Gospel Order—Some Definitions

February 29, 2016 § 1 Comment


“Gospel order” appears as a distinctive idiom in the writings of Friends from the earliest days until the present. It has meant different things in different contexts, and at different times. But these various meanings can be organized loosely into four groups:

  1. the principle of conducting individual and community affairs under the leadership of the Spirit;
  2. processes for conflict resolution and mutual accountability,
  3. Quaker church structure and business process, and
  4. a “cosmic” meaning that speaks of the underlying order of creation as established by the cosmic Christ, the Logos/Word of creative divine wisdom. At the end of this documenta are footnotes and scriptural references.

Led by the Spirit in personal and community life

Gospel order is a generic term for the ordering of the meeting’s life and our own lives in accordance with the gospel, in accordance with the leadings of the living spirit of God. In the words of Joseph Pickvance [footnote #1], “The order that arises in the Church when the members live in the Gospel, the power of God, under the government of the Spirit and Light of God and Christ.”

This is not just an outward adherence to the principles of governance and right walking which are to be found in scripture; but more properly, the alignment of life to the spirit of Christ, or the Inward Light, which is the source of all wisdom and love, and a commitment to follow the guidance and changes of heart which arise from that alignment.

Fox defined gospel order this way: “the spirit of God, which was given to every one to profit withal, and the grace of God, which bringeth salvation, and which hath appeared unto all men, and teacheth them that obey it to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world: that this is the most fit, proper, and universal rule, which God hath given to all mankind to rule, direct, govern, and order their lives by.” [2]

In her Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Gospel Order: A Quaker Understanding of Faithful Church Community, (PHP #297) Sandra Cronk defines gospel order as “the phrase early Friends most often used to describe the communal/ecclesiastical and societal dimensions” of “the inbreaking of God’s new order in our lives.” “God’s new order meant a reconciled and faithful personal relationship with God. It also meant being gathered into a community of God’s people who lived the way of faithfulness together eschewing those conventions of the larger social order which were considered contrary to God’s will.” [#3]

“Early Friends stressed that God’s new order was not present simply because people did all the ‘right’ things in an outward sense; rather, God’s new order, gospel order, was present when people lived out of the fullness of their living relationship with Christ.” “It simply means that gospel order is, first and foremost, life lived in God’s transforming, guiding, and sustaining power.” [#4]

Cronk identifies three general areas of concern in gospel order:

  1. the inward life of worship and discernment, including meeting for worship and meeting for business in worship;
  2. the interior functioning of the meeting community, including the traditional role of eldering, home life, meeting for marriage, and the larger meeting structures that we call quarterly meeting and yearly meeting; and
  3. the social testimonies of Friends.

Mutual accountability in the Spirit

Gospel order is a technical term for the 3-step process for conflict resolution instituted by Jesus among his disciples in Matthew 18, verses 15-20.

The specifics of this process, as adapted by Friends, date back to George Fox himself, as the excerpt below describes. As a technical term for this process, it continued through the middle period of Quaker history. The process includes 1) meeting alone with the other party in conflict to work toward resolution; 2) bringing one or two others to speak to the other party; 3) bringing the matter before the church/meeting.

Gospel order then, in addition to this specific reference to Matthew 18, has the wider meaning of mutual accountability. Friends soon institutionalized the functions of accountability in the role of the elder, who had nurturing care and disciplinary oversight of how individuals and the meeting walked in the Light. Friends derived the deeper spiritual authority for discipline in the meeting from verses 18-20 in the passage of Matthew mentioned above, which ends with the promise that “where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

Church structure and business process

Gospel order also means the traditional “path” through which individual concerns become the business of the meeting and the ordering of meetings into quarterly and yearly meetings for accountability.

This applies to the practice of bringing leadings and concerns before the meeting for worship with a concern for business for corporate discernment and action; of the meeting then laying such a concern before the quarterly or regional meeting when the meeting has chosen to support a concern; and then, perhaps before the yearly meeting at the decision of the regional meeting.

