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Can We Disagree?

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God… – 1 John 4:1
For me as a Quaker, summertime is Yearly Meeting time. For those who are unfamiliar with Friends organization, the Yearly Meeting is the closest thing that we have to a “denomination.” Gathering together annually for business and fellowship, Yearly Meetings are a collection of local congregations that are drawn together under the same faith and practice, committing themselves to mutual accountability and shared discernment.

The Yearly Meeting is for congregations what the local church is for the individual. The Yearly Meeting provides opportunity to be strengthened by the wisdom and perspective of a wider fellowship; the larger body is able to provide stability, support and, at times, loving correction to local Meetings that face difficulty. In the ideal, the Yearly Meeting is enriched and informed by the gifts, passion and discernment of the local Meeting, and the Yearly Meeting exercises loving care of the local Meeting.

Unfortunately, we frequently fail to live up to our ideals. In both the local church and the Yearly Meeting, Friends often lose the delicate balance between the understanding of the individual and the discernment of the wider body. Sometimes we err on the side of individual autonomy, refusing to involve ourselves in the struggles of our sister Meetings. On the other hand, we as Yearly Meetings can also slip into a paternalistic mindset, quenching the prophetic voice of our local communities with demands of conformity to the broader consensus.

Unlike many Christian groups, Friends do not make decisions by voting, but rather through a united sense of God’s will. Though this practice has many strengths, its weaknesses can be crippling. At worst, we may abuse our tradition, coming to believe that unity is something for us to impose, rather than a gift of the Holy Spirit. In our quest for outward unity, we sometimes risk silencing a genuine prophetic voice.

With division looming in Indiana Yearly Meeting and many other Yearly Meetings struggling with deep disagreements, how do we understand the role of dissent within our communities? Under what circumstances is it acceptable for an individual or a local church to be openly out of unity with majority understanding of the Yearly Meeting? To what extent are Friends with minority perspectives expected to keep their views quiet? When does conscience demand that dissenters resign their membership?
These questions are very alive for me as we in Ohio Yearly Meeting continue to wrestle with our understanding of human sexuality, including same-sex relationships. There are faithful Friends in our Yearly Meeting who sincerely believe that we who affirm our gay brothers and sisters should silence our witness – or leave the fellowship altogether. For these Friends, it is a question of corporate solidarity and integrity: If we are not in line with the majority view of the Yearly Meeting, why would we insist on raising our perspective within the body? Why not accept that we simply do not fit within Ohio Yearly Meeting and leave?
This makes me wonder: How much (and what kind of) conformity is necessary on the part of dissenting individuals and congregations? How do we gauge to what extent our disagreement represents a healthy, prophetic witness, and how can we tell when we have veered into un-loving, divisive activity? Though there are forms of dissent that tear down community, I have also observed that there is such a thing as healthy tension and faithful disagreement.

This is all so tricky, because there are certainly false teachings that can rip the church apart. There are many perspectives that, if accepted, would undermine our testimony as Friends. Yet, it is possible to become overly sensitive. If we allow fear to take over, we may stop trusting that God can work through our disagreements. It is important for us to have faith that the Holy Spirit is present with us now, ready to teach us “even greater things.”

As communities gathered in the Spirit of Jesus, how do we practice discernment together? How do we know which matters of faith and practice are essential, and which can be safely held in dynamic tension within our local and Yearly Meetings? How do we manage passionate disagreements within our community, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?
  • Micah —

    Unfortunately, exhaustion and many conflicting obligations prevented my attendance in Ohio this year. Prayers with you all. I had hoped to be present at least for a part of the sessions.

    I believe that humility before God is key to loving all others as God has loved us. Only then can we act justly, and come to realize that we all stand in need of prayer and forgiveness.

    If, on the other hand, we fail to ask ourselves (and each other) what Jesus would do, we get ourselves exercised. My constant examen when faced with differences in race, class, or differences of sexual expression is “How would Jesus act in this instance?”

    Then I begin to ask “what do I need to do differently?” “Do I need to make some reparation?” and finally, “Should I be humble enough to listen to the pain of others, without comment or judgment?”

  • Many of these issues arise because we as humans often mix our politics and faith. It is one thing politically and quite another in a faith community. Yes there are overlaps but in many cases we need to render unto Cesar what is Cesar’s and unto God what is God’s.

    I have found that in my own experience that most of the disagreements are over not listening to people fully. The the next issue is not being honest about the truth of history, scripture, and our current culture. If we were to approach these subject with open minds and deep research we would probably be abl to work most of the issues out with he help of God’s Spirit. Instead we are often ruled by politics, political parties, and emotion.

