“We want to clarify for everybody that this is not a homosexuality issue for us, this is an authority of scripture/interpretation of scripture/orthodoxy issue for us.” That’s what Anthem Friends Church said last week as they withdrew from Northwest Yearly Meeting.

Their exit helps clarify, for me, the stakes involved in how we read and regard the Bible.

The church letter added, “We have come to find over the years that Anthem Friends (formerly Hayden Lake Friends Church) see things very differently than the NWYM.” How so? What’s the authority of scripture issue that leads Anthem Friends to say they “see things differently?”

In their statement of faith (is this a creed?) Anthem Friends (a large church in Hayden, Idaho, with a second location in Coeur d’Alene) says “We believe the Scriptures in the Old and New Testaments are completely without error and are the supreme and final authority of God in faith and life.”

This is Northwest Yearly Meeting from which they withdrew: not an FGC Yearly Meeting, and not an FUM Yearly Meeting, but rather a yearly meeting that is part of Evangelical Friends Church International, which includes five Yearly Meetings in North America (Alaska YM, Eastern Region YM, Mid-America YM, Rocky Mountain YM, and Southwest YM), and many more around the world (140,000 members in 24 countries, says EFCI’s website).

Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends Church (NWYM) has a banner on its website saying “it is a covenantal community of evangelical Friends churches that make Jesus Christ known by teaching and obeying the whole gospel as revealed by the Holy Spirit and recorded in Scripture.” Apparently that was not good enough for Anthem Friends.

Not good enough as assertion or not good enough in practice? I only know what Anthem says in their letter, but presumably it arises from an unfolding and unresolved controversy in NWYM. This past July, the Elders of NWYM released a letter that begins “Recognizing that our yearly meeting is unable to embrace our current diversity, and recognizing the shattering that is ensuing, with grace and charity we sorrowfully release West Hills Friends Church from NWYM membership.” The “shattering” issue was West Hills’ “affirmation of committed same sex relationships and the decision to perform those weddings.”

The Elders’ letter noted that there was an appeal process regarding their decision, and, to date, eight Meetings/Churches have filed appeals. Eight others have written letters supporting the Elders decision. You can read them all here, and my hat is off to NWYM for providing public access to all this material.

The Elders’ letter acknowledges “We recognize that as a yearly meeting, we are not in consensus over our statement on human sexuality in the Faith and Practice. We recognize that we need to do the hard work of theological reflection as Friends on the issues of revelation (including the authority of both the written and living Word of God) and human sexuality (in a broader sense than just LGBTQ issues).” The appeal letters also lift up the lack of consensus over sexuality matters, which has been manifest in NWYM for several years.

I take it, then, that Anthem Friends Church has withdrawn from NWYM not because of “a homosexuality issue” but because the Yearly Meeting couldn’t clearly and decisively affirm the [alleged] teaching in the Bible that homosexuality is a sin. Disunity, for them, was a cause for separation. (For the record, I believe the Bible is quite unclear about many matters of sexuality.)

Anthem’s posture is fundamentalist. Their creedal statement is an affirmation of Biblical inerrancy. Again, “We believe the Scriptures in the Old and New Testaments are completely without error and are the supreme and final authority of God in faith and life.”

This is the issue Friends need to confront. The issue is not whether the Bible is valuable. It is not whether the Bible provides “texture and clarity to our understanding of God's will,” as a Friend put it recently in a comment on QuakerQuaker. It certainly does. And of course there are those calling themselves Quaker who want nothing to do with the Bible. That’s their loss in my view. But their posture isn’t the one forcing crises in Yearly Meetings. It is the adherents of Biblical inerrancy who are provoking such crises.

When Indiana Yearly Meeting came apart at the seams a few years ago, the driving issue was Biblical inerrancy. Iowa Yearly Meeting (FUM) has wrestled with issues of creeds and Biblical inerrancy in recent years. Now we have crises in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM) and in Northwest Yearly Meeting both driven by assertions of Biblical inerrancy as a litmus test. Both of these crises have been followed well and closely by Steve Angell and Chuck Fager in Quaker Theology and in Fager’s blog, A Friendly Letter. My hat is off to both Steve and Chuck for reporting on these crises. It is time more Friends paid attention to the challenge of Biblical inerrancy.

