In the first generation of the Quaker movement, news of the gospel spread across Britain from house to house, city to city. Quickly, the message was taken abroad to the continent of Europe and to the British colonies in the Americas. These early years of Quakerism were characterized by an untamed passion for sharing the good news, inviting others into spiritual communion with Christ and with each other.
This good news spread largely outside of official channels. While Margaret Fell provided practical aid and a communications hub at Swarthmoor Hall, there were not initially formal structures for organizing the wave of evangelism that proceeded from the north of England. The Religious Society of Friends began as an organic movement of the apostolic faith. The Lord called women and men to ministry, and they responded with obedience. Christ used these 17th-century apostles to preach the word and gather his people together. Everywhere the traveling evangelists went, the Holy Spirit raised up local leaders and established new communities.
Within decades, this burst of pentecostal fervor had established an organic network of Meetings across Britain and the American colonies. Yet, just as this movement reached the peak of its intensity in the early 1660s, severe persecution came. Friends organized themselves in increasingly centralized bodies – Yearly Meetings – as a way to coordinate their response to nationwide persecution, especially in England.
The persecution eventually passed, but Friends’ new emphasis on centralized structures remained. Over time, passionate, evangelical faith diminished and institutional centralization increased, accompanied by an increasing reliance on procedure as a source of authority. Eventually, many Friends would come to believe that it was procedure that defined them. Orthopraxy and institutional authority increasingly usurped the unpredictable guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Today, Friends are steeped in the institutional apparatus of former generations. We appoint members to committees and boards. We govern non-profit organizations. We manage historical sites. We are generally nice, respectable, civic-minded people. But where is the spiritual power?
What happened to the fire that drove early Friends to cross oceans? What became of the radical faith that led women and men to face death, torture and imprisonment? How often are we imprisoned for the gospel today? How many of our Meetings actively support the spread of the good news that Jesus Christ is here to teach us himself? We are often so busy maintaining the institutional legacy of our ancestors that we spend more time keeping up buildings than we do sharing the good news of Jesus with our neighbors.
But that does not have to be the end of the story. Just like the early Friends, we have an opportunity to challenge the status quo and live into the fantastic life and love that Jesus reveals in our hearts and in our life as a community. It is important to remember that those early Quakers we admire so much got into a lot of trouble. They upset people and caused division in their communities. They were not popular among respectable people.
Are we today ready to take the same kinds of risks for Truth that our spiritual ancestors did? How can we support one another in breaking out of business as usual and re-discover the mission that Jesus has for us? What does radical discipleship look like in 21st-century America?
For most Christians, there is an assumption that the faith and practice of the early Church bears a certain special authority. Some communions express this in doctrines of “apostolic succession,” in which the modern-day Church receives its spiritual authority as an inheritance, passed down from the first-century apostles to the present-day church leadership. In other denominations, the canonical Scriptures are understood as bearing this fundamental authority. The Scriptures transmit the story of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and they also provide us with a glimpse into the life of the early Church. The early Church, as we encounter it in Scripture, serves as a model for us today.
The Religious Society of Friends also gives priority to the early Church. The first-generation of Quaker preachers and evangelists understood themselves as a re-emergence of the true, spiritual Church of Christ. One of the principal slogans of the early Quaker movement was “primitive Christianity revived.” Early Friends claimed that the Church had fallen into apostasy in the centuries since the events detailed in the Book of Acts, and they believed that the new Quaker movement represented not a new sect, but a rebirth of the first-century Church.
The interesting thing is, in many matters of practice, the Quaker movement diverged from the pre-Constantinian Church. The early Church practiced water baptism, for instance. And the Lord’s Supper. Within the first few generations of the Christian faith, there were clear hierarchical lines of authority established within the Church spreading throughout the Roman Empire. There were priests and bishops, very similar in their function to the priests and bishops in the Eastern Orthodox communion today.
The Friends movement denied the legitimacy of a human priesthood, calling it a blasphemy against the true and eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ. The early Quakers rejected water baptism, claiming that it was a Jewish rite that no longer applies to those who are in Christ.
Similarly, Friends eschewed the ritual of bread and wine that is so central to most Christians. Jesus, they claimed, never meant to institute a perpetual ceremony for the Church to observe. While the early Friends movement undoubtedly bore the marks of spiritual anointing and apostolic authority, there were many differences between their practices and those of the primitive Christianity that they felt they embodied.
