03 May 2007

What differentiates Quakers from other Christians?

Of all the things I could be writing about--the arrival of spring, the great novel I just finished reading, the pleasure of composing text for a bar association's public education initiative--I find myself once again led reluctantly to address the perennial identity puzzles among Quakers. It must be a leading, because it is the last thing I actually want to write about.

Today's controversies among Friends are being well addressed by several tender and courteous bloggers whom I always enjoy reading. But what I often find missing is a persuasive rationale for why we agonize so much about specifically being Quakers rather than about being faithful believers who happen to have a Quaker-flavored way of expressing belief. Is it because people who are out evangelizing, committing civil disobedience, serving in relief and development work, lobbying for peace, or simply living lives of daily devotion don't have time to blog, and are therefore underrepresented in these discussions? Or somehow our Internet searches fail to find them? Or have the words "Quaker" and "Friend" taken on some sort of cultish power that needs to be exorcised?

I'm reminded of an incident at Indiana Yearly Meeting maybe twenty years ago. The evening meeting for worship at the Yearly Meeting sessions was being led by the youth. One young man got up and said something like the following: "I've really enjoyed my first year at Indiana Wesleyan. I've learned that my denomination is not important--what's important is following Christ."

Another young man asked for prayer because he was going into the military, where he felt he would be exposed to lots of worldliness, and he wanted to emerge from military service with his morality intact.

I sat there, immersed in a swirl of thoughts.
  • Yes, denominational loyalties are trivial in comparison to the importance of following Christ.
  • But on the other hand, we don't follow Jesus in the abstract, we follow him in flesh and blood situations, in community. "You are in Christ Jesus by God's act" (1 Cor. 1:30) and God acts in history, in time and place. So as community, denomination is important.
  • What had we done to make denominational distinctives so trivial, so decorative, so NOT a matter of following Christ, that a young man could get up among several hundred Quakers and unblushingly ask us to bless his going into the military?
The first speaker was right, but for the wrong reason. If denomination had been important (had earned the right to be important) to the second speaker's life for the right reasons, perhaps he would have known why the army was not the preferred path for an Indiana Yearly Meeting young Friend.

Today's reflections were prompted by this post from A Place to Stand. In my comment there, I wrote,
. . . I'm just trying to tease out an implication of a lot of what I read in Quaker blogs, and see whether it's worth following up.... I don't claim to have a permanent or perfect answer.

The way my concern is usually posed is this: Am I a Quaker first, or a Christian first? I don't like this way of posing the issue, because it seems to imply precision and Venn diagrams where precision is either impossible or deceptive. But bear with me, please.

1. I'm a Christian first, in that I have put all my eggs in the Jesus basket. To use a specific phrase that's precious to some (including me) and obscure to others, I've been sealed by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ. I stepped over this inner threshold before I ever set foot in a Friends meeting.

2. On the other hand, I'm a Friend because I personally don't know any other way of being Christian, of living an embodied, real-life, day-to-day Christian life. Others do know (and I visit them in their churches and temples with great benefit to me) but I don't.

So I have been convinced of the value and integrity of Quaker discipleship, and I love to be among others who are similarly convinced. To draw on the beautiful imagery of Ben Richmond's book, Signs of Salvation, I have become part of a covenant relationship, a relationship of mutual promises that involves God and other believers--specific flesh and blood believers like me. The more specific the promises, the more I'm empowered to keep them; and the Friends testimonies are quite specific.

But if I were in a community that had no concept of discipleship and where I experienced no empowerment, the name "Quaker" certainly would not be enough to keep me there. And if I found a community with an understanding of discipleship and covenant relationship sufficiently similar to what was opened to me at my conversion, the lack of the word "Quaker" would not be enough to keep me away.

When I was at Ottawa Meeting, not everyone was explicitly Christian, but several people in the meeting exercised a loving and deliberate mentorship of me in the direction I've just outlined. It was enough for this baby Quaker.

Now I'm at Reedwood Friends Church, where the Christian language is our "official" language, but if we were not struggling together on discipleship and the meaning of Friends testimonies, neither the language alone nor the name "Friends" would be enough to keep me.