Close adherence to the Bible, while valuable, is unlikely to yield final and spiritually satisfying answers to all issues that may arise. Insisting on “the Bible alone” as a source of spiritual guidance will sow further schism and hard-heartedness. Seeing the Bible as “without error” and as “the supreme and final authority of God in faith and life” shouts that God stopped speaking to us a millennium and a half ago. I affirm instead that the God who speaks to me through and beyond the Bible assures me that God is still speaking. The meetings in Northwest Yearly Meeting that are wrestling with human sexuality believe, too, that God is still speaking to them.

On the Bible, I would much rather Friends take guidance (though not as a creed) from Barclay’s Apology in which he says of the Scriptures, after noting the Bible’s value:  

Nevertheless, because they are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners. Yet because they give a true and faithful testimony of the first foundation, they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit, from which they have all their excellency and certainty: for as by the inward testimony of the Spirit we do alone truly know them, so they testify, that the Spirit is that Guide by which the saints are led into all Truth; therefore, according to the Scriptures, the Spirit is the first and principal leader. Seeing then that we do therefore receive and believe the Scriptures because they proceeded from the Spirit, for the very same reason is the Spirit more originally and principally the rule.

Also posted on River View Friend

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Comment by Keith Saylor on 11th mo. 11, 2015 at 5:44am

Doug, I'll color in more nuance to the circumstance you setup.

 "A Quaker meeting has a newcomer, a woman, who comes and stays and joins. Becomes an integral part of the meeting. A year or two later she brings a friend, and the friend comes often, too, and she, too, finds herself comfortable with the meeting. The meeting is delighted in these newcomers.  Time passes, and gradually meeting members learn the two are a couple. And quietly the two ask if the meeting will marry them." ... Their are people in the Quaker meeting whose conscience does not see through to acceptance and embracement of sexual acts between people of the same sex. Many of those people in the Quaker meeting  feel deceived by the women who has been amongst them all this time and did not share her sexual behavior with the meeting, knowing that her behavior goes against the conscience of some. They speak out against the marriage between people of the same sex. The two women, who wished to be married,say that they have prayed over  faith and practice of the Yearly Meeting the Monthly Meeting is associated with and that it does not speak out against marriage between people who are sexually intimate with people of the same sex. These women suggest their conscience concerning the Faith and Practice is the one to which the Monthly Meeting should conform. Of course, many people clearly disagree with the women's interpretation. These people, in good conscience, say they do not support the marriage of the two women. 

Doug, there clearly are Quaker people who answer your question, "Would you deny these faithful Friends the blessings of marriage: that is, the meeting blessing their union?" in good conscience ... Yes. Just as there are people who would answer  ... No. 

The circumstance you painted was one-sided and biased meant to invoke or conjure up a particular emotional response. There is much more nuance. 

I have no issue with either. The Spirit of Christ is working in those who affirm marriage between people who are sexually intimate with people of the same sex and those who do not affirm it. The Spirit of Christ is working in those who engage in sexual intimacy with people of the same sex and those who do not.  I am fine with each Meeting and individual working our their conscience, through a personal relationship with the Spirit of Christ, in the direct and unmediated Presence of Christ. The centralized outward institutions of Yearly and Quarterly Meetings and the faith and practices created through those institutions have no role in mediating the conscience of Quakers, that role is the prerogative of the inward Light itself in the conscious and conscience of individuals. Resting in the direction and guiding of the inward Light itself is sufficient. The working inward Presence of Christ in the conscious and conscience of Quakers does not preclude disunity. Disunity is the prerogative of Christ.

