United Methodist Superficial Social Principles

on April 13, 2018

The Capitol Hill-based United Methodist General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) has just released a proposed redraft of the denomination’s Social Principles for consideration by the 2020 General Conference. Even more than the current SP, the draft expresses the conventional political witness pieties of declining USA liberal Protestantism with little reference to historic ecumenical teaching. They are laboriously superficial with almost no theological content beyond the pasting of occasional Bible verse references.

A growing 13 million member global church, half of whose active members are outside America, can and will do much better.

Meanwhile, below are comparisons of the draft SP from GBCS with policy statements from Roman Catholicism, another global church. Decide for yourself which offer richer and more serious Christian counsel!


Here’s GBCS’s proposed United Methodist SP draft on “The Family:”

Whether we are single, married, adopted, orphaned, divorced, or widowed, all persons are welcome to receive and enjoy God’s grace within the human family. Isaiah 1:17 (NRSV) says, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” Elsewhere the emphasis is on love and respect between parents and children and in all of family life.

We believe the family should be the basic human community of mutual love, responsibility, and dignity, through which persons are nurtured. We acknowledge that the creation of families comes in many different sizes and configurations, each unique, and none being more significant than another.

We affirm the importance of loving parents and caregivers. Recognizing this, we affirm that all persons are adopted into the family of God, and we commend birth parents, adoptive parents, caregivers, siblings, and children to the care of the Church and society, that each person may share their joys and challenges and be nurtured in a community bound by love. God loves all children and therefore, the dignity of all children is to be protected and valued. We believe that loving caregivers are essential to a nurturing community.

We affirm the integrity of single persons as vital members of human families and the Church community, and we reject all social norms, practices, and attitudes that discriminate against persons because they are single. This includes single parents, recognizing their extra responsibilities. The Church community also includes widow(er)s and orphans, both as part of the Body of Christ and as people for whom to care (cf. James 1:27, NRSV). We encourage all people to develop, sustain, and strengthen relationships to live life in all its abundance

Note mothers and fathers aren’t mentioned once, nor is marriage cited as central to family. Indeed, family is never defined. In contrast, here is Roman Catholic teaching on family:

The Christian family, which springs from marriage as a reflection of the loving covenant uniting Christ with the Church, and as a participation in that covenant, will manifest to all men Christ’s living presence in the world, and the genuine nature of the Church. This the family will do by the mutual love of the spouses, by their generous fruitfulness, their solidarity and faithfulness, and by the loving way in which all members of the family assist one another. (GS, #48)

The family is a kind of school of deeper humanity. But if it is to achieve the full flowering of its life and mission, it needs the kindly communion of minds and the joint deliberation of spouses, as well as the painstaking cooperation of parents in the education of their children. The active presence of the father is highly beneficial to their formation. The children, especially the younger among them, need the care of their mother at home. This domestic role of hers must be safely preserved, though the legitimate social progress of women should not be underrated on that account. (GS, #52)

The mission of being the primary vital cell of society has been given to the family by God himself. This mission will be accomplished if the family, by the mutual affection of its members and by family prayer, presents itself as a domestic sanctuary of the Church. (AA, #11)

Christian families bear a very valuable witness to Christ before the world when all their life they remain attached to the Gospel and hold up the example of Christian marriage. (AA, #11)

The family which is founded and given life by love, is a community of persons: of husband and wife, of parents and children, of relatives. (FC, #18)


Here’s GBCS’s proposed United Methodist SP draft on “Marriage and Divorce:”

God created humanity to live in community and in mutual relationship with one another, thus creating communities of support. The ways we relate to and interact with one another are to honor Christ who lives among us. Ephesians 4:2-3 (NRSV) urges Christians to relate “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Relationships are expressed through love, trust, personal commitment, mutual support, and shared fidelity. This is true of every relationship, including those formed through the bond and covenant of marriage. And yet, through exploitation, oppression, and selfishness, and in the way we relate to and interact with one another, we crucify Christ who lives among us.

Our fidelity to the marital covenant must never allow for abuse or exploitation. When abuse occurs, the safety of persons who are at risk, is our priority. As a Church, we offer our support to survivors of abuse and seek to provide all persons with the necessary resources for healing. We call on society in situations of violence, to ensure the safety of children when determining custodial responsibility.

We believe that divorce does not preclude entering into a new marital covenant. We commit to provide necessary aid and care to all members of a family experiencing a divorce. The Church’s role is to provide, or help people access emotional, civil, and financial resources during this life transition.

We also urge respect for childhood and believe that childhood marriage interrupts girls’ social, emotional and intellectual development and impedes their long-term health and economic opportunities. As a Church, we support laws that prohibit the marriage of children under 18 years of age.

