The philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That proverb is especially relevant in the current nullification controversy in the United Methodist Church (UMC).
The word “nullification” generally refers to an unwillingness to obey and defend established laws. The 19th century controversy surrounding nullification had to do with states’ unwillingness to enforce federal laws within their jurisdictions. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina was a leading proponent of nullification. Of course, the controversy was about slavery, and it led to the Civil War.
At the same time, a similar controversy was occurring within the Methodist Church. Earlier in the 19th century, the Methodist movement in America, following the lead of Mr. Wesley, was solidly against slavery. While there are passages in the Old Testament that seem to accept slavery, the New Testament undercut the institution. St. Paul’s admonition to the Galatians became normative for Christians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Loving one’s neighbor as oneself left no room for slavery. Indeed, St. Paul advised slaves to grab their freedom if they got a chance (I Cor. 7:21).
Methodists in the South began to change their view of slavery early in the 19th century. The Southern economy became more and more dependent on the institution. Slowly but surely, the pressure from the secular society led Methodists in the South to forsake their biblical stand on slavery. In 1844, the Methodist Church in the South broke away from the Northern Church over this issue. Reunion did not come until 1939.
Today some United Methodists in the Northeast and the West are flirting with a latter-day version of nullification. This time the issue is sexual morality in general and homosexual behavior in particular. The Bible’s position on homosexual behavior is even clearer than on the issue of slavery. Old and New Testaments are in agreement that any sexual relationship outside of marriage between a man and a woman is sinful. Nevertheless, clergy and even a few bishops are claiming that the Bible is mistaken in its standards regarding sexual behavior. Some even believe that Jesus was wrong in his definition of marriage (Matthew 19:4-6). They are claiming the right to nullify biblical standards and the United Methodist Book of Discipline in pursuit of what they call “a higher law of love.” Once again, Methodists face a choice between the standards of our secular culture and those of the Bible.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”