Southern Baptist leaders hailed the United Methodist Church’s (UMC) reversal of its support for abortion rights at its latest conference – a step taken by the Southern Baptist Convention decades before.
Delegates to the UMC’s General Conference, held every four years, voted to remove the denomination’s entities from an abortion rights coalition it had helped found more than four decades earlier and approved the deletion of a 1976 resolution that affirmed the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
On another hot-button issue, however, the General Conference – which met May 10-20 in Portland, Ore. – voted to postpone action on homosexuality.
The UMC was a founding member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) in 1973, the year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state bans on abortion. The proposal, approved May 19 in a 425-268 vote, described RCRC as “a one-sided political lobby that opposes all disapproval or limitation of abortion.” The interfaith coalition of about 40 organizations supports the right to partial-birth and sex-selection abortions.
On May 20, the delegates voted 445-310 to defeat an effort to reaffirm the 1976 resolution, which said abortion may sometimes be advisable and endorsed the Roe ruling. In that decision, the high court legalized in conjunction with a companion opinion the right to an abortion for any reason throughout all nine months of pregnancy.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press, “Christians of all denominations should praise God for the United Methodist Church’s historic repudiation of abortion. This is good news for orthodoxy, for the unity of the Body of Christ, and for the vulnerable unborn and their mothers.
“There’s a long way to go,” Moore said in written comments, “but we should give thanks for this moment and continue to pray that the church of Jesus Christ would be a stalwart advocate for life and human dignity.”
Two Southern Baptist academics recalled the reversal in the SBC when praising the United Methodist decisions.
C. Ben Mitchell, provost and professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., said, “We gladly affirm the conference’s decision to distance itself from RCRC, and we joyfully celebrate the move towards a more biblically faithful stand on the life issues.
“Southern Baptists will remember that we were also on the wrong side of the pro-life divide in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We welcome our brothers and sisters into the fold,” Mitchell told BP in written remarks. “We happily join hands with all people of good will who advocate for the sanctity of human life from womb to tomb.”
Thomas Kidd, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, said in written comments for BP, “Evangelicals should be heartened to see that the United Methodist Church took decisive steps away from its former endorsement of the nation’s abortion culture.
“This was a move that the Southern Baptist Convention once had to make, too, demonstrating that these sorts of liberal trends are not irreversible,” Kidd said.
The SBC and its ethics entity head were on record in the 1970s in support of the right to abortion in many cases.
Messengers to the 1971 SBC meeting approved a resolution that urged Southern Baptists to promote legislation that would allow abortion “under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”
Foy Valentine – head of the SBC’s ethics entity, known as the Christian Life Commission (CLC) at the time – backed that resolution and signed onto a 1977 RCRC statement that affirmed the Roe decision and government funding for abortions. Four SBC seminary professors also endorsed the document.
Southern Baptists learned increasingly about the CLC’s pro-choice position and became more engaged in the pro-life movement. SBC messengers passed in 1980 the first of several pro-life resolutions, this one urging legislation or a constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion except to save the life of the mother. In 1988, the SBC’s ethic entity welcomed its first fully pro-life head.
The UMC – with about seven million U.S. members and more than 12 million globally – trails the SBC as the second largest Protestant denomination in the country.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) – which seeks the renewal of mainline Protestant denominations – commended the UMC pro-life actions. John Lomperis, IRD’s United Methodist director, called them “HUGE steps in the right direction.”
Regarding homosexuality, the delegates in Portland voted 428 to 405 in support of a recommendation from the UMC’s Council of Bishops to defer votes on “human sexuality” at the conference. Instead, the recommendation, passed May 18, empowered the Council of Bishops to appoint a special commission to study the UMC’s Book of Discipline for possible revision on sexual issues. The council said it may call for a meeting to address the matter prior to the 2020 General Conference.
The Book of Discipline – which will remain in effect in the meantime – says homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” and maintains marriage is only between a man and a woman.
The controversy regarding homosexuality threatens to split the UMC. Some UMC pastors have defied the Book of Discipline by performing same-sex weddings, and more than 100 ministers or ministerial candidates in America openly confessed they are gay as the General Conference opened, according to the United Methodist News Service (UMNS). The UMC is more conservative in Africa, and bishops there urged delegates to the meeting to remain faithful to the Book of Discipline.
R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said on his podcast May 23, “This is a denomination that decided, yet again, not to decide. But at the same time, the exhaustion … is clearly very evident, as is the threat of schism, which is very real.
“Was this a victory for the more evangelical wing of the church or the more liberal wing of the church? On that score, we’ll simply have to say time will tell. But neither side got what they wanted out of the 2016 General Conference,” Mohler said on “The Briefing.”
Kidd told BP, “We should pray that, led by traditionalist African Methodists, the United Methodist Church may also continue to hold the line on the biblical definition and practice of marriage, in spite of the labors of some gay and lesbian activist Methodists in America.”
The General Conference rejected efforts to pass divestment proposals seen as anti-Israel. The delegates defeated 559-167 an amendment seeking to divest from illegal settlements on occupied lands, UMNS reported. Earlier at the conference, the Finance and Administration Legislative Committee refused to back an attempt calling for divestment from companies that do business in Israel, according to UMNS.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.)