Why are Friends different from other Christians? The answer to that finds itself in two words, obscure in context to most, but essential to being a Friend - “Gospel Order.” What is that - Gospel Order? George Fox seemed to have coined the term, but what does it mean to the Friend of today? I hope when I am done you can answer these two questions or at least ponder them and find your place in the Gospel Order.
Lloyd Lee Wilson, in his book, Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, makes this statement: “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.” Genesis 1:4 tells us that once God created light, He separated it from the dark, chaotic void. It was the first act of bringing order to a place where even God was unhappy.
And why would I think God could be unhappy? My own conception of common sense tells me that “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” God fixed the universe so it must have been broken, that’s my read. God changed the very nature of the environment He had lived in, and this suggests strongly that He was not happy with the way things had been.
Wilson continues to say: “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.’” What God created, which was and is separate from the dark, chaotic void, was and is good. Everything! Nothing that exists is bad. Wilson says: “Gospel order is pervasive; it is the order and harmony that characterized every part of creation when that part is functioning according to the divine will – the shining of stars as well as the baking of bread,” The world would have gotten on just fine without human beings. The balance of nature, that God established when he was done with creation, did not need to be changed by humanity. God even provided for people and the animals so they would not have to eat each other. Genesis 1:29 and 30 says: “And God said, ‘Look! I have given you the seed-bearing plants throughout the earth and all the fruit trees for your food. And I have given all the grasses and other green plants to the animals and birds for their food.’ And so it was.” It seems that there were no barbecues in mind for mankind before the fall. Nor could there have been predatory killing among the animals. The acquisition of the ability to reason put an end to that peaceful kingdom. It became literally a “dog-eat-dog” world.” During ancient famines, archeologists tell us, with vegetation dried up and unavailable, early man became not a hunter but a scavenger, who used tools to open bones to get at the marrow, which was often what, was left after a beast of prey was done with a carcass. Learning to hunt and kill animals for meat and craft supplies was a late comer for man which enabled him to settle in the colder parts of the world. But that was after the original gospel order had been rationalized away.
Later Loyd says: “As one comes more closely into harmony with the gospel order, one’s life is filled with the peace that passes understanding and one’s relationships reflect this peace and harmony.” This further speaks to Friends understanding of Jesus’ role as the restorer of the original relationship between creator and creation. By this view, Christ reconciled creation with the Creator, and by so doing enabled everyone who believes in Christ to enter into a new relationship with God.” ”For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and by him God reconciled everything to Himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of his blood on the cross. This includes you who were once so far away from God. You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions, yet now he has brought you back as his friends. He has done this through His death on the cross in His own human body. As a result, He has brought you into the very presence of God, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault.” (Colossians 1:19 - 22). Ain’t that great! By believing in Christ, we are able to stand before God holy and blameless. Gospel Order!
Wilson continues: “ It was (and is) the responsibility of Christians to live in this gospel order, both out of the desire to do God’s will, from the joy that being in that right relationship brings, and as a testimony to the rest of the world about the Gospel.” Again look at Colossians chapter 1, following in the 23 verse: “But you must continue to believe this truth and stand in it firmly. Don’t drift away from the assurance you received when you heard the Good News. The Good News has been preached all over the world, and I, Paul, have been appointed by God to proclaim it.” And so he did. Paul preached to the entire known world. Gospel Order!
Pendle Hill Pamphlet 297, Gospel Order: a Quaker understanding of faith in community by Sandra L. Cronk, discusses Gospel Order and suggests three dimensions to gospel order:
o Individuals living in a way that nurtures and maintains the covenant relationship with God.
o The life of the meeting - community, the church, must reflect the love and unity gathered Friends feel in their relationship with God.
o Provide a prophetic witness to the larger society, or as we say among Friends – live the testimonies.
The first addresses the foundation that individuals must have with God, through Christ. When we are alone in the world, away from our faith community, do we, individuals live in a way that nurtures and maintains the covenant relationship with God? Or do we live a witness that reflects no covenant relation, no balance, and no order, with no place for God? What do we believe? Wilson suggests fundamental beliefs that lie at the heart of an individual Friend’s spiritual life: Christ’s restoration of the Creator’s order in the cosmos is effective in the present moment, not some future time, giving us the understanding that the “end times” is part of the present moment. The Kingdom of God is available here and now.
Every person is capable of living in the Gospel Order; no one will be left out of the richness of living a Godly life, unless they chose to be. It is possible for a person to fall from the state of grace.
Robert Barclay, in his book Apology, had this to say about falling from grace in proposition nine: “Even though this gift of inward grace of God is sufficient to bring about salvation, yet for those who resist it, it not only may become their condemnation, but does. Moreover, by disobedience, those whose hearts have been partly purified and sanctified by this grace may fall from that state turning to licentiousness (Jude 4) making a shipwreck of faith.” We are told in 1 Timothy 1:19 - ”Cling tightly to your faith in Christ, and always keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked.” Barclay continues: “They fall away again after they have tasted the heavenly gift and have partaken of the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 6:4-6). Nevertheless, it is possible to achieve such an increase and stability in the truth in this life that total apostasy is impossible.” Isn’t that what we all want? Stability and increase of God’s will and truth in our daily lives? Yet, we find ourselves lukewarm in the pursuit of this fuller measure and foundational stability. I think that we are made lukewarm by diluting our faith, our sense of Gospel Order with the trappings of faiths we do not entirely share.
Earlier, I mentioned that Sandra L. Cronk listed three dimensions to Gospel Order. They identify Gospel Order as focusing on the individual, the gathered intentional community, and prophetic ministry to the world. Again, these dimensions are:
1. Individuals living in a way that nurtures and maintains the covenant relationship with God.
2. The life of the meeting - community, the church, must reflect the love and unity gathered Friends feel in their relationship with God.
