It was a part of every membership inquiry class in twenty-eight years of pastoring United Methodist churches. I would pass out a copy of the Social Principles to each person, and we would go through it together. Oh, how spirited the discussions were!
I decided to become a United Methodist as a young adult in part because I loved John Wesley’s insistence that the social aspect of holiness is essential to the Christian faith. In the Preface of Wesley’s Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), he writes, “Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy Solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy Adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love, is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.”
My intent in spending time with the Social Principles was strategic. I wanted those who felt led to become part of United Methodism to understand our roots in both evangelical piety and a passion for imitating Jesus by “preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Many times, I would remind participants that United Methodism strives to be a theologically, economically, socially, and spiritually diverse denomination that welcomes people from all walks of life. More than once I used George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton as examples of how United Methodists can belong to different political parties and still claim a common Wesleyan spiritual heritage. Of course, we didn’t always agree with one another, but, time and again, I heard these words, “I want to be part of a church that wrestles with integrity about difficult issues, encourages people to come to their own decisions, and honors differences while remaining united in mission.”
The Social Principles is one of United Methodism’s greatest gifts to Christianity and to the world. Previous Books of Discipline dating back to John Wesley’s time contained statements on social holiness and justice. The origin of the first “official” Methodist Social Creed, however, was in the early years of the 20th century when The Methodist Federation for Social Service (later Social Action) was founded in Washington, DC, in December of 1907.
Recognizing that our country was moving from an agrarian to an industrial society, the leaders of this group decided to draft a set of statements about the rights of workers and presented it to the 1908 General Conference of The Methodist Episcopal Church, where it was adopted. The Methodist Social Creed of 1908 was the first social statement of any religious group in the U.S., and to this day it is posted on the wall in the rotunda of the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
The 1908 Social Creed was rewritten in 1972 and again in 2008, when a companion litany and musical version was also produced that could be sung to various musical styles.
God in the Spirit revealed in Jesus Christ, calls us by grace
to be renewed in the image of our Creator, that we may be one in divine love for the world.
Today is the day God cares for the integrity of creation, wills the healing and wholeness of all life, weeps at the plunder of earth’s goodness.
And so shall we.
Today is the day God embraces all hues of humanity,
delights in diversity and difference, favors solidarity transforming strangers into friends.
And so shall we.
Today is the day God cries with the masses of starving people, despises growing disparity between rich and poor, demands justice for workers in the marketplace.
And so shall we.
Today is the day God deplores violence in our homes and streets,
rebukes the world’s warring madness, humbles the powerful and lifts up the lowly.
And so shall we.
Today is the day God calls for nations and peoples to live in peace,
celebrates where justice and mercy embrace, exults when the wolf grazes with the lamb.
And so shall we.
Today is the day God brings good news to the poor, proclaims release to the captives,
gives sight to the blind, and sets the oppressed free.
And so shall we.
In 1972, an expanded version of Methodist principles related to social issues was also approved by the General Conference of the newly formed The United Methodist Church (1968). The Social Principles are in our Book of Discipline but are generally not legally binding. Rather, they are a guide to help United Methodists determine how, from a biblical and theological foundation, we can create a just world where all people are empowered to live full and meaningful lives. Every four years the Social Principles are reviewed for inclusion in the new Book of Discipline.
The 2012 General Conference acknowledged the incredibly fast pace of change in our world as well as the global nature of our church by recommending that a complete rewrite of the Social Principles be initiated. Several hundred United Methodists from around the world have been working in six teams to create social principles that are more concise, relevant, and globally inclusive. Two of the sections, “Human Sexuality” and “Rights of Persons of All Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities” have not yet been rewritten in light of the 2019 special called General Conference to consider the work of the Commission on a Way Forward.
I’ve had a chance to read over the current draft of the revised Social Principles, and I take great delight in discovering new sections and paragraphs that express so well the contemporary issues of our world and the social holiness to which we are called as United Methodists.
- In The Community of all Creation, we read, “Creation is an expression of God’s grace, and God’s creation is very good,”… “We lament humanity’s disregard for God’s beloved creation, which has a global impact, especially in the progression of climate change,”… “We recognize God as the ‘soul of the universe.’” And so shall we …
- In The Nurturing Community,” a common theme is found, “Each person is formed in the image of God and endowed by God with intrinsic worth.” Sections such as “Full Inclusion of Differently-abled Persons,” “Sexual Exploitation and Violence,” “Bullying,” and “Suicide,” are written with sensitivity and compassion. And so shall we …
- In The Social Community,” we read, “Healthcare is a basic human right… Creating the personal, environmental, and social conditions where health thrives is a responsibility shared among individuals, governments, and society.” In another section is a relevant statement for today’s world, “The promise of God’s kingdom is made visible when racial diversity is celebrated.” And so shall we …
- In The Political Community we remember the scriptures (Leviticus 19:9-10 and Deuteronomy 10:18) about caring for the sojourners, widows, and orphans and read, “It is the obligation of governments and the Church to care for those who are socially disadvantaged or who lack adequate access to resource needed to thrive…” I also like the emphasis on restorative justice rather than retributive justice. And so shall we …
- In The Economic Community, I found an interesting statement lamenting the prosperity gospel. “As a church we utterly reject the notion that material wealth is a sign of God’s blessing for individuals, peoples, and nations, and, conversely, that the lack of such wealth signals the absence of God’s favor.”… Serving as the episcopal leader in a farming state, I appreciate this. “We call upon the agribusiness sector … to responsible corporate citizenship that respects the rights of all farmers, small and large, to receive a fair return for honest labor.” … The section on human trafficking is new and grieves the holding of any human being in captivity. And so shall we …
- In the final section, The World Community, I was deeply grateful for this claim, “Our ability as a church to flourish together for the common good of this one world, is only possible as we join in solidarity across nation and culture, trusting in God’s promises.”
The General Board of Church and Society is eager to hear from United Methodists around the connection, and so shall we have a chance to offer input! You can find the current draft revision of the Social Principles here. After reading the draft, if you would like to give feedback, please click here. Every voice is important! May the call to do justice, love kindness, and walk with God be embodied in our everyday lives.