As a twenty-first century Christian in the Quaker tradition, this leads me to wonder about how we as a Church are to relate to our spiritual ancestors – whether they be the early Quakers, the Doctors of the early Church, the Apostle Paul, or the Twelve Apostles or the first-century Church in Jerusalem. How do we make sense of the differences in theology and practice among them? How do we decide who our ultimate guide should be?
If our object is to preserve undefiled the faith and practice of our spiritual forebears, we must first decide which ancestors have primacy. As Quakers, do we privilege the early Friends over the Doctors of the early Church? On what basis? And if we choose to privilege the more universally recognized teachings of the Doctors, how do we make sense of our own tradition as Friends, which certainly differs with the understandings of the early Church on several points?
Most of the denominations that have emerged out of the Protestant Reformation base their faith and practice on a particular interpretation of Scripture. The justification for everything they do is “the clear teachings of Scripture.” Scripture trumps the teachings of the early Church – and certainly the teachings of the medieval Roman Church. For most Protestants, Scripture is the foundational bedrock where Christians can go to test all doctrines. Given the plethora of Protestant denominations today, it is clear that this did not provide a complete solution to the question of authority. Ultimately, each denomination stands on its own particular interpretation of what the Scriptures “really mean.”
In many ways, Quakers are no different. We have particular passages that we like to harp on. The early Friends focused a lot on the book of James, Hebrews, John and Revelation. Our reading of Scripture is certainly particular, biased, sectarian. We have this in common with the Protestant denominations. The difference, though, is that Friends have always believed – at least in theory – that Jesus Christ is literally present with us in the present day. The foundation of our faith as Friends is not the example of the early Church, the early Friends, or even the Scriptures. It is Jesus himself. Here. With us.
Our experience has been that of Paul, who wrote that, “no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”(1) The early Church, the Roman and Eastern communions, the Protestant reformers, early Quakers, Methodists and Pentecostals have all built upon that true Foundation. There have been many times that we have gotten it right, and plenty of others when we have messed up and missed the whole point. Jesus Christ, resurrected and present with us today, is infallible; we, his Church, are not.
Sometimes our spiritual ancestors screwed up. Think of slavery. Or the subjugation of women. Despite our failings, however, I believe that our spiritual ancestors have – by the grace of God – gotten more right than we could reasonably expect. We look back to them because they provide such a good example to us. We look back to their discernment, their sense of Christ’s presence, the truth that was revealed to them, and we learn a lot. We do not always have to re-invent the wheel.
At the same time, even when the early Church and other spiritual ancestors have gotten it right, context matters. Things that were right for a particular time period may not be universally applicable. For example, I think about the early Quaker rejection of instrumental music, congregational singing, art and literature. I believe I understand why they stood against these things, given the corruption they saw in the institutional Church at that time. Music and visual art were a big part of the culture of entertainment-oriented church services. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the early Friends’ rejection of these things is a universal truth for all times and places.
We face new challenges today. While some of the concerns of our spiritual forebears may no longer be applicable, we are confronted with so many issues that they could not have foreseen. Cars and cell phones, the internet and television, automobiles and air travel. We have a great deal of discernment to do as Christ’s Body, and we are not going to get clear answers from our ancestors. Not even from the Bible. But we do not have to let this deter us from embracing these challenges. Jesus is still here with us, and he will show us how we are to live.
How might Jesus be calling us to live out “primitive Christianity revised”? How might the Spirit be upon us to re-think some of the old assumptions that were born of another era? Where are we now? How are we called to faithfully re-mix the gospel for our own era and cultural context? What does the love, mercy and justice of Jesus look like today, in twenty-first century America?
1. 1 Corinthians 3:11
[People] are told they ought to love God. They cannot find any such feeling in themselves. What are they to do? The answer is the same as before. Act as if you did. Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings. Ask yourself, ‘if I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?’ When you have found the answer, go and do it. – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pg. 132
In the past few days, I have been reading C.S. Lewis, and these lines really stuck out for me, because they uncover a real difference in emphasis between my own background as a Quaker and Lewis’ heritage as an Anglican. One of the distinguishing marks of the Friends tradition is a strong – almost bull-headed – emphasis on inward, spiritual experience. The Quaker focus on the primacy of the Spirit has often bordered on Gnosticism. That is to say, the spiritual nature of the world has been so emphasized that at times it has been a temptation for Friends to deny the goodness and reality of God’s physical creation.