3. Provide a prophetic witness to the larger society, or as we say among Friends – live the testimonies.
In our corporate worship we can apply all of the elements listed above and apply them to our Church and Meeting. In his seminal work Living in Faith, Wil Cooper says of the historic roots of Gospel Order: “Gospel order meant decision making by the group (or meeting) acting in obedience to Christ.” He quotes Doug Gwyn, former director of Woodbrooke Institute, a Friends study center in England, and, today, pastor of Richmond First Friends Church in Richmond, Indiana, as saying that Gospel Order is a “Quaker discipline of waiting for the Lord’s guidance and teaching which represents a focused effort to be open to divine structuring in the life of the meeting and it’s members.” It is this divine structuring that prepares individuals to be unified in the meeting and prepares meetings to radically and effectively carry out the Great Commission read in our scripture reading for today. Gospel Order answers our needs as a faith community with prophetic action as opposed to raw business sense.
One of the hinge pins of Quaker understanding is that the Christian Faith, in the early years after the deaths of the apostles, became apostate, or fallen away from the original intent of Christ. Congregations, by and large, missed the point of the Gospel and got caught up in politics, ceremonials and power brokering. It seems that the early Christian martyrs were the only ones witnessing the new covenant with God, but had very short ministries, and the comfortable did everything they could to stay that way. Friends saw and, I believe, still reflect that anything outside of the direct relationship with God through the intermediation of the Holy Spirit and the example of Jesus is superfluous. We have baptism, not of water, but of the Holy Spirit. We have communion as a gathering of the faithful, not a breaking of bread. We are confirmed by convincement and approval in membership. Even birth-right Friends demonstrate convincement. We celebrate the lives of our dead, while mourning our loss and sharing it with God. We witness the marriage of couples committed to sacred trust. We are all ordained of God to minister and be examples of Christ. These are our sacraments and they flow from the Holy Spirit of God, not from some hierarchical or liturgical ordinances. However, we also find these concepts being replaced with the appearance of sacramental and pious eye wash.
Toying with the trappings of other Christian and non Christian faiths, as a gathering of Friends, can lead to gathered falling away from God’s purpose. Often among some Friends, we see the introduction of elements of other religions into Friends worship. Our testimony may have similarities to other religious practices, but other religious practices are still “other religious practices,” the adoption of which weakens the body of the church.
“The spiritual salad bar approach to spirituality,” says Lloyd Wilson, stifles the development of corporate grace - the Gospel Order of the congregation of Friends. Wilson continues - “Individuals are rarely able to discern the lessons of life without the prayerful and gathered discernment of the faith community, a community that knows its neighbors, one where anonymity is rare. When an individual chooses what beliefs, practices and disciplines to adopt from a variety of spiritual traditions, the selection is likely to be less than ideal. It is only human not to choose those things which seemingly will be less pleasant, even though they are profoundly beneficial. When was the last time you looked forward to having a tooth filled with real joy?.. The beliefs and practices that are being blended are often mutually contradictory, and the effort to harmonize them is doomed to failure.”
“Part of the corporate beliefs in the Gospel Order is that we respect the authenticity and integrity of numerous paths to God. Yet, Quakerism is a self-contained, authentic path to God, and does not need to incorporate beliefs or practices from other spiritual paths in order to become more valid… The freedom of Zen Buddhists, for example, is directly proportional to our freedom to be Quakers, and our exercise of that freedom. To incorporate isolated pieces of Zen faith or practice into our Quaker faith and practice is to do an injustice to our Zen brothers and sisters as well as to ourselves. A Buddhist is not free to practice his or her faith if some recent convert insists on celebrating the Eucharist in the temple daily. Friends are not free to practice their faith when individuals insist on adding pieces of other faiths to our corporate practice.” We can respect the Buddhists, Hindu’s, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Baptists, etc., but we cannot act as they do if we are to follow Gospel Order as we discern it in our worship. Gospel Order is the glue that holds Friends together and without attention to Gospel Order Friends drift apart.
It is readily evident that branches of Quakerism are drifting apart. Each hangs on to parts of the testimonies of Friends, one, for example, clings to the grace of light in all persons, without respect to creed, and at the same time minimizing Christ’s role in announcing the new covenant all the while dabbling in non Christian practices. The other, hangs on to Jesus as a personal savior and seeks the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, taking exception to non Christian expressions of holiness, and dabbling with other Christian practices that do not stand up to the testimonies of Friends. Certainly there are Friends, to varying degrees, between these two very extreme ideals. Both ideals are addressed in Gospel Order, but not as exclusive of one another, as they seemed to have become. Listen to John 3:16-22 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it.
“There is no judgment awaiting those who trust him. But those who do not trust him have already been judged for not believing in the only Son of God. Their judgment is based on this fact: The light from heaven came into the world, but they loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. They hate the light because they want to sin in the darkness. They stay away from the light for fear their sins will be exposed and they will be punished. But those who do what is right come to the light gladly, so everyone can see that they are doing what God wants.”
This tells me that there was light for all the world -- the grace to live in harmony. The affect of light on our lives had a direct relationship to Jesus, who pointed the way out of the darkness. He introduced us to functions of the church community for worship and discernment. Providing the example, Jesus’ social testimony became our own. It is in this environment of Gospel Order that we practice the disciplines of listening together for the inward leadings of the Holy Spirit. It is in the listening and responding to God, with the Holy Spirit as messenger, that makes the rest of Gospel Order possible. As Sandra Cronk wrote: “There would be no living relationship to be expressed in a new order of living. Meetings for worship and church business are simultaneously both the manifestations of faithful living and the avenues which bear the life giving sap from the vine to the branches and thus allow the fruit of faithful living to appear”--Gospel Order.