Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth is the pastor of Whiteville United Methodist Church in Whiteville, NC and the editor/president of Lifewatch (or the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality).
Why Revise the Social Principles?
Due to action of The United Methodist Church’s 2012 General Conference and negotiation of church leaders, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) held listening sessions on the Social Principles throughout the church. From them, the GBCS “concluded that the Social Principles needed to be more theologically grounded, more globally relevant, and more succinct” (according to a 04/12/18 press release).
Then the 2016 General Conference voted to affirm the GBCS continuing its work in revising the Social Principles. On April 11, 2018, “The United Methodist Social Principles – Working Draft 1” was released. Church and Society aims to propose a complete revision of the Social Principles to the 2020 General Conference.
The Social Principle on Abortion: A Brief History
Since the birth of The United Methodist Church in 1968, the Social Principles’ paragraph on abortion has been contested. The 1972 paragraph stated: “We support the removal of abortion from the criminal code, placing it instead under laws relating to other procedures of standard medical practice. A decision concerning abortion should be made only after thorough and thoughtful consideration by the parties involved, with medical and pastoral counsel.” Following the United States Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which knocked down state laws against abortion, United Methodism reflected Roe; its 1976 abortion paragraph included this sentence: “We support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures.”
Since 1976, many General Conferences have considered and debated petitions that would alter the church’s teaching on abortion. Some passed. Gradually, the paragraph became more skeptical, critical, and prohibitive of abortion. That is, the Social Principle became more protective of the unborn child and mother.
In 2018, while The United Methodist Church’s Social Principle on abortion (Paragraph 161K in the 2016 Book of Discipline, which is part of “The Nurturing Community” section) “support[s] the legal option of abortion,” it also contains many phrases and statements that are protective of the unborn and mother. This Social Principle has now been revised—thoroughly, in the GBCS’s draft proposal for 2020.
The Revised Title
The revision of this Social Principle is boldly announced in its title change: from “Abortion” to “Reproductive Health.” Why? Well, “Abortion,” as a title, might be considered too controversial, harsh, specific. In contrast, “Reproductive Health” might be understood as more medical-clinical, gentle, and general.
Against this retitling, four objections can be raised. First, the new title assumes that abortion is, as a matter of fact, just another aspect of “reproductive health.” However, many inside and outside the medical profession, especially those of various religious persuasions, would disagree. Second, should not a Social Principle on abortion, by necessity, be titled “Abortion?” One would think so: a thing should be called what it is. Third, the Church through the ages has routinely used the word “abortion,” so United Methodism should regularly use the same word. And fourth, abortion names a morally significant (and objectionable) incident: that is the taking of the life of an unborn child. To put such a serious incident under the heading of “reproductive health” disguises and diminishes what happens to the child.
For these reasons, the title “Abortion” should remain.
The Revised Text
According to the three needed improvements reported by the listening sessions, how does the revision measure up?
Is the revision “more theologically grounded”? For starters, the revision mentions God once. But not Jesus Christ. And not the Holy Spirit. The Bible is cited twice, but not quoted. Church tradition is not referenced. The revision seems trapped in the modern worldview of individualism, public health, and social science. It seems anthropocentric (centered on humanity), and neglectful of God and God’s creation, commands, and redemption. Unlike the current paragraph, the revision opens up very little to the presence and power of God. So the revision is not “more theologically grounded” than what was revised. Its theological grounding is lessened.
Is the revision “more globally relevant”? To be globally relevant, the revision would need to use terms that are universally understandable and applicable. The Church speaks the most universal language of all. Its words — for example, God and humanity, birth and death, good and evil, joy and suffering, love and loyalty, and so on — appeal to most people worldwide. While occasionally using such words, the revision reverts to a Westernized, individualized, medicalized mindset. This mindset results in the revision’s inability to affirm the humanity of the unborn. Such thinking is better suited for an international political agency than for a global Christian church. While the standing Social Principle on abortion is imperfect on the matter of global relevance, it lacks the revision’s predetermined Westernized agenda. So, on its global reach, the revision fails.
