Primitive Christianity Revived - But Not By Us

I think it's safe to say that if George Fox or William Penn came to my house looking to see how their vision of Quakerism as primitive Christianity revived was progressing, they would be pretty disappointed. They would find a well-intentioned, averagely good person who is completely committed to recreating the Kingdom of God on earth, as long as it doesn't impinge too much on her comfortable life style, status in the community or retirement plans. She believes fervently that the world's resources should be shared more equitably and is happy to give a few bucks here and there to show that she is willing, if not 100% committed. And she loves the idea of offering hospitality to strangers, as long as it doesn't mean actually putting them up in her own home unless they meet certain standards of cleanliness, sanity and general all-round acceptability.

If George and William accompanied me to meeting on First Day, they would find a meetinghouse full of Quakers pretty much like me: earnest, sincere seekers, engaged in lots of good works, but, nevertheless, rather modest in our aspirations for the establishment of the Kingdom and privately fearful that God may ask us to step out of our comfort zone. I suspect this would be the case regardless of the flavor of Friends meeting in question. Certainly there are individual Quakers here and there who have stepped out more radically in the direction of replacing the established order with what early Friends described as Gospel Order, but as a body have we settled for something less? Community is supposedly one of the traditional Quaker testimonies, but, if we are honest, most of us are really talking about a community of People Like Us. Sure, we engage in sorties that bring us into contact with non-PLUs - to juvenile detention centers, soup kitchens, food banks, even trips to minister to the distant poor - but then we retreat to our comfortable Quaker silos where we send up fervent prayers of gratitude that our lives are not like theirs. Even our meetings (and I speak as a liberal Friend here) are remarkably homogeneous - overwhelmingly white, college-educated and with above average incomes.

In working together to reestablish Gospel Order, early Friends had a shared community focus that has been fundamentally lost as we have each settled into following our individual "leadings." Essentially, they understood Gospel Order as the way God intended the world to be, in which every part of creation existed in right relationship with every other part. Friends believed that the role of Jesus Christ and the gospel that he preached was to restore that relationship. His teachings provided the blueprint. In seeking to restore primitive Christianity, early Friends were attempting, through the direct intercession of and empowerment by the Christ Within, to literally upend the status quo and reestablish Gospel Order on earth by a radical adherence to those teachings. This meant a total reordering of their lives and relationships with each other and with all those in the prevailing social structure, regardless of who they might be, king or servant. They sought a revolution in the world by first undergoing a revolution within themselves.

Today, Friends, like the majority of Christians, tend to perceive the Jesus's teachings as more of an ideal than a serious challenge. By placing not just primary, but, in many cases, total reliance on the inner Light, we liberal Quakers, in particular, give ourselves implicit permission to follow only leadings with which we are comfortable. If I am 100% honest, I have to admit that I have a lot of trouble distinguishing a true leading from a really good idea or a personal enthusiasm. And I am adept at consigning what could easily be a call to greater faithfulness (for example, by embracing a difficult and isolated neighbor with a drinking problem) to that convenient box at the back of my head labeled "Leadings That Need More Seasoning" (and which probably will never be seasoned enough). Early Quakers, by balancing the inward Light (rather than the more modern and more easily-digestible inner Light) with Scripture and stronger group discernment, were not only challenged much more rigorously that we modern Friends are, but worked together much more effectively towards achieving that shared vision of Gospel Order. Granted, over time group discernment in the Society of Friends degenerated into an authoritarianism that had more to do with established power structures than a gathered people working together to establish God's Kingdom on earth, but I can't help wondering if we haven't thrown the baby out with the bath water by placing total authority in the inner Light and not taking seriously the challenges of the gospel.

