Thursday, March 21, 2024

David W. Scott: Why the Book of Discipline Matters More in the US

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

When General Conference convenes in just over a month, it will spend most of its time examining legislative petitions to alter the Book of Discipline (BOD), the denomination’s rule book. And the overwhelming majority of those petitions dealing with the BOD come from the United States.

There are many reasons why so much of the BOD legislation at General Conference comes from the US – the relative size of the church there, the historical US-centrism of the denomination, the lack of any other venue for the church in the US to make policy.

But along with these well-documented reasons, there are also cultural and institutional factors for why US United Methodists want and need a Book of Discipline for church governance more than United Methodists elsewhere. That’s not to say that other parts of the UMC don’t use or care about the BOD. It’s just to say that the BOD has a special significance in the US that it doesn’t hold elsewhere.

I’ll briefly survey four explanations:

An emphasis on the rule of law

Light government regulation of religion

A large, distributed, and diverse church

Significant assets

Each of these factors contributes to the greater emphasis on the Book of Discipline in the United States relative to elsewhere in the UMC.

An Emphasis on the Rule of Law

US Americans tend to place a high cultural value on rules, laws, and formal, impersonal systems. When something goes wrong, the US American attitude is often, “There should be a rule about that!” and US Americans often assume that things will go smoothly if everyone follows the rules.

While this attitude is bred in US Americans primarily by our secular legal system, this preference for formal rules carries over into many other arenas, including the church. Having a book of church laws as the central text for a denomination reflects a particularly American veneration for law.

In this veneration of the rule of law, US Americans reflect a general trend withing Western modernity. Yet the large and active lawsuit culture in the United States that is not present elsewhere in the Western world also turbocharges a reliance on formal rules as a way of avoiding bad scenarios.

Not all countries in the world share the same high cultural value on the rule of law as Americans do. Other countries may emphasize personal preferences of a leader, interpersonal or collective systems of arbitration, or implicit cultural standards to tell people how to act and what to do when something goes wrong. These are all alternatives to formal laws and thus alternatives to relying on the BOD for questions of church governance.

Light Government Regulation of Religion

This may seem paradoxical in connection with the above point about the emphasis on the rule of law, but it’s not. One of the foundational concepts in the system of American laws is the separation of church and state. That is not true everywhere, even in other Western countries with a similarly strong sense of the rule of law. The standard in much of the world is for the government to regulate people’s religious practices and organizations.

If the government is not going to regulate religious groups in the US and there’s a desire for those religious groups to be governed by a system of laws, that means the religious groups have to come up with their own laws, since the state isn’t going to do it for them. The BOD is an expression of the US American church’s desire to self-regulate in the absence of much government regulation.

In other countries with a UMC presence, it may not be necessary to put so many rules into the Book of Discipline because the matters addressed, including employment and pensions, may already be covered by government regulation. Thus, having separate church regulation is unnecessary.

A Large, Distributed, and Diverse church

Even after disaffiliation, but especially historically over the past half century, the US American portion of The United Methodist Church is large – millions of members within scores of annual conferences led by dozens of bishops spread across five jurisdictions and every US state and territory. Within this group are very large churches and very small churches; urban, suburban, and rural churches; black, white, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic churches; rich churches and poor churches; and many other forms of variety.

This size, distribution, and diversity mean two things.

First, the church is much too large to operate effectively through informal, personal governance. While there are certainly United Methodist insiders, most United Methodists do not have direct personal ties with one another. Most are not even at one degree of removal, where two parties both know someone in common who could serve as a go-between. In the absence of such personal connections between United Methodists, it is more important to have impersonal rules since behavior and conflict management cannot always be addressed through personal means.

Moreover, there is no central head figure of the church in the United States who could serve as an ultimate personal arbiter within the church. Each bishop is co-equal, and there are dozens of bishops. Short of a miraculous revelation, there is no way to adjudicate a dispute among bishops by appealing to their common superior. Without personal regulation, impersonal regulation becomes more important.

Second, the church is too distributed and diverse for there to be central cultural norms that shape everyone’s understanding of how to act as the church and what to do when things go wrong. Different regions of the country, different racial and ethnic groups, even churches at different stages of the organizational lifecycle will have different notions of what the expectations for church are. Without shared cultural understandings, it is impossible to adjudicate between competing understandings of how to behave in certain situations without some sort of external systems of written procedures.