    I’m from the Evangelical Friend Branch of Quakerism, I feel that all side of many of these issues need to realize and work out some major issues honestly and in love. Though I disagree in with you in some ways, I am glad that you, Micah, are willing to stick your neck out in so many ways. I hope that through your ministry and that of many others we will be able to come to the heart of God, and unify the Society of Friends once again.

  • Kel

    If we are to view homosexuality as a sin of personal condition, who do they sin against? All sin, no matter to whom it is directed, is against God. God, in turn, is ultimately responsible for their forgiveness or condemnation. But who else do they sin against, other than themselves? It is not up to us to condone nor condemn them, because they do nothing against us. If they happen to, then the Bible is clear: forgive them over and over and over. Every time you meet with them, forgive them and continue with them as though you love them, because they, too, are your neighbors.

    We choose not to go to war because if we kill another man, it is as though we are killing God, because there is that of God in all of us; we were created in His image. Do gay people, then, lack God and are therefore subject to our rejection? That would seem to be the implication.

    As for the need to come to such disarray as a wider body over it, I find it ridiculous. Homosexuals have existed as long as people have been able to write about sexuality. We have had thousands of years to reckon with this. Why we suddenly place such urgency on it as a whole great big church body says a whole lot more about election-year politics than it does about our faith, except that we are perhaps allowing too much of our faith to be effected by the election year.

  • Thanks, Micah. This was a helpful post to me as I wrestle with a concept I’ve been considering for a long time: is there room for such a thing as a “loyal opposition” among Friends, or among Christians, when dealing with intractable differences?

  • Dear Micah,
    There are two or three aspects to this question that i don’t think Friends are dealing with. Since to some degree they’ve been my hobby-horses to ride for decades, i think (IMHQO)i may have some insights: First, all war –even the Lamb’s War– sets us humans up for violence, especially when we slip (oh! so easily)into the Manichaeistic either/or. If we are to fight, or better yet struggle, with the weapons of the Spirit, we need to re-think what conflict means.
    . As Gandhi said, “In conflict there is Truth: only through conflict do we find truth.” If we confuse difference with dissent and disagreement with conflict, we have slipped onto the slope that drops us into debate, dispute, enmity or compromise, and on into conflating dispute with attack and violence, escalating from verbal to emotional to physical. As the emotional responses learned in childhood arguments cloud our thoughts, we fall farther and farther away from the balance required in Discernment of God’s Will that is the essence of finding unity in the Sense of the Meeting. So first we have to learn how to deal with conflict and how to embrace differences. Funny, since modern Quakers are so prideful of their tolerance, eh?
    . Then we have to look at what the subtext, the underlying meaning, usually unspoken, of all conflicts is: I care about this subject; it matters. If that were not so, we would walk away from the topic. We could learn from the Jewish yeshivah, where one is required to argue and even if you don’t disagree, you must take an oppositional stance just to make sure the logic and reasons for a decision stand up — God is a God of reason and intelligence, after all; the source of all Wisdom. If we didn’t care about the person(s) with whom we are in conflict, likewise we would walk away. Perhaps in Gospel Order one is not so fond of the individual whose perspective conflicts with one’s own, but for love of the Community, the Sense of the Meeting as God’s Gathered People, we are _obligated_ to dispute certain points, to engage in the search for unity. Because the subtext is: I care about you — there is that of God in each thee.
    . I see the historic tendency to consider all disagreement as anger and tantamount to violence as a heresy, a failure to seek the Truth. It has led to bottling up emotions that have ripped out in schisms. It has led in the last 25 years to FWCC events where smiling through and not stating what is truly on our minds becomes the norm — until certain viewpoints are suppressed or denied or ignored. Friends, we must learn how to listen AND how to discuss and disagree. We must allow each other to speak the passion we feel when we deal with core experiences of the Truth. A spirited debate even may be in order. This is a lacuna in our tradition: we need to rediscover how to fight with the Sword of Truth and the Shield of Reason. And perhaps we need to ask of our Friends to make sure they know whereof they speak before they assert their ideas. I have heard far too many pop culture ideas and mistaken notions thrown around as truth — including interpretations of various scriptures.

