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.

During the intense presidential campaign after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the rock-ribbed conservative Republican candidate Barry Goldwater dramatically declared, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

More recently, Jim Hightower, a progressive political activist from Texas, wrote a book called, There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos.

Why do both men on opposite sides of the political spectrum see so little value in moderation? Why does this seem to be the default position of not only politicians but also of so many in the general populace and in our churches and among our friends and families? Why do many on the left feel that unless you fully buy into a “defund the police” position that you don’t care about social justice? Why do many on the right believe that if fighting against abortion rights is not your single most controlling issue that you don’t care about human life? Why do we put others in these political boxes that squelch not only meaningful dialog but constructive actions to effectively counteract the evils that we are against?

The Greek poet Hesiod (c.700 BC) spoke about “moderation in all things” and the Apostle Paul encouraged the church at Philippi to let their “moderation [gentleness] be known unto all people” (Philippians 4:5). Eugene Peterson emphasizes an intention of collaboration in his paraphrase of this text, “Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them.” Wouldn’t that Christian attitude make a difference in our political discussions?

But sadly, instead of moderation, the militant idealism of perfection and purity dominate political agendas with either scathing ridicule or dismissive neglect of those who have the courage to be a moderate. In today’s climate, if you’re not totally for the New Green Deal or conversely if you are not firmly against climate change legislation you may not be deemed worthy of your respective Democratic or Republican political party.

Such blind loyalty is not new in traditional partisan politics, but like crabgrass it has now spread over the entire political landscape and is choking off almost all fresh green shoots of moderation. Moderates like Republican Mitt Romney or Democrat Joe Manchin are seen as fringe members of their party rather than as leaders of reason and balance. Why is this the case? I believe there are at least three reasons for this wholesale rejection of moderation in much of contemporary culture and political discourse.

Moderation seems weak.

We live in a competitive culture of always needing to be strong and our opponents always needing to be wrong. It is argued that “one cannot be moderately pregnant.” Indeed, being in the middle can be a wishy-washy or compromising stance of not having any real convictions. It can also be a lowest common denominator for those who need or want to avoid conflict. The former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin was seen as a weak politician because he did not have the backbone to resist Hitler’s advances in Europe.

But is moderation always weak? Isn’t it much harder to say “come let us reason together” than to say “do it my way or else”? Doesn’t it take more strength to welcome honest disagreement than to demand feckless loyalty? Perhaps to Barry Goldwater (who lost forty-four states in his presidential election bid!) one could better say, “Moderation in pursuit of relational trust is no vice and ego in the name of domination is no virtue.” Or to Jim Hightower, “There’s nothing on the side of the road but ditches that go nowhere.”

Moderation requires humility.

A second reason it is hard to embrace moderation is that it takes humility. Intellectually, humility exhibits a curiosity of learning new things that might change one’s opinion. It may mean watching more than one cable news channel and reading thoughtful opinions from different political perspectives. It also means listening to those with proven and widely respected expertise in areas like science, ethics, international relations, or whatever issue is under discussion. Experts can be wrong sometimes but not nearly as often as ignorance!

Spiritually, humility is counter to the destructive arrogance of pride. Proverbs says that “with pride comes disgrace but with humility comes wisdom.” God says through the prophet Isaiah that the people the Lord looks on with favor are those “who are humble and contrite in spirit.” The New Testament writers time and time again exhort followers of Jesus to “humble themselves.” (See Proverbs 11:2, Isaiah 66:2, Romans 12:3, 1 Peter 5:6, James 4:10.) Unfortunately, these biblical commands are too often ignored by some Christian leaders who confuse “zeal for the Lord” with their own ego and prominence.

Moderation recognizes our humanity.

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes teaches us to “not be over-righteous, neither be over-wise—why destroy yourself?” (See Ecclesiastes 7:16.) This may sound like a strange exhortation. Isn’t perfection or purity or righteousness our goal? Isn’t it good to abound in wisdom? When is purity not good? What does it mean to be over-righteous and why does it seem to be the besetting sin of the religious and the ideologs of our culture?

When I studied material science I learned about alloys and how the inclusion of other elements or impurities can actually strengthen a metal. Pure iron sounds impressive but it is very heavy and not practical for most applications. However, by adding some carbon it becomes steel, which is not only much lighter but more malleable and stronger as well. To use another metaphor, purebred dogs are beautiful but are often more susceptible to diseases that may not affect a more resilient crossbreed or even a mutt.

Unfortunately, some of the worst instincts in human experiences have been to try and create a superior or pure “race” by subjugating people of other ethnicities or differences. The New Testament Jews didn’t like Samaritans and Hitler didn’t like the Jews. Today, national fundamentalists around the globe want a society of people like themselves and white supremacists militantly want to exclude people of color from their lives.

So, aspiring to purity is not always a virtuous aspiration. It is as a spiritual virtue—to be pure in heart or to seek God’s righteousness. But when we embrace an ideological or a self-centered purity, it tragically disintegrates into a spirit of perfectionism and pride. Parker Palmer writes, “Wholeness is the goal. But wholeness does not mean perfection. It means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” Wholeness means recognizing the impurities in our lives as means of grace and growth.


I believe wise moderation is another form of wholeness—of bringing together ideas and people that create something that is not fragmented into disparate opinions and self-centered constituencies. As the Apostle Paul said, “when I am weak, I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Thoughtful and meaningful moderation is not being lukewarm. Instead, it is a humble and courageously human posture for living life well with others.