The good news is that should Fox and Penn find themselves transported to 21st century America, they would find people sincerely committed to reviving primitive Christianity, but they would have to look outside the Religious Society of Friends. Across the country there is a grassroots revolution taking place within Christianity, driven in large part by young Christians who are throwing off their denominational shackles (be they Catholic, Protestant, evangelical or mainstream) to form intentional communities based on radical discipleship of the gospel of Jesus. Dubbed "the new monasticism" and "the emergent church," these ecumenical communities are frequently located in some of our country's poorest neighborhoods and rural areas. Members of these communities are not "missionaries" parachuting in to "do good works" or "save souls," but are believers who are working towards, in Quaker terms, Gospel Order, with a view to creating a society built on love and genuine care, rather than power and division. Tired of the cultural and political wars of their parents, these young people are putting aside theological disputes over issues such as abortion and homosexuality, and are following the example not just of Jesus and early Christians, but also of more modern communities such as the Catholic Workers movement, the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC, and Koinonia Farm in Georgia. Rather than writing checks and volunteering a couple of times a month (or a year), they are, instead, practicing radical hospitality and a reordering of relationships, in which all, rich and poor, gay and straight, stable and mentally ill, addicted and clean, share together equally in God's bounty. 

Put in the context of 17th century England, this description of the new monasticism by Jonathan R. Wilson, a professor of theology from Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, could be about the early Quaker movement: "Today in North America and the larger sphere of Western European culture, faithfulness to the gospel is in danger. As our culture's project desperately works to maintain control despite its looming death, the 'living arrangement' worked out by the church and the culture is collapsing. Many parts of the church are sinking with the culture and doing so without any resistance. The call for a new monasticism is the work of God's Spirit calling us to renewed understanding of the gospel and faithful witness to it..."

As Shane Claiborne, a founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia, put it, "The great tragedy is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor, but that rich Christians do notknow the poor...Layers of insulation separate the rich and poor from truly encountering one another. There are the obvious ones like picket fences and SUVs, and there are the more subtle ones like charity. Tithes, tax-exempt donations and short-term mission trips, while they accomplish some good, can also function as outlets that allow us to appease our consciences and still retain a safe distance from the poor. It is much more comfortable to de-personalize the poor so that we do not feel responsible for the catastrophic human failure that someone is on the street while people have spare bedrooms in their homes...Jesus is not seeking distant acts of charity. He is seeking concrete actions of love: 'you fed visited welcomed me clothed me...' When the church becomes a place of brokerage rather than an organic community, she ceases to be alive. Brokerage turns the church into an organization rather than a new family of rebirth...She becomes a distribution center, a place where the poor come to get stuff and the rich come to dump stuff. Both go away satisfied (the rich feel good, the poor get fed), but no one leaves transformed - no new community is formed."

I think most of us can agree, whether we are Occupiers or Tea Party-ers or a member of the unaligned but no less anxious millions, that something is fundamentally broken in our social, economic and political structures. The need to restore Gospel Order - to bring humanity into right relationship with each other, with God and with all of creation - is no less urgent today than it was in the 17th century; indeed it could be argued that we have never been more in need of it. As individuals, are we prepared, in Gandhi's words, "to be the change we want to see in the world"? And as a faith community, can we Friends leave behind some of our hang ups about Christians and other religious groups to work with them towards a shared vision of a more just and loving society?

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Comment by Forrest Curo on 12th mo. 31, 2011 at 7:20pm

This is wrong in a very fruitful way... If anyone is led to emulate these "new monastic" groups, that can be truly a blessing for himself and others. (There is, of course, always the danger of being mistaken for a good person!)

Where are the assumptions shaky? First of all, that God can't make His leadings known despite people's attachment to comfort. I remember a woman at a liberal yearly meeting, talking about a ministry that was drastically disrupting the quiet retirement she'd expected. She kept getting this yearning to join some project in Afghanistan (I think) and it was obviously far beyond her, far more trouble than "made sense"-- but every night she had these nightmares.

So it doesn't take undue faith in our personal benevolent altruism-- to believe that God can and will lead us to fulfill His intentions.

