Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part III): Experience, Scripture, and the Quadrilateral

Monday, November 27th, 2017

This is the third installment in a series of reflections on the current crisis within the United Methodist church over human sexuality. According to the November 9th press release from the Council of Bishops, the “local option” is one of the three options currently under consideration to help resolve this debate. The local option would remove all language related to human sexuality from the Discipline and allow local churches to make decisions regarding membership and pastoral leadership, and permit annual conferences to make decisions regarding ordination. The purpose of this blog series is to explore the implications of this particular proposal.

From the outset, I have argued that unless there is broad agreement on certain foundational principles, then the final decision will not result in a flourishing church. In my opinion, our leaders have not been attentive to these foundational concerns. First, as noted in the earlier articles, there has been an insufficient attention to a proper theological and biblical understanding of the basis of church unity. Instead, unity is being interpreted as the institutional survival of the United Methodist denomination. But, we must first secure our Christian identity before we are in a position to properly rescue the denomination. It would be very helpful if the letter had simply repeated what is already in our Discipline regarding the definition of unity: “Church unity is founded on the theological understanding that through faith in Jesus Christ we are made members-in-common of the one Body of Christ” (par. 105, Doctrinal Standards and our Theological Task).

The second foundational concern we are exploring is the authority of scripture. The November 9th release from the Council of Bishops notes several “values” which are guiding the process. The three primary values noted were unity, space, and contextuality—all for the sake of mission. It is unclear whether this statement was just being descriptive, noting publicly that these were the values which were at work in the three proposals developed by the Commission, or if the Council was being prescriptive in stating that these are the values which should guide the process. The statement did indicate that the Bishops are not, at this point, demonstrating a preference for any of the three options. In either case, there is the notable omission that there is no reference to the value of the final decision being biblical, or that, in the end, Scripture has any role in deciding this crucial issue. Like I would expect from many of you, I found it scandalous the Council of Bishops would put out a pastoral letter about such an explosively contentious issue—which needs to be resolved and which threatens to tear our church asunder—and never mention the Bible or Scripture in the entire document.

Throughout my thirty-three years of ministry as an ordained United Methodist pastor there has been a notable and consistent lack of interest in scriptural references to matters of human sexuality, not to mention the deep theological structures which underpin marriage in the Bible (e.g. creation account, theology of the body, body of Christ imagery, marriage supper of the lamb, etc.). To be fair, theologians and biblical scholars have been invited to deliver papers to the Commission. However, the influence this has had on conversations, proposals, and blog posts, etc. in the wider church has been tepid. There are, of course, passing references to how certain broad biblical themes such as justice or mercy, but not the deep, thoughtful theological and biblical engagement with specific texts which is required. This will be addressed more in the fourth installment of this series.

The paucity of biblical engagement is due, perhaps, to a misunderstanding about the so-called “quadrilateral” which has been popularized in our denomination. The quadrilateral, rightly understood, is about the primacy of Scripture and the secondary role which tradition, reason, and experience should play in our theological and ethical deliberations. We are, after all, the “people of one Book.” What the quadrilateral is not, however, is a statement of four equal values. Yet, in our deliberations one sometimes gets the impression that the quadrilateral has been flipped on its head. In our conversations, pastoral considerations and anecdotal stories tend to rule the day. In other words, we have turned the quadrilateral on its head and we often end up using experience as the definitive lens through which we understand scripture and tradition.

It would be very helpful if our commitment to the primacy of Scripture as the final authority in the life of the church were to be made clear. Our Discipline says, “United Methodists share with other Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” (p. 83). There is nothing wrong with highlighting values like contextuality and space, but neither should be understood as primary values. The church deserves to see the biblical and theological evidence which supports whatever proposal is set forth. This, in turn, will enable us to have the proper discussion we need to have between now and 2019. For, indeed, whatever decision is reached by the Commission on the Way Forward, or any other proposals which warrant consideration, must be accompanied by a well-argued case which makes sense theologically, biblically, and historically—if it has any chance of being adopted by the General Conference in 2019.


  • Dr. Tennent, Thank you for these three insightful articles. I felt Part 3 was the strongest installment. I believe you insightfully pared down the problems to the essential elements: the authority of Scripure and biblical theology. I also sense that underlying your words is the belief that unity at any price is still disunity & as the example of the 3/5ths compromise in our US Constitution should prove failure to solve a core issue for the sake of unity only kicks the can down the road. Many blessings.

  • Very well stated article. I would add one additional thought to the comment on the quadrilateral. And although I am not a Wesley expert, this is the way that I understand what Wesley meant. First, Wesley never used this term quadrilateral. It was made-up from looking at his writings. Wesley was first and foremost a “man of one book” – the Bible. Only when the Bible did not have a clear statement did he then turn to tradition. But Wesley defined the part of our church tradition that he focused on as the first 400 years of the Christian church (where we had writings from people like Augustine). I believe he referred to the early church as the “most pure church.” And only after these two, did he even start to consider reason and experience. But even when he did, reason and experience were framed by the Bible.