While this lack of personal or cultural regulation in the United States makes the BOD that much more important there, other countries have stronger systems of personal and cultural regulation that make the BOD less necessary there. The small size of the church in Europe and the Philippines means that many systems for running the church can be established through personal connections and a shared culture without the need for formal regulations. In Africa, the strong power of bishops, who often govern all the United Methodist churches in a country, provides a personal focus for church governance. In many places in Africa, this personal approach to church governance is reinforced by shared cultural, ethnic, and kinship ties.

Significant Assets

Finally, the US UMC has large holdings in property and finances. Pre-disaffiliation, those total assets throughout the US connection were somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 billion. All these assets mean that the financial stakes for church governance in the United States are high. If someone embezzles money, tries to leave the denomination with their church’s property, does something to get the church sued, or makes a bad financial transaction, the ramifications for those actions could be large, at least monetarily.

Thus, there is in an incentive for more extensive formal rules to try to handle and protect this large amount of assets. Regulations on church property, pensions, apportionments, church employment, and other finance and finance-adjacent areas of the BOD are there so that US Americans can manage their church’s assets, especially in the context of a well-developed secular US legal system with significant opportunities for lawsuits. Putting rules in the BOD allows US United Methodists to avoid secular courts more often and set the terms for when cases do end up in secular courts.

The church in all places has some assets. But in no other place is there the same combination of wealth and size that the church has in the US. Thus, no other place has the same financial incentives to put in place a system of formal financial rules through the BOD that the US has.


Ultimately, it is neither inherently good nor bad for the US to rely heavily on the BOD or for other branches of the church to rely less heavily on it. What creates a possibility for misunderstanding is when US United Methodists rely heavily on the BOD, other United Methodists rely less heavily on it, but General Conference proceeds as if the BOD has the same significance for everyone. Delegates should be aware when they discuss the BOD at General Conference that delegates from different places will have different understandings about the role of the BOD in the life of the church and may have different things at stake in the discussion.

If General Conference creates some option for the formation of a US region, it will have the benefit that US United Methodists will have a venue in which they can fulfill their cultural and contextual need for an extensive set of church laws and regulations without needing to negotiate all those laws and regulations across international cultures, where the various parties have different understandings of law and different senses of what’s at stake. Such an outlet for US energy around lawmaking would then free up General Conference to focus more on spiritual, relational, and other aspects of what it means to be the church together.


  1. The emphasis on rule of law is ironic and a bit hypocritical since the refusal to enforce disciplinary rules caused the split. The “I will only enforce the rules with which I agree” notion started with Obama and was copied by liberal bishops. As it stands, the CoB can do whatever it wants to do. It is a law unto itself. When it gets the rules that it wants, it will reemphasize the need to uphold the Discipline.

  2. Thanks for your post David. As usual, very thoughtful. One thought. I don’t think we can say any longer with a straight face that the bid is our rule book. It seems clear to me that it has only been a suggestion book for at least the past 8 years if not longer. The best example is of ciurse rev Oliveto. She serves as a bishop in clear violation of the bod. Furthermore, the judicial council ruled in 1341 that her consecration was out of order. As you know, the wj took no action.

  3. Sorry. Wasn’t done. And this is Jack jackson by the way. So, we can disagree with jc and the bod , but the clear fact that large swaths of the umc simply operate with impunity in defiance of our “rule book” means we can’t view it as a rule book any longer. It is simply a book of suggestions that clergy and laity take or leave depending on their preferences and opinions

    1. Thanks, Jack. There has certainly been a lot of attention on (non-)enforcement of a couple of highly contested rules in the BOD. But I think this obscures the dozens of non-contentious ways in which the BOD shapes the life of the US UMC every day: church & AC committees, pastoral appointments, seminary curricula, trustee boards, charge conferences, boards & agencies, course of study, special Sundays, etc. These aren't always followed exactly, but they still play a highly significant role in shaping the life of the denomination.

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  5. This process became so painful to me that I retired from my AC last June even though I still teach full-time. The UMC is broken. If they don’t keep the current discipline, why would they keep a future one? What would happen if traditional bishops did what the liberals have been doing?