  • . And there is the other issue that we still are debating without naming the elephant in the room: what is our authority? Were back to Kicks and Gurney: is it one particular exegesis of the Bible (in which translation?) or is it the Spirit of Truth and Love, the Virtue of that Life and Power that takes away the occasion of all wars? Are we a fellowship of homogenized thinkers, the Quaker Political Debate Club, an affinity group; or an authoritarian denomination that sets (no matter how so gently) creedal limits on our members search for truth? Or are we something different, more dynamic? A fellowship of Seekers who are more concerned, as the first Friends were, with living in integrity, in re-building the World and in co-creating the Commonwealth of God’s Peace? Peace is not having a nice Faith & Practice that defines (even for one generation) exactly what we think, but rather living in the loving society of our friends who accept us warts and all, mistaken ideas and all, gifts and failures and all, as long as we are doing our best to walk in the Light. Peace is not avoiding or suppressing all dissent and arguments, it is precisely embracing the loyal opposition because the opposition is not what matters — the Life is. The Society of Friends should not be so much about who’s got it right as who”s living it right. As Wm. Penn wrote: Let us try[test] what love can do …and the one who forgives first wins the crown.
    . With that background, i’d like to re-think Micah’s central query: when does “being out of unity” mean it is time to leave the community? Because the real question is what is it that keeps someone in Unity? What does it mean to be united with a group? I’m aware that masochism comes in a million forms and some people might hang around just because they love the friction, or stirring the pot. And we might keep someone around because they’re bizarre and colorful and keeping them makes us look so tolerant, i spoze. But as most Friends come in convinced, through more than affinity but a sense of belonging (“I felt like I was coming home.” ~most frequent new Quaker comment.) and resonance with a life lived in the Testimonies, our expectation is one of Unity. Perhaps our membership clearness process is not actually asking for enough clarity from either our applicants or those who represent the Meeting, but at first there is a sense of Unity. One thing that helps keep that is the self-discipline to continue reading and studying Quaker history and writings, whether alone or in a meeting group. An essential element is participation regularly in monthly meeting, so that one is constantly testing with the group the unity we sense. The key to that is the practice of listening to the Spirit, both from our Inward Light and in the voices of our Friends. It means discovering that we are all facing the same direction — toward the Light — even if we are arrayed around it like spokes on a bicycle wheel, seemingly pointing in 360 different directions.
    . It is that same mystical knowledge, that something beyond all our words focusses us and holds us together, that sustains unity. If our YMs are falling out of unity, we stand accused of not doing sufficient searching together, of lacking faith that there is “One that speaks to our condition.” It is clear to me that we do not prioritize either the content or the relationships in the conflict highly enough to say of both: This matters! This is important! We must focus on the axis, the Holy Spirit, the One. And we must have the humility to be loyal opponents or to forgive our Friends for being out of synch with us.
    We have so much to do, and it may be that God wants us to be different, not only in our meetings, but in separate meetings. It will require us to get a new perspective on conflict and Truth.
    ~en paz, ~pablo

  • unity of Christians never did nor ever will or can stand in uniformity of thought and opinion, but in Christian love only.”
    Quaker Thomas Story, 1737
    I love these words by Thomas Story. I would paraphrase and
    say,the unity of Quakers
    never did nor ever will or can stand in uniformity of thought and opinion, but in love only.
    Jesus and his disciples did not always agree on every topic.But they walk together in love.

  • I am still struck by your equating yearly meeting with denomination. Religious Society of Friends as a whole equates with other denominations which would appear to have as many interior fault lines as we do. YMs would appear (from my experience) to be more like regional synods or arch dioceses.

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  • Actually real and true, eternal unity is only possible through Jesus Christ. He alone can do this miracle among us.

    YM discerns together in community (it is the greatest of our meetings) once a year how He (Jesus) through His Holy Spirit is moving and directing us about everything…we listen to hear His direction. We trust YM to be willing to do that.

    Our YM is, in fact, the most open I have ever seen to this fact…we recognize in Whom is our trust and faith for unity and witness to the world.

    It is the Lamb’s war…as the name of the blog says, not any individual’s nor your war. Not every one who disagrees with one or several individuals with different perspectives is witnessing a truth that others need to come into, as implied. It can be that the YM is wiser in its sense of Truth and is not guilty of anything but holding to Truth. Not always the case, but the blog seems to not recognize that fact.

    Unity is good when it comes there is “great calm” after the storm (see Jesus in boat in Matthew) Compromise is destructive and tears down sometimes.

    Monday, August 13, 2

  • Another elephant in the room is whether our Yearly Meetings are indeed the venue where G-d speaks clearest, or merely the venue where those with time and means can make their presence felt. The test Jesus gave is ‘By their fruit you will know them.’ Yes, our Yearly Meetings are doing some important work, but how much is Led of G-d and how much is bureaucratic justification for its own existence?

  • Sometimes, given the range of our individual differences and conditions, it seems a miracle we can agree to do anything together. From that perspective, the Holy Spirit can be seen already powerfully at work.
    Maybe that’s where we need to put our focus.