Thus, ‘gospel order’ includes the particular “ecclesiastical” structures of Friends that carry responsibility for spirit-led governance and discernment: the monthly meeting, the quarterly or regional meeting, and the yearly meeting. (By implication, then, gospel order also includes the process of clearness committees, both committees for clearness for membership and marriage and committees for personal discernment, especially when used to test leadings.)

This “system” of increasingly inclusive “tiers” of meetings for the conduct of corporate affairs was instituted by George Fox in the 1660s, along with other structural reforms (including Quaker marriage procedures, the setting up of schools, and the establishment of women’s meetings with pastoral responsibility) after his release from prison at a time when so many travelling ministers were either imprisoned or dead. “What is important to recognize,” writes Doug Gwyn, “is that this system of monthly, quarterly, and yearly men’s and women’s meetings was not the Church government itself, but the discipline by which Christ the head was allowed to rule the body of his Church according to his spirit.” [#5]

Behind the structure, we can see in the quotes that follow the intimation of a principle of moral ordering, of discipline as an aspect of discipleship: “And after we had visited most of the meetings in Somersetshire, we passed into Dorsetshire to one Harris his house, where we had a large Men’s Meeting, and there all the Men’s Monthly Meetings were settled in the glorious order of the Gospel, and that all in the power of God might seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and might cherish the good and reprove the evil.” [#6]

This next quote resonates with the sense of Matthew 18, with the background for the spiritual authority of meetings over individuals and of regional meetings over local meetings, becoming almost visible: “I had some of all the men Friends of each meeting and I established the Men’s Monthly Meetings amongst them also in the order of the Gospel, the power of God. And the power of the Lord confirmed it in all that felt it. And they came to see and feel that the power of God was the authority of their meetings.” [#7]

Thus, in addition to the role of the various levels of meetings as bodies of discernment with respect to leadings, concerns and ‘business’ in general, ‘gospel order’ also refers to their respective roles for discipline and pastoral care for each other. Thus, monthly meetings once were expected to formally answer queries from the regional meetings in meeting for business in worship, sending their minuted responses to their quarterly meetings for review and possible disciplinary action. Today this dimension of gospel order continues in our practice of writing and approving the written ‘discipline’ of Faith & Practice by the Yearly Meeting, the writing of Advices and Queries, the provision in Faith & Practice for a terminated member to appeal the decision of their meeting to the regional meeting, the practice of paying the proportional share to the Yearly Meeting through regional meeting treasurers, which is no longer New York Yearly Meeting’s practice, the writing of the State of Society Report, the recording of ministers, and so on.

Included in the original reforms initiated in 1667 was the establishment of women’s meetings. Up to this time, men had conducted all ‘business’ meetings.

Gospel order as the divinely ordained order of the universe

In his book, Lloyd Lee Wilson emphasizes a “cosmic” meaning for gospel order: “the order established by God that exists in every part of creation . . . the right relationship of every part of creation.” In fact, Lloyd Lee Wilson begins his book with this definition.

When Leanna and Linda and I first created this definition document, I don’t think we paid enough attention to this aspect of gospel order. In fact, it’s possible that Wilson’s book had not yet come out. And it’s been so long since I read it that I no longer know where to go to develop this idea fully, so I will leave it at this for now. I will return to expand on this meaning after I have had a chance to review the book.

I’m not too worried about this, though, because I don’t think Fox and early Friends emphasized this aspect of gospel order very much either. They weren’t much given to cosmic or metaphysical theologizing in general, preferring to focus on the here and now, to take a more practical approach to sin and salvation, and to be wary of “notions” and “shadows”, of ideas without manifest power. Fox did refer to Christ as the Word and the Word of Wisdom quite a lot, but less in speculation about the ordering of the universe and more in exhortation toward the ordering of the Godly life.