Can we save the world in our spare time? As you say, it's ridiculous to expect God to provide us such opportunities!

If we threw ourselves into 24/7 forced labor, our bodies to be processed into organic fertilizer when they dropped... Could we save the world?

Despite clear and overwhelming threats, the world can't be saved by our efforts, doesn't need our efforts, any more or less than it needed John Woolman's efforts to end slavery among Friends. His strongest hope, if you remember, was to follow God's leadings, not a step less or a step beyond.

Do we need to study and follow Jesus? I certainly recommend that-- though it may not turn out precisely the way people expect.

Everything you're saying about that "great gulf" separating rich from poor is true... with bad effects on everyone.

But we don't need to set up some structured institution, to "balance" against "the one needful thing."

We trust God to provide the needed leadings. Or we don't. All kinds of external means and conditions may enter into the process... or may sometimes need to be disregarded. Throwing ourselves on the Invisible Means of Support-- can be far from simple. But that is where that "revolution within ourselves" needs to come from.

Comment by Patricia Barber on 12th mo. 31, 2011 at 11:06pm

Forest, what I was trying to say (in a somewhat provocative way) was that the early Quakers had a shared vision that was so much greater than the rather disconnected "good works" approach that we modern Quakers have. That shared vision of reestablishing "gospel order", however, is alive and well today but not in Quakerism. The term "herding cats" comes to mind when I think of Friends' approach to changing the world. To make any real progress towards bringing about any the kind of profound change that our world needs, people of all faiths will have to work together in a way that totally transforms ourselves and the way we as individuals interact with each other. The woman in your meeting is led to do something about Afghanistan, and someone else is led to do something about homelessness in their city, and a third person is led to stand outside the White House holding a sign abhorring war, and someone else decides they are going to sell their car and only use public transportation. And on and on and on. And what we have are lots of little things going on that are all good and nibble at the edges of the many problems of our world, but which do not really challenge the existing power or social structures that lie at the heart of our global problems. Recently my meeting revisited the various organizations that we support with contributions each year, with a view to jettisoning those which are no longer advocated by current members or attenders. I couldn't help noticing that our interests over the years tended to follow prevailing "good cause" fashions. I didn't realize God was such a slave to prevailing cultural preoccupations. The gospel calls us to something so much larger and more countercultural - and that was the vision of Fox and the early Quakers. What interests me about the "new monastacism" (which has, by the way, attracted the support of some young Friends) is that it is not structured in the way that you  imply. It is about people attempting to wholeheartedly live out "gospel order" in community, and in so doing completely change the social and political dynamic of their immediate environments. I am not denigrating the many, many good works of Quakers (and others) - I'm just saying that if we are truly dedicated to "saving the world" (and shouldn't we be?), we need to first bring about the kind of revolution within ourselves that can show the world that things can be different. That has been the essential challenge of the gospel for the past 2,000 years, and it remains so. Have we sold out the early Quaker vision of gospel order? Are we so in love with our view of the Religious Society of Friends as "the mouse that roared" that we can not imagine ourselves as part of a worldwide movement to change the entire terms of human engagement - even if it means we have to work with people who may have a different theology from our own? I think these are important questions we need to ask about ourselves and the RSF. 

Comment by Forrest Curo on 1st mo. 1, 2012 at 1:04am

Early Friends were drawn together by quite a few considerations... but the really convincing factor was that many of them had known direct encounters with God. They could recognize that in each other. They were aware of God choreographing their travels and meetings.

An ideal of 'gospel order', however it may be expressed... is certainly not mistaken. But you can't actually get there except by those seeking it-- first seeking and finding intimacy with God.

There are many things you've said in this piece that I could (and did) say and write in past years, and I haven't seen any reason to renounce them. Our disagreement is on context.

That Cause of the Month phenomenon is certainly a symptom that our Meetings have not been truly unified by the Spirit.

