The United Methodist Church’s controversial, aggressively liberal D.C. lobby office, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), is pursuing an ambitious project of comprehensively rewriting the United Methodist Social Principles, the part of the denomination’s governing Book of Discipline that constitutes core teachings about social and political concerns.
I have reported earlier on some concerns with the process of how first European United Methodist leaders urged that our Social Principles be revised to become more succinct, globally relevant, and theologically and biblically grounded, but then the GBCS ultimately took over this project to in many ways redirect the rewriting of the Social Principles in a way that serves to inject the biases of the GBCS’s own monolithically liberal programmatic staff, while keeping the most liberal Americans in charge of much of this supposed globalizing process.
I have carefully read through the GBCS’s proposed replacement Social Principles with a fine-toothed comb. Meticulously identifying what they have changed from our current Social Principles took some time, as the GBCS has not, in any public place I have seen, highlighted what specific parts it is trying to change.
While our current Social Principles are far from perfect, it is striking to see how bold the GBCS is in changing and replacing the values of numerous sections, often showing little to no deference to the communal wisdom of how previous General Conferences have established the language of our present Social Principles by a much more transparent and representative process of discussion and negotiation. The GBCS has added many citations of Scripture and John Wesley, but these are often wildly out of context, irrelevant, or just plain wrong (such as the GBCS’s citation, at one point, the non-existent biblical chapter of Matthew 29).
The full document of the GBCS’s proposed replacement Social Principles has been posted online here, while this section of the UMC.org website includes links to each section of our current Social Principles (along with the Social Creed, which is not apparently slated GBCS rewrite).
Between now and the end of August, the GBCS is accepting online feedback on its proposed replacement Social Principles at www.umcjustice.org/sp2020
The official plan is for to GBCS to revise their proposed replacement Social Principles in response to this feedback, and then submit the revised version of their replacement Social Principles for possible adoption by the 2020 General Conference.
I strongly encourage all concerned, theologically traditionalist United Methodists to go to the above link and register their concerns. Below, I have highlighted some of the more notable ways in which the GBCS’s rewrite would change our current Social Principles.
But first, there are a few points to keep in mind.
In evaluating what sort of language and political positions I would like to see in the Social Principles, I must remember that this is an OFFICIAL teaching document for our WHOLE diverse, global denomination, and that there are different places of church law that require clergy, as well as laypeople in some leadership positions, to be loyal to these Social Principles. So just because a certain political position reflects my own personal opinions and biases, that should not be a good enough reason for me to want to see it in the authoritative Social Principles imposed on our whole denomination. It would seem better for the Social Principles to be politically non-partisan, stick to key values that are clearly grounded in biblical teaching and Christian, Wesleyan tradition, and avoid being too one-sided over matters on which faithful Christians with an equally high view of Scripture can and do disagree.
For each of the six main sections of the Social Principles, the GBCS asks survey respondents the same questions. First, the survey asks how well you think their proposed replacement language “reflects the unique theological, historical, and moral perspectives within the global United Methodist Church” – in other words, how well you feel it reflects our Christian spiritual tradition as Methodists and ecumenical Christians as well as how well it represents the values of our global denomination’s members, rather than those of just a small, elite, liberal minority. Then it asks you, separately, if you feel the changes made in the proposed rewrite would make the section shorter, more theologically grounded, and more attuned to the concerns of the global church. Then it asks you what parts of the rewrite spoke powerfully to you – in other words, what you liked. Then it asks you what you dislike and want to improve in this section. On the final page of the survey, you can tell the GBCS if there are other issues you feel that any new Social Principles should also address (beyond those covered), and if you have any further or general thoughts.
And apparently, it is acceptable to decline to answer some of the questions.
