Star Trek: The Prime Directive and Clergy Covenants


In Into Darkness, the latest Star Trek film from 2013, there is an interesting relationship between the rules and the right, which leads to some insight into the role of doctrine in the Christian life.

Spoilers ahead.

“Regulations aside, pulling you out of a volcano was morally right.”

At the beginning of the movie, Spock is about to be fried by a volcano and to save him, the Enterprise would be revealed to a non-spaceflight species, which is a violation of the Prime Directive. Here’s the exchange between Kirk and Spock:

Kirk: Spock, Nobody knows the rules better than you. But there has got to be an exception.

Spock: None. Such action violates the Prime Directive.

McCoy: Shut up Spock. We’re trying to save you.

Spock: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  The rules cannot be broken [breaks up]

Kirk: Spock!…If Spock were here and I were there, what would he do?

McCoy: He’d let you die.

In a microcosm, you have the ethical conflict that is a part of many Star Trek episodes over the past few decades: Do we follow the rules to the letter, or do we bend them to seek the best end to a situation?

As expected, Kirk violates the rules to save Spock’s life. He suffers the consequences and is relieved of his command. Just after Kirk loses his ship, a rogue Starfleet officer, John Harrison, blows up a Starfleet archive building and attacks Starfleet’s top officers. Kirk is given back his command by an evil Admiral and commanded to assassinate Harrison who has escaped onto a Klingon world, but all is not what it seems.

One blogger articulated the conflict between orders and morality in the Klingon mission in this way:

In the distorted morality field of hollywood cinema I didn’t even recognize the problem until Spock pointed it out. Captain Pike, Kirks mentor, had been killed in the attack. Many innocent civilians were dead. They knew where the perpetrator was and they had the means to destroy him – movie logic dictates that they proceed to do just that.

Spock, however, jars the audience back to reality by pointing out that execution of a criminal without trial is a betrayal of justice. Furthermore, the violation of the sovereign space of the Klingon home-world that would be required in such a mission was itself unjust and risked igniting a full blown conflict with the Klingons. Spock is emphatic and direct – to follow the orders they have been given would be wrong, immoral, unjust and places humanity in even greater danger.

What do you do when you are obligated to follow laws that are unhelpful and orders that are immoral? The theoretical arc of the story is that if Kirk had followed the rules to the letter, Spock would be fried by a volcano, Kirk wouldn’t have volunteered for the unethical Klingon mission, someone of less ability would have, and the evil Admiral would have won, killing untold numbers of people. Like Spock’s concern, to follow the orders given would affect the many not the few (in retrospect).

 “Is there anything you would not do for your [church] family?”

It is unfortunate that in the 21st century, the mainline church finds itself in a similar situation of living under unjust laws and order.

As the world’s perception of LGBT persons changes around churches, many clergy and churches are experiencing change in their ability to comply with church doctrine towards such persons with integrity. Through personal experience of LGBT persons, reasonable engagement with our Christian doctrine, and study of our Christian Scripture and tradition, clergy in varied traditions have advocated for polity change or outright disobeyed the doctrine of their respective churches.

Pastors have married same-gender couples and some levels of churches have ordained partnered LGBT persons…many before their traditions came around to it. As with Captain Kirk’s conflict with Starfleet regulation, those who violate their tradition’s doctrine do so with the full knowledge that they can lose their ships–or, rather, their ordination or church appointment.

But why would they make such a choice like the United Methodist clergy Frank Schaefer that would cause ripple effects through family, church, and denominations? At the end of Into Darkness, Kirk explains why he went back for Spock:

Kirk: “I want to let you know why I couldn’t let you die. Why I went back for you.”

Spock: “Because you are my friend.”

In a 2013 survey, a third (32%) of respondents say they changed their minds on LGBT inclusion because they know someone who is LGBT. It is through our relationships with LGBT persons that some have felt the call to violate the order and rule that are around us. It is through the practice of ministry and seeing God’s light in others that we see the best situation might be outside of our established borders and boundaries of religious doctrine. And every person in those situations has to decide how to respond.

“I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I only know what I can do.”

I think the depiction of these questions in Star Trek provides a helpful framework for people to see clergy and laity who agree with 99% of the doctrine of their churches but reject a few unjust ones. Like the many episodes of Star Trek, there were times when the Prime Directive was the best course of action–and there were many times when it was not.

