Social Principles: Our Prophetic Voice
They’ve been called the conscience of The United Methodist Church, a body of gutsy words shaped by the Holy Spirit.
They’re found on pages 95-122 of the 2000 Book of Discipline. They can be controversial, triggering culture-war debates about faith and action in the world. Indeed, they’ve been debated for nearly 100 years.
Still, many United Methodists have never heard of them.
They’re the Social Principles, and the Rev. Lawton Higgs plans his day around them.
“The Social Principles are a manual you can go to for applying the gospel to human affairs,” says Higgs, the pastor of Church of the Reconciler, one of the few interracial churches in Birmingham, Ala.
Higgs is a self-identified “recovering racist” who became a minister in the 1970s after a career as a power utility engineer. Today, his church is remarkable for its ministries to homeless people.
The Social Principles, inspired by the Scriptures and by United Methodist traditions of social holiness, lend clarity to his daily mission, he says.
The principles address issues of social injustice and other ills of contemporary life. The denomination’s highest legislative body, General Conference, which meets every four years with delegates from every United Methodist annual conference worldwide, has the power to write and to revise the Social Principles.
Not legally binding, but ‘instructive’
The Social Principles have no legal binding power, meaning you can’t be kicked out of the church if you disagree with them. However, they are designed to be “instructive and persuasive,” a guide for study, dialogue and practice.
The seven sections of the Social Principles address the breadth of moral life—economics, political values, the environment and human rights. The declarations are many, such as:
• Gambling is a menace to society.
• Churches and governments should ensure the social welfare of migrant workers.
• War is incompatible with the teachings of Christ. Nevertheless, “we also acknowledge that most Christians regretfully realize that, when peaceful alternatives have failed, the force of arms may be preferable to unchecked aggression, tyranny and genocide.”
• The rights of homosexuals should be honored, though homosexual practice is not condoned.
“I’ve yet to meet anyone who agrees with everything in the Social Principles,” says James Winkler, top staff executive of the General Board of Church and Society in Washington, D.C. The board advocates for the denomination’s Social Principles in public life.
The Social Principles might be controversial, but they are an important dimension to United Methodist identity, Winkler adds.
“We follow in the tradition of John Wesley [the denomination’s founder] who had a deep concern for social matters,” he explains. “Wesley spoke out against slavery, the cruel treatment of prisoners and about how people made their money.”
Some United Methodists think the Social Principles are too liberal, too partisan or too politically oriented to inspire the whole denomination—and ought to be revised.
“They’re mostly covering yesterday’s issues, reflecting a liberal secular optimism of the 1950s that even today’s liberals wouldn’t agree to,” says Mark Tooley, director of United Methodist Action, a division of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C., a longtime critic of United Methodist institutional leadership.
Tooley’s organization calls for the Social Principles to “be entirely rewritten in a process involving local churches” and asks that the social witness of the denomination “reflect the informed conscience of our members.”
Winkler acknowledges the Social Principles are not well known in the pews. One reason, he says: The Social Principles attempt to spell out the tough social responsibilities of believing in the gospel, but some pastors perceive them as too controversial to discuss from the pulpit.
“United Methodists want to live holy lives,” Winkler says. “They want their faith and their lives to match. But that means addressing the entire system, the roots of homelessness, for instance, and that’s hard. The Social Principles ask, ‘What should the church of Jesus Christ say?’ ”
Winkler hopes the Social Principles will soon be on the lips of the whole denomination. The General Board of Church and Society will likely ask the General Conference, meeting next in spring 2004, to promote a celebration of the Social Principles for the next four years, leading up to 2008. That year marks the 100th anniversary of the first Methodist “Social Creed,” which was later expanded and renamed the Social Principles.
That first Social Creed was considered a distinctive document among Protestant churches in early 20th-century United States, an impassioned slate of declarations of the economic rights of workers. It spoke out against child labor and in favor of better workplace conditions, wages and worker safety.
A centennial commemoration would encourage local-church study of the principles and their history.
Winkler also proposes a revision of the final section of the current Social Principles, called “Our Social Creed,” in hopes of making that section easier to use in worship settings.
The “Our Social Creed” section, seven paragraphs long, states spiritual and social commitments. It declares belief in the Trinity, and affirms the natural world, human rights, world peace, the rule of law and the triumph of God’s Word in human affairs.
The denomination urges that “Our Social Creed” be used frequently in Sunday worship, but this hasn’t caught on in many churches.
“The language sounds clunky in worship settings,” Winkler says. He hopes for the day when “Our Social Creed” is recited with fervor across the denomination, the way United Methodists declare other affirmations of faith during worship.
“My hope is the Social Creed can be written to have that kind of power and eloquence,” Winkler says.
In Birmingham, Higgs finds the Social Principles at work in the lives of his nearly 200 parishioners, many of them homeless or economically distressed. His church hosts a weekly Sunday lunch for 250, organizes a coalition to empower the homeless in public policy and opens its doors on weekdays so homeless people can have access to phones, restrooms and dignity.
“You practice the Social Principles, and the homeless respond with gratitude,” Higgs says.
—Ray Waddle, is former religion editor at The Tennessean and is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn.
For Your Congregation
Read the Social Principles and the church’s social creed at www.umc-gbcs.org.
Christian Social Action, published by the Board of Church and Society, explores emerging social issues from a Christian perspective. For more information call (800) 967-0880.