For such unification to happen... would not be from people suddenly being converted to some "vision" of Gospel Order. The necessary precondition: would be a general recognition that the Spirit is real, that its demands are urgent.

Meanwhile, people get called to whatever Assignments they are able and willing to take on. That doesn't make the SoF as potent an instrument of Good Works as it could and should be; but it is what God is doing with the personnel currently available. A lot of the time, this looks (to me too) like Meetings following 'best available compromise' rather than 'will of God,' but we humans are creations of God, whom He has not attempted to drown lately. Maybe He knows something we don't.

"People of all faiths will have to work together in a way that totally transforms ourselves and the way we as individuals interact with each other." I agree we need a transformation in the way we relate-- but not that there's any "way of working" able to produce that transformation.

Stephen Gaskin once described Spirit as: ~ The only thing able to make a monkey change his mind.

That's hardly a definition, but as you can see, it's a functional description of one (of many things) people desperately need the Spirit for. Before we can begin to sort out what sort of Tower we want to build... and so that this time, it truly will be the kind of order God intends.

Comment by Steven Davison on 1st mo. 1, 2012 at 9:44am
While reading your words, Barbara, I kept thinking of "the rich young man" of the gospels who asks, "What must I do to enter the kingdom of heaven?" ultimately, Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and "come follow me." but lots of his followers did not give up everything and hit the road. Heads of household churches, like Lazarus Martha and Mary, Simon the Leper, Barnabus, who only sold one piece of property in Cyprus, I think it was. And then all those people whose names we never get to learn, like the 70 whom Jesus sent out to evangelize. So also with early Friends. Do we know the names of the Valiant Sixty?

It seeme that, even in the heady days of a movement's birth, there were different levels of engagement, and that that was okay. Maybe the rich young man's problem was, not that he didn't sell everything and follow Jesus, but that he denied his call. Maybe that is what Forest is getting at.

Nevertheless, it's obvious that we Friends have made very many accommodations with "the world." like you I feel bad about that. It makes me sad to know that I am the rich young man. But I am not a single, totally sovereign person. I am married, not to a Friend; my ties and responsibilities to my family and elsewhere constrain my openness and faithfulness to God's call. Once in a while, I can step into Simon the Leper's sandals and put someone who has a deeper call up for the night. Most of the time, I'm one of the nameless.

On the other hand I do have my call. I'm a student, of the Bible and of Quakerism; I'm a thinker and writer, callings that often are maligned in this sometimes stubbornly anti-intellectual community that prefers "experience." But that's my ministry. When I'm being faithful, I am usually able to release myself from the responsibility for "saving the world," or living among the poor, or whatever. My ministry is clearly less important in the big scheme of things than ministering to the poor (which I believe was the very heart of the gospel of Jesus), but it's what I've been given and it uses the gifts I have.

Still--. It does feel to me that we Friends are, in fact, dwindling in our measure of the Light. And that, I feel, is a measure of how much we have let the world interfere with God's call, as both you and Forest have said. So the key, for us as individuals and as meetings, is to get clear enough of the world's noise to hear the call and clear enough of its encumbrances to answer faithfully.
Comment by Micah Bales on 1st mo. 1, 2012 at 10:46am

Patricia - I'm glad for your words, and I'm happy to say that there are some Friends in your area that are trying to live into the vision that you lay out. It would be great to get together with you sometime and discuss the possibilities. Feel free to email me. It's "micahbales" at Gmail.