Women and girls often encounter shame and stigma as a result of infertility or unplanned pregnancies, and consequently are ostracized by communities. We must teach, preach and model that all girls and women are made in God’s image, endowed with sacred worth, and should not be defined solely by their role as mothers or wives.

When conflict arises in any relationship, reconciliation is the first goal. However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. We grieve over the devastating emotional, spiritual, and economic consequences of divorce for all involved, understanding that often women and especially children are disproportionately affected by such burdens.

Note there is no substantive mention of marriage as it relates to Christ and His Church, nor is there any affirmation of the desired lifelong union of marriage. In contrast, here is Roman Catholic teaching:

For God Himself is the author of marriage and has endowed it with various benefits and with various ends in view. (GS, #48)

The intimate partnership of life and the love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by Him with its own proper laws; it is rooted in the contract of its partners, that is, their irrevocable personal consent. (GS, #48)

Marriage is not, then, the effect of chance or the product of evolution of unconscious natural forces; it is the wise institution of the Creator to realize in mankind His design of love. (HV, #8)

[Marriage] . . . is an institution confirmed by divine law and receiving its stability, even in the eyes of society, from the human act by which the partners mutually surrender themselves to each other; for the good of the partners, of the children, and of society, this sacred bond no longer depends on human decision alone. (GS, #48)

The intimate union of marriage as a mutual giving of two persons, and the good of the children demand total fidelity from the spouses and require an unbreakable unity between them. (GS, #48)

Holy Scripture affirms that man and woman were created for one another: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The woman, “flesh of his flesh”, i.e., his counterpart, his equal, his nearest in all things, is given to him by God as a “helpmate”; she thus represents God from whom comes our help. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The Lord himself shows that this signifies an unbreakable union of their two lives by recalling what the plan of the Creator had been “in the beginning: ‘So they are no longer two, but one flesh.’” (CCC, #1605)

In his preaching Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it form the beginning: permission given to Moses to divorce one’s wife was a concession to the hardness of hearts. The matrimonial union of man and woman is indissoluble: God himself has determined it: “what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” (CCC, #1614)

The Catholic document concludes:

Marriage…because it is both the image of the spousal relationship between Christ and his Church as well as the fundamental core and an important factor in the life of civil society, is essentially a public reality.


Perhaps most morally troubling and spiritually vacuous of all is the GBCS proposed SP draft on abortion, under “Reproductive Health:”

We believe in the gift of life. Choosing to have an abortion is a difficult and complex decision, often complicated by social realities such as poverty, sexual violence, lack of education or access to health care. Church and society must focus on preventing unintended pregnancies and address the causes that lead to unintended pregnancies.

We support legal access to abortion, contraceptives, and infertility treatment. The Church is deeply concerned with prevention of maternal and infant mortality and treatment of diseases associated with pregnancy, birth, and abortion. We believe that life is embraced by the love and grace of God (cf. Ps. 139, NRSV). We, therefore, urge the Church to provide nurturing ministries to persons who experience a miscarriage, terminate a pregnancy, give birth and raise a child, or give birth and present a child for adoption.

Why is abortion “difficult and complex?” The SP draft, which deletes current SP language opposing abortion for birth control and gender selection and its opposition to partial-birth abortion, ambivalently doesn’t explain. It reserves more passion when inveighing against climate change. Meanwhile, Roman Catholic teaching on abortion is more robust:

God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes. Man’s sexuality and the faculty of reproduction wondrously surpass the endowments of lower forms of life; therefore the acts proper to married life are to be ordered according to authentic human dignity and must be honored with the greatest reverence. (GS, #51)

In questions of birth regulation the sons of the Church, faithful to these principles, are forbidden to use methods disapproved of by the teaching authority of the Church in its interpretation of the divine law. (GS, #51)

The varieties of crime are numerous: all offenses against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and willful suicide…they poison civilization; and they debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honor of the Creator. (GS, #27)

The opening of the above passage is wonderful and should animate all Christian social teaching: “God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves.”


In contrast the GBCS proposed draft for new United Methodist Social Principles has little serious reference to “God, the Lord of life.” Even its laudable stances, like opposing child marriage, are justified for material and emotive reasons, not Christian anthropology. It mainly offers an inarticulate grab bag of human desires packaged as “rights.” In this perspective, humans are autonomous and function individually apart from any substantive connection much less accountability to God.

Here’s the bad news: this SP draft embodies the spiritual and intellectual implosion of elite United Methodist ethical teaching in America over the last century. The good news is that the global church no longer automatically defers to the receding agencies of the USA-based bureaucracy. In 2020 the General Conference will reject this draft.

