Are Quakers Christian?

April 13, 2019 § 12 Comments

Last week I attended a viewing of a relatively new documentary on Friends titled Quakers the Quiet Revolutionaries by The Gardner Documentary Group. The principals of the group, Janet Gardner and Dick Nurse, are members of Princeton Meeting in New Jersey. The film is quite good. The production quality is excellent and they covered quite a lot of ground very well. There were a couple of egregious misrepresentations of Friends, in my opinion, but overall, I give it a favorable rating.

As for these misrepresentations, the film claimed, as many liberal Friends do, that the foundation of the Quaker faith is the belief that there is that of God in everyone, and the film explicitly invoked the notion of a divine spark as the meaning of “that of God”. As my regular readers know, I believe this springs from ignorance of Fox’s real intention when using that phrase and of its revisioning by Rufus Jones around the turn of the twentieth century. It just isn’t true that this is the foundation of Quakerism or our testimonies. But I’m not digressing now into that theme.

The film also highlighted the SPICES in a scene with kids in a Quaker school. This scene made it clear why the odious SPICES are so successful—kids get it and they can remember it, sort of. Problem is, they’re getting the wrong thing. But no digression here, either.

In this post, I want to address a question that came from the audience in the Q&A: Are Quakers Christian?

The MC, Ingrid Lakey, and Dick Nurse gave what I thought were fairly satisfactory answers, given how difficult this question is to answer with integrity in the liberal branch. Their answers were the usual disclaimers about how diverse we are (it depends on who you ask) and good personal answers about the Inner Light. Here, however, is how I would have answered that question: Are Quakers Christian? Yes, mostly, yes, and it depends.

Yes—historically. Some meetings have become post-Christian only since the middle of the twentieth century. By post-Christian, I mean dominated by Friends who either never were Christians or have left behind their Christian upbringing. But the roots of the tree are Christian and most branches still draw their spiritsap from the Christian tradition. We are a Christian movement even if some of our meetings no longer identify that way.

Mostly—demographically. The vast majority of Friends today are Christians.

Yes—technically. By this I mean that Friends hold that we retain a tradition, identity, or position until we change it in a meeting for worship with attention to the life of the meeting held under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; that is, in a gathered meeting. Some yearly meetings have drifted into a post-Christian identity by a kind of thoughtless default as they remove more and more Christianity from their books of discipline. However, I know of no meeting that has ever clearly declared itself not Christian in a gathered meeting for business—or even considered the question, for that matter. Without such discernment, we remain technically Christian by our own standards—unless, as we apparently do, we consider these tacit unconsidered deletions from our formal statements of identity to be some kind of true discernment; or unless we think that just because our meeting doesn’t have many Christians that means Quakerism isn’t Christian. I don’t think this blind drift in our books of faith and practice does amount to true discernment, but I admit that this backing-out effect does carry some kind of weight—if there’s no Christianity there, then it’s not there—even if that weight is a negative weight of absence and is freighted with unconscious violations of the testimony of integrity.

Ultimately, whether we are Christian or not depends, not on who you ask or what you believe, but how you worship. It certainly is the case that many unprogrammed meetings are, in fact, post-Christian in terms of what most of their members believe. But more to the real point, since belief isn’t really the point, most liberal Friends do not put Jesus Christ at the heart of their religious lives and neither do their meetings.

That’s the real answer to the question, Are Quakers Christian? It depends, not on how a given individual might answer, and not even on how a meeting answers, but rather on how the meeting worships. Does your meeting worship Christ? Or—stretching things a little here—does your meeting understand itself to be worshipping in the spirit of Christ?

This begs a bunch of questions based on definitions, of course. What is worship? Who, or what, is Christ? And, following the stretch I offered just above, what is meant by “the spirit of Christ”? Questions for another post. Meanwhile, I think the answer for most unprogrammed meetings I know is: no, we’re not Christian. But are we then still Quaker?

As I’ve said many times in this blog, I think we in the liberal branch need to be more forthright about what our post-Christian reality really means. How can we claim to be Quakers and not be Christians? How can we claim to be a true branch of the vine when we have cut ourselves off from its roots? How can we claim our worship is true when it does not draw its spiritsap from the spirit of Christ?

I am going to make a bold apology for a clarified liberal Quaker identity that retains its roots and recovers worship in the spirit of Christ, but yet releases us from the orthodox Christian preoccupations that no longer speak to so many unprogrammed Friends.

It will take a while to unpack my thinking here. For one thing, I’m not done thinking. For another, a blog is really not the ideal format for the kind of long-form writing that careful theology requires. But this is the platform I have.

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§ 12 Responses to Are Quakers Christian?