Comment by Patricia Barber on 1st mo. 1, 2012 at 11:33am


I absolutely agree. When my husband (an Episcopalian) read this post, he went a little pale. I am also aware that most of us can approach any call only with baby steps, according to our measure of the Light. I do think we need to be aware, however, that because of the nature of modern liberal Quakerism (and I can only really talk about that because I have so little experience of the other branches), we have little to no accountability beyond what we impose upon ourselves. If nothing else, we should be seriously examining our call to community in the context of where we live now and in our current circumstances. One personal experience comes to mind. In the village where I live we have a older man who is an alcoholic and who spends a fair bit of time wandering around alone. He looks and behaves very much like a homeless person and I expect he is only saved from homelessness by his veteran's pension. Some months ago, I was delivering a homily to my son on the dangers of substance abuse and held this man up as an example of not what to become. My son  listened to me in silence and when I was finished, he said, "Mom, he's just a lonely old man." I can't tell you how that hit home. Since then I have tried to develop a "relationship" with this fellow - chatting to him on the street when I see him, giving him a ride to the grocery store etc. I have learned quite a bit more about it him, but while it is patently clear that this man is desperately lonely and in need of true friendship, I find myself still holding back for fear that I will become entangled in his problems. To a lesser degree, there are others in my immediate community who could use support of one sort or another. But, once again, there is only so far that I am prepared to go in reaching out to them. We in the RSF love supporting and even becoming personally involved in "causes" but how are we doing within our own neighborhoods, on a person-to-person basis? We hate poverty, but do we know the poor? And how can the RSF support this vision of loving our neighbor as ourselves?

Comment by Forrest Curo on 1st mo. 1, 2012 at 11:34am

The "rich young man" problem. That-- as people generally interpret it-- is one which we individually and collectively suffer from.

But the example in the Bible was really about something else. The source of his wealth had to lay in violations of the spirit of Torah (whether his own or his family's), so that "selling everything he had" probably shouldn't be read as an economic recommendation for the movement, but as a matter of restitution. Wealth (==land) in those days necessarily was gained by depriving the poor,  who by Torah were the intended beneficiaries. Wealth these days is of a more mixed character-- though probably Quakers have far underestimated how much of ours is ethically suspect.

Anyway. 'What I am saying' is not "We shouldn't do this," but "It isn't anyone else's call that a person is legitimately bound to answer to." Not merely a matter of "Everyone sitting under his own personally-rewarding unique call (and isn't that just wonderful!)" but also: "If everyone seeks and follows his true call, there is exactly one true source, capable of fitting it all together.

Jesus' collective call to serve those who most need our help is perfectly legitimate, and truly binding on us, to the extent that anyone is able/willing to recognize it. (Yes, poverty among humanity is truly not tolerable, but there is an even more dire need than poverty to be addressed!)

There are many ways to do this-- including the (extremely uphill) effort to persuade members of the 10% that they need to cross that "great gulf between," not just send sandwiches across-- Mind, heart, and muscle are all part of one action.

If everyone immediately set to work, serving the poor according to their own inclinations-- or even according to the most efficient of conventional organizational schemes-- We would end poverty in less than a day, and have a new, more subtle evil at work among us within the week.

We really really do have a first duty of tuning into our true Boss, and following. (It isn't altogether simple, but even our mistakes are contained in His process!) Given that, the rest should be easy.

Comment by John J Edminster on 1st mo. 2, 2012 at 4:53pm

Dear Barbara, Forrest, Steve, Micah, and others who have been participating in this conversation in spirit,

Thank you all!  I often get angry at my meeting for its "lukewarmness" and then discover that it was my own lukewarmness I was angry over.  My anger with my own ways, in turn, does not come from any saintly highmindedness that I can impute to myself, but rather seems to come from an unsatisfied longing for reunion with God, and an impatience with the seeming fruitlessness of my life here and meaninglessness of so many of my activities. In my better moments I wish I could be so intensely on fire with love for Christ, and the people I feel tenderness for, that I could just blaze with light, and penetrate through to their own hidden longing for salvation, for liberation, for restoration from this dreadful (though sometimes merely bland) exile from the Divine Presence.  But of course, I'm not always in one of my better moments, but may be in one of my more complacent, self-important or world-loving moods.   However, I know that at any moment the Lord could push my "blaze intensely" button, and simultaneously push the "blaze intensely" buttons of my wife, my children, my friends at Meeting... and all of you; and then Primitive Christianity might indeed be revived.  It's just something we have to wait for.  But I think it's coming; haven't we all, at one time or another, prayed for it?  And why would God deny it to us? (If we ask for an egg, will He give us a serpent?)