What will it affirm instead? New thought leaders for United Methodist social witness will emerge with their own proposals reconnecting United Methodism with the moral and intellectual riches of the historic and universal Body of Christ. And in so doing they will help rediscover the best of the Wesleyan tradition.

  1. Comment by John Smith on April 13, 2018 at 6:45 am

    While I also dislike what is written by the GBCS I do not think you have properly answered them. The answer needs to be found the Bible, Christian Theology and the Methodist Tradition. While the Roman Catholic church thinks deeply on these issues and speaks well the Magisterium is not an authority UMC. You complain about the GBCS making minimal reference to the Bible and just sprinkling in the odd verse. You don’t even do that but rather refer to the various encyclicals. Might I suggest a rewrite with a Methodist response to the GBCS. Based on what you have written the GBCS proposal does not fit with RC teaching but there is nothing to say it doesn’t fit with the UMC. And looking at what is going on in the UMC, maybe they are right?

  2. Comment by Ken Dean on April 13, 2018 at 9:42 am

    Mr Tooley though I vehemently disagree with these proposals, your response is weak and without sufficient Biblical Reference. A spade is a spade , call it what it is Blasphemy ! Excommunication is appropriate.

  3. Comment by andreas on April 13, 2018 at 10:16 am

    I agree that, as far as I can tell, the revised version is superficial, obvious and lacking in theological grounding. However, I don’t understand why you would compare it to the Catholic versions. What does that have to do with us?

  4. Comment by Luke on April 13, 2018 at 3:37 pm

    To those objecting to comparisons with Catholic social teaching, I guess I’m wondering what’s wrong with it? The Reformation was principally about theology and especially ecclesiology. Traditional Protestantism historically hasn’t had much disagreement with the Catholic Church over what a rightly ordered society looks like, again with the exception of the church’s place in that society.

    So, why look at what the Catholics are saying? Because they have a rich intellectual tradition of Christian thought on which to draw and they are frankly right vastly more often than they are wrong. The mainline Protestant churches just slap down a bunch of liberal pieties then go hunting for proof texts. Speaking as an ELCA Lutheran, the contrast is embarrassing.

  5. Comment by edke on April 13, 2018 at 6:59 pm

    I agree that the response is weak. Much like the indecision for the past 40 years in the UMC. Detrick Bonhoeffer says: “Indecision (like UMC over the past 40 years) is a decision. I spent 26 years in the Military. We learned that decision cut like a knife and define the objective, whereas indecision wounds us internally til we bleed to death unnoticed til the end. Sounds like UMC!

  6. Comment by John Smith on April 16, 2018 at 6:36 am

    Because the charge is it is incompatible with Methodist teaching with the additional charge that the changes have minimal biblical support. That the proposal is incompatible with RC teachings is irrelevant.

  7. Comment by Ed on April 13, 2018 at 6:44 pm

    Makes me contemplate becoming Catholic…..

  8. Comment by Rev. Vaughan Hayden on April 13, 2018 at 7:19 pm

    It appears that the Social Principles have moved from explaining how the UMC will spread scriptural holiness across the land to espousing a liberal and open worldview under the protective guise and supposed authority of a major denomination. By allowing these words to come from the UMC, perhaps society will confuse them as the word of God. Anathema!
    One example of the liberal bias as opposed to the Biblical truth is the simple concept that declares all “we affirm that all persons are adopted into the family of God…” This universalist approach to salvation undermines and outrightly contradicts Scripture that declares the importance of what we believe. (John 1:12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, and Galatians 3:26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.) These Social Principles are a serious affront and attack against traditional, Biblical theology clothed in niceties within our cultural aversion of offenses. Perhaps that is why the Catholic Principles are so different, because they do not react to culture, they stand outside and above it, attempting a serious reflection on how God would have us to live in this world and not how the world would best receive us.

  9. Comment by Diane M Smith on April 13, 2018 at 7:42 pm

    Well illustrated, Mark! The contrast between the two positions is stunning. The proposed UMC SP on abortion is particularly appalling.
    Perhaps a fundamental difference here with respect to marriage is that the Roman Catholic Church considers matrimony one of the seven sacraments, whereas the United Methodist Church does not so elevate it.
    I’ve been a UMC member for almost fifty years, but I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. The way things are going in the UMC, I may end up back there before I get to the end of my life.
    Thank you, Mark.

  10. Comment by Robert Bleakney on April 13, 2018 at 7:45 pm

    How did John Wesley understand the teaching of the Scriptures and the Church Fathers on these subjects? May it be said that his understanding was in harmony of the canon of St. Vincent of Lerins? If the proposed UM social principles do not adequately articulate the apostolic heritage found in Christian antiquity, why not?

