It is official: Feel free to ignore the Social Principles

For a few years now I’ve been trying to get a handle on the status of the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. The introduction of the Principles says they are not law, but the Judicial Council has ruled in the past that an Annual Conference could not pass a resolution that voided them.

In a ruling Saturday, though, the Judicial Council — with a strong dissent — agreed with a United Methodist bishop that it was not a violation of the Book of Discipline to treat a section of the Social Principles as if they do not exist. The opinion of the council makes that valid point that United Methodists at all levels of the church do, in fact, act as if parts of the Social Principles do not exist.

There are many facets of the Social Principles that individual United Methodists and their various organizations choose to ignore, and there is no unanimity among United Methodists about the merits of the denomination’s Social Principles on health care, gun control, and other matters. But to ignore those statements in the Social Principles, while doing so might theologically imperil or weaken the church, is not an illegal action under Church law.

As I understand it, the Book of Discipline is being reviewed by a committee charged with making recommendations for revisions that will make the book more relevant to a global church. Perhaps one of those recommendations should be to move the Social Principles into the Book of Resolutions. The Social Principles appear to be neither doctrine nor law of the UMC. Maybe it is time to move them out of our book of doctrine and law.


11 thoughts on “It is official: Feel free to ignore the Social Principles

  1. There is nothing really new here. I have always understood that the Social Principles are not the law of the church. They are carefully considered statements designed for the guidance of church members. They are to be considered prayerfully–but not law.

    1. Yes. I think this just is the most clear-cut statement about that from the Judicial Council. I don’t see any reason for the principles to be in the BOD if they are nothing more the suggestions. It creates confusion to have them in there with actual law and doctrine that is theoretically binding.

  2. This kind of blew my mind. I don’t believe homosexuality, as we understand it today, to be a sin (I realize this ruling may not be entirely about that). But I have thought it to be exceedingly important to honor what was contained in the BOD as church law … Social Principles and all. As a candidate for ordained ministry and future pastor, a person who’s excited about the prospects of digging into our polity systems to work for change, this worries me.

    While a big part of me cheers for Bishop Talbert, another part of me, is also very sad. Just for example. I understand the need for civil disobedience to push things along, but having things framed this way just makes me sad.

    At the same time, many, many of our UMC members have no idea what’s contained in the Social Principles. They are neither preached, taught, or debated.

    1. In order to understand the BOD you need to do more than read the surface. When I was preparing a petition for GC2012, I was startled to learn more about various rulings of the JC. For example, I found a nice little statement about the ability of conferences to set up an alternative way of paying clergy; however, the JC declared that to be unconstitutional many years ago–still, it lingers on in the BOD. Dismayed to learn that JC will not allow annual conferences, jurisdictional conferences, or even GC to limit pastor’s salaries, since that infringes on the power of a local church.

      John, I think I disagree with you about moving the Social Principles to the Book of Resolutions. They get more attention where they are–and they ARE important for teaching in the church. They also serve as a clear guide for GBCS and UMC and local churches who want to become engaged in social action. Personally, I like having them in the BOD.

      Finally, the authors of the statement that was upheld certainly knew church law well, and worded their statement carefully. The bishop made the right decision too. Fortunately they did NOT address other statements in the BOD that address the homosexuality issue with more authority.

  3. I am not only saddened by the dismissal of the Social Principles, but also the precedent that this reinforces. Although I value that Methodists are open to gray area and differing points of view, our reluctance to hold churches accountable to ANY doctrine makes me wonder why we need to exist as a separate denomination.

  4. The social principles have not been “dismissed”. They continue to guide us in our prayer and social action. They do not have the same authority as church law does, however. I happen to agree with our social principles, but I know many people who do not. There are many United Methodists who are against legalized abortion for any reason. I disagree with them. However, people who differ with me and the social principles may still be good United Methodists.

    I know of no other denomination that fits me better. I am an ordained elder who believes in our current social principles. Other denominations that ordain women these days also ordain homosexuals–and I believe THAT is contrary to scripture.

    So, for the moment, I feel kind of stuck in this very dysfunctional denomination.

    1. Holly, I certainly agree that one can be a so-called “good United Methodist” without agreeing with all of the Social Principles (I personally take issue with the one concerning marriage). However, the reluctance of the UMC to, for lack of a better term, force its congregations to grin-and-bear the occasional doctrine they do not agree with troubles me. Where is the line? What if a bunch of churches decide that they don’t believe in infant baptism? Or women preachers? I think the average congregant will not draw much of a distinction between church law and church belief.

  5. One compelling reason the Social Principles should not be part of the Discipline is that their inclusion would immediately make us a SECT with a thicket-like canon of regulatory tidbits and scruples defining who is a proper Methodist. All the more to squabble over…

  6. What the UMC should be asking is…………………

    How does a Christian Church, once known as a pillar in the community, that stands on the sound teaching of John Wesley become known as a group of radical Nazi that allow anything and everything in the church?
    That exact phrase has been used to describe the UMC as it stands today. That is the reputation the UMC now carries among many.

  7. The Social Principles , if not enforced as law of the church, should not be in the Discipline, although recently, enforcement does not seem to be in effect on other sections either. Basic behavioral science teaches that if discipline is to be maintained, it must be consistent.
    We are all children of God, but that does not mean we should act like archtype two-year olds.

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