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 me...you visited me...you welcomed me in...you 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. 26, 2012 at 2:34pm

The church in Acts was made up of people dedicated to a well-defined mission: getting the word out to the known world, for the limited time they would be in existence before Jerusalem, and their local church, would be destroyed.

Things that made economic sense in that context would not be equally cogent when the purpose became maintaining an institution as a going concern.... The institution eventually lost sight of its purpose and what that entailed -- and heedlessly "taking thought for the morrow" was a major factor. But in a long-haul perspective, giving people land on which to support themselves makes more sense than selling it and spending the money to maintain them as beggars.

Comment by James C Schultz on 12th mo. 27, 2012 at 9:19am

Looking around at the weapons countries have to attack each other with, I would think we all should be living with one eye on the future and one eye on the extinction of life as we know it.  To do otherwise would take a lot of faith in mankind's ability not to self destruct.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 12th mo. 27, 2012 at 2:24pm

Okay, yes, the stone-fact signs of the times suggest a brief & ugly future.

& the conventional way of maintaining an institution -- via endowments of financial instruments -- looks increasing short-sighted as "investments" get increasingly less functional in the real economy, increasingly focused toward preying on & scavenging the remains.

Meeting real needs of actual people, with all the assets available, is a more truly spiritual mode of 'investment' -- and the prevalent notion of "stewardship", where that emphasizes maintaining the assets for a future guaranteed to be far far different from the present, is simply mistaken.

I think where this is going: Despite some things that truly haven't changed since the 1st Century, we can't apply the Acts approach unthinkingly. To follow the same spirit today, people should best contribute whatever their treasures are, and not in a way that exhausts them (This is sometimes, but rarely, our Assignment!) but in a way that keeps them available for ongoing use. Money is certainly needed, but human energy, far more so!

Comment by James C Schultz on 12th mo. 27, 2012 at 5:10pm

Fortunately Wisdome is a gift God has been known to give, so now is probably a good time to be asking for it.

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