Is the revision “more succinct”? Yes. The revision is roughly one-third as long as the current Social Principle (approximately 220 words to 660 words).
Editing Out the Gospel of Life
When the standing Social Principle on abortion was revised, what were some of the key phrases and sentences that were deleted? “Sanctity of unborn human life.” “Sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.” “We support parental, guardian, or other responsible adult notification and consent before abortions can be performed….” “We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection or eugenics….” “We oppose the use of late-term abortion known as dilation and extraction (partial-birth abortion) and call for the end of this practice….” “We entrust God to provide guidance, wisdom, and discernment….” “We mourn and are committed to promoting the diminishment of high abortion rates.” “We affirm and encourage the Church to assist the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women find feasible alternatives to abortion.” “We particularly encourage the Church, the government, and social service agencies to support and facilitate the option of adoption….”
These phrases and sentences emerged from historic, ecumenical Christianity’s witness for life and opposition to abortion — and were approved by General Conferences.
If the theologically superficial, globally distant, brief revision is adopted, as is, by the 2020 General Conference, this would basically nullify, in one vote, all General Conference decisions that have been protective of the unborn child and mother. That nullification, in one vote, would: silence the voices of many United Methodists around the world; increase distrust in The United Methodist Church; set The United Methodist Church more strongly against the consensual teaching of historic, ecumenical Christianity on life and abortion; and lead possibly to the destruction of more unborn children and bring harm to their mothers. That nullification, in one vote, would not be good. Such nullification is unacceptable.
Comment by William on April 30, 2018 at 10:05 am
After questioning the GBCS support of Planned Parenthood recently, an ABORTION agency that performs over 320,000 abortions annually, a staff member, speaking for the director, emailed me that GBCS supports Planned Parenthood — “we know that both mothers and babies have a greater chance of surviving when women have access to pre-natal care and well baby visits”
Can anyone come up with a more preposterous (and shocking) statement than that regarding Planned Parenthood?
If this represents the UMC – GBCS, and I’m convinced it does, then these liberal revisions to the Social Principles are just another of their usual and customary protocol.
My recommendation to the 2020 General Conference — abolish this board and start over with actual Christians running it instead of the current satanic leaders.
Comment by Paul on May 11, 2018 at 9:04 am
Yes. I agree whole heartedly. It is time to rid the Church of these heretics.
Comment by Karl A. Zeggert on April 30, 2018 at 11:23 am
Show me in the Bible , chapter and verse that allowes the murder of unborn children. The COB, members of the Social Prnciples, and the 2020 GC must pray that they a Holy Spirit driven and not catwring to secular wims
Comment by Scott on May 1, 2018 at 10:03 am
Our theology is now driven by contextualization. In other words are theology is created by the societal beliefs that surround us. What the scripture says seems no longer important to our COB and the GBCS. Instead we must keep society happy, not God. May God have mercy on the UMC!
Comment by betsy on April 30, 2018 at 11:25 am
“The revision seems trapped in the modern worldview of individualism, public health, and social science. It seems anthropocentric (centered on humanity), and neglectful of God and God’s creation, commands, and redemption.”
As far as I am concerned, the above quote gets to the root of what is wrong with The United Methodist Church, especially here in America: We spend way too much time talking about what we do and not enough time talking about who God is and what He does.
Comment by Debra Deyo on April 30, 2018 at 1:24 pm
It is shocking to me that the UMC doesn’t clearly identify abortion with sin and killing of a child! Also the local conferences should have the main vote on this and God as Father Son and Holy Spirit should be the main focus!
Comment by Paul W. on April 30, 2018 at 1:30 pm
Having read the draft Social Principles, the problems you describe regarding the section on abortion are just the tip of the iceberg.
The entire document reads as a leftist secular political statement where someone with little Christian or Wesleyan background went back and attempted to edit in additional text to give it an extremely shallow “Christian” veneer.