This is an understandable slant for Friends, who found themselves up against a seventeenth-century religious establishment that placed all of its emphasis on ritual, written statements of belief and submission to human authorities. If the Church of England was as corrupt as the early Friends made it out to be (and I believe that it was), the Valiant Sixty were right to denounce the empty formalism of the state Church.
Nevertheless, I wonder whether some baby got thrown out with all of that bathwater. Have Friends gone too far in stripping the Christian religion down to its essence? Are some of these outward forms, if not necessary, at least helpful in the development of inward spirituality and Christ-like living?
Lewis sure seemed to think so. His suggestion that, to put it rather crudely, “we’ve got to fake it to make it,” probably makes old George Fox spin in his grave. On the contrary, the traditional Quaker position would be that we should never try to substitute the inward motions of the Holy Spirit with “outward forms.” If we do not feel the immediate presence of Christ, then we should wait in stillness until we do. Then, out of that sense of presence and power, we must allow God to move us to whatever action it is we are to take.
I want to confess: This quietist party line has not been consistently true in my own experience. Most of the time, I experience God as leaving me plenty of room to be self-starting. It is true that there are many times when God intervenes clearly in my life and shows me in a variety of ways how I am to move forward. But it is also true that there are many other times when I do not experience God’s immediate presence in a palpable way. Yet, even in these times, I am often required to make decisions. In such cases, I do my best to make a faithful decision, based on my prior experience of God. Relying on my present level of understanding of God’s character and will for my life, I chart my course and pray that God will correct me as soon as possible if I am wrong. And God has a tendency to do just that!
My need for trust – faith – without the benefit of an immediate sense of God’s presence is most clear in times of spiritual crisis. There are times when the darkness in my life is thick and almost overwhelming. Much of the holiness that I have experienced seems overshadowed and God feels distant. I have two choices in times like these. I can make the decision to despair, surrendering myself to the darkness and cursing God, or I can choose to respond in faith. If I respond in faith, I must respond as if. In times when God seems so far away and evil seems so much more real, I must persevere in willful confidence that the power of the Lord is indeed over all – even if my immediate experience indicates the opposite.
Even in less extreme cases, I believe that there is an argument to be made for living as if. On a day to day, week to week basis, I do not always feel God’s presence with me. There are many moments, not just in times of intense crisis, when I must rely on previous experiences of God’s power and love and carry on in trust that God is still present, even if I do not feel particularly in touch with the Spirit that day.
It has been my experience that the Light of Christ is a refiner’s fire, purifying us and changing our very natures. Over time, as we yield ourselves to the working of the Spirit in our lives, Christ transforms our natures, restoring our personalities to the state that God intended. As this process moves along, is it possible that God gives us opportunities to exercise the increasingly redeemed natures that are being re-created within us? It seems from my experience of this process that God periodically removes our training wheels. God gives us the freedom to experience the full possibilities of life in Christ.
This makes sense, doesn’t it? As Christians, we believe that God desires us to freely choose relationship with God. It seems that the Lord is truly pleased with our free choice to love God and to imitate his Son, Jesus. It would be very difficult for us to freely choose to love the Lord if the Spirit were constantly overriding our faculties with states of ecstasy and connection, just as it would be very difficult for a child to truly love their parents if they were smothered with gifts and attention morning, noon and night. It seems that God gives us space so that we can love God for who God truly is, not merely for the gifts that God bestows.
While all of this seems very clear to me, I recognize that it presents some complications for Friends. Our emphasis has always been on complete submission to the Spirit. Indeed, at certain points in our history it seems that Friends felt they needed an inward motion of the Spirit to go to the outhouse! I will admit that I do not have that kind of relationship with God. While God is very active and present in my life, there are many times when I simply do not feel the Spirit’s presence. What am I to do in these times?
Is it sometimes appropriate to live “as if” we loved God? As if we felt his presence? As if we believed the teaching and example of Jesus as we find it in the Scriptures? The very thought of putting belief first and finding inward experience afterward is, at least at first glance, an affront to traditional Friends doctrine. But what is that to us? Are we looking for Truth, or will we only accept the opinions of our Quaker ancestors? What canst thou say?