I have to stand in complete humility when talking with those who feel as if they may be led to be a lonely voice in a heterodox Quaker community. I personally need to be part of a substantial Christian covenant community just to keep my head above water. But on another level entirely, I feel an affinity with all those who are drawn by the passion and the ethical imperatives of the movement kindled by G Fox and the Valiant Sixty, however they understand the apostolic roots of that movement. That would continue to be true even if I had to relocate my own membership outside Friends for the sake of my own need for a more concrete support for my discipleship.
I've seen so many discussions about why Friends are (or are not) a Christian body, but I've seen less discussion in the same circles about what differentiates Friends who are Christians (for whom that first discussion simply doesn't arise) from other Christians, and what doesn't differentiate us. So let me take a crack at it, and please cite other discussions or add your own points if you wish. But, for me, the stakes are high: if I'm totally wrong about how Quakers are both Christian and different, I might be in the wrong place!
  • We are not different from other Christians in the God whom we worship, and the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, the historic and risen Son of God, we follow, and in the Holy Spirit who seals us into God's commonwealth.
  • But we are different from Christians who require a deceptive (to my mind) textual precision in defining how God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit relate. We accept the historic teaching of the church concerning their intimate relationship, the community of the Trinity, while remaining, in Penn's words, "...tender of quitting Scripture terms and phrases for schoolmen's...."
  • We are not different from other Christians in recognizing that not one of us is born morally self-sufficient; we are all mortally vulnerable to sin and temptation.
  • But we are different from Christians who believe we humans are categorically depraved from conception--a desperately bad doctrine which is not universally shared among other Christians, either.
  • Like other Christians, we esteem the Scriptures, believing that they are "God-breathed and ... useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that [we] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and that they can make us "wise for salvation" (2 Timothy 3:15).

    Unlike many Christians, however, we notice how the Bible does not oversell itself. If we take 2 Timothy 3:15-17 literally, nowhere do those words justify a mechanical, rigid, totalitarian, unspiritual, coercive, or literal application. God breathed the Holy Spirit into the creation, assembly, and ratification of the Bible, and God continues to breathe the Holy Spirit into faithful meetings for worship, and into individual disciples, according to God's own pleasure and not according to the agendas of Christian power brokers. The Bible is not magic, nor is it a member of the Trinity.
  • We honor and cherish Jesus Christ, whose life, death on the cross, and resurrection were all part of God's perfect plan for reconciliation with creation. I know of no "orthodox" Quaker body who has broken with the historic teachings of the larger church on this point, and this is a crucial marker for me, the principal reason I can even be among Friends. George Fox did not come into my life with assurance of healing and forgiveness, Jesus did.
  • Jesus's involvement with us did not end with the resurrection. We are his Body; we recognize him as the head of our communities, and the whole point of being Quakers is to experience that Headship directly, learning its ethical consequences, and supporting each other in living out what we learn. And as with the Trinity and the Bible, Friends have never united on any rigid or legalistic understanding of the Cross, or of Christ's atoning death. We differ from Christians who insist that we must understand his death as a satisfaction for God's holy wrath--a doctrine which is made incoherent by the very nature of God's sovereignty. God relates to us directly through Christ and the Holy Spirit, not indirectly through symbolic juridical transactions, as useful as those transactions might have been in metaphorically explaining the atonement centuries ago.
  • With other Christians, we realize that the Christian life is not just a matter of professing faith, but requires discipleship--prayer, study, self-discipline, discernment (with community help) of our own spiritual gifts, and a public witness to our faith. With some other Christians, we see discipleship extending to our social, political, and economic behavior. We Friends were once pioneers in this area, but less so now.
  • Most Christians avail themselves of outward sacraments and often assign priestly roles to church officers, as ways of mediating the Divine-human encounter. Most Friends believe that we can experience sacramental reality without mediation of official or ceremony. Without the Holy Spirit's baptism and communion, no intermediary is sufficient; with them, no intermediary is necessary.
  • Christians gather frequently to pray, praise, teach, learn, exhort, confess, and sacrifice for the maintenance of the community. So do Friends, while also leaving space for the immediate intervention and ministry of the Holy Spirit.
I've left a lot out, and I've idealized a lot as well, but I wanted to express at least in outline form a crucial non-negotiable for me and many like me: We Friends may often be dissidents, or even a loyal opposition, in the larger Christian movement, but we are heart and soul part of that movement, not a new religion off to one side. These points might be helpful for self-described liberal or Christ-optional Friends who might sometimes wonder why it's so hard to get us to be "reasonable."

