Disobedience didn’t start with sexuality debate

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Key points:

  • Defiance of rules passed by General Conference is nothing new for the people called Methodist.
  • Examples include violation of prohibitions against slavery, women clergy, smoking and, these days, rebaptism.
  • The Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr. questions why defiance of church restrictions related to homosexuality is seen as different from those examples and a reason for church separation.

The Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr. Photo courtesy of Wesley Theological Seminary.
The Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr.
Photo courtesy of Wesley Theological Seminary.


UM News publishes various commentaries about issues in the denomination. The opinion pieces reflect a variety of viewpoints and are the opinions of the writers, not the UM News staff.

During denominational debates on homosexuality, some have repeatedly complained that General Conference legislation is ignored or violated by many. Some who are disaffiliating say they are tired of “increasing disobedience.”

History shows us that ignoring General Conference legislation did not begin with the issue of homosexuality. Such resistance has a long history. This article highlights historical examples from United Methodism and its predecessor bodies when clergy, laity, bishops and conferences rejected, through their actions, legislation passed by the General Conference. 

Historical Examples

Slavery: The Christmas Conference in 1784 condemned slavery as an “abomination” and required all members holding slaves to set them free or withdraw from the Society. There was immediate and massive disobedience.

Women Lay Representation: Women were not allowed as General Conference delegates in 1888 when the Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Pittsburgh and Rock River Conferences of The Methodist Episcopal Church elected women delegates despite the prohibition of their action. The group of five, including Frances Willard, the most prominent Methodist woman of the time, were denied seating.

Women Clergy Rights (United Brethren): The 1857 United Brethren General Conference prohibited women from being licensed to preach. Union Biblical Seminary was founded as the denominational seminary “under the control of the General Conference” in 1869. When classes began, women were admitted on the same basis as men with all seminary offerings available to them. Despite prohibitions against licensing women to preach, the Pleasant Valley quarterly conference issued a license to Maggie Thompson in 1874. In 1876, her name was submitted to the committee on applicants of the Indiana Conference, along with the names of nine men. She was approved. 

Women Clergy Rights (Methodist Protestant): The Methodist Protestant General Conference in 1870 disapproved the ordination of women. In 1875, the Kansas Conference ordained Pauline Martindale as elder. Anna Howard Shaw, the second woman to graduate from Boston University School of Theology, was ordained by the New York Conference of The Methodist Protestant Church in 1880. In 1884, the General Conference rescinded her ordination as “out of order.” The annual conference ignored the action, and Shaw continued to serve and be recognized by that conference. In 1889, Eugenia St. John was ordained elder by the Kansas Conference.

Clergy Performing Marriages for Divorced People: From as early as 1884, most United Methodist predecessor groups forbade clergy from performing marriages for divorced individuals who had a living former spouse, except for the innocent party in the case of adultery. Calls for increased enforcement and increased penalties indicate that pastoral situations led clergy to violate this restriction. In 1928, the Methodist Episcopal Church retained the language about divorce but gave the final decision about performing weddings to the pastor. However, the more restrictive language for clergy performing wedding ceremonies continued in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church until the formation of The Methodist Church in 1939 when the Methodist Episcopal language from 1928 was adopted.

Racial Equality. In the 1960s, many white Methodist churches still refused admittance of Black people to worship, a practice forbidden since 1884. One prominent confrontation came on Easter Sunday 1964 when a biracial group including two Methodist bishops, James K. Mathews and Charles Golden, was denied admission to Galloway Memorial Methodist Church in Mississippi. It was common in those days for churches to pass racial exclusion policies with total disregard for official denominational policies and beliefs. 

Clergy Smoking. Beginning in 1880 by action of General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (and continued in The Methodist Church), those approved as clergy had to promise to “abstain from the use of tobacco.” In 1960, the abstinence was continued but moved from a question to be answered to a statement of the requirement, before ending in 1968. In some cases, the bishops who asked the questions were smokers themselves. 

Contemporary Examples

Rebaptism. It is interesting that the “no pastor shall re-baptize” prohibition is literally next to the prohibition on conducting same-sex ceremonies in the Book of Discipline. Conversations with bishops and district superintendents indicate that the frequency of reports coming to them regarding baptism practices by pastors at odds with the Discipline (rebaptism as well as refusing to baptize an infant) are far more common than reports regarding pastors performing same-sex ceremonies.  

Open Itineracy. Today there are still congregations who refuse the appointment of a woman as pastor and who refuse the appointment of clergy of a different race from that of the congregation in explicit violation of church law.

What Does This Mean?

The purpose of this article is neither to justify nor condemn these violations. It is to document disobedience on a range of issues to show that universal compliance with General Conference decisions has regularly been violated throughout our history. Such actions occurred well before legislation related to homosexuality appeared and has taken place across a wide range of subjects.

Why are some broken rules easily tolerated while others, as in the case of homosexuality, bring the denomination to the brink of schism? There likely are various reasons that include what is happening in the larger society as much as what is happening within the church. Timing is surely a factor. Issues such as slavery, women’s clergy rights and lay representation are issues that once divided Methodists but no longer do so.

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As with all rule-making bodies, the General Conference has power to act only to the extent that those actions carry with them sufficient credibility and moral authority to be accepted. When that is not the case, those in the United Methodist traditions have responded in one of several ways. The most common response has been some type of rejection, resistance and advocacy for change. Such defiance occurs on a continuum from statements of opposition to outright disobedience of the rule.

The point of these illustrations is not that General Conference actions are meaningless and that violations do not matter. Both are important. In some cases, the violations are inconsequential and are properly ignored. At other times, General Conference actions strike at the heart of who we are and are rightfully enforced. But, as history shows us, there are those times when the violations are examples of tendencies to overreach and control beyond the moral consensus of large segments of the church.

However, when one claims that some of those mandatory actions are truly necessary because of the doctrinal, theological and moral consequences of disobedience, it is hard to justify selecting only one, homosexuality, for such intricate and detailed enforcement mechanisms. Legislation must rest on a broadly shared consensus that it is necessary, right and consistent with John Wesley’s passion that all come to know the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. For many, the actions of General Conference on homosexuality do not meet these minimum criteria of being necessary, right and grace-filled. 

This article draws from “Methodism’s History of Rejection of General Conference Actions on Issues Other than Homosexuality” by Lovett Weems, Methodist History, Vol. 60, No. 1, 2022, Copyright © 2022 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. Used by permission.

Weems is distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus and senior consultant of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

News contact: Joey Butler or Tim Tanton at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday (weekly) Digests.

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