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Being Quaker Is Not The Point

Quaker Life Magazine just published an excellent article by David Johns, entitled Moving Forward, or Circling the Wagons? In his essay, David challenges the tendency of modern Friends to make Quakerism the center and focus of our faith. He writes:

All along the spectrum of Quakerism, from evangelical to liberal to everything in between and beyond, there is a dangerous conservative impulse at work which is crushing the movement. This has nothing to do with the old dichotomy of conservative verses liberal because even the most liberal Friends are conservative in this sense.

As a community, we Friends have a tendency to get bogged down, evaluating whether we are sufficiently Quaker instead of centering our lives in the ongoing revelation of Jesus Christ and his good news. In too many cases, preserving the distinctive traits of our 350-year-old tradition has become more important than listening to the living voice of the Spirit in our midst. Far too often, we demonstrate more concern with addressing the theological and organizational divisions within our denominational family than we do for expressing the love of Jesus in the world.

It does not have to be this way. What if, instead of endless squabbles over interpretations of George Fox, our center of gravity was in the ongoing work of God in our midst? What if, instead of posing the question, “Are we Quaker,” we asked instead, “Are we being faithful to the direction of the Lord among us, right now?” Again, David writes:

When we ask the question “What is God calling us to do and to be?” it ought to come from a deep engagement in the world and from knowing the joy and pain it holds. The question ought to emerge as a result of our mission, not as an exasperated effort to hold together an unraveling movement.

Quakerism is not going to save Quakers. Only obedience to the guidance of the Holy Spirit can do that. If we cannot embrace a mission that transcends the preservation of our own community and traditions, then the Religious Society of Friends has lost its vital purpose and is doomed to wither away. If we continue much longer this way, trapped in an endless cycle of morbid self-fascination, we will soon find ourselves without conversation partners.

As long as our primary questions revolve around how to be Quaker, how to practice Quakerism and how to preserve authentic Quaker teaching, we risk being no better than the scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus lambasted. By favoring human memorials to past revelation over the living Word that is being spoken to us today, we risk missing the point altogether. Are we ready to loosen our grip on Quakerism so that the living faith of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Mary, Paul and George Fox can live again in us?

The point of our life together as Friends of Jesus is to embody the living presence of his Spirit. Tradition certainly has a part to play in this mission. The rich heritage of our spiritual ancestors can serve as a helpful instruction in our walk of faith. The witness of those who have gone before us is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. But tradition is not the God whom we serve. As David so eloquently puts it, “Quaker-ism as a thing we possess or a thing we are must die if the faith of Quakers is to live.”

Are we ready to die to Quakerism so that the gospel that Friends proclaim may find fullest expression? Are we prepared to lay everything on the table so that we may be faithful to the continuing revelation of Jesus? Are we ready to move forward together in faith?

  • Micah,
    I’ve been looking for some good things to get us started at our Executive Committee retreat in April. I’m thinking I just found one of them…

  • Thank you for for such a thoughtful response to the essay. Of course, I say: “Amen!” The challenge of faith always and forever is to live now. God most certainly moved powerfully among our Quaker foreparents, and that same Spirit can move through us today–if today is where we choose to live.

  • I just finished reading that article myself and found it one of the best I have read on what we must overcome as Quakers in becoming a living body with Christ as our head.

  • Amen! Thank you for your spirit lead ministry.

  • Micah – thank thee for this poignant post. It raises a number of questions that we would be wise to consider. Friends meetings who consider them might benefit from some related issues.

    One premise of thy posting struck me: “we Friends have a tendency to get bogged down evaluating whether we are sufficiently Quaker…” This was interesting because the only people I come across who are seriously talking about issues like that are in the convergent movement. In fact, very few people place more weight on traditional Quaker beliefs and practices than their own personal opinions and inclinations. Look at the groups that do the most to set forth traditional Quakerism – groups like New Foundation Fellowship, the Tract Association of Friends, or Ohio Yearly Meeting. If thousands of Quakers nationwide were worried about being “sufficiently Quaker,” these three groups would swamped with new people.

    It can be easy to focus one’s energies on tearing down other people and pointing out their deficiencies. We can fall into the trap of thinking that our own interests are the voice of God and then criticize others for not being faithful to a personal agenda rather than the divine agenda. It is shocking how many people are unable to make this distinction, assuming that everyone is a spiritual hand but that no one can (or should) be a spiritual foot.

    The problem with tearing down other people is that Jesus said that His followers would be known by the love they show. Spiritual gifts are intended to nurture others and point them to the life-changing power of Christ, not to sabotage their spiritual labors or undermine the workings of a meeting. Yes, we need to face the challenges of complacency, and yes, we need to emphasize the joy to be found in not allowing temporal activities to hamper our spiritual labors, but let’s not use discussions of our way forward as a time to sow the seeds of conflict in our own midst.

  • The Quakers who have had the most impact on me have not been notable speakers of the talk but have quietly and steadfastly walked the talk — letting their lives speak.

    Live the teachings of Jesus.

  • Thanks, Micah … and David…

    These are questions I’ve been asking myself for some years…

    I am grateful to be in a meeting where faithfulness to God and accountability to each other in community is at the heart of who we are, and how to live into what that Divine Other wants us (each and corporately) to do next.

  • I think my take would be that while being Quaker is not an end in itself, it is a valuable means towards an important end. None of the elements we might call Quaker are unique to us but the combination is a powerful witness to the Life within us. And I, for one, am grateful that generations of Friends have experimented with those means and can offer some pointers towards a faithful life in the manner of Friends. Otherwise, we’d each be inventing our own religion to follow God and I don’t think that’s the point either.