Wesleyans can’t drink alcohol—not even a bit. We promise not to drink in our “Membership Commitments.” When we became a “Covenant member” of our denomination we agreed to “follow carefully and conscientiously” the membership commitments and were warned that “Disregard of the principles embraced in [them] “subjects a member to Church discipline” which means you can get kicked out of The Wesleyan Church for drinking alcohol.
But Wesleyans can’t kick you out for getting an abortion, or even for performing one. In fact, no Wesleyan has ever promised to be against abortion when they joined our denomination. Abortion is not mentioned in our Articles of religion or our Membership Commitments. We promise to not join secret societies and lodges, and we promise not to gamble, smoke or get divorced for extra-Biblical reasons but we do not promise anything about abortions.
That is not to say Wesleyans are not anti-abortion. Most Wesleyans (including myself) think abortion is wrong. However, Wesleyans never promised to have this opinion when we joined our church. We were not required to be against abortion even though most all of us are. However, the Wesleyan Discipline is not silent completely on abortion. We have one paragraph in our “Special Directions” addressing abortion. The Special Directions are the section of our Discipline where we make “official admonitions to the members, ministers and officials of The Wesleyan Church, and provide guidelines for bearing public testimony.” Here we make statements to “admonish” our members (and the world) about social issues. We make statements about equal rights “for all individuals politically, economically and religiously.” We call on Wesleyans to “take all legitimate means to avoid war.” And promise to support “a member thinks military Service is contrary to the teaching of the New Testament. We believe that “merchandising on the Lord's Day should be illegal” and that prayer in school should be legal. Here we say that “We don’t think schools should be teaching dancing” and we “urge our people to dress modestly.” We say Wesleyans should “refuse to participate in social dancing or go to the movies that feature the cheap, the violent or the sensual and pornographic.” And it is here in the “Special Directions” among these other social statements we address abortion. Here it says we “oppose abortion except in rare pregnancies where the life of the mother is threatened but even then only after prayerful counsel. We encourage our people to get involved in the anti-abortion movement.”
So how come Wesleyans promise not to buy lottery tickets, or join a secret society or take a drink of spiked punch at the office Christmas party yet we do not promise anything about getting or performing abortions? It has its history that may be instructive to the current debate about alcohol.
A little history: Wesleyans had no statement whatsoever about abortion before 1984. Back in those days, the anti-abortion movement was new (at that time it was not pro-life but anti-abortion). The Catholics were the first but they didn’t convince many Wesleyans since we had already come to disagree with them on their rejection of birth control. Then evangelicals began to rise up and make noise about abortion. I remember these early evangelical pioneers, especially Melody Green (wife of CCM singer Keith Green who had been tragically killed in a plane crash). She spoke out early. Wesleyans didn’t respond. I remember when I published a very anti-abortion article in a denominational youth magazine I was quietly chided by a denominational official for “getting involved in social issues.” Not that there were many Wesleyans getting abortions or performing them—we didn’t even think about these things… and when we did, we seldom spoke about them. Some even argued at coffee break that abortion was “a private family matter and no business of government or churches.
Our sleepiness on abortion changed fast. The anti-abortion movement convinced virtually all Wesleyans that abortion was killing, and the life of the fetus was sacred. Once the vast majority of Wesleyans were convinced (by the larger social movement) the denomination’s resolution-writers got out their pencils. A strong anti-abortion statement was crafted for the Special Directions section of our Discipline and it came to the General Board of Administration to be approved for sending on to the 1984 General Conference. You might imagine that this was a no-brainer discussion. It wasn’t. I recall the debate as two GBA members vociferously opposed such a strong stance. (I’ll tell my two sons their names for history’s sake, but it’s none of your business). They were defeated and the resolution moved forward toward General Conference.
At General Conference ’84 the new special direction came to the floor. The anti-abortion folk on the GBA (most everyone by then) worried that it might not pass at General Conference. After all, there were a number of churches by then who were proud of being tolerant and “grace based” and “non-judgmental.” Even though the Special Directions were not binding on members we still worried that this new “crack down” would be received as being “too legalistic.” Back then (maybe still?) when a controversial resolution came from the GBA, one or two persons were often designated privately to defend the resolution. I was picked as the defender of the new stricter stance against abortion. I sat next to Dr. Lee Haines at that general Conference and he kept track of the resolutions marching toward the one I was supposed to defend against the “liberals who might oppose it.” I knew how this was supposed to work. If someone stood to oppose it, I was to be the next speaker defending it before a wave of opposition could get a head of steam. When Dr. Haines saw the resolution coming he nudged me, “You’re on.” I was sitting in a shirt and tie with my coat draped casually on the seat behind me. (In those days everyone wore a suit at general Conference) I quietly reached around and slipped into my coat and got ready for battle. Nothing. Nobody said a word—not even the two GBA members who had dragged their feet on the GBA. Nobody. Hearing nothing, the chair called for a vote and the new “Special Direction” sailed through (in what sounded to be) a unanimous vote! (I never got to give my speech.)
How did this sail through so easily? Because the anti-abortion movement outside the church was so strong that by the time we got to General Conference they had convinced virtually every Wesleyan that abortion was wrong. A social movement outside our denomination had brought a new stance inside. When we look at the stance today, it seems anemic. Why only a “Special Direction?” Shouldn’t we require every member to promise they won’t get an abortion or perform them? But, at the time a “Special direction’ was all we thought we could get. And that is all we have still.
So, what does all this have to do with alcohol? Because that’s precisely how denominations got their anti-alcohol stances too. The Temperance Movement and the 19th century Prohibition movement were so convincing that churches added tee-totaler statements against alcohol. The Wesleyan Methodist church was the first denomination in America to have such a stance. [later note: both claims made here based on Dr. Bob Black of SWU’s opinion is protested here by Samuel Enderby] now being Wesleyan Methodists allowed tobacco (at first) but condemned alcohol from the beginning. (Though not yet for Communion for non-alcoholic wine had not yet been invented by Thomas Welch—Wesleyans were eventually relieved when they could go “all the way” and use the new “Welch’s non-alcoholic wine” for communion too so that not even a tiny sip of alcohol need ever pass the lips of Wesleyans.) Our anti-alcohol stance came the same way our anti-abortion stance came—but a social movement outside the church which convinced church people so well they saw passing a rule a no-brainer.
Which brings us to the question of the week. The convictions of church people change over time—they discard old convictions and add new ones. These changes mean a denomination’s “rules” are not fixed but dynamic. They have changed in the past—adding some and subtracting others—and they will change in the future. So if this is true, What Articles of religion, Membership Commitments, and Special Directions need to be either added or dropped today to calibrate the church’s “collective convictions” for “this present age?”
(Apologies to the many non-Wesleyans this week—but you are invited to give us advice—our General Conference meets this summer)
So, what do you think?
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Keith Drury February 26, 2008
Keith Drury is Associate Professor of Religion at Indiana Wesleyan University
The Wesleyan Discipline, 2004 (Thanks to the West Michigan District)