Recently one of the leaders of our annual conference shared with me her reluctance to take an action regarding a friend because of her fear of the “future precedent” it would set for the group she chairs. And while I consider her to be a sister in Christ, as well as a genuinely sincere individual, I can’t help but think that she is sincerely wrong in this instance. For irrespective of the particulars of this case, underlying the argument she made is a fundamental misunderstanding of what precedence is all about.
To be sure, in certain civil settings the word can refer to an entire system of jurisprudence that is based upon earlier judicial decisions rather than statutory laws. But that definition of the term is a rather narrow one, not really applicable at all to most of us whose decisions are clearly not legally binding actions for all the ages to come, even in our own lives.
The dictionary therefore will tell you that a precedent is more often simply an earlier event or action that can be regarded as an example or guide to be considered in subsequent similar or analogous circumstances. It is part of what lies behind what some have called the Seven Last Words of the Church, namely, “We’ve never done it that way before,” an odd idea indeed for any who believe in new life.
Expressed more positively, it is also why we eternally optimistic Methodists so very often have a “first annual” event in our churches, believing that when we have done something once it is now a cherished tradition of the faith long before we know if it worked at all. For clearly we believe in honoring the status quo, even when it may not be all that honorable to begin with!
Within the life of faith, however, precedence is never so much about the future as it should be about the past. That is to say, we don’t so much set precedents as we may simply use them. When we don’t know exactly what to do in any particular circumstance, for instance, it can indeed be helpful to look back and see how the people of God, particularly those whose stories are told in the scriptures, handled similar challenges in the past.
When it comes to making decisions in the present, however, it is simply silly to suggest that our own wisdom is so infallible that no one in future years should ever even question it. For the truth is that God’s people in every age have the responsibility to prayerfully think out whatever question is before them and then collectively arrive at an understanding as to how to move forward, guided by scripture, the witness of the church throughout the ages, and common sense.
Equally significant, when the fear of setting future precedents takes precedence itself over actually dealing with individuals on their own basis then we’ve let the spirit of the law overwhelm the greater law of love that we are called to follow.
The truth is that as Psalm 139 expresses it, we are all “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God, even though some of us are clearly more fearful than wonderful. In dealing with others, thus, we should be careful not to let our anxiety over setting precedents override our responsibility to truly look at each person individually, judging their case independently of others.
For indeed, just imagine the positive precedent we might set if we actually did that.