From Socrates to Bentham to Kant and beyond, the question of ethics (situational or universal) is always before us. Church doctrine wraps those ethical questions in layers of loyalty and obedience, often to covenants between clergy, church, and Christ.

Like Seth Godin solving the nine-dot problem, sometimes the answer to our varied experience lies beyond what the rules seem to indicate at first. Perhaps obedience is to something more timeless and contains more wisdom for ethical situations, what I would call a combination of several things:

  1. The Bible
  2. A lived community of common faith
  3. The shared reason and tradition of your community

Like Wisconsin discerned for the United Methodist Church, when a clergy covenant is stretched too thin to faceless people in far-away towns, the Covenant becomes the Prime Directive: unyielding in its regulation, and yet inapplicable when a community of people discerns its limitations and seeks to live into the change. This self-corrective cycle is missing from the Star Trek universe: there’s no way to change the Prime Directive, whereas in mainline churches the doctrine can eventually reflect the needs of the many. Covenant, like treason, then becomes a matter of dates.

My hope for you is that through prayer, study of Scriptures, wisdom, and tradition, and having a group to be accountable to, that you will discern a way through your ethical questions and experiences, and find ways to reflect the Spirit who works through our human systems, shortcomings and all.



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  1. says

    I very much appreciated this article. Your statement that it is our relationships with LGBT people that often changes our views is very true for me, too. I used to be extremely conservative in my view of Scripture, but when faced with the reality of the LGBT people who had been marginalized by us Christians, I realized that we were no longer showing the love of God.

  2. Orter T says

    “there’s no way to change the Prime Directive, whereas in mainline churches the doctrine can eventually reflect the needs of the many. ”

    No wonder conservatives and progressives talk past each other: you want to make Christianity fit the culture, we want Christianity to change the culture. You want to legislate change, we want individuals to encounter the living God and be changed.

    Reality is, true Christianity has not been much of a presence in America for quite a while. That is why the UMC is at dagger points with itself; it is why the “U” means untied more than united.

    You need to acquaint yourself with true basic orthodox Christianity–it is not what you think it is. It is not even what I thought it was. There is nothing lukewarm about it.

    Expand your horizons, read “Mere Christianity” by CS Lewis–it is free electronically. What did it for me was the Heidelberg Catechism and a book about it “Body & Soul” by M. Craig Barnes–they both became one long question: “Why had nobody ever had this conversation with me before?” I finally discovered a God worth worshiping.

    To function as a church of imperfect humans, there has to be some common ground to stand on, a consensus as to who God is, who we are in relation, what it means to be a Christian and who we are in regards to each other–right now, no such consensus exists within the UMC.

    I am convinced that on paper Methodism has the best message and method of any other faction of Christianity–trouble is, we drifted from both a long time ago.

    Give God a chance to rattle your most cherished expectations and understandings. Be adventuresome, go poke around on, read the Daily Text for a few days–see what you think. I was stunned to be sucked in by a Wesleyan project from “that seminary”, Asbury.

    Read “Wesley and a People Called Methodists”, even Wesley might turn out not to be who you think he is. I was surprised to learn that he did not set out to change the world or the church; he simply went on a quest to live a holy life centered in God and that lead him to unexpected places.

    One more thing, and I will leave you in peace: In “What’s So Amazing About Grace”, Philip Yancy does a good job of describing the church’s true job and the limitations of legislation vs the boundless transformative power of grace:

    “The church works best as a force of resistance, a counterbalance to the consuming power of the state. The cozier it gets with the government, the more watered-down its message becomes. The gospel itself changes as it devolves into civil religion. Aristotle’s lofty ethics, Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, had no place for a good man showing love to a bad man—in other words, had no place for a gospel of grace.

    In sum, the state [legislation] must always water down the absolute quality of Jesus’ commands and turn them into a form of external morality—precisely the opposite of the gospel of grace. Jacques Ellul goes so far as to say the New Testament teaches no such thing as a ‘Judeo-Christian ethic”. It commands conversion and then this, “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Read the Sermon on the Mount and try to imagine any government enacting that set of laws.

    A state government [legislation] can shut down stores and theaters on Sunday, but it cannot compel worship. It can arrest and punish KKK murderers but cannot cure hatred, much less teach them love. It can pass laws to make divorce more difficult but cannot force husbands to love their wives and wives their husbands. It can give subsidies to the poor but cannot force the rich to show compassion and justice. It can ban adultery but not lust, theft but not covetousness, cheating but not pride. It can encourage virtue but not holiness.”

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