New Social Principles: A First Look

By Thomas Lambrecht –

The 2012 General Conference commissioned the Board of Church and Society to do a total rewrite of the United Methodist Social Principles. The project is moving toward completion with the publication of the first draft of the proposed new principles.

The aims in drafting the new principles were to make them:

  • More succinct
  • More theologically grounded
  • More globally relevant

Since their introduction in 1972, the Social Principles have been added to and elaborated on. It has grown from 42 paragraphs in 1980 to 76 paragraphs in 2016. In 1980, the Social Principles took up 18 pages in the Discipline, and in 2016 they took up 40 pages using smaller type! And there is no disputing that the perspective on social issues is extremely U.S. centric and often not applicable to countries in other parts of the world where 40 percent of United Methodists live.

In general, the new Social Principles accomplish the goals set for them. They are more succinct, scaling back to 60 paragraphs instead of 76 and substantially shortening some of the paragraphs. However, they were only able to pare back from 2016’s 15,000 words to now 14,000 words, with two paragraphs left to add. At first read, it still seems like there are some areas of overlap and duplication that could be consolidated, and there could be further shortening to reduce the overall length.

There has been an effort to incorporate more Scripture references into the principles and to set a theological context for many of the topics, which is helpful. Unfortunately, the effort to provide Scriptural background sometimes results in the twisting or misapplication of a given passage. For example, the section on military service uses Jesus’ exclamation from Luke 19:42, “If you had recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” as an argument for peacemaking. In fact, Jesus is talking here mainly about peace with God through accepting Jesus as the Messiah, rather than human efforts at resolving conflict in non-military ways.

The attempt to make the Social Principles more globally relevant has resulted in far less specificity in the principles. Rather than addressing specific concrete dilemmas, they speak in broad generalities. This does enable the principles to translate better into a variety of global contexts. On the other hand, they tend to be much blander and not as helpful in addressing the real ethical and moral issues underlying the statement.

Many of the principles tend to address the topic in a more superficial way without wrestling with the competing values that often are the source of controversy. For example, the principles on migration, immigration, and refugees extol the value of welcoming the stranger and providing radical hospitality, but fail to mention the need to preserve national boundaries and protect a nation’s citizens. All these values are important and supported in Scripture, and the difficult moral reasoning is seeking how to balance them.

Distressingly, some of the more controversial areas saw a decided swing toward a more progressive approach. This is especially true in the principle on abortion, where all the nuanced language added in the last 20 years has been jettisoned in favor of the eerily unqualified statement, “We support legal access to abortion.” There is no examination of any parameters to legal abortion or any hint that abortion should be restricted in any way or that abortion is the tragic loss of a life. It is treated as a neutral decision, and the focus of the principle is on preventing unintended pregnancy.

Similarly, the principle on marriage and divorce fails to set forth any kind of theological understanding of marriage, other than to say it is one form of human relationship in which we ought to treat one another with humility, gentleness, patience, and love. Marriage is not defined, skirting the challenges of polygamy or same-sex marriage. Much more space is given to situations when marriage has gone wrong (abuse, exploitation, divorce, child marriage) than in setting forth what can be done to strengthen marriages or why marriage is important.

On the other hand, the principle on “Military Service” is well balanced, affirming both the pacifist perspective and the “just war” perspective (although it is not named such in the principle). The parallel principles on “War and Peace” and “Peacebuilding” emphasize peacemaking without acknowledging situations where armed conflict may be unavoidable. This is one instance where combining the three principles could yield a more balanced and comprehensive understanding of the issues involved.

The hot-button paragraphs on “Human Sexuality” and “Rights of Persons of All Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities” were not included, pending the 2019 General Conference’s decisions on these issues. However, the principle on “Gender Equality” implies the acceptance of multiple genders beyond male and female and plainly states, “Discrimination based on gender identity is a sin.” This is obviously beyond where many United Methodists are prepared to go.

The Board of Church and Society is looking for feedback on this initial draft of the Social Principles. Comments can be entered on this web link. I would encourage you to read the proposed principles and give your feedback to help influence the second draft. The final product will come to the 2020 General Conference for approval. As they stand now, there is a lot of room for improvement.

Tom Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. 

Comments

  1. The only surprise here is that I was under the understanding GC 2016 voted in favor of removing or reversing the writing in support of abortion. The only way the church was able to move in favor of abortion decades ago was by the false medical testimony in the Supreme Court cases claiming the fetus was not yet human life, only tissue, and thus not a person to whom the church could advocate for or against. Although these claims have been decidedly falsified for some time, the UMC continued to close it’s collective eyes and ears. That is, until this last GC. The UMC was no longer to advocate for abortion, so what happened to the decision?

