Spirit, Authority, and Northwest Yearly Meeting

August 15, 2015 § 10 Comments

Another yearly meeting has convulsed because one of its constituent monthly meetings has decided to welcome LGBT Friends fully into their communion; that is, they have decided to start marrying same sex couples. Some time ago, a number of meetings left Indiana Yearly Meeting because one of their number, West Richmond Friends Church, chose to open its arms in this way and the eldership structure of the Yearly Meeting chose to exercise discipline over the matter. Eventually, West Richmond Meeting and a number of other meetings left Indiana Yearly Meeting and formed a new Association of Friends.

Now Northwest Yearly Meeting has expelled West Hills Meeting of Portland, Oregon, for doing the same thing.

Actually, it was not, apparently, the gathered body of the yearly meeting, but the Board of Elders of Northwest Yearly Meeting who expelled West Hills. On the yearly meeting’s website, the Board of Elders is described as “a wise, discerning, and spiritually mature group of Friends who help encourage the overall, spiritual welfare of NWYM.” One of their responsibilities is to “Oversee matters of church discipline and doctrinal dispute.”

I can recommend this blog by the church’s youth minister for some information about what’s happened.

Somewhere in the confusing flurry of blog posts and Facebook posts around this event, I think I read that some meetings threatened to leave the yearly meeting if it did not dissociate itself from West Hills.

This is one of the signature forms of passive aggression among Friends, to hold a meeting hostage to your opinions or feelings. “If you do [x], then I’ll do [y].” Or, “If you don’t do [x] . . . “

When a Friend or a meeting acts this way, they are essentially pitching over the side their submission to the work of the Holy Spirit in the meeting, believing that they already know what God wants the meeting to do.

I feel that clerks faced with this kind of extortion should urge the aggressors to rethink their aggression, and if the aggressors do not reconsider their actions, the meeting should move on to some other business, hoping that the aggressors will rediscover their discipleship, their surrender to the living movement of the Holy Spirit among them, rather than submit to their fears.

For I suspect that the Friends who wanted to expel West Hills feared something. What? What was there to fear in remaining in communion with a meeting that marries same sex couples?

Because this is an evangelical Christian community, they almost certainly feared—ultimately—God’s judgment.

I suspect they also feared, in the medium term, a collective moral “slippery slope”, a gradual slide toward full communion with LGBT Friends in other meetings, a kind of infection of the impure that might ultimately spread to the yearly meeting itself. More on “purity” in a moment.

Perhaps they feared the breakdown of authority and discipline, since their Faith and Practice condemns homosexuality (see the excerpts below), and not to enforce the testimony of the book of discipline is—well, to let discipline lapse.

It’s worth noting, however, that the yearly meeting was in a process of discernment on the human sexuality section of its book of discipline when it “released” West Hills Friends Church, so the letter of the law was in place when they expelled the church, but the spirit was in question.

Ultimately, this is all about authority—the authority of scripture—or rather, of your own interpretation of scripture; the authority of yearly meetings over monthly meetings; the authority of elders over the moral lives of members; and the authority of the legacy of discernment passed down to us by past believers, especially those who wrote, edited, redacted, and compiled the scriptural canon (and the book of discipline), over the present knowledge of God’s will by a gathered body of Friends worshipping under the leadership of the spirit of Christ.

Against this latter, some Friends will argue that God’s will does not change, and so the testimony of scripture carries ultimate authority unto the present day. This raises a whole bunch of interesting questions.

For one, as I said in an earlier post, God’s will actually has changed when it comes to the definition of marriage. At least, that’s the apparent message one gets from tracking the changes evident in the Bible. So, also, with the status of slaves and of women in the Bible. And the impulse to collective violence and war. And the nature and destiny of the human soul. And the description and location of heaven and hell. And . . . well, you get the idea.

But more importantly, the Quaker experience of continuing revelation, of new light being revealed by Christ as to how to walk in this world (or continuing illumination, if you like, the experience that new light will reliably rest in biblical testimony if you read scripture in the Light in which it was written, even when it seems on the surface not to)—new light, I say, has historically opened the Quaker movement to new ways that seem contrary to Scripture on a surface reading.

The signature example for me is the outward practice of the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist. According to a surface reading of the Bible, Jesus commanded his followers to do both. Friends have followed the spiritual logic of Jesus’ teaching to its core: You must be baptized in the water and the spirit. For God is spirit and we worship in spirit and in truth. True conviction and true communion take place within the human heart. And Jesus repeatedly demonstrated a preference for truthful inward experience over empty outward forms. He even predicted the utter destruction of the ultimate outward form of his people and his time, the temple in Jerusalem.

Thus, in a meeting for marriage we practice almost no outward forms. We meet in silent, expectant waiting for the Holy Spirit. We testify in our vocal ministry to the working of the Spirit in the lives of the couple and in the life-union into which they are entering. Based upon our experience of the Presence, in the room and in the people being married, we record the work that God has already done to unite them in sacred love and sign a certificate as witnesses.