This Wednesday at Capitol Hill Friends, we examined the third chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth. In this letter, Paul writes to a local Meeting that has become divided based on allegiance to human leadership. The Meeting is splitting into factions, with some preferring Apollos and other claiming Paul as their leader. Paul writes to tell them that they are missing the point. He explains that he and Apollos are only servants of the great Master, Jesus Christ, and that all devotion should ultimately be directed to him, and not to any earthly leader.
Paul goes on to use a variety of metaphors to put in perspective the work that he and Apollos have been doing in Corinth. As servants of God, he explains, he and Apollos have acted as gardeners, each with his own particular task – one plants and another waters. Crucially, however, Paul points out that it is ultimately God who gives life and growth.
Another image that Paul uses to describe his and Apollos’ relationship to the Church is that of being construction workers. He writes about the ways in which he and other workers can build upon God’s foundation. Construction workers can do better or poorer jobs, depending on their skills and faithfulness. Nevertheless, Paul insists that there is only one Foundation upon which anything enduring can be built: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”(1)
Needless to say, a lot has changed since Paul’s first-century context. Thousands of years of accumulated tradition have transformed the Church from a small, radical, adaptive body of believers scattered throughout the Roman Empire into a worldwide family of faith, encompassing thousands of independent sub-traditions. Even in the first century, Paul already saw the ways that human leaders and traditions could obscure the gospel foundation. Today, we have twenty centuries of “construction work” to sift through as we seek to be faithful to Christ in our midst.
For Quakers, George Fox was the most important builder since Paul. Fox’s legacy is immense: his writings, apostolic ministry and role in the development of Friends polity have had an enduring impact on the way Quakers have understood and organized themselves for the last three hundred and fifty years. Furthermore, George Fox represents far more than his own personal ministry. Fox blessed the systematic theology of Robert Barclay, the evangelical fervor of the Valiant Sixty, and William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” in America. George Fox represents the rich heritage that Friends share as a unique stream in the Christian tradition.
George Fox, and all he stands for, means so much to Friends today. He and his fellow apostles were faithful servants of Christ in their own time and place, and they left us with a rich tradition that has helped many individuals and communities come into deeper relationship with Christ Jesus. Nevertheless, the fact remains that George Fox and the Valiant Sixty are dead. Their time and service has come to an end.
If we are to honor the faith of George Fox and the early Friends, we must continue to listen to the ways in which Christ is leading us today. Parroting old Quaker clichés and sitting together in lifeless silence will not cut it. Faithful Christian life and witness will look different today than it did in 17th-century England – or 20th-century America, for that matter. If we are to be true to the faith of the early Friends, we may be required to “betray” them in order to follow Jesus.(2) Just as Jesus guided our spiritual ancestors, he continues to teach us today. In the end, he must be the foundation of everything that we do.
Like the early Friends, we must be willing to let go of anything that gets in the way of us following Jesus as a community in our present context. All of our human traditions – our ways of speaking, songs, church structures, dress and business process – must be submitted to Christ so that he can lead us in his eternal, yet always new Way.
What are the ways in which we are being called to lay down the human traditions that served our ancestors well but are no longer relevant to our present context? What are the ways that old structures and habits get in the way of us living out the love, life and power of Jesus Christ in our communities? How can we tell the difference between a dead form and a useful tradition that God is calling us to maintain and use faithfully in our generation? How can we be faithful to Christ’s ongoing guidance, fulfilling the law through obedience to the living Spirit of God?
“Let all nations hear the sound by word or writing. Spare no place, spare no tongue, nor pen; but be obedient to the Lord God: go through the work; be valiant for the truth upon earth…” – George Fox
The early Quakers were serious about preaching the gospel. In the first decades of the Friends movement, the message that “Christ is
come to teach his people himself” was carried out from the Quaker strongholds in northern England to other parts of the British Isles, America, various kingdoms on the continent of Europe, and even into the Muslim world. Young men and women emerged from the fields and towns where they had grown up and, compelled by Christ’s call in their hearts, journeyed to distant lands whose languages they did not know.
Wherever they went, the early Quaker missionaries announced the arrival of the King of kings, who overthrew all earthly pretenders to the Throne. They called attention to the Lord’s living presence through prophetic signs – such as burning their musical instruments, walking naked in the streets, and heaping burning coals on top of their heads. They preached the good news wherever they could find an audience – whether in the open air, in a crowded bar, or in a government-run church building where they faced beatings and imprisonment for interrupting the state-sanctioned preacher.