    • Hi, Kelli. Thanks for your question. The 2016 General Conference did take some very positive pro-life steps on the issue of abortion. What is being proposed in these new Social Principles would delete all the good language that has been added over the years to make our statement more pro-life. The proposed new Social Principles have not yet been enacted. They are supposed to be voted on in 2020, and this is just the first draft. I anticipate many changes before then.

  2. Tom,

    Who is writing this? Are there no Good News, Confessing Movement, Wesleyan Covenant, Orthodox folks, for example, represented here?

    In a recent email exchange with the Board of Church and Society, I ask them how they could support Planned Parenthood given the fact that it performs over 320,000 abortions annually.

    In a rather superiority, arrogant overall response, this is how they ended up defending their support of Planned Parenthood: “we know that both the mothers and babies have a greater chance of SURVIVING when women have access to pre-natal care and well baby visits”

    To me, that earned the most preposterous statements of the year
    award.

    How in the world are people like this serving on our Board of Church and Society? Why is it so liberal?

    Thanks for pointing out to us out here in the lay hitherlands how to offer input on this.

    • William,
      If you track through the last 5-6 decades of the scriptural compost heaps that are training the majority of our UM ministers, you will discover that our seminaries have redefined the concept of liberalism. While some may suggest it is unjust to brand these schools in this manner, I would challenge you to scan the curriculum from most of these institutions. Then, check out where our bishops, district superintendents, central office officials and ministers have gotten their theological education. They simply mimic what they have heard and march lockstep with today’s social agenda, rather than scripture’s unchanging truth. Today’s UM church seeks to preach, to those referenced in the Bible as “those having itching ears.” The UMC will not be taken down by the irreligious and unbelievers; rather, it may likely succumb to the devote progressives, who are UM clergy.

  3. With Every new article that you present, I become all the more distressed at the current position of the Methodist Church. I am appalled to have read:
    “We support legal access to abortion.” There is no examination of any parameters to legal abortion or any hint that abortion should be restricted in any way or that abortion is the tragic loss of a life. It is treated as a neutral decision, and the focus of the principle is on preventing unintended pregnancy.”
    How do we as a church take scripture such as:
    Deuteronomy 30:19  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 
    30:20  loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” ESV
    Shall the Church totally excise these scriptures?
    Also this statement makes one cringe:
    “Discrimination based on gender identity is a sin.”
    I won’t go on; but as I see matters growing further and further from scripture; perhaps the time has come for our Lord Jesus Christ to remove the Methodist Lampstand from the Body.

  4. The closed Bishops meeting opened in with gay caucuses Love Prevails and The United Methodist Queer Clergy conference. I did not see any mention of Good News, WCA or Confessing Movement being invited. Do you need to see anything more? GBCS is a reflection of our COB and will act with their protection. If the traditionalist/conservatives do not act as one, they will rule the UMC. I am hearing no mention of a graceful exit anymore!
    Everyone should consider that under the One Church model, conferences could decide whether or not to ordain gays. Am I correct in believing that the elders of a conference would make that decision? Even in the south the elders are far more liberal than the laity. Also am I correct in believing that in that model, pastors could decide in any conference to do gay weddings. What will happen when a gay pastor or a straight pastor preforms a gay wedding in a conservative church. I can guarantee that my congregation full of Baptodist’s will bolt and the church will soon be another empty relic in a textile town. However the Baptists who are already claiming we are a gay denomination will greatly benefit, except for the dones!

  5. Paul W. says:

    Tom, I have to hand it to you; you definitely have a “glass half full” attitude towards the draft document (which is a good quality). Personally, in my opinion, while there are sections that I thought were highly just okay, overall, the draft reads like a set of secular leftist political statements where someone, who nether knew nor cared much about either the Bible or Wesley, went back in and edited it to give it a “Christian-sounding” veneer.

    First, the draft actually reads better and is clearer is you skip over every religious reference. Second, most of the scripture references and John Wesley quotes are taken out of context, often painfully so; there are even two fake John Wesley quotes in the first section (“The Community of All Creation”). Third, the apathy and lack of care that is displayed in trying to develop any Scriptural or Wesleyan basis for most of the positions is beyond disappointing; for most sections, GBCS clearly made little or no attempt to engage with competent Biblical or Wesleyan scholars, pastors, or laity in drafting or reviewing the document.