Two lines of reasoning lead me to this conclusion: 1) The document is much easier to read and much clearer if you skip over every sentence that include any religious reference. (Seriously, I encourage you to check this out for yourself.) 2) The majority of the scripture references and John Wesley quotes are taken out of context, often painfully so.
What I find most disturbing about the draft document is the seeming apathy and lack of effort put in by the authors in regard to trying to provide any Scriptural and/or Wesleyan basis for the policy positions.
Am I to assume that GBCS has no access to competent Biblical and Wesleyan scholars, pastors, or laity capable of constructing these arguments? Or am I to assume that GBCS just doesn’t care?
Comment by William on April 30, 2018 at 3:28 pm
They are little more than a political action arm of the modern Democratic Party. If there are any Christians working there, they must have to stay in the closet in order to keep their jobs.
Comment by Lee D. Cary on February 19, 2019 at 6:47 am
“The entire document reads as a leftist secular political statement where someone with little Christian or Wesleyan background went back and attempted to edit in additional text to give it an extremely shallow “Christian” veneer.”
Spot-on. Thank you.
Comment by James Lung on April 30, 2018 at 6:29 pm
This reprehensible rejection of the flawed but workable current stance is yet another abomination to issue from gbcs. That Agency must be abolished.
Comment by Rebecca Shaw on April 30, 2018 at 6:32 pm
Hillary Clinton advocates late-stage abortion. And she still can’t believe she lost the election.
Comment by Stuart Sherman on April 30, 2018 at 6:54 pm
Why are we NOT surprised at the liberal watering down of this document? Seems that is the direction of all the General boards and agencies!
Comment by Don on April 30, 2018 at 7:19 pm
All of the above. The Group Blending Christ and Sin (GBSC) must be abolished, all of it’s sponsors defrocked and placed on unemployment
Comment by Joy Jensen on May 1, 2018 at 5:42 am
Reminds me of one of Paul Harvey’s “If I Were the Devil” essays where he mentions something about either unclear wording or words to muddy men’s minds. The question is now have we become what we say or are we saying what we think will bring the least offense?
Remember the mind makes no distinction between what it has done and what it thinks has been done. If one thinks of something long enough it becomes that in fact to that person. How many people have thought themselves into leaning (falling) into these new facts?
Those who have a strong grasp on The Truth must stand long, loud, and proud so that others may find it and stand strong as well.
Comment by Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth on May 3, 2018 at 11:25 am
Thanks much for reading and responding. Please take the next step, read the revised paragraph on abortion, and comment on it. You can find the revised paragraph and how to respond to it by going to http://www.umcjustice.org/who-we-are/social-principles-and-resolutions/social-principles-revision/social-principles-2020/sp2020-english. Thanks for your faithfulness in following through.
Comment by DonPhillips on May 10, 2018 at 4:20 pm
I think that you are very out of touch with mainstream America and are pushing a leftist ideology. Shame on the church for allowing this drifting away from the Gospels and Wesley.
Comment by James Sperry on May 10, 2018 at 5:29 pm
When any established religion follows the liberal secular position on all moral matters it is no longer a church. If religious institutions do not take a strong moral position, who will? I do not wish the leave the United Methodist Church, but it seems to be rapidly leaving me. However, I will continue to resist as long as possible and I hope others who value our strong biblical tradition will also. It is terrible enough to have a government that does not value God given life, but to have a church that does not strongly defend it, is intolerable.
Comment by David on May 11, 2018 at 3:11 am
Exodus 20:13 still says, “thou shall not MURDER!” Translationshave used the work “kill” so long that it misses the true meaning or definition. Murder is the taking of human life! Not animals or plants; HUMANS. The womb is the containment of human life and deliberate abortion results in murder of that life! Should there come a situation where by the mother’s life or the fetus life is endangered one must pursue God’s leading and a choice made.
Comment by Lee D. Cary on February 19, 2019 at 6:42 am
Excellent article! It’s a heads-up on the next big debate in the UMC. Many insightful comments, too.