The Social Principles Today and Tomorrow

MomanyBefore the Civil War, when debate over slavery raged, a small book was written by the leader of Oberlin College. President Asa Mahan epitomized the prophetic tradition. His commitment to equality was unrivaled, but this 1839 text explored “Christian Holiness.” Following in the footsteps of John Wesley, Mahan probed the possibilities and pitfalls of Christian Perfection. Some might assume that this emphasis on the interior life endangered Mahan’s witness for justice. That would be a mistake. Oddly enough, Mahan’s theology of atonement grounded his social concern.

The United Methodist Social Principles are entering a new era. Many hard-working church leaders are hosting a global conversation about these principles. How should they be re-framed and re-configured for the future? Leadership of the church has said that it desires to make the Social Principles “more succinct, theologically founded, and globally relevant.” Over the next several years, this process of review and reformulation will be guided by the denomination’s General Conference. Perhaps one way to address the three aims of this project would be to revisit the Wesleyan doctrine of atonement.

The current text of the Social Principles begins with a clear and detailed explication of the church’s theology. It is a good statement. Yet it seems to me that we would be well served in the future by a more “succinct” articulation of our unique doctrinal emphases. For instance, the Wesleyan view of atonement opens amazing possibilities around issues of inclusion and God’s initiative on behalf of all creation and every human being.

When Asa Mahan added his voice to the Wesleyan tradition’s emphasis on holiness, he did so by articulating three approaches to the doctrine of atonement. Most of us are familiar with two of them, but it is the third that makes a critical difference.

First, there is the notion that Christ lived, died, and rose for a part of humanity – the elect. This is a classic doctrine of “limited atonement,” and it has implications when we consider questions of value among creation – what counts and what does not count, who counts and who does not count. The Wesleyan way has always emphasized a second and significantly different view, that of “general atonement.” This perspective holds that Christ lived, died, and rose for all. General atonement is not the same as universalism. To understand that God’s love is comprehensive is not to claim that all will automatically receive this love and embrace a heavenly destiny. Moreover, it does not mean all will inevitably act in ways consistent with the gospel. But it does claim that God’s long-suffering love is shared on behalf of all creation and all people. This view, too, has implications around questions of value and worth. For most Wesleyans, this contrast between limited and general atonement exhausts the conflicting theological convictions about God’s love. However, President Mahan added a third dimension to the conversation.

Mahan argued that the atonement of Christ was both general and particular. The idea of “general atonement” carries a comprehensive splendor. When applied to the whole of creation, it bears awe-inspiring implications. Yet it might also be considered rather impersonal. We often use the language of “all” in our church conversation, debate, and attempts to love one another, but does this terminology live in our hearts and in our action? The language of “all” can be invoked when those with power seek to make decisions that sound more like one-size-fits-all policy presumption than the categorically sensitive love of God. Sometimes “all” only means those who fit within my enlightened agenda. Mahan’s variation on this Wesleyan tradition does not in any way deny general atonement but rather completes it. According to him, the beauty of general atonement can be distorted and imposed through grandiose imprecision – as if Christ lived, died, and rose for no one in particular. This might not bother some, especially those who labor to address social issues. After all, we are concerned about the big picture. Still, such an approach misses something vital. What if Christ lived, died, and rose for every person in particular – a dynamic both comprehensive (social) and intimate (personal)?

We ought to include Mahan’s third dimension when reviewing our Social Principles. This church document should not be a laundry list of opinions regarding global issues, and it should not be a parochial statement of personal privilege. The Social Principles can, however, reflect God’s absolutely mind-bending sacrifice for creation that is both wider than the horizon and deeper than the ocean.

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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10 Comments on "The Social Principles Today and Tomorrow"

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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 Columnist
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Mark: My comment was a way to invite focus on the original piece, which was intended as something other than an analysis of particular sections and positions. I still think the theological grounding will be critical for any changes that are made in the upcoming process, but I do hear your suggestion regarding further reflection and do not disagree with you in that regard.

Clayton Childers
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Thank you Chris for lifting up the Social Principles of our church and tying them to our Wesleyan theological foundations. I believe you make a valid point in going beyond the general salvation model to include the focus on Christ gift of salvation offered freely to each and every individual, “whosoever will may come.” I believe we need to offer Christ socially and personally. A valid critique I offered regarding those who can see the social complexities while overlooking the individual souls struggling to find life abundant. I think there is some link here to the Boston “personalism” movement/school which… Read more »
Wes Andrews
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“We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures.” The Scripture would NEVER justify killing human beings born or yet to be born. “We encourage individuals to pursue a healthy lifestyle and affirm the importance of preventive health care, health education, environmental and occupational safety, good nutrition,and secure housing in achieving health. Health care is a basic human right.Providing the care needed to maintain health, prevent disease, and restore health after injury or illness is a responsibility each person owes others and… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
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Abortion is a woman’s right in any situation in which she will choose to exercise it. Fiction that a blastocyst is a person is but a smokescreen for woman hatred and male domination. The bible says absolutely nothing about it. One may with good conscience seek to create conditions in which it is rare. One cannot seek to criminalize it in good conscience. Terrorists who cajole women outside clinics deserve no support from persons of good character.

Mark
Guest

Wes (and any other interested parties), here is how healthcare came to be defined as a “right” in the Social Principles. This was not only another insertion of politics into the Social Principles by an agenda-driven group, it is an example of underhanded techniques used to do so. This article is definitely worth reading (as well as the comments which follow it). http://methodistthinker.com/2009/11/11/umc-health-care-as-a-right/

George Nixon Shuler
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Healthcare, education, nutrition, housing, employment, and access to services are indeed basic human rights by any reasonable measure.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist
Guest

So much for discussing that which is actually written in a given piece. Subjectivism of the left AND right takes whatever a particular writer says and turns it into a platform for advancing an agenda. If I were to say the temperature was 30 degrees this morning where I live (and it was), someone would say, “Oh yeah? Well that’s why we need to implement my view on homosexuality, health care, & etc.

Mark
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Chris, I am not sure what, specifically, your comment is addressing, but a couple of observations are in order. First, the content of your article—which I think is good—does not exactly deliver what the title suggests: it only addresses the Social Principles indirectly….or, at least, in a very general way. You might just as well have called your article “Atonement and Inclusiveness In The UMC,” or “A Wesleyan Vision of the Atonement,” or “Dr. Mahan’s Expansion On the Wesleyan Vision of the Atonement.” Some of the comments that followed actually do discuss the Social Principles directly, including those that are… Read more »
Norvil L. Brown
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While we must oppose SIN of every nature, we must not lose sight of Rev. 7:9&10. NIV
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation,tribe,people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the lamb. They were wearing white robes . . . And they cried out in a loud voice: SALVATION BELONGS TO OUR GOD, WHO SITS ON THE THRONE, AND TO THE LAMB. emphasis added.

James Lung
Guest
Excellent post, and what a propitious time for United Methodists to pray and think theologically about the cultural and social implications of our faith. Our current Social Principles represent the apogee of influence of the liberal protestant impulse in our denomination. We spent the last third of the 20th Century reeling under our headlong embrace of a theology that is insufficiently Christian, let alone Wesleyan. Our declining membership, cultural irrelevance and current wrestling with the meaning of the Biblical witness regarding the nature of the human person and our place in God’s plan are evidence of our failure to discern… Read more »
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