  6. William says:

    What is the ultimate goal that liberals hope to achieve in the UMC? I know that they want the church to sanctify “same-sex marriage” and declare that the practice of homosexual sexual relations are not a sin. But, Let’s say, theoretically, that if they were able to convince all 100% of United Methodists to fully adopt their agenda and movement, would that satisfy them and things would settle down? My guess is — not by a long shot. Since their movement is in a constant state of flux, revision, updating, and even turmoil to accommodate the ever expanding, changing, and redefining sexual revolution, the BOD would be under constant revision since it could never catch up to the ever growing demands of accommodation placed on the church. And, this would then eventually move out beyond sexual ethics and marriage to include things that have not yet been envisioned.

    And, these people do not seem to comprehend why the orthodox people in the UMC want to stick with and rely on the never changing Bible and a Book of Discipline reflecting this never changing Word of God.

  7. William says:

    In addition — this early report on the meeting of the bishops, to me, is so loaded down wth subterfuge that it is insulting. Do they see us Methodists out here as so dumb and so gullible as to not recognize these words by Bishop Ough for what they are, this reporting for what it is — the opening shot acrosss the bow to get on with a proposal liberalize our church? It would be amazing if one of these progressives or one of their enablers would just step up and tell us why he/she does not believe what the Bible says about sexual immorality, in this case — the practice of homosexuality, and what it says about marriage, especially what Jesus said as recorded in Matthew and Mark. Instead, they continue to barrage us and insult with all this subterfuge.

    PS. I apologize for all my posts here at Good News. But, I am hurting as a lifelong Methodist.

    http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/bishops-begin-high-stakes-deliberations

  8. A Retired Pastor says:

    William, I can certainly understand your feelings. It does hurt me also to know, and see, the countless disciples who are affected by this ongoing push for power. I am sensing three things of late: 1. A growing “polyanna positiveness” in the press releases; 2. a growing superiority complex/lack of humility on the part of the liberal hierarchy; and 3. a growing anger amongst the laity as they see the leadership distancing themselves, and treating the “commoners” like uneducated newbie Christians who have no idea what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about. In short, the actions of the liberal focus is doing nothing to mend the division, but instead is creating a growing crack in the iceberg. The differences in behavior and theology are so vast, and becoming so much more apparent, that I don’t see any action that will work or be accepted except to gather at the fissure and push the calving ice flow out to sea. I too must apologize for my growing despair, but I am losing faith, grasping to hold on, while also having to fend off the almost daily onslaughts of leadership that exhibit no elements of grace whatsoever.
    This comment column is entitled “Speak Your Mind”, which is I guess what I am trying to do in this response. The leadership is so one-tracked they cannot see they have no ears to hear.

    • A view from the pew. I could not have said it better. Ever since I spent four long disheartening years cruising the internet listening to every voice I could find and discovering deep theological divisions, I have been stunned that the leadership of the church remains so blind to what is really going on–especially when it comes to the disillusionment of the grassroots which is where the church is truly coming unwound. My guess is the grassroots will ultimately decide the fate of the denomination. My own feeling is that I am pretty much done when it comes to organized religion–for all the good the church’s presence in my life did me, it also left me in a spiritual never, never land. It was not until I became so broken, lost and confused that I finally wandered away from church and finally discovered the existence of The Triune God who is most definitely worth worshiping. My teachers were an unusual assortment from the communion of saints past and present who crisscrossed denominational lines and included John Wesley himself. The hardest part was that I could not find any adequate, cohesive and succinct teaching that brought order to all the randomness I had accumulated from a lifetime of being a faithful Methodist/United Methodist from within The United Methodist Church.

  9. Remember when the Methodists were a Holiness movement? There were certain standards expected of the members of the church and especially pastors. At one time, Methodists were not supposed to commit worldly sins. Certainly in those days acceptable human sexuality consisted of a man and woman getting married before intercourse. There was a time that Methodists were not supposed to drink alcohol at all. Additionally even gambling was considered sinful. Those are child’s play compared to what is acceptable among Methodists today. Incrementally worldliness is watering down Methodism until it is a social do good club rather than a Holiness movement of people putting their relationship with God first and their good works were simply fruit from that spiritual vine. I’m waiting for a general conference to be held a Cesar’s Palace on the Las Vegas strip. There are many of the clergy who would fit right in. Perhaps a burlesque show and some “escorts” are next for the Methodist “clergy”.

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