Again, here is the survey:
What follows is NOT comprehensive listing of all the changes the GBCS’s replacement document would make to our current Social Principles, but simply a highlighting of some of the most significant changes this rewrite would make for each section:
The Natural World (Renamed “The Community of All Creation”)
2,438 words, an 87 percent increase from the 1,306 words in 2012 Discipline (the version that was operative when the GBCS began this project)
- Add more specific details in making scientific judgments about the causes and effects of global warming / climate change (Section D. Climate Change)
- Adds language calling for economic “redistribution of resources” (Section E. Sustainability)
- Goes beyond acknowledging God as Creator to simply call all of creation as “good” in the present tense, without acknowledging the horrible consequences of the Fall, or acknowledging that such things as the HIV virus or bubonic plague may not be as unambiguously “good” as all of creation was before the Fall (Section E. Environmental Justice)
- Calls God the “soul of the universe” (Section H. Space). While the GBCS accurately notes that this phrase was used by Wesley, the lack of context could suggest unbiblical, sub-Christian, New Age, pantheist views that deny how God is separate from and superior to His creation (clearly different from Wesley’s meaning). Remember, the Social Principles are to be a teaching document for the church.
The Nurturing Community
2,433 words, a slight decrease from the 2,681 words in the 2012 Discipline. But a lot is lost in these word cuts.
- Appears to take a morally relativistic approach to families, removing the word “fidelity” from things that should characterize families and declares that no family configuration is “more significant than another” (B. Family)
- Somewhat oddly inserts an unclear phrase opposing “attitudes and practices that … deny the call of any person,” which is the same language used by advocates of ordaining homosexually active clergy (D. Gender Equality). If this is adopted, we can be confident that the GBCS’s liberal caucus allies would use this sentence to claim a legal basis for disregarding other parts of the Discipline denying ordination to those who refuse to abstain from sexual relations outside of marriage between one man and one woman.
- Declares, “Discrimination based on gender identity is a sin” (D. Gender Equality). In the LGBTQ liberationist ideology to which the GBCS leadership has long been committed, “gender identity” is a reference to transgenderism, and means something very different than one’s simple physical and genetic reality as being male or female (you can read more here). Interestingly, the ONLY thing in 36 pages that the GBCS rewrite identifies as “a sin” is failure to accept the claims of transgender activists and ideologies.
- DELETES present language which affirms marriage as a uniquely special relationship, defines marriage as being between “a man and a woman,” declares that “God’s plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage,” calls for “encouraging reconciliation wherever possible” in divorce proceedings, and expresses concern about “high divorce rates.” Changing our denomination’s definition of marriage by deleting all of those phrases just quoted would make the UMC’s official definition of marriage open to same-sex couples as well as to polygamy. (E. Marriage and Divorce)
- DELETES statement that “sexual relations where one or both partners are … promiscuous are beyond the parameters of acceptable Christian behavior and are ultimately destructive of the social order” (G. Sexual Exploitation and Violence)
- Completely replaces current UMC stance on abortion by removing ALL current statements taking even a moderately pro-life attitude toward unborn human life, broadly declaring support for “legal access to abortion” with no qualifications or restrictions, and reframing abortion as a matter of “reproductive health” (I. Reproductive Health). Click here for details and a thoughtful response.
- Completely DELETES current statements encouraging adoption and rather mildly promoting compassion and pastoral care for those who experience stress as a result of a past abortion
- DELETES current statements opposing “assisted suicide” and saying that “suicide is not the way a human life should end” (J. Death and Dying)
The Social Community
2,601 words, a 41 percent decrease from the 4,428 words in the 2012 Discipline.
- Shifts the basis for support for human rights from the biblically based theological foundation of “affirm[ing] all persons as equally valuable in the sight of God” to instead focusing on the secular document of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Preface)
- DELETES affirmation of “our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness,” and also DELETES phrase calling on those who do drink alcohol to use “Scripture as a guide” (B. Addictions and Substance Abuse). In discussing alcohol and other drugs, this same section oddly avoids any citation or acknowledgement of the Bible’s repeatedly negative treatment of intoxication (e.g., Proverbs 23:20-21; Romans 13:13; 1 Corinthians 5:11, 6:9-11; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:18-19; 1 Peter 4:1-6).