More quotes from George Fox

Gospel order and discipline:

“In the church of Christ, where he is the head, there is his gospel and his order and his government; there is his power felt in everyone’s heart, and there are his offices of admonishing, rebuking, exhorting, reproving, amongst them that are convinced, and converted, by them that are in the power … they that would not have the people to be admonished … and yet go into sin and wickedness, those are out of the gospel order and government of Christ Jesus …” [George Fox, Works, Vol. VIII:62]

The cosmic dimension of gospel order:

[1. The Everlasting Gospel Order]

“Herein is the holy, heavenly and powerful Order, which is everlasting and will have no end. This Order of the Gospel, which is the Power of God, is over all the orders in the world and before they were, whether Jews, gentiles or apostate Christians . . . “ [Epistle 313 (1674), p. 309 of …]

Fox’s guidelines for dispute reconciliation:

[1. The Disorderly who walk not in the Truth]

All Friends must know one another in the Spirit and Power of God. In all the Meetings of the Country, two or three may be appointed from them to go the Quarterly Meetings … to give notice … if there be any that walk not in the Truth and follow callings and dealings; nor honest, nor just, but run into debt and so bring a scandal upon the Truth. … Query and search out all [those who] live not as becomes the Truth and the Gospel, yet do profess it; so that they all may walk in it, as well as talk of it….

And Friends … that you all may be preserved in the Lord’s Power … in the order of the Gospel and in the government of Christ Jesus, “of the increase of which there shall be no end” (Isa. 9:7).

Settling Differences, Disputes and Misconduct in Gospel Order

Dear Friends, if there happen any difference between Friend and Friend, let them speak to one another. If they will not hear, let them take two or three of the Meeting they belong to, that they may end it if they can. And if they cannot end it, then it may be laid before the Monthly Meeting. [See Matt. 18:15-18] And if it cannot be ended there, then it may be brought to the Quarterly Meeting and there let it be put to half-a-dozen Friends, that they may end it…. Or, they that are at differences may choose three Friends and Friends may choose three more … and let them stand to their judgment. For there [are] few … will [want] their names brought to a Monthly or Quarterly Meeting, to have their names sounded over the country that they are in strife, but will rather endeavor to end it amongst themselves or at their own Meeting…

And if there be any difference brought to the Monthly or Quarterly Meeting … after you have heard them one by one, and let but one speak at a time, know [from] them whether they will stand to your judgment? If they will, let half-a-dozen Friends make a final end of it. But if they will not stand to your judgment, they are not fit to bring it thither.

And if any brother or sister hear any report of any brother or sister, let him or her go to the party and know the truth of the report. If it be true, let the thing be judged. If false, go then to the reporter and let him or her be judged….

Now concerning Gospel order, though the doctrine of Jesus Christ requires his people to admonish brother or sister twice before they tell the Church, yet that limits none … that they use no longer forbearance, before they tell the Church; but that they shall not less than twice admonish their brother or sister before they tell the Church. It is desired of all, that before they publicly complain, they wait in the Power of God to feel, if there is no more required of them to their brother or sister, before they expose him or her to the Church. Let this be weightily considered.

And further, when the Church is told and the party admonished by the Church again and again and he or they remain still unsensible and unreconciled, let not final judgment go forth against him or her, till everyone of the Meeting have cleared his or her conscience … that if possible the party may be reached and saved.

After all are clear of the blood of such an one, let the judgment of Friends in the Power of God go forth against him or her . . . that no reproach may come to rest upon God’s holy Name, Truth and people.

All [those who] behold their brother or sister in transgression, go not in a rough, light or upbraiding spirit to remove or admonish him or her, but in the Power of the Lord, Spirit of the Lamb, in the Wisdom and love of Truth, which suffers thereby…. so, may the soul of such a brother or sister be seasonably and effectually reached….

And be it known to all, we cast out none from among us. For if they go from the Light, Spirit and Power in which our Unity is, they cast out themselves. It has been our way to admonish them, that they may come to that Spirit and Light of God, which they are gone from, and so come into the Unity again. For our Fellowship stands in the Light, that the world hates…. If they will not hear our admonitions… the Light condemns them, and then goes the testimony of Truth out against them.

