United Methodist Social Principles: New Changes Indicate Ever-evolving Nature of Declarations

September 19, 2008

By the Rev. Clayton Childers and Wayne Rhodes

The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles trace their roots to a Social Creed introduced 100 years ago. Changes, however, including those by this year’s top policy-making body, which meets every four years, have made the declarations a living, breathing statement of how to put faith into action.

The denomination’s history of outspoken concern for social issues predates that nascent Social Creed by more than 100 years, of course. John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement, campaigned vigorously for human and economic rights in the late 19th century.

That 1908 Social Creed adopted by The Methodist Episcopal Church (North) inspired within the decade similar statements by The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and by The Methodist Protestant Church. The Evangelical United Brethren Church adopted a statement of social principles in 1946 when it united with the United Brethren and The Evangelical Church.

In 1972, four years after The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church merged, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church adopted a new statement of Social Principles, which has been revised by each successive General Conference.

Salient Feature

And that is the salient feature of the Social Principles. They are a prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the denomination to speak to contemporary human issues. The opportunity to update or change the Social Principles is offered to anyone, individual, church, district, annual conference, every four years.

The denomination’s General Conference, its top policy-making body, evaluates proposals as to sound biblical and theological foundations as historically demonstrated in United Methodist traditions. If adopted, changes become integral to a century-old tradition that has made the Social Principles essentially a living document, evolving with the times, addressing contemporary, often previously unconceivable controversial issues.

The Social Principles are intended to be instructive and persuasive as a call to faithfulness and action. They are not church law, though. They are to assist the denomination’s members in prayerful, studied dialogue about faith and practice.

Early Methodists opposed the slave trade, smuggling and cruel treatment of prisoners. The 2008 General Conference, which concluded in early May, has furthered the tradition to express how faith should be put into action regarding current social concerns.

This article contains some changes, mostly new language, to various sections of the Social Principles that become effective for 2009 to 2012. These are not comprehensive, but are instead reflective of the ever-evolving nature of the document that appears in the denomination’s Book of Discipline, ¶¶s 160 to 165, and in its Book of Resolutions. The Social Principles are in both because the denomination considers them foundation statements that suggest how and why faith can become action.


Respectful Conversation: We pledge to continue to be in respectful dialogue with those with whom we differ, to explore the sources of our differences, to honor the sacred worth of all persons as we continue to seek the mind of Christ and to do the will of God in all things.

¶160. I. The Natural World

A) Water, Air, Soil, Minerals, Plants: We are deeply concerned about the privatization of water resources, the bottling of water to be sold as a commodity for profit, and the resources that go into packaging bottled water. We urge all municipalities and other governmental organizations to develop processes for determining sustainability of water resources, and to determine the environmental, economic and social consequences of privatization of water resources prior to the licensing and approval thereof.

D) Global Climate Stewardship: We acknowledge the global impact of humanity’s disregard for God’s creation. Rampant industrialization and the corresponding increase in the use of fossil fuels have led to a buildup of pollutants in the earth’s atmosphere. These “greenhouse gas” emissions threaten to alter dramatically the earth’s climate for generations to come with severe environmental, economic, and social implications.

The adverse impacts of global climate change disproportionately affect individuals and nations least responsible for the emissions. We therefore support efforts of all governments to require mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and call on individuals, congregations, businesses, industries, and communities to reduce their emissions.

E) Space: We therefore reject any nation’s efforts to weaponize space and urge that all nations pursue the peaceful and collaborative development of space technologies and of outer space itself.

¶161. II. The Nurturing Community

I) Abortion: We support parental, guardian, or other responsible adult notification and consent before abortions can be performed on girls who have not yet reached the age of legal adulthood.

¶162. III. The Social Community

Our respect for the inherent dignity of all persons leads us to call for the recognition, protection, and implementation of the principles of “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” so that communities and individuals may claim and enjoy their universal, indivisible and inalienable rights.

G) Rights of Immigrants: We recognize, embrace and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin, as members of the family of God. We affirm the right of all persons to equal opportunities for employment, access to housing, healthcare, education and freedom from social discrimination. We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all.

U) Right to Health Care: We believe it is a governmental responsibility to provide all citizens with health care.

¶163. IV. The Economic Community

E) Poverty: As a church, we are called to support the poor and challenge the rich.

H) Family Farms: We call upon governments to revise support programs that disproportionately benefit wealthier agricultural producers, so that more support can be given to programs which benefit medium- and smaller-sized farming operations, including programs which build rural processing, storage, distribution and other agricultural infrastructure; which link local farmers to local schools; and which promote other community food security measures.

¶164. V. The Political Community

E) Education: We believe that colleges and universities are to ensure that academic freedom is protected for all members of the academic community, and a learning environment is fostered which allows for a free exchange of ideas. We affirm the joining of reason and faith; therefore, we urge colleges and universities to guard the expression of religious life on campus.

¶165 VI. The World Community

C) War and Peace: We oppose unilateral first/preemptive strike actions and strategies on the part of any government. As disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict.

You can learn more about the United Methodist Social Principles at www.umc-gbcs.org/socialprinciples, which also includes teaching resources. You can also contact The Rev. Clayton Childers, General Board of Church & Society’s Director of Annual Conference Relations, about training programs on the Social Principles at (202) 488-5642 or email at cchilders@umc-gbcs.org.

The General Board of Church & Society’s Web site also offers information about the “Companion Litany to the Social Creed”. This litany was adopted by General Conference this year in an effort to make the denomination’s Social Creed, adopted in 1972, more accessible and usable in worship situations. The Web site has a pdf document containing both the 1908 and 1972 versions of the Social Creed. It also has music to help in singing a response during worship. The Companion Litany will be adjacent to the denomination’s Social Creed, which is ¶166 following the Social Principles.

Editor's note: The Rev. Clayton Childers is the director of Annual Conference Relations at the General Board of Church & Society. Wayne Rhodes is editor of Faith in Action and director of Communications for the agency.