The political uproar over the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the southern border may have halted the Trump administration policy. There are even reports that some families have been reunited.
But the theological uproar created when Attorney General Jeff Sessions equated the “zero-tolerance” policy with biblical teaching and morality, on the other hand, has yet to unfold.
Part of that process will occur within the United Methodist Church, of which Sessions is a member. On June 18, more than 600 Methodist lay people and clergy filed a formal complaint against Sessions for his leading role in the Trump policy. Child abuse and racial discrimination are among the accusations.
And in United Methodist tradition, that is no hollow action. The filing of denominational complaint requires specific responses on the part of the two congregations Sessions attends, one in Washington, the other in his home state of Alabama.
Baptist News Global spoke with David F. Watson, a New Testament professor at United Theological Seminary, a Methodist institution in Dayton, Ohio, where Watson also is dean and vice president of academic affairs.
Watson explained the complaint against Sessions and the just resolution process it triggers. These are his comments, edited for clarity and style.
The formal denominational complaint against Sessions: From where in Methodist tradition does it derive?
The Methodist church is governed by our Book of Discipline and the Book of Discipline stipulates that if a member of our church, or a clergy person or a bishop, is seen as violating certain standards that we have, you can bring a formal complaint against that person.
Who is involved in the process going forward?
Jeff Sessions is not ordained, he is a lay person, so in his case the complaint would go to his pastor and his pastor’s boss, the district superintendent, who would also be involved in adjudicating the complaint.
When does the just resolution process kick in?
Just resolution is a form of arbitration. The goal when a complaint is brought against somebody is not that they go to church trial or anything like that. The goal is to reach a point of mutual understanding, and if some wrong has been done, or if the person against whom the complaint has been brought is found to have done something wrong, then that person has the opportunity to repent and the parties to be reconciled. Reconciliation is really the goal of the just resolution process.
Does the concept come from Matthew 18 or some other biblical teaching, or a church tradition?
I think it’s more like Matthew 18.
How does the process work?
The parties involved would work with the pastor and the district superintendent to reach a just resolution. Generally speaking, that’s where we want to the process to get resolved. Sometimes it can’t be. In those cases, there are more extreme actions that need to be taken.
What are some of those other actions?
If it doesn’t work out here and the situation escalates, it would go to the committee on investigation. They could simply say “we’re not going to take this any further” or they say something as drastic as “we are going to have a church trial on this.”
How common are complaints like this one against Sessions?
It is very unusual for a lay person to have a formal complaint filed against them. It is extremely unusual. But the hope would be that we would be able to reach a resolution that is agreeable to all parties.
Are the two churches that received the complaints obligated to act on the complaint?
They can’t just dismiss the complaint out of hand. You do need to have some type of mediation.
What are the possible outcomes of these procedures?
In the most drastic scenario a lay person could be removed from membership within the United Methodist Church. I don’t think that’s going to happen here. That is after every other avenue has been exhausted. But it is possible to be removed. He might be able to make a case to say “you have misunderstood what I am doing.” Personally, I don’t like what he is doing, though I wasn’t one of those who filed the complaint. I don’t like the separation of families. He has the opportunity to present his case. If it goes to the committee on investigation, they need to take into account his defense.
How is the just resolution process typically used?
It’s still rare. In recent years there have been more complaints issued primarily around LGBT issues. Even so, the filing of formal complaints in the United Methodist Church is fairly rare. We really regard church trials as an absolute last resort. We don’t feel church trials advance our mission of advancing the gospel.