Posted by West Hills Friends

Hello Friends and friends of Friends! I am your host, Pendle Hill. In this column, we will consider the role of Elders in a Friends meeting.

The earliest Friends were quick to acknowledge Christ as their present leader and guide. By exalting the Spirit of Christ as the true head of the church, Quakers created a very egalitarian structure amongst themselves. During their meetings for worship (for example), the Friends would gather in silent expectation — waiting for Christ to speak through whomever Christ might choose. Because Christ might lead through anyone, spiritual leadership was open to all.

Firmly committed to the principles of equality, the early Friends nevertheless recognized that some were leaders in a way others were not. Barclay, for example, notices that some have a distinct “gift” for ministry (although he rejects the notion that this gift entitles them to a higher status than their fellow believers). The early Friends decried the (unbiblical) distinction between Clergy and Laity, while at the same time recognizing the function of leadership within their own ranks.

As early as 1653, the Quaker leader, William Dewsbury provided this counsel to each meeting: there should be “one or two who are most grown in the power of the Life [to] take care of the flock in the place.” In particular, these leaders should make sure that Friends live in accord with their testimonies, that meetings for worship are held regularly, and that Friends are not suffering from material needs.

In his writings, George Fox called these “one or two” leaders Elders or Overseers. The two terms were basically interchangeable among the early Friends.

During this same period in history, some Friends were recognized as Public Friends or Ministering Friends. These leaders were the ones who commonly exercised a gift in public speaking or vocal prayer.

The recognition of Elders and Public Friends was entirely informal. It opened no doors, provided no income, awarded no status.

Unfortunately, those who were out of unity with Friends in their own area would sometimes travel to distant parts and present themselves as Public Friends in good standing. By presenting themselves in this way, renegade speakers were able to capture the attention of Friends who might otherwise have dismissed them.

Hoping to end this abuse, Friends instituted a more formal process of recognizing Public Friends.

By the 1720’s, Public Friends who felt called to travel abroad would carry with them a minute from their local meetings. This minute would validate their ministries and recommend them to the Friends they would encounter in their travels. Those whose gift had been minuted were then known as “recorded” ministers.

By 1727, London Yearly Meeting advised each monthly meeting to appoint, “serious, discreet and judicious Friends who are not ministers” to serve as Elders. In this way, the role of Elder also became formally recognized.

Strong, formally recognized Elders were needed as a counterweight to the powerful role of recorded ministers. The Elders were “not ministers” precisely because they needed to evaluate and instruct those who were ministers.

When Samuel Bownas (a young Friends minister) felt called to “preach woe” to a nearby town, his Elders advised him to wait. If his leading was truly from God, the Elders assured him, he would be all the more eager to execute it in a few weeks. If, however (as they expected), his impulse to “preach woe” arose from a less inspired source, then the feeling would pass.

Sure enough, it did. A few weeks later, Samuel contritely admitted to his Elders that his “righteous anger” had vanished. Samuel was saved from an embarrassing episode and the Friends were able to preserve the integrity of their witness (by preventing someone from voicing his own prejudices as “the Word of God”).

Eventually (1750-1850), Quaker Elders came to play a police-like role within the community. They demanded conformity to Quaker standards — and disowned anyone who failed to comply!

Heavy-handed Elders became a detriment to the Friends movement. Much-needed reforms in the 19th Century curtailed their influence. Some Friends responded to the problem by moving away from “officially recognized” leaders. Ministers were no longer recorded and the work of Elders was done by the community as a whole. This approach seemed to return Friends to the ideals of their past.

Other Friends went the opposite direction. For them, authority was concentrated even further — in the hands of a pastor.

Both “solutions” created a new set of problems.Without designated leaders to articulate and enforce a Quaker standard, some meetings lost their sense of unity. Everyone became equal, but “tolerance” was the only value that everyone could support. Parameters on theology or even outward behavior became somewhat gray.

On the other hand, in some pastoral meetings, the strong role of “pastor” eclipsed the leadership of others. Friends abdicated their responsibility to follow Christ and instead followed the pastor.
Even today, Friends continue to search for the right balance. How do we allow our leaders to lead without forgetting that everyone is called to lead as Christ directs? How do we empower some to hold us accountable to the standards of our community without creating an unhealthy emphasis on outward conformity?

Here are some other questions to consider:

  1. What sort of authority should the Elders have? Under what circumstances should the Elders confront a person in the community?
  2. Besides “disownment,” how might Elders exercise their authority?
  3. Other than “serious, discreet and judicious,” what should we look for in an Elder?

West Hill Friends is a pastored Christ-centered Friends Meeting located in Portland, Oregon.