No condemnation ought to go further than the transgression is known. If he or she returns and gives forth a paper of condemnation against him or herself, which is more desirable than that we should do it, this is a testimony of his or her repentance and resurrection before God, his people and the whole world….

That no testimony by way of condemnation, be given forth against any man or woman, whatever crime they commit, before admonition….

And so, keep the Church order of the Gospel, according as the Lord Jesus Christ has commanded; that is, “If they brother offend thee, speak to him between thee and him; and if he will not hear, take two or three. If he will not hear two or three, then tell it to the Church, etc.” (Matt. 18:15)

And dear Friends, in the Power of the Lord God, you who … in your Men’s and Women’s meetings, in the Power of the Lord Jesus see that all things be well amongst you and that all do walk in the Truth as becomes the Gospel of Christ and his glorious Light and Life, so that all may stand up for God’s glory and be valiant for his Truth….

Contemporary usage

The following is a collection of definitions culled from modern writings.

“GOSPEL ORDER. A fellowship of the disciples of Christ that comes into being as the result of the preaching and experience of the Gospel. Our order, organization, testimonies, and closeness come from God through the relationships between people that Jesus described in parables and showed through his healing, counsel, and prophecy. Jesus lives amongst us, counsels and chastises, and leads us in living this order. Our fellowship is local, regional, national, and international at the same time, since we are a spiritual group that Christ heads rather than an episcopal, congregational, or bureaucratic system managed politically.” NYYM Faith & Practice, Glossary.

“Gospel order is the order established by God that exists in every part of creation, transcending the chaos that seems so often prevalent. It is the right relationship of every part of creation, however small, to every other part and to the Creator. Gospel order is the harmony and order which God established at the moment of creation, and which enables the individual aspects of creation to achieve that quality of being which God intended from the start, about which God could say that ‘it was very good.’ [Lloyd Lee Wilson, Essays On The Quaker Vision Of Gospel Order, Celo Valley Books, Burnsville, NC, 1993; p. 3]

“Gospel order…is an organizing principle by which Friends come to a clearer understanding of our relationship to God in all of the divine manifestations and the responsibilities of that relationship.” [Wilson, Essays, p. 4]

Gospel order includes evangelism:

This meaning is current among evangelical and pastoral Friends, but has its roots in the writings of George Fox: “You may see how the Apostle, after he had convinced people, brought them into the Order of the Gospel. The Jews, after they came out of Egypt, they were brought into the Order of the law of God. And as Christians came to believe in Christ, then they are come into the Order of the Gospel.

“So, as I was first moved of the Lord God, to go up and down the nation to preach the Gospel, then after[wards] the Lord moved me to go up and down to exhort and unite, that all people might come into the possession of the Gospel, and the Order of it, which is the Power of God . . . by which all things are upheld and ordered to the Glory of God.

“So, this was the spiritual Order of the Gospel, which the Apostle in Spirit beheld . . . in whom their walking should be, to wit, in Christ, the spiritual and heavenly Man; and not to walk in old Adam, who was without this spiritual, heavenly Gospel Order, which it is the duty of all Christians to walk in. . . . It is said in Psalm 37:23, ‘The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord:, that is, by his Power and Spirit.'” [George Fox, Epistle 313, The Power Of The Lord Is Over All, The Pastoral Letters Of George Fox, edited by T. Canby Jones, Friends United Press, Richmond, IN, 1966; p. 257]

Marlene Pedigo:

“Gospel Order is the practice of being led into God’s new order in worship, decision-making and daily living within the faith community.”

“The Everlasting Gospel Order was a term developed by early Friends to describe their commitment to live with integrity the Good News of Christ Jesus. . . . Gospel Order is an experiential reality, the results of a dynamic friendship with God.” [Marlene Pedigo, in Gospel Order, Study I – Lesson 1 of the Journey In Faith Series, introduced as a special section in Quaker Life, Jan/Feb 1995.]