  • These words of Penington convey the Christian’s experience of being indwelled by Christ:

    He who hath the power, and putteth forth the power inwardly…he is the Messiah, the Saviour, the Word of life, the Son of the living God. They that believe in him, in his Spirit, in his power, in his inward appearance, have the witness in themselves, the living testimony, which none can put out, or take away from them. He hath opened mine eyes, he hath opened my heart, he hath changed me inwardly, created me inwardly, by the working of his mighty power; and I daily live, and am preserved, and grow by the same power, I feel his life, his virtue, his power, his presence day by day. He is with me, he lives in me; and I live not of myself, but by feeling him to live in me, finding life spring up from him into me, and through me; and therein lies all my ability and strength for evermore (Works, III:338).

  • […] Are Quak­ers Chris­t­ian? […]

  • Gerard Guiton says:

    The central focus of early Quakerism was the Kingdom of God because it was Jesus’. Today, although I believe that the Kingdom (or, as I call it “The Way”) cannot be separated from Jesus, I don’t think it depends entirely on him. It is a universal, cosmological principle. It is “of God”—the Light, Seed, Presence, etc. Hence to suggest that modern Quakerism is Christian or not is really irrelevant in my view since Jesus’ focus went beyond religious consideration. If anything, Jesus was post-religion of the universality of The Way. Just thoughts, 🙂

  • John Cowan says:

    Would you mind taking a shot at the “odious” spices? My understanding is they are a way of packaging what many of us do much of the time, which takes enough away to make me alright with them.

    • My objections to the SPICES are mainly twofold.

      First, they objectify the testimonies, turning them into outward forms that define a set of values to which we try to adhere. They are the fruits of the testimonial life, rather than its roots. They tempt us into answering to a set of values rather than answering the inner promptings of the Light within us, which gives these testimonies forth. The more important (and more difficult) mission of our First Day Schools should be to try to help young people hear their inner Guide, that which will help them make good decisions in their everyday lives, though these outward guidelines have been tested and they’ve held up.

      For the “testimonies” do represent truths to which we as a movement have consistently found ourselves led by the Spirit over the centuries. But it’s the leading that’s really important, not the “destination”. I think it’s worthwhile naming them and teaching them, but always as the fruit of our own obedience to the Guide as individuals and as leadings consistently confirmed by Quaker communities as they are gathered in the spirit of Christ (however you name that).

      Second, the SPICES are incomplete and they are limited by their status as an acronym. They leave out our opposition to the death penalty, for instance, and our efforts toward prison reform. Furthermore, they have already grown once, from SPICE to SPICES, when we added (earth) stewardship or sustainability. What happens when a new truth is revealed to us about how we should walk through the world?

      I fear that they will tend to suppress new revelation in a way similar to the way standing committees organized around a concern suppress new prophetic testimony. Our first response as meetings to a new concern is to try to cram it concern into some existing committee, rather that treating the person bringing the concern as a potential prophet who needs from us, not a home in committee, but discernment of the leading and then support for the ministry.

      When an emerging new testimony threatens to crack the shell of the acronym, what will First Day School teachers do then?

      • Don Badgley says:

        I agree with all you have said and add that we Friends sometimes seem lonely for a nice little creed to which we can refer. If we succeed in simply leading people into the Light, the Spirit of Christ, the fruit of that tree will be sweet enough without calling each manifestation of the harvest a “testimony.” Thanks for all you do!

  • Ellis Hein says:

    “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”

    One of the major themes of the Old Testament scriptures is God’s call to humanity to “Taste and see that I am good.” Or take Isaiah’s contrast between starvation and fatness: “Why do you spend money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, let your soul delight itself in fatness [of listening]. Incline your ear. Listen that your soul may live.” Then there is God’s covenant that was to be the foundation of the Israelite people: “If you will indeed hear my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be to me a peculiar treasure…”

    I point these things out in order to state that Fox and the early Quakers were a people who tasted, who were fat with hearing the voice of Christ, who were a covenanted people and kept that covenant in deed and in word.

    So, lets turn your question around and point it at that institution that calls itself after the name of Christ. On what grounds do they lay claim to the name of being Christ-like? Because they do the will of the heavenly Father? Have they tasted the substance of knowing that there is one alone, who can speak to their condition?

    This is where we began as a people: giving ample and living demonstration of what it means to be a people gathered to Christ as our head, shepherd, preacher, priest, king, prophet, and way to God. We did this in the midst of a society of sham Christianity.

    So, before we divest ourselves of the name of Christianity, we owe it to ourselves to discern the true from the sham, truth from error. Before we say that Christianity is not for me, have we tasted Christ-likeness or have we only tasted religion? Have we experience the thinness of trying to live on the husks and then been brought to the life and fatness of soul of hearing Christ, the Word of God. If we have not done these things, our judgment is too hasty

  • septembre says:

    I look forward to your articulation of a “clarified liberal Quaker identity that retains its roots and recovers worship in the spirit of Christ, but yet releases us from the orthodox Christian preoccupations that no longer speak to so many unprogrammed Friends.”

