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Introducing the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church

Excerpts from Justice in Everyday Life

Site: NC Conference Online Learning
Course: Justice in Everyday Life
Book: Introducing the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church
Printed by: Guest user
Date: Wednesday, February 26, 2020, 5:22 PM

The Social Principles

The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church are a call to a “prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice.”  They are statements of belief and practice spoken both to the church and to society.

    The Social Principles are a product of prayer, but they also lead us to fervent prayer.  The Social Principles begin with holy conferencing by people of faith, but they must be practiced to have any real value.  The Social Principles emerge from the will of the church, but they reflect the needs of society as well as the church.

    Some lifelong United Methodists become defensive when a new idea seems to conflict with a principle they hold.  Other United Methodists are overjoyed that what their consciences and experiences have taught them is in accord with the Social Principles.  As you read the Social Principles, you may find yourself nodding in agreement at times to some principles and responding negatively to others.

    Remember, General Conference is held every four years.  It is the only entity to speak officially for the denomination through The Book of Discipline and The Book of Resolutions.  Each of more than forty thousand local churches in more than one hundred conferences in Africa, the Philippines, Europe, and the United States elects approximately one thousand delegates to General Conference.  Half are laypersons and the other half are clergy.  These delegates determine the Social Principles, mandates, and resolutions of The United Methodist Church.

    Any United Methodist person, local church, conference, agency, caucus, or group may propose changes to the Social Principles at General Conference.  Petitions are written and submitted in advance of the quadrennial meeting.  Once at General Conference, delegates discuss and vote on petitions.  If supported, the petitions are included in either The Book of Discipline or The Book of Resolutions.

    The Social Principles, though not church law, are part of the Discipline.  They are intended to be “instructive and persuasive in the best of the prophetic spirit,” according to their preface.  “They are a prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation.”
Justice in Everyday Life, pp. 11-12.

What Difference Do the Social Principles Make for the Church?

The Social Principles embody another way to understand the role of the church as it speaks and acts upon its convictions in the public sphere.  The Social Principles are The United Methodist Church’s attempt to accomplish three important tasks:

Speak prophetically.  What shall the church say and what shall the church so to transform the world into the beloved community – the kingdom of God – imagined by Jesus and taught by his disciples?

    Remember while the prophets did not attempt to predict the future, they were passionate about trying to change it.  They sought to address social problems and resolve social tension.  Their faith was public and personal but never private.

    The Social Principles are prophetic statements intended for both the church and society.  Change of transformation must happen through an inward as well as an outward spiritual journey.  Social transformation to create a more hospitable, just, and Christlike world demonstrates a deeper conversion than a single decision to follow Christ.

    When the Social Principles speak prophetically, they do not polarize people based on adherence to a particular position.  Rather, they name problems and pose possible solutions appropriate to the context in which we live.

Respond biblically.  When biblical faith is spoken prophetically, persons are challenged in deep, abiding love to realign their personal habits, behaviors, and attitudes more closely with the will of God.  In Jesus Christ, the Almighty came to deliver, liberate, and restore persons and communities to live in a way that exhibits the restoration of God’s image in the world.

    Social holiness is always evangelical; it is always invitational.  Social holiness compels us to expand our heach of humility, mercy, compassion, justice, and reconciliation in the spirit of Jesus.  Social holiness requires us to speak our convictions and stand by them in the public square.

Act pastorally.  How shall the church respond to epople’s hurts, pains and struggles?  How does the plight of the world’s needs would our souls?  We have a responsibility to care for one another, especially the vulnerable among us, with mutual concerns and love.

    The Social Principles identify personal and social crises and offer a pastoral response.  In this sense, the Social Principles are understood less as legalistic public statements and more as therapeutic in purpose.  They go well beyond the pragmatic problem solving.  They direct us to prioritize the restoration and mending of our relationships with God, nature, our neighbors, our enemies, and with ourselves.

Justice in Everyday Life, pp. 12-13.

What All Social Principles Have in Common

Each Social Principle is actually a number of things:

A position.  The United Methodist Chruch takes a public stand on many timely issues.  While we may not all agree with these positions, a public stand is a plumb line or common starting point for dialogue.  The Social Principles are a barometer to determine how close we as a church and society measure up to God’s vision for right relationships with one another and our neighbors.

A set of interests.  To one degree or another, we all act out of our self-interests.  As human beings we have multiple self-interests that compete for our attention and even our undivided allegiance.  The Latin term for interest actually means “intern” and “esse” or “to be among.”

    Interests are determined by those we live among.  Our interests may be the result of our access to work and education, our ethnicities and racial identities, our nationalities, genders, ages, or political affiliations.  The positions set forth in the Social Principles are an effort to mediate potentially conflicting interests that arise from diverse and perhaps divergent groups in church and society.  These positions point to issues where we must practice respect and tolerance.

A set of core values.  Every culture communicates and passes down a set of traditions or values from one generation to the next.  We reflect to a greater or lesser degree the cultures we inhabit.  Our values may either complement or contradict the cultural expectations of other people of good faith.

    As Christian we are meant to move beyond our own cultural expectations.  Biblical values ought to shape who we are in the world.  We are no longer slaves to cultural practices that contradict the gospel of Jesus Christ.  At the same time, we bring with us the texture and the tenor of our cultures to enliven our understanding of who Jesus is for us today.

Response to human need.  When we cannot agree with the public positions our denomination takes, our self-interests are at odds, and our values seem to be incompatible, can we not still agree on some basic human needs that must be met for all to retain their humanity?

    What basic needs do we all have in common?  Needs such as food, shelter, work, safety, community, and faith are addressed in the Social Principles.  Specific prescriptions are offered in the Social Principles that point to what it will take to meet those needs

Justice in Everyday Life, pp. 13-14.