In my previous blogs, I wrote about two predispositions for wise decision-making. One was the virtue of feeling conflicted about the complexities of an issue so we can arrive at a meaningful conclusion. Right now, for example, parents and schools across the country face tremendous complexities about how to handle the upcoming academic year. If we don’t feel conflicted about the best way to manage the medical, mental, and social health of our children and teachers, we probably are not fully understanding the issues at stake.
The other predisposition for decision-making was the courage it takes to be moderate in our relationships with others. We may have strong convictions about certain issues but that does not justify a demonization or rejection of those who disagree with us. The fruit of the Spirit includes attributes such as gentleness, patience, and peacefulness, not argumentation or ridicule of others.
But even if we desire to approach difficult political choices with thoughtfulness and kindness, how do we discern what may or may not be right for any given situation or issue? Can we practice godly discernment that transcends political parties, personalities, and talking points?
I find it helpful to go back nearly three hundred years to a comprehensive framework for discernment developed by the English theologian John Wesley. It came to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral because Wesley taught that there were four inter-connected principles for spiritual discernment. Although Wesley was applying his principles mainly to church and individual matters, I think that they are helpful for political decision-making as well.
The first and foundational principle for discernment is the teaching of the Bible for moral clarity and direction. Wesley believed that understanding the Bible in its context and straightforward meaning was essential for discerning God’s truth. He strongly affirmed that “all Scripture is useful for teaching…and for training in righteousness” (see 2 Timothy 3:16).
When I was a staff member among college students with InterVarsity, I used to meet regularly with a student leader who always had a list of questions to discuss, each one beginning with, “What does the Bible say about…?”
That kind of reflexive submission to the authority of Scripture is what I think Wesley had in mind. The Bible’s commandments against sins such as lying, stealing, and adultery set boundaries for how we are to live. The positive commands of Scripture, such as loving others by caring for the poor and for foreigners, are also all directives for us to follow. So, when we start discussing controversial issues like immigration or racial justice or leadership character, we should first of all ask that student’s question: “What does the bible say about…?”
But not all political issues can be solved by a direct application of Bible verses. For example, the Bible doesn’t talk about the size of government or capitalism or even abortion. We need additional help. Wesley’s second principle is that we need to listen to the traditional teachings of the church. He agreed with the Apostle Peter that we cannot depend on our own private interpretations of Scripture (see 2 Peter 1:20, 21).
Wesley was primarily referring to the tradition of the early church councils. But I think that the value of learning from the broader counsel of other Christian communities is a wise extension of Wesley’s principle. For instance, Protestants can learn much from the valuable teaching on social and political engagement developed by Catholics. White Christians can learn about racial justice issues from people of color. Listening to the broader Christian community helps us constantly add to the wisdom of our traditions.
Wesley’s third principle of discernment is that of reason, which is one of the great gifts of being created in the image of God. Reason provides illumination and, in the words of Wesley, “It is the candle of the Lord.”
As we apply reason in the political realm, we draw conclusions from available facts and allow those conclusions to shape our opinions and actions. Currently, for instance, we can learn from numerous scientific studies that wearing a mask does hinder the spread of COVID 19. Our reasonable interpretation of those facts, more than our political affiliation, should guide our mask-wearing behavior.
But spiritual reason goes beyond facts. Our rational processes grow into wisdom when they integrate a moral consciousness. Our choice to wear masks may be based on the advice of experts, but it is also an expression of the biblical command to love others. In other words, we bring together facts and our rational processes into a spiritual submission to God’s purposes. Reason then becomes a practical expression of loving God and neighbor with one’s mind.
The fourth principle, that was unique to Wesley at the time, is listening to our spiritual experiences. Wesley believed that God speaks not only through Scripture, church tradition, and our reason, but also through our personal experiences with God. He referred to an “objective internal knowing” guided by the promptings and filling of the Holy Spirit.
The early Church practiced this when they made a spiritual and political decision regarding what requirements should be placed on Gentile converts for them to be fully included with the Jews as the people of God. After lengthy debate over Scripture and tradition, they came to an agreement on community requirements, saying, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).
The British politician William Wilberforce is another good example of spiritual discernment in the political realm. Wilberforce devoted decades of his political life to ending the slave trade. His passion to do this came not only from his biblical convictions about human dignity but from God guiding his experience to witness how cruel the bondage of slavery really was. His friend, former slave trader John Newton, also had a divine transforming experience, equipping him to write that remarkable hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
In Wesley’s Quadrilateral, he suggests that we need to study and apply the Scriptures as foundational to all matters of discernment. We also need to listen to the historical (and contemporary) community of believers and apply our minds and experiences as led by the Spirit to properly discern what is right in any given situation.