    I have been following your blog for sometime and how you have explored aspects of this already has resounded with me – “spoke to my condition” ? – even though I come from a different place in terms of faith and membership than you.

    I am an attender of a liberal unprogrammed Friends meeting in Canada but I identify as Christ-centred and while I have tensions with traditional Christianity these tensions tend to be more political and ethical rather than doctrinal or spiritual.

    I am spiritually attracted to the unprogrammed tradition and have a dialectical relationship with the openness, pluralistic, post-Christian aspect of it.

    On the one hand I appreciate the openness both relationship wise (seems like good hospitality to individual people, an act of personal and spiritual care) and believe there is solid spiritual / theological grounding for this openness in the early Quaker message of “that of God in everyone,” the universality of the inward light. I don’t find myself in agreement with the Rufus Jones or human dignity interpretation of what that means, but I do believe it nonetheless. I also think that openness to folks coming from diverse spiritual paths can (with caveats, see below) enrich the whole meeting community.

    On the other hand the openness confuses me and I worry that it endangers the sustainability of the community and its traditions long term. I think the sociological-organizations foundations, and the spiritual foundations to which our sociological forms could bear witness to, can be threatened when the very words, processes, self-images can mean so many different things. I don’t believe in a monoculture of meanings but I think too much diversity in understanding core parts of Quaker tradition and language – as you have said – violates the testimony of integrity.

    I remember reading a letter to an editor from a pastor in the midst of a controversy in a church denomination about including LGBTQ people into membership and ministry. The pastor, who was affirming himself, wrote that while inclusion is important it is also important, perhaps even more so, to ask ‘what we are we including people into it?’

  • Don Badgley says:

    When George Fox said that, “Jesus Christ has come to teach his people himself,” he was making an unequivocally Christian statement. They named their group a “society” because they considered themselves a segment of the total “body of Christ”, not a new religion. Much time has passed, and Steve rightly points out that the answer to, are Quakers Christian, resides in some difficult and tricky definitions. I suspect than many 17th Century Christians would have answered no, Quakers are not Christian.

    So, I began with self-reflection about my own Christianity. I begin with; I am absolutely a Friend and member of the society of that name. Would a “born again” evangelical Christian of any denomination consider me Christian? I doubt it. That includes 90% of 21st Century Quakers. Do I subscribe to the post Constantinian parameters, creeds, doctrines and fundamental teachings of the thousands of Christian churches? No.

    Fox made a discovery and named it the Spirit of Christ. I believe it is exactly the same discovery made by Jesus of Nazareth, and others through the ages. Fox said as much. My experience of that Divine Source makes me a member of the body that centers itself on that Light and Experience. Simply naming that phenomenon “The Spirit of Christ” does not make me a Christian and my refusal of the forms that Christianity has adopted and demands excludes me from that body by their definitions.

    I cannot find the place in scripture in which Jesus says he is God. I cannot find the place that calls for and defines a priesthood. I cannot find a place in which he excludes those who do not worship him as a God. I do find that he said to simply call him friend and that the Kingdom of God was at hand, right there for the asking. Divine Love belonged to all of humanity. His ministry was not exclusive but perfectly inclusive, to all who opened their hearts to the Holy Spirit that existed from before time and space. He most certainly never called himself a Christian and would not have recognized the word.

    Am I a Christian? Are Quakers Christian? As Steven said, “It depends, not on how a given individual might answer, and not even on how a meeting answers, but rather on how the meeting worships.” In fact, I am quite certain that Jesus of Nazareth would not even ask the question. He would ask if you love God and one another and even your enemies. If you answer in the affirmative and live under that order, then it matters not one bit what you call yourself, even if you call yourself a Samaritan. I am also certain that he would reject most of the doctrines and practices of those people and organizations that name themselves – “Christian.”

    When I am under the care and order of the One Light, that Inward Teacher and Divine Source, you can call me any name you like and I will love you the same. My “membership” is there.

  • treegestalt says:

    Given what Jesus said about the value of saying “Lord, Lord” to him — it may not matter as much as we think it does, whether people think it’s the spirit of “Christ” they’re following, not as much as whether or not that’s what’s actually leading them.

    • Zeke says:

      Your comment brings to mind those who pray mightily and at great length, with flowery phrases, using “Lord” as a comma, or a substitute for “uh” as they try to connect one thought with an other on the fly. I recall that Jesus had something to say about such people. I doubt that he would approve of most who label themselves “Christian” these days. But I also hesitate to abandon the appellation simply because it is often used dishonestly or in error. We are Christian (like Christ) if we attempt to follow his teachings. Nothing else really matters.

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