Social Principles = Law in the #UMC?

point-counterpointSorry to Non-Methodists, but this is a really inside-the-ballpark conversation.

The United Methodist Church, the predecessors of which grew up during the rise of the United States of America, parallels the American government in that we have three branches: the legislative (General Conference), the judicial (Judicial Council) and the executive (the Bishops and the General Boards).

As a court system goes, our Judicial Council is pretty solid. It seems that once in a while, though, there’s a decision by the Judicial Council that is a head-scratcher or an outright farce (see JC1032). Then again, the same decisions that I think were 100% right-on were called an error by others (see the dueling PlanUMC dissolution arguments pro and con). So it goes with the judicial system in any arena, I guess.

This most recent round of court decisions had not a huge blow-up but really a head-scratcher: Decision 1254 was about a Western annual conference that passed a resolution that affirmed a Western Jurisdictional Resolution that called for conferences to operate as if ¶ 161F did not exist (the paragraph that calls homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching). So in short, like a concentric circle, the smaller conference affirmed a decision made by a larger conference.

The Judicial Council did not comment on the merits of the resolution passed by the Western Jurisdiction for technical/process reasons. They did, however, issue the following commentary:

The focus of the Bishop’s decision of law is upon the statement in the portion of the 2012 Discipline(p. 103), which states that the Social Principles are “not to be considered church law” but rather “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…” While it may be regrettable if any United Methodist individual or body were to choose to ignore some portion of the General Conference’s summons to “prayerful and thoughtful” consideration of important public issues, such an action is not in itself a violation of church law…

Okay. So the Bishop said the Social Principles are not church law, and the Judicial Council agreed and said that ignoring the Social Principles is not a violation of church law. Interesting. But like the TV informercials say: but wait, there’s more!

In Decision 833, the Judicial Council did find that some matters in the Social Principles may have the force of law.

Wait, what? May have the force of law? So are the Social Principles Law (meaning mandatory for United Methodists) or not?

Yes, they are church law. Well, one of them is.

Some review is in order. At the 1996 General Conference, five different petitions were submitted hoping to declare the Social Principles as church law. They were all voted down. Then in 1998, in JC833, the Judicial Council overturned the five-time repeated vote of General Conference and said that, actually, the Social Principles were church law (note: these are quotes from the 1998 verdict, not the 2013 one)

Under ¶ 15, the General Conference has the authority to speak on connectional matters, and, when this authority results in a legislative enactment stated in mandatory language, it is the law of the church, notwithstanding its placement in theDiscipline

…The prohibitive statement in ¶ 65.C of the 1996 Discipline: “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches,” has the effect of church law, notwithstanding its placement in ¶ 65.C and, therefore, governs the conduct of the ministerial office.

While that seems pretty clear that the JC in 1998 saw the Social Principles as church law, the closing paragraph of this decision shows what’s really at stake in this decision:

The request from the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference for a declaratory decision on whether the Social Principles are to be understood as law for United Methodists and the relationship between the Social Principles and chargeable offense, the council is unable to render a definitive decision on all of the specific provisions of the paragraphs under the section designated as Social Principles without a reference to a specific paragraph. This is especially true when the request includes relating these matters to chargeable offenses.


In short, my reading is that the Judicial Council is responding only to what is precisely before them.

  • In 1998, they were affirming that a particular paragraph in the Social Principles had the effect of church law, not that the entire Social Principles were church law.
  • In 2013, they were affirming that the Resolution was legal for the annual conference, but only because they have not examined the jurisdictional decision for its legality (and they have no standing to do so…yet).

So while we still don’t know if the Social Principles are legal, or if the action taken by the Western Jurisdiction to operate as if the anti-gay section of our church law is legal, we apparently don’t even have the mechanisms to know the answers to these pertinent questions. There is no way to send the whole Social Principles up for review, and there is no way to review a Jurisdictional decision unless the Conference itself sends it.

The lesson I take from this exercise is that to exist in the United Methodist Church is to be comfortable with ambiguity. And the Judicial Council, while a steady voice in a polarized Church, is also a source of ambiguity even as they deal with specific issues within the UMC.

Thoughts? Anyone else have a more informed take on this particular question: are the Social Principles church law?