  11. Comment by John McAdams on April 13, 2018 at 7:54 pm

    You are right the Catholic declarations are much better. But I have to point out that a lot of “Catholic” publications, universities, social welfare agencies, orders of priests and (especially) nuns are little, if any, better than Methodist officialdom in what they preach and believe.

  12. Comment by Mary on April 13, 2018 at 9:34 pm

    You article is noteworthy and eye-opening and I thank you for that. Yes, please rewrite using scripture as the basis of your argument, not the Catholic Church principles.

  13. Comment by Paul W. on April 13, 2018 at 9:43 pm

    You’re right. The new Social Principles reads like the platform for some out-of-touch far-left political party. The badly out-of-context Wesley quotes and proof-texting to try to support this drivel is pathetic.

    GBCS needs to be disbanded altogether since they clearly have no understanding or respect for our Methodist theology; this document shows that they are representing only their personal agendas and have betrayed the intentions of General Conference and the UMC.

  14. Comment by Mark West on April 14, 2018 at 12:58 am

    Interesting you make no reference to the lengthy and geographically-wide process the GBCS employed to draft these words. Their grassroots consultation stands admirably in comparison to the autocratic whims of a DC-based lobbying organization like the IRD.

  15. Comment by Paul W. on April 15, 2018 at 12:36 pm

    Unfortunately, it appears that GBCS’s “lengthy and geographically-wide process” consisted merely of holding “listening sessions” and then writing the partisan liberal statement they intended to write all along. They seriously couldn’t even be bothered to find a small group of Wesleyans capable of drafting a scripturally sound defense of their policy stances? As just one example, look at the scripture references in the section about “bullying”! My middle school youth class could have done a much better and more professional job!

  16. Comment by James Lung on April 14, 2018 at 8:54 am

    Thank you. The proposed “new” social principles expand upon the errors adopted in the 1972 version in abandoning what scripture and tradition, as reflected in Catholic teaching, teach concerning the nature of man, and the divine ordering of our lives together in marriage and the family. We have our work cut out for us in the 2019 Annual Conferences.

  17. Comment by Joe M on April 14, 2018 at 9:51 am

    Give $ to Good News of like agencies. Do not give it to UMC, since it ends up being siphoned towards GBCS, with posh offices on Capital Hill.

  18. Comment by Jean-Marie Nkonge on April 14, 2018 at 3:18 pm

    Thank you, Mark. I also have a feeling that GBCS is trying to let the UMC SP fit our cultural differences instead of allowing our cultural beliefs to be guided by the SP grounded on the Bible and apostolic heritage

  19. Comment by Steven Vornov on April 14, 2018 at 3:19 pm

    With actions before words, I addressed the comparison between UMC and Roman Catholic social principles. “social principles.” Months after resigning my elder’s orders, by God’s grace, I united with the Universal Church.

    For those of you who question Mark’s use of the encyclicals, I suggest reading one or two. You will find many scriptural citations in both the encyclicals and the Catechism.

    After experiencing one wing of Protestantism embrace Clintonian, secularizing, progressivism and another calling Mr. Trump a modern Cyrus, my choice was clear. The ancient social teachings of the Catholic Church fit neither Dem nor Gop talking points.

  20. Comment by Stanislas Kassongo on April 16, 2018 at 6:02 am

    Hi Mark.Let our Lord bless you so much and your work.
    Anyone should not change THE HOLY BIBLE. Man and woman die but the SCRIPTURES remain.Faith and obedience are required to all methodist.
    GBCS write their owne understanding.No one should not follow them.

  21. Comment by betsy on April 18, 2018 at 2:12 pm

    Good article. As foar as I am concernedAnd the reason it is appropriate to contrast what United Methodist leaders came up with compared to what the Catholic Church operates from is because although we do not agree on many points, when it comes to these particular issues we should be drawing from the same understanding about God, ourselves and the Bible.

  22. Comment by Cathy Byrd on April 22, 2018 at 9:22 pm

    Some of us, in protest against the liberal agencies and bishops and seminaries are withholding giving to UMC unless our churches withhold apportionments to those entities. The church to which I belong has voted to withhold apportionments for those entities with a statement of the rationale and vote to the Conference Bishop. Hoping others are doing the same….

  23. Comment by Jim Perry on August 29, 2019 at 4:51 am

    The GBCS has sat on Capitol Hill too long and gotten more of its ideas from its neighbors in Congress than from God’s word. This watered down to make everyone happy approach is repugnant and reminds me of the church at Laodicea. Jesus was not happy with them either.

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