Marriage is an inward working of the Holy Spirit. Can we not testify to the bonding of sacred love between Friends of the same sex? Can we not feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in a meeting for marriage when such a love is manifest?

Or do we turn to the ultimate outward religious form of our own time—the Bible—to deny this as a possibility? I am not talking about the Bible as revealed to us in the Spirit in which it was written. I am talking about a surface reading of a handful of prooftexts. I am talking about our interpretation of these texts. I am talking about carrying forward into our time from a time two and three thousand years ago of a notion of purity that Jesus expressly rejected and that Paul, conflicted as he was, rejected when it was convenient for him to do so. Christianity would not be a Gentile movement today if Paul had not jettisoned the ancient Jewish attitudes towards purity law.

So I believe that the question of authority raised by West Hills’ expulsion from Northwest Yearly Meeting comes down to a question of whether the living, revealing spirit of Christ is really our governor, the Holy Spirit that is manifest when we are gathered in the Spirit in meeting for worship, when we are following Jesus’ commandment to love one another, and when we do not let outward forms obstruct the Light of revelation.

Excerpts form Northwest Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice

Faith Expressed through Witness

18. Christian Witness to Human Sexuality

We hold that only marriage is conducive to godly fulfillment in sexual relationships for the purposes of reproduction and enrichment of life. We consider sexual intimacy outside marriage as sinful because it distorts God’s purposes for human sexuality. We denounce, as contrary to the moral laws of God, acts of homosexuality, sexual abuse, and any other form of sexual perversion (see “Human Sexuality,” p. 80). The church, however, as a community of forgiven persons, remains loving and sensitive to those we consider in error. Because God’s grace can deliver from sins of any kind, we are called to forgive those who have repented and to free them for participation in the church. [page 11]

Human Sexuality

[Added in 1982] Friends believe that the divine intent of marriage is to fulfill the emotional, spiritual, and physical needs of humankind and that only within the bonds of marriage divinely ordained can there be a beautiful sexual relationship for the purposes of reproduction and life enrichment. Adultery and fornication are sinful because they distort the purposes of God for the right ordering of human sexuality.

Friends believe that the practice of sexual perversion in any form is sinful and contrary to the God-ordained purposes in sexual relationships. These perversions include sexual violence, homosexual acts, transvestism, incest, and sex acts with animals. The sin nature is capable of vile affections when humankind rejects the moral laws of God.

Scriptures relating to these distorted and perverse forms of sexuality include Genesis 19:1-13; Deuteronomy 22:5; Leviticus 18:20, 22, 23; Romans 1:24-28; 1 Corinthians 5:1, 2 and 6:9-20. Neither in the Scriptures nor in church history have these practices been regarded as consistent with righteous living.

Friends do not accept as members those involved in these perverse practices; neither do they permit them to hold positions of responsibility or leadership in the church. However, Friends believe that the grace of God is adequate to cleanse and deliver from all sin (1 John 19; 2 Corinthians 5:17), and they desire to be tender and sensitive to all people, ready to express kindness, love, and forgiveness. See also Jude 7, 8; Colossians 3:5-7; and Revelation 2:18, 27. When the erring one has been repentant, the past should not be remembered. As Christ called and blessed those whom He forgave, so must His followers. Friends must not hinder the forgiven person from holding membership or having responsibility in the church.

Friends churches should exercise concern for their members on matters of sexuality and should discipline offenders in love and truth (see “Rules of Discipline” p. 46). [page 80]

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§ 10 Responses to Spirit, Authority, and Northwest Yearly Meeting

  • Elaine says:

    I am a member of West Hills Friends. I speak for myself and no one else. I have two points to make. First, I am drawn to Quaker worship because of the direct connection to God. I am confused by the hierarchy that defines rules apart from my direct connection with God. Second, I am puzzled by the evangelical fabric that permeates my Quaker meeting and NWYM. I struggle to reconcile it with my direct connection with God. I guess I have a third point to make, and that is how humbled and joyful I am to be in the presence of such a true, genuine, loving and accepting church as my West Hills Friends community. I am far from an expert on any theology. But I can say without reservation that this is a place that I call home and I feel loved.

    • Elaine says:

      I should add one more point. People in my meeting did NOT ask to be removed from NWYM. It has caused a lot of pain and confusion. Our meeting did not seek to leave.

  • Jon says:

    I really appreciate your thoughts here. You raise some important points about authority and resting in the Spirit’s guidance.

    I would want to correct what has, unfortunately, become a common explanation for the Elder’s decision: that certain meetings threatened to leave the Yearly Meeting if West Hills were to remain within it. There is no evidence that such threats took place. One meeting was directly accused of acting in such a way, and has since denied it. I think these rumors arose out of the hurt and confusion that resulted from the Elders’ discernment.

    The Elders themselves have said that while meetings and individuals on both sides had contacted them, they did not factor those communications into their discernment. Their discernment grew out of their best understanding of Faith and Practice and what was thought to be way forward for NWYM and West Hills. Many of us disagree with the results of their discernment and the process that was followed, as Faith and Practice was never meant to address a healthy, thriving church, like West Hills, that is in non-compliance with Faith and Practice. So, many of us have appealed the decision and hope that our appeals will become part of a larger YM discernment process. However, I know from the Elders themselves that their decision was not based on “threats”. I would hate to cheapen their discernment or cast aspersions on their motivations based on rumors.