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  1. David Winfrey says

    The distinction they’re making is between “must”, “shall”, and other mandatory language, which they consider to be binding whether in the SP or anywhere else, and Principles that say (in effect) “We think it would be a good idea if everyone had free ice cream and a pony.” I don’t see any ambiguity here. (which you, as an expert hacker, must have read often) is a clarification of mandatory language in Internet tech specifications; maybe the UMC should adopt this for the BoD.

    • Kevin Young says

      212.2 In communities in transition [how many are not?], the local church shall be regarded as a principal base of mission from which unjust structures of society shall be confronted…

  2. Carole Hoke says

    BoD, law, Judicial renderings . . . How about Jesus and his twelve fellows and the great commandment??? Have we focused so long on the BoD that we have forgotten the people who are hungry, thirsty, need shelter, special needs, are in prison? How much longer, O Lord?, How much longer will we spend worrying about all of this, instead of being about the human element in all of this? C’mon friends, let us be about the ministry of the church. We need a structure, but clearly we are not of one mind, yet we ought to be of being one in Christ, and then, and then . . . who is included in Christ Jesus? Aren’t all in clouded . . . ?

  3. Gary Bebop says

    I appreciate this court. It stands between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” and rules NARROWLY to preserve what remains of a battered church order. If we granted the blogosphere plenipotentiary powers to rule on these cases , we would have road-rage rule in the UMC.

  4. Madison Hankal says

    I’ve always approached the Social Principles as what the UMC (as a denomination) understood to be a “prayerful and biblical” response to contemporary situations — not a check-list of what UM’s are supposed to believe, or how they are to vote on an issue. If so, there will be many persons on either side of the Left/Right spectrum — and even the “New Middle” who will be considered in non-compliance.
    Although — I’m not sure what that means. When was the last time you heard of a lay member being brought up on church charges related to anything in The Discipline?

  5. says

    Okay, I’m confused. Looking at the 2012 BoD, it says on page 103 in the last paragraph, “The Social Principles, while not considered to be church law, are a prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference …”

    A huge part of the reason that I am a United Methodist is that little disclaimer. How can the Social Principles be ruled as “church law” in any case when the Social Principles themselves plainly state that they’re not?

  6. says

    Not Church Law, but are they a form of doctrine? There’s a historical angle to my question. Wesley’s Model Deed for Methodist preaching houses stated that sermons had to be consistent with the doctrines contained in the first four volumes of Wesley’s Sermon and in his commentary on the New Testament. American Methodists included the first four volumes of Wesley’s Sermons in their list of doctrinal standards. Even though the volumes are referred to as Sermons, volume 4 contained more than sermons, it also included social principles on marriage and dress. So were the Wesleyan social principles in volume 4 considered doctrine by the British or the Americans? If so, that might establish a historical precedent for the Social Principles as one of the doctrinal standards of the UMC.

  7. Gary Bebop says

    I’m not being either snide or cynical here to ask: Who reads the Social Principles with their congregation? I have seen this actually “attempted”…but with piddling success. In a historical hour when bishops will not draw the line on their own behavior, we cannot expect congregations to accept discipline.

  8. Paul Anthony Preussler says

    In determining that this Social Principle has the binding force of canon law, the Judicial Council is acting to prevent a schism, and to maintain twenty centuries of Church Tradition. The UMC cannot go its own way on this in North America without alienating the African churches, which increasingly represent the real strength of the denomination. In a sense, the extraordinary heroism of Methodist missionaries in the past two centuries, who endured torture during the Angola Crises of 1957 and numerous other incidents, is paying off, by serving to keep the UMC fully in line with the orthodox traditions of the church catholic, handed down to us from the Apostolic Era.

    Specifically, the Apostle Paul unambiguously forbids homosexual practice in Romans 1:26-27, and Corinthians 9. Discarding or ignoring these epistles violates sola scriptura, and requires redefining the canon of the New Testament in such a way so as to produce a heretical and degenerate religion only nominally related to Christianity, e.g. Gnosticism.

