Church Or Society

I am currently attending my first board meeting with the General Board of Church and Society.  Up front, let me say that I think this is one of the most important, most valuable of our general church agencies.  I understand that this view is not shared by all.  In fact, some vehemently oppose Church and Society, and it ALWAYS surprises me.  I have written in the past that I feel United Methodism suffers today by a lack of institutional memory and an abdication of our core identity.  If your tradition is the Evangelical Association, the Methodist church, or the United Brethren in Jesus Christ, then you are part of a biblically and theologically grounded tradition that elevated missions, evangelistic witness, and a commitment to social justice — in other words, a church that isn’t all about us, but a church that exists for the purpose of serving in the community and world.  You may disagree that these things are important, but you can’t change history — this is who we are based on who we have historically been.

In preparation for my first term on the board, I began receiving letters almost as soon as jurisdictional conference ended — all of them highly critical, negative and derogatory about the work of Church & Society.  The comments boil down to three essential ideas:

  1. Christians should not get involved in politics.
  2. Social justice is communism/socialism/liberal, and therefore to be avoided by good Christians.
  3. We should not spend money on sinners; i.e., the poor, immigrants, single mothers, homosexuals, foreigners, scientists, political advocacy (these were just the specific things named in the letters/emails I received).

I disagree with a lot of people about a lot of things — and a lot of people disagree with me, but this is one of those issues that truly stymies me.  Hebrew scripture — history, poetry, prophecy — makes it clear that peace, mercy, justice, care of the poor, the marginalized, the stranger, the alien are not options, and that they are required of both individuals as well as communities, tribes, households and nation.  These things are even clearer in the gospels, the writings of Paul, James, and other writers of the early church (both in and beyond the accepted canon).  This reading doesn’t require much in the way of interpretation — it is clear, concise, constant, and consistent.  In our culture and age, Matthew 25 is a complete impossibility apart from political and social engagement.  Of all our general boards and agencies, Global Ministries and Church & Society are the two that actually live out our biblical, theological, and denominational mandates.  We can ascribe all kinds of negative labels to living the gospel — socialism, communism, etc. — but caring for God’s creation by realizing that we are all one creation, never in ministry “to” or doing ministry “for” but living into the realm and reality of God “with” each other is simply awakening to the will of God.  To eliminate the false, destructive, and indefensible dividing walls of hostility of “us” and “them”, is to live with integrity as the body of Christ.  It is so amazing to be part of an agency of the bureaucratic institution of “the Church” that actually gets it — that puts faith into action and activates disciples of Jesus Christ to engage in work that God actually uses to transform the world.

United Methodists can be proud of the vision and commitment of the General Board of Church & Society.  Not everything C&S does will please everyone, and there will be some things that we choose to politicize and castigate based on personal biases, but in the main, Church and Society is doing excellent work that allows us to fulfill our scriptural mission, honor our theological heritage, and strive toward our denominational values and priorities.

30 replies

  1. I agree with almost everything in the message posted by Dan and admire his courage in taking an unequivocal stand on the important issues of the day. The United Methodist Church in American is like the church a Laodocea, a lukewarm church, that can hardly be recognized from the days not so long ago when we played an important role in abolishing slavery and are on the verge of playing a meaningless role in pursuing our historic and scriptural mission.

  2. Thank you for your well-articulated statements about our history and theology that shows that the United Methodist Church is on solid ground in having an active Church and Society board. Wherever we see the “the least of these” sinners and people in need, we see Jesus in their eyes.

  3. Thanks for this post, Dan. Obviously, as a board member back for more, I agree with the idea that GBCS is helping the UMC to carry out a lot of our biblical mandates to the best of our ability. I found it incredibly frustrating when I served on the board previously to handle the real hatred people had for the work of the board. After getting to know the staff, I rather admired their life-dedication to justice and to practicing justice, and found myself inspired to be better at practicing what I preached. GBCS is so often stereotyped as dealing with one or two issues that other dislike, when it works on such a broad array of social issues, giving really significant time and money to justice issues I think most UMs actually support, if they would just recognize the work GBCS does!

  4. What I think I am hearing/reading in these comments is that while we aren’t able to agree upon the methods or the principles, the General Board of Church and Society is necessary to advocate for – meaning be a voice for – those to whom we are called to minister with and to.

    We are part of a very large, institutionalized denomination that can be influential in society if we have a clear mouthpiece. Individual churches cannot reach everyone on their own, but in working together and getting tiny bits of the government to work with us, we can reach so. many. people.

    Yes, we are a divided Church. Yes, we are a divided country. We always have been (save for short bubbles of loyalty in crisis). I don’t think the goal is or should be that everyone believe what I believe or endorse what I endorse, but that people understand where I am coming from and that I understand the basis of their belief. If I can articulate why I believe that everyone should have healthcare and you can articulate why you believe the opposite, we might be able to move forward. Please, listen to each other. Sarcasm and defensiveness are huge roadblocks to actual dialogue.

