Love trumps rules. Living, breathing, loving people know that. Institutions often don’t.
On Thursday, Rev. Frank Schaefer, the Methodist minister who officiated at the wedding of his gay son in 2007, was stripped of his credentials to exercise his ordained ministry in the Methodist Church. He performed the wedding of his son and his partner knowing full well that it violated the doctrine and discipline of the church. Charges were filed against him, and now the institution is meting out the punishment for his actions. That’s what institutions do. But is it right?
Jesus was always getting into trouble for breaking the rules. He violated the Jewish rules for observance of the Sabbath, citing the instance of King David, who in order to meet the needs of his hungry troops fed them consecrated bread from the altar. [Matthew 12:4] Jesus violated all kinds of rules in the purity codes of his day to respond to and meet the needs of real people and to treat them compassionately. Because in the end, rules are supposed to serve the needs of people, and when they don’t, they deserve to be broken.
Rev. Schaefer stands in a long tradition of civil disobedience, or in this case, ecclesiastical disobedience. Disobedience of the rules is a mainstay of nonviolent resistance. Dr. Martin Luther King and Gandhi stand in this great nonviolent tradition. An African-American walking up to a segregated lunch counter and sitting down in violation of the rules is an act of civil disobedience.
The purpose of nonviolent civil disobedience is precisely to break the rules and to force the ruling institution to exact its punishment for the violation—and to force that institution to review whether such rules are immoral. The strategy of this form of resistance is to exact such a high price from the good people who violate the rules that the enforcers recognize the unfairness and injustice of the rules. The act of refusing to be inducted into the Army during the Vietnam War was meant to make the American public horrified at the prospect of imprisoning increasing numbers of its young men who saw the war as immoral—and thus precisely to bring to an end the war those young men saw as unjust.
It will not be long before the Methodist Church will become horrified at the actions taken against ministers such as Rev. Schaefer. A Methodist bishop has officiated at a same-sex marriage in Alabama. Recently, some 50 Methodist ministers together officiated at such a same-gender wedding. Pretty soon, the church will be knee-deep in ecclesiastical trials, forced by the rules to punish those who defy Methodist doctrine and discipline by solemnizing and blessing the unions of two people of the same gender. And in time, fair-minded and thoughtful Methodists will cry, “Enough!” And then they will change the rules.
Until then, fine clergy like Rev. Schaefer will pay a price. Some will even lose the credentials to exercise their ordained ministry. It will not be pretty. And it will make the church look really bad. Punishing Methodist clergy for being compassionate in the way that Christ was compassionate will eventually become embarrassing for the church. It will lose members who don’t want to be associated with a church that condemns their friends who are gay or lesbian and refuses to bless their relationships. And the evangelism so important to the Christian enterprise will be hindered. And then, the rules will be changed, along with the church’s theological thinking about homosexuality.
For now, Rev. Schaefer will have to suffer the consequences of his actions. And while that is a tragic loss for him and the church, he will be in the good company of the many people throughout the ages who violated the rules to bring about a more compassionate and loving church. And he will have the comfort of knowing that the Jesus he knows and follows uttered these words in his earthly ministry: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 5:10]