Johan Maurer:

“‘Gospel order’ basically means ordering our lives and our churches so that we can be obedient to God and uphold each other in mutual accountability and support to achieve that obedience.” [Johan Maurer, in “Commitments,” Quaker Life, Jan/Feb 1995]

Stephanie Crumley-Effinger:

“Early Friends challenged all people to live by ‘gospel order,’ developing patterns for life in community that would enable individuals and meetings to discern, and to live according to, the will of God. Gospel order requires the power of the risen Christ, available to those who seek to be his disciples through corporate discernment about individual leadings and ways of living.”

Jim Healton, Sacramento Friends Church, offered an electrical model—Jesus Christ being the generator, with gospel order the gridlines through which power flows to meetings and individuals.

[Stephanie Crumley-Effinger, in “Gospel Order: Building True Community,” in Quaker Life, Jan/Feb 1995]

Lucy Davenport:

“[Early Quakers’] view of the light within was not of a natural light, but a light with power to save men from their temptation to turn from God, to be bound by evil. Thus the light becomes the judge of history, as men’s [sic] eyes are opened to the cause of wickedness both in themselves and in the unredeemed social order. Thus the doctrine of the light led naturally into an understanding of what came to be referred to by Friends as ‘gospel order,’ an order of righteousness in which God’s people obey God’s voice as it is revealed to them inwardly by the light of Christ, which leads them out of the disorder and chaos of Satan’s rule into the kingdom where Christ rules all.” (from “Christ Jesus the Covenant of God: Two Views of the Quaker Doctrine of the Light,” Quaker Religious Thought #80, Vol. 26, No. 2, March 1993, p. 11)

Lewis Benson:

“…what Fox is telling us is that gospel order is essentially a relationship between God’s son and God’s people. ‘They that do obey the voice of the Lord and Christ Jesus . . . in this they know the order of Christ.'” [Lewis Benson, “The People of God and Gospel Order,” The Church In Quaker Thought And Practice, Charles Thomas, ed. (Philadelphia: Faith and Life Movement, 1979), p. 21]

Bill Taber:

Gospel order is “a power which can be felt and experienced, and can bring forth the organizational agreements appropriate to a given situation.” [Bill Taber, as reported by Bill Wood in an article for Purchase Meeting newsletter, NYYM]

The working definition used by the subcommittee on gospel order:

Organizing principles that help keep God at the center of Friends community life.

Synonyms: “right order” or “good order”

Scripture passages

The following scripture passages are quoted by Fox as foundations for gospel order:

1 Cor. 13:10-13; 14:40    Matt. 7:24f     Heb. 11:10      Col. 2:5           Isa. 28:16

[Works, Vol. VIII:59f, 175] Ps. 37:23

Rev. 21:3

[Works, Vol. V:138]

Other scripture references include:

Pss. 25:1-5; 46                       Gal. 5:22-23

Isa. 42 [esp. vv. 5-7, 16]       Col. 3:1-17

Matt. 18                                  Eph. 3:14-21

John 15:1-17; 16:1-15            James 3:13-18

Acts 14:21-23; 15                   1 Pet. 1:13-25

Rom. 12:1-2


[1]   Joseph Pickvance, A Reader’s Companion To George Fox’s Journal, Quaker Home Service, London, 1989; p. 79.

[2]   Fox’s Journal, 687.

[3]   Sandra L. Cronk, Gospel Order, A Quaker Understanding Of Faithful Church Community, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #297, Pendle Hill, Wallingford, PA, 1991; pp. 4-5.

[4]   Cronk, p. 8.

[5]   Douglas Gwyn, The Apocalypse Of The Word, Friends United Press, Richmond, IN; p. 50.

[6]   Fox’s Journal, p. 525.

[7]   Fox’s Journal, p. 520.

§ One Response to Gospel Order—Some Definitions

  • Thanks for this excellent post, Steven. Distinguishing between human-derived principles and hearing Christ, the power and wisdom of God, has been problematic for Friends since the first decades of the movement. It is important to continue to proclaim the reality and necessity of Christ’s guidance (even moreso to minister!), so that present-day Friends do not lose sight of the distinction between individual or communal conscientiousness and the order of the gospel.

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