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Religion Library: Methodist

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Written by: Ted Vial

The requirement for Christian perfection has made Methodists equally active on both sides of the split.More conservative Methodists, including fundamentalists, argue that the Bible is literally true and inerrant, and that if certain passages condemn homosexuality, for instance, or forbid women from speaking in church, then that is divine law to be followed no matter how our own contemporary social context changes.These Methodists tend to be social conservatives.

More liberal Methodists argue that biblical authors mirrored the social mores of their own times, and so not all specific rules applied to us (they point to the patriarchs' practice of polygamy in the Hebrew scriptures, or the forbidding of charging interest, to name just two examples, as social practices that have not transcended their own historical context).What do transcend specific social contexts are the underlying principles of compassion and justice that take a very different form in our own context. So, for example, contemporary justice seems to require the equal treatment of women and men, and so liberal churches have begun to ordain women as preachers and bishops.Conservatives have argued in response that to follow supposed underlying principles rather than specific written requirements allows one to read whatever behavior one desires into the Bible, thus building a human rather than a divine moral code.

In the last decade there have been several shifts in the conservative/liberal split, and new issues have arisen that are difficult to fit into these categories, so it is becoming more difficult to predict where specific Methodists will come down on some issues.Some conservative churches have taken the lead in fighting poverty and AIDS in Africa and sex-trafficking around the world, issues which in a previous generation might seem to fall into a more progressive social justice camp than what one might stereotypically assume about social conservatives.Conservative churches are often more integrated racially than liberal ones.Conservatives are split on global warming, some beginning to argue that the biblical command for humans to act as responsible stewards of the earth requires we take action to ameliorate human causes.It is no longer clear if being "green" is liberal or conservative.

Study Questions:
     1.    How does Christian perfection distinguish Methodism's moral thought from other Protestant denominations?
     2.    Why could Methodism's focus on action be seen as controversial to other Christian traditions?
     3.    What were Wesley's two categories of “works”? Describe each.
     4.    How does one's affiliation with a conservative or liberal branch of Methodism influence their moral action?


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