Comment by David-Stephen on 7th mo. 8, 2012 at 8:47am

   My life was fairly 'wrecked' by the discovery of a book .."A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs". 

   In it,  the 'doctrinal topic' "equality of humankind' is quite huge. So is the topic "Sibyl". The Sybyline prophetesses were elderly women who prophesied in a state of ecstasy. Their prophetic comments about 'one who would walk on the waves' (non hebrew peoples, very ancient age) are quite shocking. 
    THAT book, George Fox's Book of Miracles, The 'deluxe version' of "Finger of God"  film by Darren Wilson (a 2 year tour of 'underground' 'church-activity' presented in a 20 hour tour of interviews and 'on site' happenings) , and the book 'Megashift' (AND hanging out with 'plain people' a lot)  have put me in a very different 'mindset'  The book 'Will the real heretics please stand up" by David Bercot was a help to me when i was standing in the 'query' that you present here. Bercot's book is a forerunner and 'personal conversation' form of the "early christian beliefs' Dictionary.  

    Thank you Barbara for the clean and incisive post.  May the  refreshing that is 'heaven on earth' be yours. Constantly. the light of Yehoshua, God IS a 'solution bringer' / 'problem solver' / 'rescuer' and one who frees from 'stuck-ness'.  nice.
    note: Ephesians 2&3 are heavy.  And what does Ephesians 3:10 mean? intense. We are not merely a 'gathered meeting'; we are 'indicators and communicators and voices of wisdom to 'spirit beings' in a way that had not been possible in former times! This is all attributed to the Christ-meld of the HolySpirit and the human!  Thats something to set your 'little kid' heart imagination  to, huh??  Spirits are 'understanding stuff' through us. Wild.
  ..George Fox is NOT a fairy tale. Neither is the Yeshua of Natsaret guy.  wow-wee. Who would have thought,  eh?  As for the concerns that you have expressed;  it is written "Not many of you were 'intellectual-bookish-noblebirthed' when you were called". Uh oh. That scripture sheds light on your observation..

   "...Even our meetings (and I speak as a liberal Friend here) are remarkably homogeneous - overwhelmingly white, college-educated and with above average incomes... "

  Hm, i believe that whole equation drops my statistical odds for getting a 'calling'.   >>smiles  With 'humans' this is not possible, but with 'Elohim' (strong-one) ' ALL things are possible.  Avanti.    Into the 'barely possible'! 

Comment by James C Schultz on 12th mo. 25, 2012 at 11:51pm

Me thinks we have to be careful not to protest too much.:)  I have been battling the" 110% in" desire for 30 plus years.  I constantly make decisions to sell what I have, give to the poor and follow Him, only to find no one wants to buy what I have, I am the poor and I might have stepped out in front of Him again.  I am a big fan of The Simple Way.  I believe wholeheartedly each individual must take control of his thoughts and actions and really, honestly ask himself - no matter how trite it sounds- What would Jesus do?  Read In His Steps by Sheldon.  If you have read it, read it again.  I shared Christmas eve with a young couple who have started going back to church, an emergent church, after being disillusioned by a legalistic church.  Quakers were the original emergent church.  We  should be right in the middle of this movement.  Quakers who are gathering together like the Fellowship of Jesus are!  The inward light and Gospel Order don't have to be alternatives.  Love is all we really need.  The divine love that is the Spirit of God.  Not everybody is a Barnabas who has property he doesn't need and can sell it and give it to the community, but there might be too many of us with the spirit of Anania and Sapphira.  One of these days I'm going to get it right.  Until then I will keep trying to get it right.


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