Read this book: The Feast of Love: A Novel by Charles Baxter. Back-cover blurbs:
Rich, strange, alive with the miracles of daily life, this novel is a banquet for the soul. So many wonderful characters, all of who I came to cherish as I watched them intersecting, the initial configurations of love reconfiguring themselves by the end. Truly, this is a novel in which the unexpected is always upon us. (Andrea Barrett)

The Feast of Love is hilarious and at the same time desperately sad, full of wit and poetry and exquisitely observed perceptions of the human condition, erudite and streetwise at once. It conveys the delicacy, the violence, the salvation, and the destruction of love. What a brilliant, powerful novel. (Alan Lightman)
These writers said exactly what I wanted to say about this novel. They didn't waste words; why should I?

President Bush vetoes the war funding bill with classic red herrings: "It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing. All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather their strength -- and begin plotting how to overthrow the government and take control of the country of Iraq." Instead, they can continue to pick off our soldiers, bleed us dry financially, increase our bad odor in the Middle East, provide unparalleled target practice and clinical internships to a whole new generation of terrorists, and continue to propagandize in the spiritual and ideological vacuum we've created at the highest leadership level.

Bush went on: "...The bill would impose impossible conditions on our commanders in combat. After forcing most of our troops to withdraw, the bill would dictate the terms on which the remaining commanders and troops could engage the enemy. That means American commanders in the middle of a combat zone would have to take fighting directions from politicians 6,000 miles away in Washington, D.C. This is a prescription for chaos and confusion, and we must not impose it on our troops." A bizarre confusion--policy and strategy are different from tactics and operations. Commanders are supposed to get policy from the CIVILIANS! Instead Bush forces the commanders to slog on under an impossible and amoral mandate.

Two items on Virginia Tech on the Martin Marty Center's Sightings site: Marty "against reductionism" and Jerome Eric Copulsky's "what is there to say?"

Charlie Musselwhite and his daughter Layla Musselwhite give a moving performance of his song, "In Your Darkest Hour."


Martin Kelley said...

Like a lot of Christian Friends in unprogrammed Quakerism, I considered myself a "Quaker" long before I considered myself a "Christian." Quakerism was a gateway to Christianity for me and a lot of liberal Friends. Even now my Christianity is more rooted in Quakerism than in mainstream American Christianity, as I'm much more likely to read a Quaker writer than a non-Quaker one. I even study the Bible through Quaker eyes, often turning to it as I read Quaker books. I'll see an intriguing reference in an old Quaker book, look it up in the Bible, read that passage for awhile, then turn back to the Quaker reference once more.

Being married to a Roman Catholic I've also been sensitized to the strong mythology in certain quarters of Protestantism of being "simple Christians" and its institutional manifestation in the "non-denominational" church movement. The claim to neutrality is very appealing but it's fundamentally flawed and parochial. Our understanding of our relationship to Christ and our discipleship in community is always going to be filtered through a mix of tradition (if anything Catholics can point to their numbers and history to make a stronger claim to non-denominationalism than any small Protestant churches that's schismed so many times that it's given up trying to ally itself with a denomination). It seems to me that it's important to be upfront with your roots and to have a tradition outside of your current culture to compare yourself to; when we lose that we perhaps lose some of the ability to see ourselves apart from the culture and to wrestle with our relationship with mainstream culture.

I need to finish a bit of work and sleep, hopefully this sounds coherent! Thanks for some interesting thinking...
Martin @ QuakerRanter

RichardM said...


First, thanks for bringing up the issue of the distinctives of Quakerism. I suspect that some Friends are so focused on what makes us different from other Christian denominations that it makes them identify with the label "Quaker" and not identify with the label "Christian." In effect they let other people own the word "Christian" and disown the word. Others, particularly in the pastoral end of Quakerism seem to have little interest in the distinctives of our tradition.