  • Evangelical Friends’ churches to not have a corner on the “bullying” scenario. It just plays out differently.

    I know (and respect) several elders in NW YM. I do not know what transpired among them. There’s a difference between “expelling” a meeting and “releasing” them. Yes, it stings. I know a few Friends at West Hills, and they are bruised — emotionally. They stand in need of our prayerful caring.

    I also know (and respect) several Friends who teach at George Fox University — Most of them know the Bible passages quite well — some have written books on various texts.

    I know (and respect) Friends who serve as elders of NW YM. Even so, as John Edminster mentioned, I’m not about to pass judgement.

    Yet even in more “liberal” yearly meetings, there are problems with abusive behaviors — mean-spirited at best, and abusive/oppressive at worst. I find it amazing that supposedly intelligent people can be so ignorant at times.

    My intent is to care for all Friends. It doesn’t really matter what their opinions may be. I am directed to love my neighbors. That does not mean I need to agree with them all the time.

  • megarid says:

    Friends marry no one, for it is the Lord’s work.This piece’s language seems to assume an aspect of agency of the gathered Meeting that it does not have.

  • […] Spirit, Author­ity, and North­west Yearly Meet­ing. An East Coast Friend shares thoughts on mar­riage and yearly meet­ing politics: […]

  • Howard Brod says:

    On a different note touching on this same topic, I want to point out that some FGC yearly meetings (such as Piedmont Yearly Meeting), along with FGC itself, are opening up the “love-gate” to pastoral monthly meetings who have been ostracized by their pastoral (FUM and Evangelical) yearly meeting that judges them not worthy to be in their association. Some of these pastoral monthly meetings have joined FGC and FGC oriented yearly meetings because those are very happy to allow their constituent monthly meetings to have their own spiritual journey – even if that includes employing a minister. I know that Piedmont Yearly Meeting has welcomed into fellowship both New Garden Friends Meeting and Fancy Gap Friends Meeting after these were treated unlovingly by many North Carolina Yearly Meeting Friends.

    I think FGC oriented monthly meetings should not only hold these ostracized pastoral monthly meetings in the Light (along with their yearly meetings); they should also offer them a home within their more tolerant yearly meetings. Who cares if they have a minister. This is perhaps an opportunity to see if unprogrammed Friends are really willing to ‘see what love can do’ by reaching out to meetings in need that may not fit our mold.

  • A very good post, Steve, that rightly questions the propriety of monthly meetings’ threatening to secede unless the yearly meeting does what they want. Warning in the spirit of love is one thing, bullying another.

    I’m reluctant to offer comments on the affairs of other yearly meetings than my own, and I don’t want to merely tell NWYM that their take on sexuality is wrong unless I also honor their *impulse* to encourage all people to hold their sexual behavior up before God and ask God what is permitted and what forbidden — because *all* our behaviors ought to be held up before God if we want to live in perfect peace with God. But that impulse is being exercised dictatorially when mere creatures, without divine inspiration or leading, prejudge what God will have to say on the basis of a speculative exegesis of Scripture — mere guesswork.

    For looking to the literal word of the Bible as if it could provide an infallible and clear set of rules is simply unrealistic. First of all, Leviticus forbids gay sex between males but not lesbian sex between females – why not? Second, Paul argues that we who have been baptized into Christ have been freed from the laws laid down in Leviticus; and have presumably been given that new heart of flesh with God’s law written on it, as promised by the prophets, so we can now discern for ourselves what to do and not do, like grown-ups. It’s not as if the Bible were self-consistent anyway: for starters, look at the two different genealogies of Jesus given in Matthew’s Gospel and in Luke’s.

    When I read the excerpts from NWYM’s *Faith and Practice* that you include in your post, Steve, I think, “Oh, so a man may not marry a post-menopausal woman, then, as George Fox did, because that ‘beautiful sexual relationship’ is ‘for the purposes of reproduction and life enrichment.'” No possibility of reproduction, no right to make love, right? Then I suppose a married man may never masturbate, either, not even with his wife’s help, not even on a doctor’s orders, nor ever use any sort of birth control. Actually, he may not fantasize about other women while making love to his wife, either: that’s mental adultery.

    Show me a group of straight men that observe such perfect self-discipline and maybe I’ll consider granting them the right to prescribe rules for others’ sex lives. But I don’t think I’d want to join their yearly meeting.

  • Don Badgley says:

    I am troubled by Evangelical – Protestant notions coupled with scripturally literalist interpretations that are now attached to churches calling themselves The RSoF. This seems not to be the living and present Experience of the Spirit that is the foundation of Friends. It seems to this Friend to be the very forms that Fox and others were trying to set aside.

    Thank you again Friend Steven.

  • barbarakay1 says:

    _/|\_

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