The United Methodist Church is engaged in a cultural war over human sexuality. Just below the surface is a struggle of theological sources. The Wesleyan tradition acknowledges Scripture, tradition, experience and reason as authoritative in our theological method. These, of course, were John Wesley’s primary sources from which Albert Outler coined the term “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral.”
The battle, however, is over the norms that we use to interpret and how we weigh each of these sources. Certainly, even if we are within the Wesleyan tradition and honor these four sources as authoritative, individual members can come out with very different theological positions on controversial social issues. I once heard it said that if you put 10 Methodists in a room you will have 11 opinions.
While the question of ordaining “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” or allowing our clergy to conduct same-sex marriages is the current cultural rub, the struggle over theological method has been around since the 1744 annual conference when John and Charles Wesley asked, “What to teach; How to teach and What to do?” Of course, how we answer these questions and how we interpret the four sources is the $10,000 question. The attendees at the first Methodist annual conference had different social issues than a United Methodist in the Philippines or someone in the Great Plains Annual Conference.
While John Wesley didn’t use the phrase Wesleyan Quadrilateral, he did consult the four sources in his theological method of discernment for theological issues in his day. Certainly, Scripture was primary and he called himself “homo unius libri” (man of one book). Wesley, however, was very well read in both Christian and secular literature and cited both widely.
Wesley was also a practical theologian and adjusted his practice based on experience. Wesley wrestled with the matter of women preachers and after considerable prayer and reflection wrote: “We give the right hand of fellowship to Sarah Mallet, and have no objection to her being a preacher in our connexion, so long as she preaches the Methodist doctrines, and attends to our discipline.” Similarly, Wesley did not cite one Bible verse in his treatise “Thoughts upon Slavery,” perhaps because there are passages that seemingly support slavery. While his stance on slavery and women preachers may apparently contradict certain passages that affirm slavery and disapprove of women speaking in church, they are consistent with the biblical canon that all humans beings are created in the likeness and image of God.
Wesley certainly believed in the primacy of Scripture as stated in the Articles of Religion, “The Holy Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation…” Nevertheless, in the debate between the Puritan and the Catholic interpretation, Wesley adopted the middle way of Anglicans and believed that Scripture wasn’t to be used as a rule for all areas of society. Wesley believed in the oneness of the Bible and read scriptures as a whole: “every part is worthy of God and all together are one body, wherein is no defect, no excess.” He repeated this message 11 times in his writings and would compare individual passages against the whole. He didn’t read the Bible looking for contradictions, but his knowledge of Hebrew and Greek afforded him the ability to read earlier manuscripts, and he noted incongruences. In his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, Wesley often corrected the King James translation and pointed out contradictions in the text.
It would suffice to say that for Wesley, the cannon within a cannon of God’s Word is love. Certainly Wesley underlined the importance of quickening one’s spiritual senses and asking the Holy Spirit to guide our interpretations. Within the Quadrilateral, certainly Scripture retains its primacy; however, it is placed in dialogue with the other sources.
The biggest change between how Wesley interpreted Scripture in his time and how we interpret it today is the context. Paul Taylor writes about the dramatic cultural changes facing the United States as he contrasts the preferences of the Baby Boomers and the Millennials in his book The Next America: “As a society, we’ve become more polarized and more tolerant and no matter what we’re like today, we’re going to be different tomorrow. Change is the constant.” In many ways, the tension that Taylor finds between Boomers and Millennials is the same question that we are asking in the United Methodist Church: “how to honor our commitments to the old without bankrupting the young and starving the future?”
Another one of the cultural shifts going on is related to acceptance of human sexuality. In 2001 Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a 57 to 35% margin. Ten years later Americans were split on their support and by 2016 the attitude had reversed to 55% approval versus 37% disapproval. And the attitude among Millennials is even more accepting. Human sexuality is only one example of the differences between Millennials and Boomers. For example, Taylor states that “72% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say abortion should be legal in most or all cases.”
With these cultural shifts as the background, I will turn in a following piece to the question, “How can we remain faithful to our Wesleyan heritage and communicate the Gospel in a way that will be heard by the nones and dones?”
 The United Methodist Book of Discipline, Nashville: UM Publishing House, 2016. par.105.
 Albert Outler, John Wesley, Oxford University Press, 1980, p.136.
 Albert Outler, “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral in Wesley,” Wesley Theological Journal, Vol.20, No.1, Spring 1985.
 John Wesley “On God’s Vineyard,” I.1, Works 3:504
 The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., ed. John Telford, 8 vols. (London: Epworth Press, 1931) 8:15.
 John Wesley, Thoughts upon Slavery, 3rd edition, A.M. London: Printed by R. Hawes, 1774.
 Genesis 1:26-27.
 Stephen Gunter, “The Quadrilateral and the Middle Way,” in Wesleyan and the Quadrilateral, Nashville: Abingdon, 1997, 17.
 John Wesley, Explanatory Notes on the NT, p. 9.
 Scott Jones, “The Rule of Scripture,” in Wesley and the Quadrilateral, Nashville: Abingdon, 1997, 53.
 Randy Maddox, “How John Wesley read the Bible,” Catalyst, 38:1, November 2011, 1-3.
 “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13
 Paul Taylor, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), ix.
 P. 232
 Pew Research Center, “Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage,” May 12, 2016, accessed May 16, 2017 http://www.pewforum.org/2016/05/12/changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage/>
 Thirty-eight percent of Boomers approve of same-sex marriage as opposed to fifty-six percent of Millennials, Ibid.
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