    My one question is… What would be the argument for the Church to endorse gun rights (specifically hand guns)? Defense?

    • whether we like it or not GBCS works are really our hope to save the poor and give them hope to struggle for an abundant life. and, GBCS serves as our avenue to let the people know what kind of faith we have, why many advocates for social justice put their lives in a vulnerable situation and always at risk.

    • I am not sure a church can make an argument can be made for gun rights and many other so called rights for that matter but I beleive a stronger scriptural argument can be made for gun ownership that same sex marriage. I would probably start with 1 Samuel 8:11-17 and go from there.
      Working with government involves tying ourselves to unbelievers. And it is not a tiny bit of government but a huge piece. How many people will the government bring to Christ?

  5. Where to begin with the GBCS? First, it appears to be unnecessary. They carefully consider each social justice issue from a Christian perspective and then endorse the Democratic Party platform. It may be that only the Democrats truly understand scripture (look at how the endorsed putting references to God in their party’s platform). But, if that is the case, let’s just give them the GBCS budget, shut down the agency, and rent out the buildings in Washington.
    Second, we say that we are a world church. However, the focus of GBCS is solely on the U.S. I understand that there are many in GBCS who believe that all injustice in the world is the fault of the U.S. However, it seems to me that perhaps there are social justice issues associated with Islamic militants slaughtering Christians in Nigeria. Maybe that is just my bigoted ignorance about the true nature of Islam.
    Third, GBCS seems to be remarkable muddy about issues that scripture speaks to pretty clearly and remarkable certain about the correct means to solve complex social issues where scripture is silent. For example, scripture speaks clearly to the fact that we are made in the image of God and that the killing of innocents is wrong. Even our Social Principles condemn abortion as contraception and sex selective abortion. However, the GBCS is a proud founding member and sponsor of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights which endorses both. On the other hand, while all agree that there is a need to help the poor, the GBCR knows that the only way to do that his to continually increase funding for the War on Poverty programs that have failed to reduce poverty for 50 years. (The War on Poverty is over, our government lost.) Likewise, while everyone would like to see improved access to health care, GBCS is positive that the way to do this to dump 10 million new people into our health care system through legislation that provides for no additional doctors but does fund 16,000 new IRS agents.
    There are serious social issues and Christians need to be on the forefront of working them. However, it seems to me that there is room for thoughtful debate about how they are to be worked, rather than being an adjunct Democratic party.
    With regard to Matthew 25, perhaps I missed the part where we are counted as disciples because, instead of actually helping the poor, sick, naked and imprisoned, we lobbied that somebody else (i.e., the rich) be taxed more to fund a bloated government program to help the poor, sick, naked and imprisoned. A program that encourages them to depend upon the government, discourages them from helping themselves, breaks up their families, and robs them of their human dignity. My exegesis of Matthew 25 is just not that good. I keep foolishly reading that scripture as telling me that I must sacrificially give to and volunteer in the food pantries, homeless shelters, and other ministries to the poor in my community; that I must visit those in hospitals and prisons, and that i must try to work with the schools to help children learn the skills they need to earn a living in this challenging world. Please pray for me so that I can learn to be a really good disciple like those in GBCS and spend all my time lobbying to outsource these painful and difficult tasks to the government and the rich instead of actually doing them myself.

    • 8 John I’m surprised you are a Methodist. Frankly, I wish you weren’t. There are to many people who call themselves Methodist but who don’t want to support or extend the great vision of John Wesley. There are many churces tat sare your view. Perhaps you would be more comfortable in one of them.


      • David, are you saying that John Wesley believed it was the government’s job to care for the poor? Why then the weekly collections for the poor that enabled the beginning of the Methodist class system? Why use the proceeds of the Methodist publishing house for the relief of “tired” preachers and their widows?
        Equating “the great vision of John Wesley” with only a big-government approach to social issues is both anachronistic and un-Scriptural. I find John’s critique very well stated.

    • Well said, John! You are my kind of Methodist.
      We have many members of the House and Senate who are Methodists. The Republican Methodists outnumber the Democrats by almost two to one. I am willing to bet the same ratio holds true in the pews. And yet we have Nancy Pelosi thanking the Methodist Church for its support in passing the most partisan piece of legislation in recent history. We are still living with the legacy of political bitterness from that fiasco. What legislation sponsored by Republicans has GBCS ever supported?
      GBCS advocates a statist solution to every problem. I think many people fell like they are already giving enough to Caesar and do not need to give any more. And yet for GBCS it is not enough. Nor will it ever be.
      I view GBCS as part of the disconnect and trust problem that exists between the members and the leadership within The UMC.

    • (addressing your last paragraph) In “Exodus From Hunger”, David Beckmann (President of Bread For the World) lays out a pretty powerful argument why lobbying government to make a change can be more effective than all the church food shelves put together, it might be worth a look. You might also consider the possibility that people can both work directly to help people *and* try to get government to help people more effectively, too. I will definitely add you to my prayer list. Grace and peace.

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