I find myself in agreement with you on almost everything you say about what makes our denomination distinctive. Since I have so much respect for you I hesitate to bring up the major point of contention. There is one Quaker distinctive that you don't talk about and to me it is very important. The issue is the traditional rejection of the hireling ministry and programmed worship. In the pastoral wing of Quakerism obviously this particular distinctive feature of Quakerism has been washed away. For me it is crucial. If I were to move to another community and the only Quakers there hired pastors and held standard programmed worship services I wouldn't be interested. It really matters to me that much that we keep to waiting worship and not put up human authorities to stand between us and God. To my mind this is essential to getting Christianity right, it's not a mere peculiarity of an odd sect.

Johan Maurer said...

One of the things that makes me feel able to write posts on these subjects is knowing that others will improve the discussion and add things I left out.

Martin, your comments sound perfectly coherent to me. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians sometimes appear to me to be complex bundles of denominations with an emotional stake in preserving a myth of unity. (Hmmm, that sounds familiar.)

Richard--you've touched on a subject that's been close to my heart for a long time.

First, here are two of my many attempts to articulate a defense of Friends pastors:

Attempt 1 (Quaker Life)

Attempt 2 (Lecture at Canadian Yearly Meeting)

In my experience, the objections to pastors that arise among unprogrammed Friends, particularly Christ-centered Conservative Friends, can be grouped into two categories, broadly speaking.

1) Arguments from Quaker history and tradition: Early Friends rejected hireling priests. My response: Modern-day Friends pastors share very few characteristics with hireling priests of Fox's era. As Bob Gill says, "The problem is the problem." Often people prefer to deal with a problem by banning a whole category instead of addressing the specific abuses or errors. If love of money or patronage appointments or formalism or "holding the Gospel hostage" or implications of elitism or specialness are problems, pay attention to those problems rather than telling all the people with certain spiritual gifts that they may not be released for service among Friends on the basis of their gifts. The best evidence that Friends can have pastors who are not abusive in 17th-century ways is to observe real-life Friends pastors.

2) Arguments from theology or spirituality: Christ has come to teach his people himself, and our task is to worship in expectant waiting, utterly depending on our Teacher. My response: this has more to do with the internal culture and maturity of the Friends community involved, not about whether or not they have a pastor. I have yet to visit a Friends meeting of any kind where everyone is truly "utterly" depending on the Holy Spirit, where no organizational or pastoral service of any kind is going on.

Although many pastoral Friends meetings have adopted cultural patterns borrowed from others, there's no necessity for having a pastor "run" or "organize" the meeting for worship. Programmed meetings can go for months or even years without a paid pastor, and there are unprogrammed meetings who have pastors in all but name, both paid and unpaid.

If the Friends meeting is truly concerned to attend to the Holy Spirit rather than to humanly-arranged programs, however pious or edifying, then a pastor can in fact serve that goal. Pastors are not in charge of shaping our spirituality or doing it for us; they're an important but optional part of the resources available to any Friends meeting, programmed or unprogrammed, to ensure access to the meeting for the wider community, arrange or provide for the kind of teaching that preserves a community's continuity, provide specific elements for the meeting for worship that the community deems helpful, offer pastoral care, and so on. Pastors have no monopoly on any of these activities, but when a meeting chooses a pastor based on his or her giftedness to carry out one or more of these ministries, I have a hard time understanding why this isn't compatible with a theology of dependence on the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps there's a third category: those of us who are simply fed up with the religion industry and don't like any model that looks like what we're fed up with. I have no answer for that--I've been there myself--but I just don't want Friends to shape themselves around personal allergies or irritations, no matter how valid or prophetic those reactions might sometimes be.

Finally, the doctrine of "continuing revelation" would suggest that Friends meetings who feel led to release pastors for ministry are not rejecting Quaker legitimacy; they're following a leading. I don't honestly like using that argument, which is an argument used 150 years ago (and since) for water baptism among Friends, but I just wanted to note it. Being a Quaker is not a matter of having a command of a long list of historic subtleties; it is a yearning for authenticity in the here and now, with a connection to the past that is instructive and illuminating, not obsessive.