  • Dr. Tennent,
    Like you, I would expect that the Council of Bishops would have referenced Scripture, and I trust (or hope and pray, at least) that the final recommendation that they put forth will not only reference Scripture, but be grounded in it.
    That said, I can, to some extent, see why they may be “passing” on Scripture in the updates. Yes, we are a people of the Book. But how do you progress when we, one people, interpret Scripture in multiple ways. Certainly we should then lean on tradition, reason, and experience, especially as Wesleyan theologians (professional and amateur). Yet we still find ourselves with diverse viewpoints about this issue. (Perhaps because we may order the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience differently when we interpret Scripture, but that could be a different blog series.)
    I know that I myself have several well-reasoned and fully-developed theological points on which I stand, human sexuality being one of them. Others disagree with me on at least some of these points. As I have returned to Scripture, prayer, reason, experience, tradition, and discussion with others, my stances on these points have not changed. As far as I know, I have not convinced anyone else to change their stances either.
    So, yes, I agree that the Council of Bishops should be utilizing Scripture in their work of decision-making. However, especially on a contentious issue, a press release meant as a periodic update may not be the place to delve into the intricacies of Scriptural interpretation about which even the Council may not be able to find unity.
    Therefore, I will give the Council of Bishops grace at this point. Scripture is foundational to our faith and the practice thereof. I trust the Council to present their final recommendations appropriately.

  • Gary Bebop says:

    Authoritative teaching should not be suspended during fractious times. Our bishops have quailed at a time when courage and resolve would help us. They do not get a “pass” on this. Leaders are expected to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable…” The multiplication of novel interpretations around sexuality are essentially evasions.

  • Dr. Tennent, I believe you are right on point. I would like to add a little more of what I have found regarding our “beloved Quadrilateral”

    Here is my response to a class assignment some years ago on the Wesleyan Movement regarding the Quadrilateral.
    John Wesley’s Christian beliefs were formed by what has been termed the quadrilateral. Undoubtedly the tools for forming his beliefs originated from his father, Samuel Wesley, who in his book Advice to a Young Clergyman (1735) placed an emphasis on the writings of Richard Hooker. Hooker stressed what authorities should be used to answer ecclesiastical questions. Hooker presented a three-fold structure of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. We know Wesley’s use of Hooker’s structure as the quadrilateral; however, Wesley did not originate the term. Albert Outler coined the term after studying Wesley’s theological approach to doctrine. For Wesley, Scripture was the authority for everything, “a constant rule of all our tempers, all our words, and all our actions.” (Wesley’s sermon 115, “Dives and Lazarus,” ¶III.7, Works, 4:18). For Wesley the second in authority after Scripture would be Reason. Reason was the mechanism that processed knowledge and for this case, knowledge revealed from Scripture. Tradition was his third source and held a more restricted role compared to the first two. For Wesley tradition was primarily the standards of the Early Church and the Anglican Church. For Wesley’s fourth point, he added the role of experience. Although not recognized by most as a source of doctrinal judgment, Wesley mainly used experience to confirm what the Scripture proclaimed. And like tradition, experience held a restricted role compared to Scripture and reason. It is clear that Wesley held Scripture as the primary source for ecclesiastical conclusions. The remaining three sources may be seen as means to test our prior understandings.

    And some other findings I have discovered after that class.
    However, the Quadrilateral was met with opposition from early on. When the “Quadrilateral” was included in the 1972 Book of Discipline it was met with criticism because it raised issues of Biblical authority and theological pluralism. Many believed then that the Quadrilateral would take away from Biblical Orthodoxy. (Andrew Thompson, “Outler’s Quadrilateral…” Wesleyan Theological Journal, Spring 2011, p. 54)

    Eventually the UMC accepted the use of the Quadrilateral even to the incorrect assumption that it is a defining characteristic or even doctrine of the UMC. Its eventual misuse led Outler to regret coining the term “quadrilateral.”
    “The term ‘quadrilateral’ does not occur in the Wesley corpus—and more than once I have regretted having coined it for contemporary use since it has been so widely misconstrued.” – Albert Outler (Doctrine and Theology, 1985, p. 86)

    And for various reasons (especially its incorrect interpretation and application) Wesley scholars have been critical of the “Quadrilateral” including Richard Heitzenrater, William Abraham, Ted Campbell, Scott Jones, Andrew Thompson and Kevin Watson. And now Timothy Tennent is added to the list.

    We have tried to use the Quadrilateral as a hammer to drive screws for far too long and permitted others to apply, teach and preach it incorrectly. Now to undo the damage.

  • James Lung says:

    I find this whole process curious, for the reason that the original charge to the Bishops and any commission to which the Bishops might delegate their responsibility dealt with the language of the Discipline regarding human sexuality. The bishops were to tell us what, if anything, that our Discipline teaches regarding human sexuality is true.

    That they are wasting their time and our money talking about “spaces” and “contextuality” is very sad.