- Diminishes concerns expressed about bioethics, by DELETING language which currently “oppose[s] the cloning of humans,” criticizes scientific procedures “that produce waste embryos” (that is, that intentionally create new embryonic human beings who are then deemed unneeded and so are killed), and denounces “[g]enetic therapies for eugenic choices.” (D. Medical and Genetic Experimentation). Eugenics refers to practices of seeking to ensure that new children will be those lacking genetic characteristics some judge to be “undesirable.”
- While maintaining support for “comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education” elsewhere (I. Reproductive Health in the Nurturing Community above), this rewrite DELETES current modifier that “Christian parents and guardians and the Church have the responsibility to ensure that children receive sex education consistent with Christian morality, including faithfulness in marriage and abstinence in singleness” (I. Rights of Children and Young People)
- DELETES numerous current moral concerns expressed about mass media, including noting how some things in popular mass media “are often in a stark contrast to human and Christian values,” saying that “United Methodists…must be made aware that the mass media often undermine the truths of Christianity by promoting permissive lifestyles and detailing acts of graphic violence,” and declaring that “[f]or the sake of our human family, Christians must work together to halt this erosion of moral and ethical values in the world community” (N. Media and Communication Technology)
- Quotes John Wesley’s “Catholic Spirit” sermon, which addressed the spiritual unity among Christians of different denominations who held a common core of biblical faith, in an out-of-context way that could seem to imply that this extends to adherents of every other religion (G. Rights of Religious Minorities)
- DELETES current statement that “We oppose any policy of forced abortion or sterilization”
The Political Community
1,563 words, a reduction of 13 percent from the 1,796 words in the 2012 Discipline.
- DELETES current language saying that affirming democracy – in which government leaders are “determined by exercise of the right to vote guaranteed to all adult citizens” – as a preferred form of government (B. Basic Rights and Freedoms)
- DELETES language limiting support for disobeying laws as a protest to situations in which the protesters have first “exhausted all legal recourse,” among other things (D. Civil Disobedience)
- Goes beyond mere calls for criminal justice systems to seek restoration of offenders, by further using broad language to speak against offenders “receiving punishment” (E. Restorative Justice). C.S. Lewis had a powerful critique of such thinking that is worth considering.
- Enhances current statement calling for the abolition of the death penalty by adding additional language declaring that it is always “contrary to the will of God” (F. Death Penalty). This new language brings several concerns. When God commanded the theocracy of Old Testament Israel to institute the death penalty, was this also “contrary to the will of God”? Secondly, part of our Doctrinal Standards include John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, in his notes on Romans 13:4 (“rulers do not bear the sword for no reason”), Wesley explicitly affirms that “capital punishment” is something that governments have a God-given “right to inflict.” This new language would create more of a contradiction between the UMC Social Principles and John Wesley himself! Thirdly, some United Methodists take the position that governments have an inherent right to inflict the death penalty when necessary (thus agreeing with Wesley), but that in modern societies, like the USA or Japan, stable enough to be able to keep dangerously violent murderers imprisoned with minimal risk of escape, the government should refrain to exercise its right to actually execute criminals, as an act of mercy. Such nuanced positions could be excluded by this new language.
- On a related note, despite this rewrite adding numerous citations of various Bible verses (often wildly out of context), nowhere in this entire chapter about United Methodist views of government is there any mention of what is arguably the key New Testament text for such matters: Romans 13:1-7.
The Economic Community
3,294 words, an increase of 38 percent from the 2,383 words in the 2012 Discipline.
- Offers a curiou, portrait of what the GBCS sees as MOST fundamental about Christianity, by declaring that “alleviation of poverty and the pursuit of just and equitable economies stands at the very heart of Christian discipleship” rather than being secondary matters that flow from a foundation of repentance and submission to Christ’s Lordship (Preface), and by referencing “Jesus’ ministry to…eradicate both the effects and root causes of poverty,” but without citing any specific biblical examples of Christ working to “eradicate” systemic root causes of poverty (A. Equity)
- Similarly, claims that individual people “find their ultimate purpose in helping to create and sustain communities characterized by justice and compassion”—in other words, that people’s “ultimate purpose” is found in what THEY do to promote social justice, rather than in what God has done FOR them (J. Corporate and Social Responsibility). This invites such questions as: can’t atheists do that as well? If so, what need is there for God?
