Editor’s Note: The flowing biblical study is an excerpt from the FUM curriculum, Testimonies, by Ben Richmond. It was published in 1993 by Friends United Press. The lesson is divided into several sections: Bible study, a brief essay, Quaker quotes and questions for discussion. It is hoped Friends will utilize this study on congregational living as a springboard for further study.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father (Ephesians 2:13-18).
What does this passage say about God’s purpose in the church? How was this purpose accomplished? In Ephesians 3:9-10, Paul says that it is God’s intent that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known.” This suggests that the life of the church should demonstrate the breaking down of barriers of hostility among groups of people who were formerly enemies. Do you agree that this is an important part of God’s purpose for the church? Should we seek to have people of a wide variety of social and racial backgrounds together in the church? Or would this inhibit growth? Does the life of our meeting demonstrate the power of the cross of Christ to bring reconciliation to people who were formerly “enemies”?
And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and . . . to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ . . . (Ephesians 4:11-13).
What are the “equipping gifts” and what are they for? Who are the ministers? Is it important to have a diversity of ministries? Why? What do you think might be meant by “attaining to the fullness of Christ”? This chapter is about “the unity of the spirit” (4:3), and yet it speaks at length of differences and even anger among us: “Putting away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger . . . . and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:25, 26, 32).”
Do you agree that differences and even anger have a place within the “blessed community?” When is anger sinful and when is it not? Have we learned how to “speak the truth in love”? (Ephesians 4:15)
The gift of community is an essential part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Community undergirds every other aspect of Christian life: it is in community that peace, reconciliation and equality find expression; it is in community that we experience sharing and the forgiveness of debts; it is community that provides the sounding board of truth that helps us to escape the snares of self-deceit and the love that encourages us to make new beginnings; it is the community that equips us for our service in the world. Most importantly, it is through others that we discover communion with God. In his pamphlet, A Place Called Community, Parker Palmer quotes Martin Buber: ‘’We expect a theophany of which we know nothing but the place, and the place is called community.”
As Helen Hole wrote in her pamphlet, Prayer, the Cornerstone:
“As far as I can see from the evidence of the New Testament, there were no solitary Christians. If you were a Christian, this meant that you were an integral part of the community of Christians. The one possible exception is found in the story of the eunuch who was converted by Philip and who afterwards disappears from the pages of the Bible. I suspect, however, that he was not a true exception; if he was a genuine convert, he undoubtedly gathered others about him after his return home, so that another Christian fellowship was founded. If he did not do this, he almost certainly ceased to be a Christian.”
Friends have traditionally been strongly community-minded. Their experience of the presence of Christ among them produced a strong bond of love. This sense of community Studyextended to all aspects of life. According to Fox, the need to care for the poor and the desire to support each other in maintaining a holy life were equally important motivations in the decision to establish the first monthly meetings for business: “In 1653 in Cumberland many of the Elders came to me at Swarthmore in Lancashire, and desired that they might have a Monthly Meeting to look after the poor and to see that all walked according to the Truth, and they had a meeting settled there for the same purpose.” (Quoted in Braithwaite, The Beginnings of Quakerism, p. 143.)
Sadly, community has been giving way to individualism in Friends meetings, no matter where they lie on the theological spectrum. As the center of the Quaker population in North America moves increasingly away from of the stability of small town, rural life and is caught up in the transience and fragmentation of urban life, it becomes increasingly important for us to recover the testimony of community. At the same time, it becomes more difficult. We need to be conscious in the work of opening up opportunities for true gospel fellowship among us. We need to create ways for newcomers to enter into our fellowship as fellow citizens of the commonwealth and not simply tolerated guests. We dare not settle for what Thomas Kelly disdainfully called, “church programs of mere sociability and social contacts.” It is only in coming to know one another in that which is eternal that the hunger of our souls will be met and the promise of the “kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven” be held out to a hurting world.
As Edward Burrough said, Friends are to conduct their corporate business by “mutual concord” rather than by vote.
- Business is conducted in the context of worship. Opening and closing with silence help center the group’s attention on God’s presence; moments of silence and prayer can be most helpful throughout the meeting.
- The agenda should be thoroughly prepared in advance by the clerk. Business items should be carefully sifted by an appropriate committee before coming to monthly meeting, when possible.
- The clerk of the meeting should encourage Friends to speak to the issue at hand, being sensitive to the feelings of those who are silent as well as those who speak. The clerk’s primary responsibility is to “read” the sense of the meeting as to God’s will concerning the matter at hand and to express this in the form of a minute.
- Disagreements provide opportunity for seeking Truth. Tue meeting may resort to quiet prayer. In some cases, the matter may need to be delayed over to another session. Sometimes it is helpful to ask a few sensitive Friends representing differing points of view to go aside and attempt to bring a new recommendation back to the meeting.
- The Meeting is seeking neither unanimity nor consensus, but a sense of general unity in discerning God’s will. When the clerk senses unity, individuals who still disagree with the decision but recognize the will of the Meeting, may state their position, indicating that they do not intend to “stand in the way” of the Meeting proceeding. Or they may request that their opposition be minuted. In most cases, a Meeting will not take action until substantial unity has been achieved recognizing that the minority may have important truth to offer.
