Gospel Order—Signals and Actions

March 4, 2016 § 2 Comments

A Practical Guide to Eldering

Signals: Things that happen in the process of an unfolding, difficult situation that might call for action on the part of an authorized committee in the meeting.

Actions: Some suggestions about options in such circumstances.

Introduction to the Sequence of Signals and Actions

This “Sequence of Signals and Actions” has two purposes: to help meetings identify problems and conflicts with some clarity and in a timely fashion, and to provide some options for action. Experience with conflicts in the yearly meeting and the testimony of the state of the meeting reports in 1994 to the queries on conflict indicate that many meetings regret having waited until too late to address their problems and that meetings sometimes are not clear about an order of response to problems. We seek on the one hand, to protect other Friends and the worship and fellowship of the meeting from disturbance and conflict; on the other hand, we want to express compassion for all parties involved. We offer this sequence as a place to start.

It is only a place to start. We recognize that this is a very sensitive issue for Friends and we offer it as a set of suggestions only. We encourage and expect meetings to make their own connections and to revise them as their experience indicates. We do, however, strongly recommend that you decide ahead of time on some guidelines for when you will begin to act in response to a perceived problem; experience has made the value of such preparation very clear.

We use the phrase “bringing gospel order” several times. It may feel archaic or technical to some Friends; it may be uncomfortable to Friends for whom the “gospel” has no relevance or even has negative associations. We use it out of an interest in recovering our tradition, because it may contribute to deeper understanding of the term, but mostly because we believe it is rich in meaning; it would be difficult to say as much as this phrase does with so few words. We refer Friends to the brief information sheet on definitions of gospel order in the Preface Section of the Resource Packet on Gospel Order for a fuller understanding of the phrase. For the purposes of this resource, we would clarify our meaning of gospel order with this concise description:

‘Gospel order’ is used here to denote a process in which a person or persons bring their concerns directly to the person with whom they have a difficulty, in a spirit of love, with the intention of

  1. a) listening to the other person’s needs, feelings and concerns in the situation,
  2. b) sharing their own needs, feelings and concerns, and
  3. c) seeking some agreement as to how the conflict might be resolved. In some cases, those bringing gospel order may be authorized to speak for M & C or for the meeting.

A note about Ministry & Counsel’s log. Friends may feel uncomfortable with the prospect of someone keeping a record of who said what in the meeting. We recommend such a practice because we have seen repeatedly in actual conflict situations that Friends contradict each other in their claims and great confusion arises because no one knows what has really happened. Eventually, meetings often seek to recover and even to document for themselves some agreed-upon description of what has happened so that the meeting can make decisions in clarity and understanding. It is also useful to see how long a problem is lasting, how big it is getting over time, and what measures have and have not worked. To this end we recommend that the clerk of Ministry & Counsel keep a strictly confidential, dated record of complaints brought specifically to M & C and a record of whatever actions the body has taken and other informal notes which might be useful should confusion about events arise, and that this log be deleted of material which is no longer current.

We realize that some Friends will consider such a practice to be very unFriendly, even if it remains in the hands of the most trustworthy clerk and is kept in the strictest confidence. We hope that you can find some alternative method of retaining perspective and corporate memory in the midst of long-standing, complex difficulties.


Signals Actions
When someone on M&C hears of trouble informally Confer informally with other members of M&C
When the first person brings a concern to the clerk or someone on M&C Make a note in an elder’s log
Consider bringing the matter to M&C
Ask whether s/he has spoken directly to the persons concerned (gospel order*)
When the 2nd or 3rd person brings a concern to the clerk or someone on M&C Bring the matter to M&C
Ask whether s/he has brought gospel order.
Consider conferring with the meeting’s clerk.
When all members of M&C agree that there is a problem. Confer with the meeting’s clerk.
Prayerfully determine what is to be done and then appoint someone to bring gospel order to the situation.
If the initial attempt at gospel order fails. Try again with two or three people.
Consider holding a meeting for reconciliation.
If the second attempt fails and/or the idea of a meeting for reconciliation is rejected. Consider asking for outside help.
Consider bringing the matter to the meeting.
Consider some stronger intermediate action.
When the first person leaves meeting because of a difficult person. Minister to the person who has left.
Consider seeking outside help.
Take some strong intermediate action.
Firmly elder the difficult person, requiring an apology and a change in behavior (you may as well have lost them instead of the person who has left).
Consider bringing the matter before the meeting.
Eldering fails.
When the second person leaves the meeting because of a difficult person.
When the problem has persisted a long time (say, one year).
Consider asking the person to leave the meeting.
Consider terminating membership.


* As described elsewhere in the Gospel Order Packet, “gospel order” means several different things in different contexts. Here it refers to the traditional process for eldering someone in meeting that is based on Jesus’ instructions to his community in Matthew 18:15-20 for dealing with conflict within the meeting. This is a kind of “three-warning” process that 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. Finally, if no resolution can be reached, the meeting disowns the recalcitrant Friend. The passage in Matthew ends with the famous words: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I also.”


§ 2 Responses to Gospel Order—Signals and Actions

  • Rhiannon says:

    This is really interesting – thank you for making this widely available. I’m especially interested in this post because I recently wrote a piece for Living with Conflict, a British Quaker project, which tries to explain and work through this sense of ‘gospel order’: http://livingwithconflict.net/a-biblical-roadmap-for-handling-conflict-within-communities

    • Thank you, Rhiannon, for sharing the link to your article and the resource links you offer in that article. Reading it prompted some thoughts.

      “He shall be as a publican and sinner to you” is no longer a clear expression for us and I’ve been trying to decode it or translate it into modern terms for years. Jesus seems to have had a special ministry of evangelizing tax collectors and the gospels offer Zacchaeus as the case study. And then there’s the passage in Matthew nine that you quote, with a reminder that one of the disciples was a tax collector.

      His gospel was all about relieving the sufferings of the poor (Luke 4:18, in which he literally defines his anointing as the christ as the one divinely called to minister to the poor), and the Roman tax farming system was a double tax burden on the province affecting the poor disproportionally. So it was really important to him apparently to convert tax collectors away from their vocation (or at least to “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you”—John the Baptist, Luke 3:13).

      So also with “sinners”. I think of the parable in which the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep to bring back the one that was lost.

      So this status of “as a publican and a sinner” might have meant outside the formal (baptized) membership of the community, but still the focus of intense efforts to convert.

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