Comment by Adria Gulizia on 11th mo. 11, 2015 at 7:14am
Doug - some F&Ps aren't clear, but others are. NWYM's says the following, which is not exactly ambiguous, "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." Where it isn't explicitly prohibited, but where it is clear there is no unity, I would probably recommend seeing unity rather than flirting with schism. It may not have been obvious decades ago that schism was a risk, but it is sure obvious now. Some meetings have refused to perform any marriages until unity is reached. That seems like one good move that affirms the value of all in the community, but still recognizes the importance of right order.
Comment by Adria Gulizia on 11th mo. 11, 2015 at 8:48am
Keith, I appreciate your acknowledgment of work of Christ in people holding diverging views, but I would nuance it this way : to the extent there is disunity, it is because at least some of the people involved have not understood the fullness of God's will. To paraphrase Fox, God is not changeable, commanding us to abstain from an activity on one day and then later telling us to engage in it. God's command for His children is to abstain from violence, slander, gossip and unfaithfulness and to engage in love, reconciliation, giving and working for justice. Anything that contradicts those command is not of God, no matter the time or circumstance. The question is not whether God's will regarding homosexuality has changed since the coming of Christ, but whether we can understand it better. (I say since the coming of Christ because I am not Jewish and therefore do not see the laws of the Old Testament as binding on my gentile self. The Netsarim would disagree...but that's why I'm not one of the Netsarim!) Any disunity is the result of our confusion, not God's.
Comment by Forrest Curo on 11th mo. 11, 2015 at 9:08am

"For every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven."

Anyway... In some parts of the Quaker heap, a Yearly Meeting and its _Faith and Practice_ are considered products of the monthly Meetings, changing as the people involved see things differently -- or at least put things differently -- over the years. In other corners, the monthly Meetings are seen as parts of a somewhat hierarchical structure.

In no branch that I know of would anyone keep a passage in their F&P that people had come to consider mistaken. In no church that I know of anywhere do people exist as pure embodiments of that church's doctrines. We can lament or celebrate the fact that people do change, inconsistently and sometimes without quite realizing it; and no doubt there are occasions where either response is appropriate, & sometimes both.

Comment by Adria Gulizia on 11th mo. 11, 2015 at 9:42am
Apologies if I was unclear, Forrest. I don't mean to imply that it is inconsistent with God's will to mourn at funerals and dance at weddings because God can only command us to mourn or dance, not to mourn sometimes and dance sometimes. What I mean is this: I don't believe that, when Jesus said, "Resist not the evil man" what he meant was, "Resist not the evil man, unless he's really, really evil, in which case you should totally resist the evil man." I hope you see the difference.

I absolutely agree that YMs should not keep a passage they have come to see as mistaken, no more than the early Church should have continued requiring new converts to get circumcised and keep Jewish dietary laws. What I'm saying is totally different. First, I'm saying that a change in F&P is a result of our changing understanding of God's will and not a change in God's will, which is constant and perfect. Second, I'm saying that, when our understanding of God's will differs within a YM, unity is nearly always more important than being right. If we break our testimony of community, which includes a commitment to mutual submission and accountability, every time we disagree, we are hypocrites and should, frankly, shut up about our testimonies. Commitments are only necessary when they are unpleasant. If we only keep them when they are easy and gratifying to keep, then we aren't talking about commitments but preferences. This is the same reason why I think, "S/he doesn't make me happy" is an extremely shabby reason to get a divorce, but that's a different question for a different day...
Comment by Doug Bennett on 11th mo. 11, 2015 at 10:05am

Adria -- I think the Northwest Yearly Meeting situation is instructive. Yes, its F&P does have the clear statement you quote in a section titled "What Friends Believe." But is that a creed? Can you only be a member of a NWYM Church if you subscribe to every word of that?  (And note that it groups homosexuality with sexual abuse and perversion.) A few years ago, NWYM was working on a revision of F&P and discovered at an annual session that it was not, as a YM, in unity over this section of F&P that you quote. The letter from the Elders releasing West Hills makes explicit reference to that: "We recognize that as a yearly meeting, we are not in consensus over our statement on human sexuality in the Faith and Practice. We recognize that we need to do the hard work of theological reflection as Friends on the issues of revelation (including the authority of both the written and living Word of God) and human sexuality (in a broader sense than just LGBTQ issues). As elders we plan to facilitate this reflection." With that acknowledgement, it is difficult to put weight on that section of F&P.  F&P's are statements in unity from a whole YM. When they no longer voice a unity, how can they be authoritative?

