John Wesley preached “practical Christianity.” Few United Methodist practices illustrate our practical Christianity more vividly than our Social Principles(which have their roots in the “social creed” of our church which dates from the early Twentieth Century). The Discipline defines these principles as our most recent official summary of stated convictions that seek to apply the Christian vision of righteousness to social, economic, and political issues. The God whom United Methodists worship combines love with justice, is not only gracious but also demanding, not only died for you and me but for the whole world. There is for us no personal gospel that fails to express itself in relevant social concerns; we proclaim no social gospel that does not include personal transformation of sinners.
The Social Principles are a thoughtful effort on the part of a succession of General Conferences to speak to the pressing human issues in the contemporary world from a Wesleyan biblical and theological foundation. They are intended to be instructive, to teach contemporary United Methodists the best thought and practice on selected subjects, and they are also meant to be persuasive, urging the church on to higher righteousness. The Social Principles call all members of The United Methodist Church to a prayerful, studied examination of our life together and our personal lives in the light of the gospel.
Our struggles for human dignity and social reform have been a response to God’s demand for love, mercy, and justice in the light of the Kingdom. We proclaim no personal gospel that fails to express itself in relevant social concerns; we proclaim no social gospel that does not include the personal transformation of sinners.
The Social Principles begin by addressing issues in “The Natural World” – ecological concerns, energy resources, technology and space exploration, next “The Nurturing Community,” beginning with the family, moving to marriage (we’re in favor of it), divorce (we’re against it but recognize that it sometimes is a “regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness”). There is a discussion of homosexuality (an argument that has consumed much time and attention in recent meetings of the General Conference), as well as a long paragraph on abortion (I suspect that this paragraph is trying to please everybody by saying next to nothing). There are also extensive discussions on “The Economic Community,” “The Political Community” (the person who said that the church ought to “stick to saving souls and stay out of politics” wasn’t a United Methodist!), and the “World Community.” We have churchly opinions on just about everything.
Frankly, some of these sections show the challenge of asserting the primacy of Scripture and at the same time attempting to speak on many topics for which Scripture has no apparent concern. The theological underpinnings of our social teachings are not always clear. Even though these principles are our collective wisdom on social, public, political matters, the Discipline’s scant attention to personal, individual sin, when compared with this extensive and detailed treatment of social sin is odd. Wesley certainly held the personal and the social together. But we live in a curious age in which, if we think of sin at all, we focus more on the sins of Congress or the corporate board room than sins committed by individuals in a bedroom. Sometimes it’s safer to love a whole neighborhood than to love our individual neighbors. It’s always sad when we United Methodists show our conformity to the world rather than God’s calls to help transform the world. In the great Wesleyan tradition, there is no clear demarcating between the personal and the corporate, the social and the individual. The light of Christ penetrates every somber corner of our lives, personal and corporate, and we are under obligation, as followers of Christ, to let that light shine.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)
Today United Methodists have over 80 hospitals, 64 extensive child care networks, and 214 retirement communities and nursing homes for the elderly. We have over a hundred colleges and universities in the United States and about the same number elsewhere. United Methodist agencies like UMCOR are first on the scene of disaster and calamity with emergency aid and relief. I don’t see how our Conference would have made it after the terrible spring storms last year without the millions of dollars of aid through our fellow UM’s and UMCOR.
All of this is the institutional result of our Wesleyan theological commitments to faith and good works. (John Wesley not only dispensed theology but also claims to have dispensed medicine to over 500 persons in London each week.) The term “organized religion” is not to us an insult. We believe that love is less than fully incarnational when it fails to organize and institutionalize.
In Mark’s gospel Jesus is confronted by a rich young man who asks a theological question (Mk. 10:17-22) about the inheritance of “eternal life.” Jesus responds to the man’s question by urging him to obey “the commandments.” When the young man says that he has obeyed all the commandments, Jesus adds yet another, telling him to “go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Maybe it would take a Wesleyan to notice, but did you note that Jesus responds to a rather theoretical, theological question with ethics? Jesus somehow connects “eternal life” with obedience – “go…sell…give to the poor”?
It is our conviction that the good news of the Kingdom must judge, redeem, and reform the sinful social structures of our time.
Adapted from William H. Willimon, United Methodist Beliefs: An Introduction, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006.