- Speaks negatively of international trade, acknowledging that it has “undoubtedly benefitted some,” but broadly blaming it for having “created or exacerbated a significant set of challenges” such as economic inequalities, environmental degradation, and conditions for workers, while saying little to affirm the importance of globalized trade in the economic development of many nations of the Global South (C. Globalization)
- DELETES current stance that “We reject the use of violence by either party during collective bargaining or any labor/ management disagreement” (F. Labor and Employment)
- Oddly, in addressing slavery in Sub-Section H (Human Trafficking) and elsewhere, this rewrite avoids mention of the New Testament’s directly addressing slave trafficking in 1 Timothy 1:8-11, by classifying slave trading alongside other serious sins
- Completely DELETES ¶163.M, a statement of concern about “Public Indebtedness,” which was submitted by an annual conference and overwhelmingly adopted by its committee and then the plenary session of the 2012 General Conference. The way this statement criticizes irresponsible over-spending by governments, supports balanced budgets, and urges governments to “live within their means” perhaps clashed too much with the GBCS’s ideological commitment to continually increasing the size and costs of national governments.
The World Community
2,047 words, a 152 percent increase from 813 words in the 2012 Discipline.
- Sub-Sections E (War and Peace) and F (Peacebuilding) maintain the controversial decision of recent General Conferences to roll back how earlier versions of the Social Principles more clearly allowed for the moral permissibility of waging war “as a last resort” for the sake of “the prevention of such evils as genocide, brutal suppression of human rights, and unprovoked international aggression.” This rewrite adds several citations from Scripture about God’s promotion of peace, between military powers as well as in interpersonal relationships. These citations are not wrong, but rather are a bit selective, ignoring such other important principles as governments’ responsibility to use violent force when necessary to restrain evil (per Romans 13), the prophetic warning against crying “Peace, peace” when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11), and Jesus Christ’s own strong words that he did not come, initially, to bring peace but rather a sword (Matthew 10:34ff).
- In otherwise strong new Sub-Section H on Religious Freedom, which includes an explicit affirmation of the right of individuals to choose their religion (very important for Muslim-majority societies in which this is severely restricted), this rewrite oddly chooses to ground support for religious freedom for all in “presuppose[ing] the integrity” of people’s religious choices. It is not clear what exactly the GBCS means by this quoted phrase. But this raises questions about the lack of recognition for how the Fall has widely tainted human choices by flawed understanding and sinful motives. We need not agree that other people’s contradictory religious choices are good in order to affirm their right to make such choices without government coercion. The GBCS here ignores other Christian foundations for supporting the religious freedom of others, such as the Golden Rule.
- Much of this proposed rewrite takes great care to avoid using biblical pronouns for God such as “He” and “His.”
- At numerous places, this document appears to reflect the GBCS’s unbiblical Universalist theology, by taking blessings and promises the Bible is clear in specifically applying to Christians and instead applying them to all people, regardless of whether or not they ultimately accept Christ. For example, in the Nurturing Community section, the GBCS “affirm[s] that all persons are adopted into the family of God” (B. Family), directly contradicting New Testament teaching about how being adopted to become children of God only comes through faith in Christ.
- Some Old Testament citations follow a pattern of American liberal Protestantism of very selectively quoting particular commandments God gave to theocratic nation-state of ancient Israel and automatically applying them to particular governments today, or to other entities for whom the GBCS finds such proof-texting to be convenient.
- In addressing numerous global social ills, this rewrite does not include any clear reference to the Fall, which is rather central to both biblical, Wesleyan faith as well as to any Christian understanding of such problems.
I encourage any United Methodists who have concerns about any of the changes noted above to hurry to register them at www.umcjustice.org/sp2020