In Indiana, there was no section on same-sex intimacy in their F&P. A minute was hurriedly approved at an annual session in 1982 declaring homosexuality as "contrary to the intent and will of God for mankind." In 1994, an annual session approved an additional minute that began ""We acknowledge that the broad spectrum of Friends is not in unity on this issue. Furthermore, we recognize a diversity of beliefs exists within our own yearly meeting regarding the interpretation scripture on this subject and the causes and acceptability of homosexual practices." Again, disunity. After that, as good deal of effort was put into seeing that same sex intimacy was never again addressed at an annual session.

What are we to do when we find ourselves in disunity?   For some (including me), the answer is that we should worship and pray together and labor with one another. For others, the answer is schism, casting out ("releasing..." involuntarily) those who disagree. We can look to the Bible for unity, but the harder we look the more that sole reliance on the Bible leads to fracturing.

The story of how Friends worked their way to a position of unity around slavery, despite dozens and dozens of apparently slavery-approving passages in the Bible is instructive for me. While that issue simmered, some Friends also acted, assisting runaway slaves. We now count them as heroes.  I would not ask a monthly meeting to wait if it had come to unity on performing a marriage of a same-sex couple under its care.

Comment by Adria Gulizia on 11th mo. 11, 2015 at 10:17am

As I said before, when Friends aren't in unity, they should seek unity, not schism, loving one another and in humility regarding others as better than themselves, seeing themselves as the chief of all sinners. If Christ could die on a cross for us, surely we can live in a moderately uncomfortable position for a while!

Traditional Quaker discernment has combined individual discernment, corporate discernment and scripture/Gospel history. Any one of these alone can lead us astray because we are human and may err in understanding where God is leading us. But when there is disunity, no one should move forward in behaviors that are going to lead to schism. It is not the time to proclaim how God abhors homosexuality, and it is not the time to perform same-sex marriages. It is the time to reaffirm the bonds of love, visit each other, pray together, break bread together, worship together, serve the poor together, talk together, etc. How anyone can believe that amputation is God's will for his body is beyond me.

To be clear, I don't believe that unity means unanimity and that a vocal minority should be allowed to hold a YM hostage, but I know that isn't what we are talking about here.

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 11th mo. 11, 2015 at 10:43am

Though knowing only that Evangelical Quakerism was influenced by Protestantism and not sharing their view on biblical inerrancy, I have some empathy for their need to so position themselves.  I speculate they've adopted their  position in response to the perceived alternative: conscientious, human discernment.  Conscience and autonomous reason are both fallible, even in the most well-intentioned people with lofty aims. That our fallibility can be compensated for by reading Scripture and other wisdom literature, careful discernment, caring attitude, rational thought etc. is unwarranted optimism that may keep the Society afloat for a time but not indefinitely.  Trueblood's quotation is a good example of a well-intentioned, conscientious aim sabotaged by a failure of vision.  

Elton Trueblood, The People Called Quakers, Harper Row, 1966, pp 69-70: 

"Our discussion has brought us to the famous doctrine of the Light, which is popularly supposed to be the major theological contribution of Quakers to total Christianity. The Light is sometimes denominated “The Light Within,” or “The Inner Light,” but most often it is called “The Light of Christ Within.” Such was the common practice of leading Quaker intellectuals of the seventeenth century, because they wanted to maintain the identity with the Christ of history. There were sound reasons for this decision. If they had decided otherwise, Quakerism might easily have become separated from its Christian roots and have ended as something similar to theosophy. In that event it would certainly have lacked the power which it demonstrated, and in all probability, would not even have survived. As it was, Quakers were able to stress immediate experience without in any way denying or minimizing the Biblical faith. The Light which strives to reach every man is not some vague general light, but the present continuation of he Light which shone in Jesus as he called men by the Sea of Galilee. Here the Logos doctrine served admirably so that the prologue to the Fourth Gospel became more precious to Quakers than almost any other single passage in the Bible. John 1:9 in the Authorized translation, which the first Quakers knew, was used so much an so often that it came to be known as “the Quakers’ text.”"