    Beyond that, if we look at the early church, aside from some of the more antinomian and misogynistic Gnostic sects, homosexual relations were prohibited with a severity remarkable even for the highly strict early church. Canon 71 of the Council of Elvira imposed a lifetime excommunication on pederasts. The practice was also prohibited in Canon 17 of the Council of Ancyra, by Gregory of Nyassa in his Canonical Letter to Letolus of Mytilenne, and in Canon 14 of the Council of Tours, Canon 3 of the Sixteenth Council of Toleda, and in the Corpus Juris Civilis of Justinian, which was heavily influenced by the hierarchy of the still-unified Byzantine-Roman church (which would not be separated through schism until 1054). It should be emphasized that for Gregory of Nyassa, who was by all accounts a relatively liberal theologian, who among other things advocated a doctrine of apocatastasis (of the sort that contributed to Origen’s later condemnation), to speak out against the practice, shows the serious degree of distaste the early Church held to it.

    Augustine of Hippo, whose influence in Western Christianity is immeasureable, held the view that sexual pleasure itself was sinful, and that sexual relations were only acceptable in Christianity due to the neccessity of procreation (some heretical sects went further than this, in imposing complete celibacy). In Eastern Christianity, on the other hand, sexual pleasure itself was historically not viewed as sinful within marriage, to the extent that it served to strengthen the bonds of love that were necessary to ensure fidelity, providing a healthy environment for the rearing of children, and ensuring that the marriage itself served as an icon, representing the relationship between Christ and his Church. However, celibacy remained the ideal, hence the historical universal requirement for episcopal celibacy, and the requirement of presbyterial celebacy in the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church (which is probably supererogatory, given that even the exceedingly severe Apostolic Canons allow the already married to be ordained to ranks up to that of Presbyter ).

    In general, the overwhelming evidence suggests that the early Church was differentiated from the secular society of the Roman Empire largely by its revulsion at the sexual excesses of Roman society before Constantine I. The oldest novel extant, Petronius’s Satyricon, was not by any means remarkable in pederastic protagonist, nor in depicting paedophilia in an erotic context; the sexual abuse of boys was de rigeur in Roman society, and sexual relations between consenting males were permitted, provided the social hierarchy was preserved (i.e. a patrician, engaging in relations with a plebe, would be scandalized if found in the passive role). Much of the sexual abuse was directed at slaves; the horror perhaps reached its zenith in the household of Caligula, whose reign was either contemporaneous with, or in the years immediately following, the resurrection of our Lord.

    After the Church assumed a position of cultural, theological and social hegemony following the Edict of Milan, this sexual society largely vanished. Even the remaining pagans, such as Julian the Apostate, did not engage in the same degree of excess that had characterized the Roman Empire during the first and second centuries. What is more, the Roman Empire, relatively speaking, compared to earlier civilizations, actually had a stronger concept of sexual morality, compared to ancient Greece, or for that matter, the Chaldean Empire (one of the oldest epic poems to remain partially extant, Gilgamesh, features two protagonists in a homosexual relationship). Within the Roman Empire, there was substantially more moderation (homosexuality was not romanticized as it was in ancient Greece; there was nothing like the Theban Sacred Band, for example), and sexuality was officially limited to the norms imposed by the Christian church in the reign of Justinian. Thus, we can see a clear move away from the celebration and romanticization of homosexuality in ancient Greece, to the more moderate society of ancient Rome, to the environment of the Byzantine Empire, whose culture was shaped more by the early Church than by anything else, which had implemented the essentials of the regime of sexual behavior legally enforced until the 1950s.

    Now, as a matter of fact, Christianity does not require a civil government to oppress or subjugate homosexuals, in fact, the appalling treatment of Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing (whose name is revered amongst real hackers), was not in accordance with Christian principles. Yet, the Church clearly has had, since the era of Paul, at least, an aversion to homosexual practice, and the dramatic change enforced by the hierarchy upon the ascendancy of the Christian faith in the fourth century was a move to restrain sexual behavior of all sorts, imposing upon the Empire a code of sexual morality largely the same as that of the ancient Israelites, as defined in the Torah, according to the Orthodox Christian interpretation, by God the Father.

