On Capital Punishment

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

What does The United Methodist Church believe on the subject of Capital Punishment? That’s a very good question, and one that I’ve been asked many times particularly in conjunction with high-profile executions. Just as many people don’t know that the UMC has Doctrinal standards which we uphold, so also many people don’t know that our denomination has a body of “Social Principles” which serve to help guide its individual members in their Christian walk. Regarding the Social Principles, the General Conference has said:

“The Social Principles are a prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation as historically demonstrated in United Methodist traditions. They are intended to be instructive and persuasive in the best of the prophetic spirit. The Social Principles are a call to all members of the United Methodist Church to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice.” (The United Methodist Book of Discipline, Part III, Preface to the “Social Principles”)

According to Paragraph 509 of the Book of Discipline, the only body which can speak for The United Methodist Church is the General Conference ... and the formal statements of the General Conference are found, primarily, in the Book of Discipline as well as in the Book of Resolutions. The Book of Discipline contains what some would call “Church Law,” while the Book of Resolutions contains “Church Opinion.” However, to say that everything in the Book of Discipline is required for United Methodists to do and/or believe would not be correct. Certain things in the Book of Discipline are not negotiable — for example, the Doctrinal Standards, while not precisely stated, are nevertheless effectively unalterable and quite beyond the pale of debate. We can talk about what they mean, and how we should interpret them, but we are not at any liberty to change them or to deny that they state our formal Doctrinal positions. Methodists have, in the past, voiced disagreement with the Doctrinal Standards, and of course we are free to disagree, but doing so is far more problematic than disagreement with, for example, the Church’s position on how a congregation should be structured, or what the Church teaches on the subjects of abortion, birth control, or even capital punishment. In other words, while the Doctrinal Standards are not really open for debate or revision, the Social Principles are not so protected and, indeed, are open for revision — and are actually, rather frequently, revised — each and every time the General Conference meets. Methodists are free to consider, reflect upon, debate with, and disagree on the teachings of the Social Principles. They are not, strictly speaking, binding.

That being said, there is much in the Social Principles with which most United Methodists us would agree wholeheartedly. It is, after all, the product of the General Conference, and the General Conference is an elected body representing each Annual Conferences, and each Annual Conference is made up of members representing all of the congregations and each of the clergy of every conference. Hence, the General Conference reflect us to a very great degree. Be that as it may, I am certain that, were anyone to read the Social Principles, they could take a pen and check those things with which they agreed and those things with which they disagreed. Even the clergy, who are bound to teach the Doctrinal Standards and support the Social Principles by our vows of ordination, are fee to dispute the Social Principles, disagree with them, and work to have them changed. And, yes, I have done so from time to time.

So, given all this, what do the “Social Principles” have to say about Capital Punishment?

“In the love of Christ, who came to save those who are lost and vulnerable, we urge the creation of genuinely new systems for the care and support of victims of crime and for rehabilitation that will restore, preserve, and nurture the humanity of the imprisoned. For the same reason, we oppose capital punishment and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.” (Paragraph 68 F)

The Book of Resolutions amplifies this position of our Social Principles with the following statement, which was originally adopted in 1980 and has been re-adopted several times since:

“The United Methodist Church cannot accept retribution or social vengeance as a reason for taking human life. It violates our deepest belief in God as the Creator and the Redeemer of humankind. In this respect, there can be no assertion that human life can be taken humanely by the state. Indeed, in the long run, the use of the death penalty by the state will increase the acceptance of revenge in our society and will give official sanction to a climate of violence.... The United Methodist Church declares its opposition to the retention and use of capital punishment in any form or carried out by any means; the Church urges the abolition of capital punishment.” (pp. 502-504, The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church, 1996)

According to the Book of Discipline, the above constitutes the formal position of the denomination — as stated by the General Conference — on the subject of capital punishment. All clergy and official representatives are directed to state the formal position without further amplification when speaking as a representative of the denomination.

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On a personal level, I mostly agree with the Social Principles on this subject. In my opinion, life is far too precious for me to sanction its being forfeit for any reason other than extreme and immediate circumstances where self-defense or the defense of an innocent person leaves no other alternative. While I can conceive of extraordinary conditions that might require that the State retain the theoretical right to execute the perpetrators of particularly heinous crimes for the safety of the society at-large, I am not willing to grant that such should ever be contemplated or conducted as a matter of course. This last admission places me at odds with the literal wording of the Social Principles, but not with its sentiment. I support the abolition of capital punishment from the US legal code because it is neither a functional deterrent to crime, nor a civilized form of punishment for any crime.

© 2000, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.