- In difficult or controversial situations, the clerk will want to offer the minute tentatively, requesting further consideration before calling for the approval of those present. It is often wise to give the recording clerk time, while the meeting waits in silent worship, to write the minute. When it is read back greater clarity can be achieved.
Francis Howgill, Christian Faith and Practice, 1672:
The Lord of Heaven and earth we found to be near at hand, and, as we waited upon him in pure silence, our minds out of all things, his heavenly presence appeared in our assemblies, when there was no language, tongue nor speech from any creature. The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration, insomuch that we often said one unto another with great joy of heart: “What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with men? . . . And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God.
George Fox, Epistle 22, 1653:
Dear Friends, watch over one another in love, and stir up that which is pure in one another, and exhort one another daily. And the Lord keep you all in his fear, and in his obedience now and evermore!
George Fox, Journal, 1660:
And justices and captains had come to break up this meeting, but when they saw Friends’ books and accounts of collections concerning the poor, how that we did take care one county to help another, and to provide for our poor that none of them should be chargeable to their parishes, etc., and took care to help Friends beyond the seas, the justices and officers were made to confess that we did their work and Friends desired them to come and sit with them.
George Fox, Epistle 149, 1657:
And Friends meet together, and know one another in that which is eternal, which was before the world was. For knowing one another only in the letter and flesh, differs you little from the beasts of the field; for what they know they know naturally . . . . Therefore in the light wait and walk, that ye may have fellowship one with another . . .
Thomas Kelly, “The Blessed Community,” A Testament of Devotion, 1941:
When we are drowned in the overwhelming seas of the love of God, we fmd ourselves in a new and particular relation to a few of our fellows . . . . A new kind of life-sharing and of love has arisen of which we had had only dim hints before. Are these the bonds of love which knit together the early Christians, the very warp and woof of the Kingdom of God? . . . We don’t create it deliberately; we find it and we find ourselves increasingly within it as we find ourselves increasingly within Him . . . Ever within the Christian church, has existed the Holy Fellowship, the Blessed Community, an ekklesiola in ekklesia, a little church within the church.
Edward Borrough, Christian Faith and Practice #354, 1662:
Being orderly come together, (you are) not to spend time with needless, unnecessary and fruitless discourses; but to proceed in the wisdom of God not in the way of the world, as a worldly assembly of men, but hot contests, by seeking to outspeak and over-reach one another in discourse as if it were controversy between party and party of men, or two sides violently striving for dominion, not deciding affairs by the greater vote. But in the wisdom, love and fellowship of God, in gravity, patience, meekness, in unity and concord submitting one to another in lowliness of heart, and in the holy Spirit of truth and righteousness, all things (are) to be carried on; by hearing, and determining every matter coming before you, in love, coolness, gentleness, and dear unity; — I say, as one only party, all for the truth of Christ, and for the carrying on the work of the Lord, and to determine of things by a general mutual concord . . . in which his Spirit of love and unity must rule.
Iowa Yearly Meeting, Discipline 1983:
The Friends recognize and emphasize the fundamental and essential truth that Jesus Christ is the Head of His Church; and He dwells in the hearts of His believers; that, as they look for His guidance, their understandings are enlightened and they are enabled to do His will. Associated with this is the further truth that the Head of the Church is pleased to confer upon each believer some special gift or gifts which he is to exercise with such ability as may be possessed. Members have equal rights and privileges in the denomination, modified only by the
Bible Studygifts they have received and their faithfulness in the exercise thereof. It is, therefore, both theocratic and democratic in the principle of its government.
Howard Brinton, “The Meeting Community,” Friends for 300 Years, 1952:
The Quaker meeting used to be, and to some extent still is, both are religious and an economic unit . . . In 1737a list of persons entitled to support was drawn up by each meeting. This list constituted the first list of members and introduced the concept of a definite membership . . . . The meeting community is probably more needed today as a stabilizing element in society than ever before. The family is small and often unable to withstand the storms which sweep over it in our unstable economic system.
Parker Palmer, “A Place Called Community,” 1977:
The core of the Quaker tradition is a way of inward seeking which leads to outward acts of integrity and service. Friends are most in the Spirit when they stand at the crossing point of the inward and the outward life. And that is the intersection at which we find community. Community is a place where the connections felt in the heart make themselves known in bonds between people, and where the tuggings and pullings of those bonds keep opening up our hearts.
- What brings true Christian fellowship into being?
- What are the entry points for new people into our community of faith?
- How does our meeting attend to its responsibility to be an economic as well as spiritual community? Are there “poor among us”? How are we attending to their need?
- Are our business meetings held in a true spirit of worship? Are they concerned with the real business of the church — helping the members discern the will of God in the important affairs of life — or are they primarily caught up in maintaining the institution?
- Are the ideals of community and individual freedom in conflict? How should the two to be balanced in our church? What does love require?