Faith Lived Out: What does it mean for the Social Principles to be “Social”?


The Wesleyan tradition is awash with misunderstanding. This is, in large part, because people of faith are just as skilled at talking past one another as anyone else. Take the “Social Principles” of The United Methodist Church. They are invoked, quoted, yanked out of context, and referenced in passing to argue this or that theological assumption. Yet how did we end up with something so provocatively termed “social” principles anyway? We should not despair if we conclude that the very meaning of the word “social” deserves its own sustained reflection.

Those who embrace the term “liberal” like to quote John Wesley when it comes to the Social Principles: “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.” These words, drawn from a preface to sacred hymns and poems, are often portrayed as an endorsement of structural analysis and action. Wesley’s original concern was simply directed toward caring relationships and the practice of love. Conservatives (and others understandably committed to accurate interpretation) delight in exposing this progressive license. Wesley did not speak as a proponent of systemic revolution, but then again, a holiness that must be relational cannot excuse twenty-first-century individualism. Those who allow contemporary cultural assumptions to drive their ethical conviction will not “get” John Wesley.

So what does it mean to have social principles grounded in Wesley’s kind of “social holiness”? In brief, it means embracing authentic and just relationships. This is a vision of holiness that is both intensely personal and prophetically systemic. On another level, the question asks what it means to be human as God would have us be truly human. Pious individuals who isolate themselves from others will never see the face of God. Activists who lose identity in collective forces will never know themselves. Those open to the tender and terrific power of God, along with the gifts and needs of others, will find divine intimacy and the deepest self.

I like the way a nineteenth-century admirer of Wesley captured this dynamic. He described three ways of knowing and loving. The first he termed “companionship.” There is nothing wrong with companionship. It is a step toward living in real community. Yet it can be lived as a matter of convenience – simple proximity to one another. Companions might interact with depth, but they also can merely exist in and around a common environment. The second way of knowing and loving, according to this writer, is “partnership.” In today’s language, this may seem like a fairly developed way of being in relationship. It might even indicate an intentional cooperation for the sake of common goals or ends. There is nothing wrong with partnership. However, I would suggest that our contemporary culture has viewed this kind of “partnership” with inappropriate reverence. It may come as a shock to people of faith, but life is more than forging relationships in order to achieve common goals. If life is a gift, then it will always be more than an achievement. Partnership is fine and can result in admirable cooperation, positive change, some degree of intimacy. But it cannot reflect the deepest things of God. For that, according to this nineteenth-century writer, there is real “fellowship.”

Fellowship is not constructed for mutual benefit or common aims. It is entered into out of love, a decidedly non-calculating perspective. For people of faith, this gets at the heart of the incarnation, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God did not strike an agreement with humanity for mutual benefit. God gave of the self, and in the process gave us our true selves. In fact, the writer who proposed three ways of knowing and relating says of fellowship: “each becomes to the other, as it were, another self.” Another self! That’s relationship at its most profound level.

This is the kind of “social” Christianity John Wesley embraced. It is an, admittedly, high standard. Yet it is also a marvelous promise of the ways we can be with and for one another in Christ-like fashion.

The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church have their own integrity and must be examined thoroughly on their own terms. However, before we even enter the text of these guides, we ought to pause and consider what it means to have such principles characterized as “social” commitments.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Chris Momany, UMR ColumnistChris Momany, UMR ColumnistBill Wylie-KellermannBill DyeBill Johnson Recent comment authors
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Chris Momany, UMR Columnist
Chris Momany

Bill: Happy to talk more offline. I conceive of “solidaristic” understandings in a way that is organic, perhaps even beyond the things you posit about Wesley. In that respect, I think I am pointing toward more, not less. As far as the hymns and poems are concerned: I agree with your point about music/movement songs. Yet Wesley was not making this specific connection in his use of the phrase “social holiness,” though his other work ends up indicating a kind of social critique that we are both considering. BTW: the kind of love/relationship I am suggesting is exceedingly confrontational when… Read more »

Bill Wylie-Kellermann
Bill Wylie-Kellermann

Thanks. Talk soon.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann
Bill Wylie-Kellermann

I am no liberal, but let me disagree more openly. In the Uses of Money sermon when Wesley says the houses, the walls, the beds of the distillers are soaked with blood, he is making an explicitly structural point. When he says the exact same thing of the slavers in his abolitionist tract, it is likewise. By way of action when he puts resistance to those two side by side in the discipline (No buying or selling of spiritus liquors and no buying and selling of human beings) he’s put his finger on two legs of the famous triangle; slaves… Read more »

Bill Dye

Thanks, Chris. You will most likely be quoted. The ministry plan Mona and I have employed for a long time now is: “4F” FAITH, FUN, FOOD, FELLOWSHIP. . Our experience has been that when these four elements combine, people are drawn and connected to God and each other. A question for me is: How and why do the social principals connect God’s people? How and why do they divide?

Bill Johnson

What a succinct and descriptive piece for your starting point! It lays out in concise fashion, common ground for diverse groups of people that will provide a foundation for the study which will follow. In describing the ways of “knowing and loving”, I find the 19th century writer whom you cite easily accessible and meaningful 2 centuries later. Thank you for sharing this, and I look forward to your series with anticipation.

Stephen Rankin

Thank you, Chris, for this wise and timely exposition. Having helped us understand “social,” I’m looking forward to what you do with “principles.” That last paragraph is a good starting point for another post! Seriously, it would be good to reflect on the nature and purpose of the Social Principles in light of what you’ve said here.

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