 

Trueblood intends to show the necessity for identifying the Christ of history with the Christ Within, yet his words lead to a contrary result. He speaks of  the "decision" of early Friends "to maintain the identity [of the Light Within] with the Christ of history."  For 17th century Friends, this wasn't a decision; it was an experience of the person of Christ coming to teach his people himself; their Christology was functional: Christ taught them and brought them into unity under his Kingship. Unlike Liberal Friends, the early Friends did not bespeak a mystical doctrine in which the Light was a substance inherent in everyone, and was "the same Light that shone in Jesus." Such a doctrine begins almost imperceptibly to separate Jesus Christ of history from the Light of Christ. Once this separation occurs, way opens for asserting that virtuous feeling or thought is the Light  ("that of God") according to individual's concept of God. When that occurs, a self-assumed divinity replaces the authority of the transcendent God, and we're back to square one in the Fall: "Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5).

Evangelical Friends may consciously or intuitively know that human discernment cannot replace the gospel, the power of God. Their claim of the inerrancy of the words of God, the Scriptures, may be drawing a line in the sand in an attempt to refuse human overreach, an overreach of which most Liberals are not conscious and which underlies disunity, a clear sign that Christ, the head of the Church, is not received.

 

Comment by Keith Saylor on 11th mo. 11, 2015 at 11:01am

Adria, I understand what you are saying in your response to me. I love George Fox and will read him for the rest of my life, however, George Fox under the notion of the unchangeable nature of God came to fear disunity as a sign of a lack of Christ's inward Presence within people and excused the establishment of outward institutional forms and practices over against the conscience of his Quaker contemporaries who did not share his fear of disunity. By the power of the inward Light in my conscious and conscience I do not fear disunity and share the experience of many founding Quakers, who were contemporaries of Fox, that disunity is not in itself a manifestation of the lack of God's presence in the conscience of some people or all people. William Roger's, a contemporary of Fox, documented this well in his book "Christian Quaker ..." written in 1680. 

The experience of Love, even in the face of adamant disunity, is bridged in a Spirit that is recorded as saying on the one hand while still in the body:

"“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household." Matthew 10:34

And on the other when resurrected:

"Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.  And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,'Receive the Holy Spirit.' If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” John 20:21-23

By the power of Spirit spirit living and manifesting in the conscious and informing the conscience there is a deep peace in heaven even as there is not peace on earth. Once we love others in spite of acknowledged and embraced disunity, even a disunity that involves separation of earth, we know heaven. Right down to the core of my conscience Adria; by the power of the unmediated experience of Presence itself I know eternal unity even in temporal disunity and separation. Know that it is not my prerogative to judge the conscience of another but to rest in Presence itself even in disunity and separation. 

Comment by William F Rushby on 11th mo. 11, 2015 at 11:22am

P. Dallmann wrote: "Though knowing only that Evangelical Quakerism was influenced by Protestantism and not sharing their view on biblical inerrancy..."

This is in no wise a response to your thoughtful essay.  I want only to point out that there is not ONE evangelical view of Biblical inerrancy, as the Wikipedia essay on the subject makes clear. While many, but not all, evangelicals affirm Biblical inerrancy, it doesn't represent a single view of the authority of the Bible in Christian life.

For some, Biblical inerrancy means that every word of the Bible is authoritative and not subject to critical scrutiny.  For others, Biblical inerrancy means that the Bible is authoritative in matters of doctrine, but not in everything it says or implies about history, the natural world, etc.  There are not doubt other interpretations of Biblical inerrancy.  My point is that those who treat it in the present discussion as a single, unitary point of view are misrepresenting reality. 

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