Thursday, October 28, 2021

Why I'll #BeUMC Part 6 - The Quadrilateral

 I'm going to do a series of posts later on what I've discovered by reading through the breakaway group's Transitional Doctrine and Discipline. There are, I think, several items that you may have missed. One that did not surprise me - there is no mention of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Why? Bad bathwater. It's been misused and misunderstood from time to time. But it's a beautiful baby that needs to be preserved. Throw out the bathwater, but keep the baby.

Reason #6 I'll still #BeUMC - The Wesleyan Quadrilateral remains an important way to understand and ultimately to put our faith in action.

Many traditionalists have argued that our fracture today is not really about human sexuality, but about the authority of Scripture. This is not the case. Yes, there are a handful of United Methodists on the far left that will deny the authority of Scripture, just as there are a handful on the far right who have made the Bible a god. Traditionalist leadership continues to exploit this small minority to make it sound like, as Rob Renfroe said recently, "People who have any kind of orthodox faith will not be able to remain in the post-separation UMC." 

The Quadrilateral Is not a Square

In short, the Quadrilateral is the concept that Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience (or Christian Experience) are all factors in how we make our faith decisions. You might see this graphically as a square. Some people will then say that, as in a square, all sides are equal and each of these four factors should be equally considered. But quadrilaterals aren't always squares. 

The Quadrilateral is best understood with Scripture as the base, interpreted through the lenses of reason, tradition, and experience. So, for example, we would never say, "The Bible says women shouldn't preach but tradition, reason, and experience outvote it three-to-one." Instead, we might say, "The Bible says women shouldn't preach. Experience and tradition suggest we should take a closer look than just the surface. Reason helps us see what the context was in that moment and, when looking at other passages, we come to a new interpretation of scripture that allows us to discern God wants women to preach."

Scripture is primary. It is authoritative. And we also use God-given resources to understand what Scripture says. This should not be controversial. In fact, at a join conference for churches over 400 in average attendance and pastors under age 40, when asked, "What do I value most about the UMC?" the third most common response was, "Theology shaped by Scripture interpreted with the aid of tradition, experience, and reason." It rated even above, "A wide welcome for all people." But, on the altar of doctrinal purity, the breakaway group has entirely removed the Quadrilateral. Instead of removing this helpful metaphor from use, we should reaffirm it and help people use it appropriately.

I want to be part of a church that lets people think. I don't want to be part of a church that frowns on, if not outright bans, people from using God's gifts of reason, tradition, and experience.

P.S. At that same conference mentioned above, a conference intentionally geared towards those who plan to remain or are open to remaining in the UMC, 94% of those present identified as "compatibilist," meaning that they are willing to be in a denomination with people who disagree about human sexuality. No pastor will be forced to marry people they don't want to marry. That's part of the definition of "compatible."


  1. Wow! Gross use of a red herring to make a belittling point. It's false to imply WCA folks have no respect for the four legs of the quadrilateral. You are dissimulating and fear-mongering. WCA's chief criticism of the quadrilateral has been its misuse in so many contemporary expressions. You've also strayed out of reality to argue that a post-separation UMC will provide warmhearted hospitality for traditionalists. Wow! That's an obvious cherry-pick when you consider the experience of traditionalists around the connection.

    1. Hi Gary,
      Creating their new Book of Doctrine and Discipline is the perfect opportunity for the GMC to clarify Outler's original intent for the Quadrilateral. Instead of correction (which I think would have been helpful because it is occasionally misused) they chose to eliminate it altogether. I can't think of a better way to disrespect it than to eliminate it.

    2. On traditionalists being welcome, I'll tell you the same thing I said at a recent conference. The honest truth is for pastors it depends on the Conference. I don't doubt that there are places where traditionalists would feel marginalized. For laity, it depends on the church. I'm a progressive compatibilist pastor in a "purple" church. I work on being clear that I'm sharing my interpretation and that people in the congregation will not all agree.

  2. Respectfully, there is not one GMC-bound person who would describe Scripture as a “base.”

    I respectfully suggest you are either intentionally using straw-men arguments, or are unfamiliar with (ignorant of?) our nuanced arguments vis-a-vis the mythical Quadrilateral.

    1. Hi J,
      Feel free to enlighten me. I'm always open to learning.

  3. In addendum, I deeply resent your comment that a “breakaway” movement won’t “let people think.”

    You’re not being the hero you think you are.