One of the most powerful ways in which the early evangelists bore witness to Christ’s resurrection presence was through the use of pamphlets. During the turbulent years following Parliament’s execution of King Charles I, England was awash in written propaganda from a variety of religious and political perspectives. Print media was new then, and the early Friends took advantage of it to spread the word of God-with-us.
Today, we as Friends in the English-speaking world are, in many ways, experiencing a drastically different context from the Valiant Sixty. We are not, at the moment, living in the kind of intense societal upheaval that characterized the first decades of the Friends movement; and we are not, in general, facing any real persecution for our faith. Perhaps relatedly, we are not – as a general rule – particularly committed to personal evangelism, publicly sharing our faith with the wider culture, or taking risky, prophetic action to witness to the love of Jesus Christ that we have experienced.
How might we today be called to, as Fox put it, “let all nations hear the [gospel] by word or writing”? What might it mean to share the good news of Christ’s literal, teaching presence, both within our own culture, and in the wider world? The Quaker community today is overwhelmingly concentrated in areas of historical British influence – Kenya, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – with Central and South America being the only places where there are significant concentrations of Friends without an historic connection to the British Empire. Why have we as Friends failed to reach beyond the English cultural sphere?
Is the good news that Jesus can be personally known, loved and obeyed unique to British colonial cultures? God forbid! Our faith as Friends is rooted in the belief that Christ’s presence and power is universal, transcending all national, linguistic and cultural boundaries. How, then, can we demonstrate the practical truth of our faith? How can we share this good, universal news of immediate relationship with Christ, both as individuals and as communities?
As different as our circumstances may be from that of the early Friends, we do have at least one thing in common: We are living in an age of new communications technology. Just as the printing press was a revolutionary breakthrough in the seventeenth century, we are experiencing a similarly game-changing technological shift in the twenty-first. How is God calling us to use the internet, and other forms of electronic communication, to advance the gospel in our day?
There are signs that some Friends are experimenting with these new media. QuakerQuaker.org is an example of creative use of the online blogging community to draw together Friends and seekers to exchange ideas and develop relationships that can serve the Lord. Another recent, if still embryonic initiative is QuakerMaps.com – which, if further developed and cared for, could serve as a modest platform for outreach to non-Quaker seekers, as well as existing Friends. There are other sites that provide information about the Quaker faith, such as QuakerInfo.org, QuakerInfo.com, and Quaker.org. All of these sites are useful and have the potential to reach many Friends and seekers in the English-speaking world. But what about the other 95% of the world’s people?
There are some signs of hope. For example, Spanish Quaker Luís Pizarro recently began publishing a blog, Cuaquero.org, that is intended to share the gospel message with the people of Spain. Yet, there is still so much that remains to be done. What if we placed an emphasis on training ourselves to be ambassadors to other cultures, learning another language and familiarizing ourselves with another culture? What if we made it a priority to share the gospel message online in every major language, providing resources for learning about Friends’ beliefs, practice, and how to set up a new worship group? Surely Friends already have the capacity to do this sort of outreach in dozens of languages. Are we ready to take the time and effort to live into Christ’s call to preach the good news to all people? Do we still believe that we have received a message worth sharing?
One of the greatest challenges for this generation of Quakerism will be figuring out how to adapt our traditional practices to a society in which human mobility and information technology have reached a level never seen before. For the first three hundred years or so, the Religious Society of Friends could count on a certain level of geographical stability on the part of its membership. Most people lived and died in the same time zone. When Friends did move, we often did so as a community, re-establishing our social context wherever we migrated to – be it Rhode Island, the Carolinas, Ohio, Kansas or Oregon.
Our present generation lacks the stability – dedication to place and community – that was normative for the first three centuries of our history. All of our structures – Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings; Ministry, Eldership and Oversight; and the seemingly endless committee structures that have blossomed over the years – all of them were developed in the context of geographically stable, covenantal community.
How might Friends today adapt to the radical itinerancy of our (post) modern context? How do we maintain the spirit of our tradition while re-examining the old forms that often seem poorly adapted to our new situation? How are we being called to re-evaluate our lifestyles to discern when our lives ought to conform themselves to tradition, rather than insisting that tradition conform itself to the exigencies of mainstream 21st-century society?
Are we being called to question our radical mobility? What are the social consequences of our detachment from place? What are the ecological consequences of our dependence on fossil-fueled transportation, particularly air travel? What are the spiritual ramifications of our choice to participate in the wider culture’s nonchalance about place, community and rootedness?