Johan Maurer said...

PS: Maybe it's not necessary to say this, but I'm totally in favor of any meeting that truly operates best as an unprogrammed meeting. The first three Friends meetings I was involved with were unprogrammed, and every Sunday morning was sheer adventure! I will never forget my own baptism into vocal ministry as long as I live, nor the Easter meeting for worship during which nobody spoke until afterwards, when we all realized we'd been experiencing the Resurrection. Or the meeting during which the only ministry was tears. Or the meeting where some members of a splinter group of Friends vaguely related to the conservative unprogrammed Quaker world came and harangued us for our lack of Christian commitment, without any of the rest of us taking offense, and the normal currents of love flowing on into silence and nonreactionary vocal ministry after our visiting prophets sat down. That's just a few of many good experiences.

Unprogrammed Friends: Keep the faith!! My plea is simply to base that faith positively on the freedom you cherish, not on the negative basis of a possibly uninformed suspicion of pastors.

RichardM said...


A few months back a read your attempt 2 and thought about responding to it. But at that time I guess what I had to say about it was not ripe enough.

I would say that the reason which moves me to want to insist on traditional waiting worship is a version of your third category. It's not a matter of its being more traditional and therefore correct. Nor is it a matter of theology: the Spirit needs this structure in which to speak to us. No, solid Quaker reasons are always grounded in personal experience. Appeal to the experience of early Friends, like the appeal to the Bible, can only be secondary. Every Quaker argument has to survive the "what canst thou say?" test.

So I'd say that from my personal experience unprogrammed worship just works best. When I experience any kind of programmed worship I find all the standing up, sitting down, ringing bells, singing hymns, etc. to be a major distraction from the serious business of listening to God. I have never listened to a prepared sermon that moved me, but I have often heard spontaneous vocal ministry that has. But you are right to point out the limits of an appeal to personal experience. What works best for me may not be what works best for other people. It may be some oddity about my personality or past experience that prevents programmed worship from being a worthwhile experience for me.

There is a bottom line by which we can test these ideas. What kind of change comes over people as they practice unprogrammed vs programmed worship? Over time what do we see in terms of growth in "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?" But seeing this kind of progress in people takes both years of tender observation of them as well as a gift of spiritual discernment. Even someone so gifted would not be in a position to make the call without seeing the people over a pretty good stretch of time. So, in all honesty I can't say I'm in a sufficient position to say that programmed worship doesn't work as wll as waiting worship. I can only say that my own limited experience suggests that to me.

Anonymous said...

Dear Friends, I have come increasingly to find the importance of the Body of Christ, that connection which is beyond denominations and particularities. And so one way I have been inclined to look at Quakerism is how it has contributed to the Body of Christ.

What I see is that many revelations of early Quakers have found themselves spreading out much more broadly within the Body of Christ. That is a sign to me of the truth within them.

So what remains that is distinctive. Well nothing totally, in that there is nothing that you can find absolutely nowhere else among Christians. But there are a couple of things that few others seem to have really adopted:

1. Waiting worship. I do believe this is very important. So I appreciate those Friends who lament any sign of giving it up. But being a form that unites a group doesn't do it. Neither does insisting there is no other way, for demonstrably many have come close to Christ without experiencing it. Today we find waiting worship replaced by unprogrammed worship, too often not just another name for it but something sadly different. The terms are starkly different in what they convey, and this often does reveal the reality. Waiting expectantly for the palpable presence of God is not the same as simple rejection of what else is out there. And I note that waiting worship does not have to be exclusive - you can have deep waiting worship in Friends churches with pastors and other elements of worship (in fact, many unprogrammed meetings are also doing this, usually with the technicality of keeping the other elements just before or after what they label as "worship"). I think we are on the cusp of this contribution of Friends having much broader impact. The growing contemplative movement goes in the same basic direction, but I think has still not largely found all the richness in true waiting worship.

