UMC have done their best to uphold the Wesleyan Theology; Liberals on the other hand have questioned everything Methodist about faith. They have questioned Scriptural Authority by asserting that Human experiences are more important than the Word. The other major theological conflict is the definition of marriage. The acceptance of a gay Bishop married to another man is an endorsement of the proposed change of the definition to say “…union between two people of faith…” as opposed to “…between a loving man and a woman…” The third issue concerns the ordination of self-avowed or openly gay Pastors. This extends to officiating gay marriages. This is going against the Gospel and therefore breaking the Covenant. At one point at a Conference in Zimbabwe; a bishop referred to the Lord as “God our mother”.

 

The UMC has General Agencies that are responsible for parcelling out apportionments as they see fit. Forlornly, the Agencies act outside the mandate of the General Conference. Recently the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) gave money to Reconciling Network Ministries, an advocacy group lobbying for the inclusion of LGBQT in UMC. This is a flagrant disobedience of the Book of Discipline [Paragraph 613.19] which states that “…To ensure that no annual conference board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality…”

 

Another General Agency; the General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) in its latest edition of Social Principles has changed the definition of marriage to simply read “…between loving adults…”

 

The major failure of the covenant is largely due to the actions or lack thereof of Bishops. The Discipline states that “…As followers of Jesus Christ, bishops are authorized to guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church. The role and calling forth of the bishop is to exercise oversight and support of the Church in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The basis of such discipleship of leadership (episkopé) lies in discipline and a disciplined life. The bishop leads therefore through the following disciplines”. At the time of writing, we have two openly gay Bishops in the Council of Bishops. This is despite a Judicial Council ruling disallowing the same. Some have even gone to the extent of allowing the denial of basic truths about Jesus Christ.

Below are some of the statements by bishops; custodians of our Scriptures and Doctrine

  • “…Lord, please melt the hardened hearts and smite everyone who intends to vote against the One Church Plan…”
  • “…it wasn’t your heart but head that needed fixing if you disagreed with liberalizing the church’s position on sexual ethics…”
  • ‘…Delegates from Africa once again proclaimed their anti-homosexual stand…you are juvenile in your thinking. You need to grow up. The world has moved on past what you were taught, past what the Bible states…”
  • “…it is time heretics and edge dwellers to lead the denomination…”

Bishops have taken advantage of the structure of UMC that makes them immune to accountability. Bishops in UMC can only be held accountable by other Bishops. If they do not do anything then nothing happens. In Africa, the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area Bishop who leads all African Bishops chose to look away when an African Bishop consecrated a Gay church in Kenya. Instead of admonishing him, he invited him to Zimbabwe and together they castigated Traditionalist Caucus Groups mainly the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the United Methodist Africa Initiative as trying to destroy the UMC in favour of the newly established Global Methodist Church.

 

In Africa and other parts of the world, the pastor is sometimes given unrestrained authority in the congregation. We have heard reports of some leaders who take advantage of their position for personal gain by preaching prosperity gospel and blackmailing congregants. The church has become an environment for self-preservation, material aggrandisement and those at the helm decide on their own what is exact instead of consulting the Bible and considering denominational governance. If only we practised what John Wesley called for, “when in dispute, refer to what the Bible says.

The bad behaviour at times cascades to local churches as autocratic tendencies as seen even in Lay Leaders at a local church level. There is a major shift from bringing people to Christ. A denomination has to be held responsible to address all these issues.

 

The UMC has broken the Covenant and this is largely due to lack of denominational answerability that was set aside in pursuit of self-interest. The continued postponement of General Conference created a power vacuum that Bishops gladly filled. The flagrant disregard of the Discipline weighs in heavily to breaking the Covenant. The breakdown of the system in UMC by no means entail the absence of a system that is effective. Careful analysis and reformation can result in a robust system that makes leaders liable when they falter. As written by a good friend from Good News, Tom Lambrecht, “We are often much more able to see and respond to the sins and shortcomings of others than we are in ourselves or our own families”.

 

There is need to chart a course in these difficult times to assist those who want to maintain the traditional theological commitment as opposed to the theologically progressive the UMC has taken which marked the first steps in breaking the Covenant.

 

James Kawadza

 

The views and opinions expressed in this write-up are solely mine and do not represent any larger group, therefore any suggestions and corrections of errors are welcome.

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