    Consequently, if the Judicial Council of the UMC had ruled any other way, they would be effectively saying that:
    1, God erred in allowing Mosaic Law to classify homosexuality as a sin.
    2. The Israelites erred in prohibiting homosexuality prior to the incarnation of Jesus.
    3. The Apostle Paul erred in maintaining this prohibition in his Epistles to the Romans and to the Corinthians.
    4. Christ either erred in making Paul an Apostle on the road to Damascus, or alternately, Paul was a liar, and by extension erred further in condemning sexual immorality and lasciviousness in Mark 7:20-22.
    5. The early church erred in imposing canonical penalties up to and including a lifetime exclusion from Holy Communion for homosexual laity.
    6. Gregory of Nyassa, the younger brother of Basil the Great, erred in condemning homosexuality.
    7. Every generation of Christendom that has lived between the Apostolic Age, until the liberalization of the church beginning in the 1950s, including those that produced John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, Gregory of Palamas, Martin Luther, and John Wesley, erred in the same way, as did Erasmus when he repented of his homoerotic attractions for another clergyman early in his career.
    8. Orthodox Rabinnical Judaism erred in maintaining the Torah’s prohibition against homosexuality, and erred in codifying it in the Talmud; Karaite Judaism erred in the same manner, and this error has been made by every Orthodox Jew and every Karaite Jew until the present, including the translators of the Masoretic Text and Maimonides.
    9. By extension, all Jews going back to Moses (at least) also erred; presumably, since widespread objection to this provision of Mosaic Law was not recorded amongst the Israelites, the error extended further (we do know that the Aramaic civilization that produced Abraham was tolerant of homosexuality, but at some point in between Abraham and Moses it seems probable that the attitude changed).
    10. By extension, the ancient Israelites, God’s chosen people under the Abrahamic covenant, from which Christ our Redeemer was born, were actually more immoral, and not less immoral, than the Aramaic peoples, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, and other civilizations surrounding them.
    11. By extension, the remarkable change in the sexuality of the Roman Empire after the adoption of Christianity by Constantine I, was a change for the worse; thus, Christianity made the Romans more, and not less, depraved.

    Thus, removing this doctrine necessitates the abandonment of any pretext of the catholic faith and of orthodox doctrine as transmitted to us by John Wesley and the Anglicans; it requires us instead to create a new religion, an inherently anti-Semitic which, in the manner of the Gnostics and Marcionists, demonizes the God of Israel, demonizes the Jewish people and Jewish law, declares the Apostle Paul either a liar about his apostolic ordination, or as having been in error in his epistles (something even the Marcionists and most Gnostics avoided), and which declares the social change the Church Fathers imposed upon ancient Rome to have been a step backwards. The resulting faith, which the Episcopal Church, USA, the Presbyerian Church USA, and the United Church of Christ now practice, is thus a dishonest form of Unitarianism, masquerading as traditional Protestantism, and one that unlike Unitarianism proper, is also anti-semitic. Heaven forfend that the UMC should follow the same path into irredeemable apostasy and heresy.

  9. Paul Anthony Preussler says

    One other interesting fact that I forgot to mention in my initial post was that in the early Church, celibate clergy were furthermore set to be deposed if the basis for their celibacy was an aversion to womankind (under Apostolic Canon 51). Thus, aside from homosexual activity being classified as a sin, as outlined above, the early Church seemed to hold the view that any horror or aversion to the opposite sex was, to quote Canon 51, “blaspheming against Creation.” Thus, monastic celibacy, fasting, and other forms of self-denial were permissible only in the face of voluntary resistance to suffering:

    ” If any bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or any one of the sacerdotal list, abstains from marriage, or flesh, or wine, not by way of religious restraint, but as abhorring them, forgetting that God made all things very good, and that he made man male and female, and blaspheming the work of creation, let him be corrected, or else be deposed, and cast out of the Church. In like manner a layman.”

    That said, under this canon, the celibacy of homosexuals would not be sinful per se, provided the celibacy was not the result of an aversion to the opposite gender, in like manner, the abstinence of bisexuals would be unimpeded. However, this canon, taken in conjunction with the Pauline epistles, and the other canons of the early church, and the Torah, indicate that homosexuality is a sin, and a sinful inclination, that is to be struggled against, along with the inclination towards heterosexual promiscuity, adultery, gluttony, avarice, and so forth. Not worse than other sins, per Christ’s injunctions himself, yet still, something to be repented of.

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