2. Not practicing outward communion and baptism. Here I would parallel what Johan says about pastors - what early Quakers were led to protest here is not what many Christians are practicing today. I actually feel Quakers have had an impact here, which has gone unrecognized because it hasn't manifested itself the same way. I think there has been a change in much of the Christian church in how these are seen. Long before I formally left Friends, I favored the approach of Eastern Region and Southwest which made outward practice of these optional. And frankly, I just can't grasp how a God who chose to incarnate Himself in human flesh would reject using the incarnation represented by these as valid acts of worship.

I would hope we would look more to the truths which Quakers historically understood than any human institution or label.

Anonymous said...

Just to add to what Bill said: several UCC churches that I've attended (including the one I go to the most often) have added times of silence and meditation. It usually follows the reading of the Bible from the Lectionary, prayers and joys of the people, and/or a quieter hymn or chant/round. Then there comes a minute or two of silence "before God" (as the minister put it this morning).

Plus, several of these churches have groups that do meditation and silent prayer sessions outside of the service. So I agree with Bill, some of the things that were unique to Quakers are permeating into the rest of the Christian church.

Oh, I almost forgot, I actually heard a podcast of a minister talk about the "seed of Christ" that is in us several times in his sermon. I thought I was listening to a Quaker sermon! :)

Jeff said...


I've noticed that in Christian Friends circles, such as IYM and NCYM there isn't a lot of dicussion about what makes us different. It seems a lot of people are running around going overboard to claim we aren't any different at all. I cannot come up with a better list than that which you have proposed.

However, for you and others who are thinking along this line I'd like to ask feedback on a hypothesis of mine. My recent ruminations of the ancient creeds of Christianity and the RDF have led me to think that maybe the RDF was intended to show other Christians exactly where Orthodox Quakers fit in the broad spectrum of orthodox (small "o" on purpose) Christianity. Rather than repeat myself here, I'll invite you to check it out here

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks for all these comments. Hi, Jeff--I appreciated both of these entries on your blog: The Richmond Declaration ("RDF") and Corpus Christi? I like your laid-back interpretation of the function of the Richmond Declaration, although I also remember that it arose in a context of controversy that gave direction and significance to its assertively balanced approach. (See Mark Minear's book Richmond, 1887.) In terms of Quaker politics (less so of Quaker theology or spirituality) it really did have elements of a creed.

Speaking of politics, in an older post, I summarized some of my doubts about the outward sacraments, especially "the ancient squabbles over who is entitled and licensed to stage-manage these procedures for our vicarious benefit, and who exercises quality control"--not to mention something you alluded to, namely inconsistent teachings on whether they're optional and why.

Anonymous said...

Christ is Sovereign !

I am remained of the story in Mark 9:38-41,
John said to him, "Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us."
Jesus replied, "Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me.
For whoever is not against us is for us.
Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen,
I say to you, will surely not lose his or her reward.

I know of many unprogrammed Friends who do not walk with Christ like you and me.

But Christ walks with them in, driving out the demons racism, sexism, homophobia , war,
prison reform, working for the rights of children.

Many of these friends have given me a cup of water to drink
(a istening ear)
when I was going through a dry period among Friends.

All this in the name of Love which for me is the incarnation of Christ.

Christ says to me,

I sit with you in waiting worship with the non-theist Friends,

I march with you for justice with AFSC Friends,

yes and I sit with you at my table
when you break bread with other

They and you have not choosen me Paul, but I chosen them....”

Let go Paul, " I am the one who is Sovereign One, not you!

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Paul! Where are you these days? I was just in Muncie last night, but now I'm on my way back to Portland.

I agree with you on the company that Jesus doesn't shrink one bit from keeping. (It was sad for me to watch a guard keeping a young Friend out of a Russian church because that young man was wearing shorts. Since when would Jesus keep someone away because they were wearing shorts??) However, I have a weakness: I want to spend at least some of my time with people who know and honor Jesus by name. On the other hand, I probably spend too much of my time in that circle, and not enough outside of it.


Alice Y. said...

"I personally need to be part of a substantial Christian covenant community just to keep my head above water."


I know I can't do it alone, either.

I am amazed at the hardness of the hearts of some people but again since we read the Bible, why should we be amazed at the hard heartedness?

I hope that if I am faithfully drawing from Christ's well, I will be in the right place.