by Sandra Cronk

This paper originally published in 1991 as Pendle Hill pamphlet #271 and is posted here by permission of the Estate of Sandra Cronk. Hard copies are available from Pendle Hill Publications.

Table of contents


In the last decade the Society of Friends has experienced a profound renewal which has opened up many areas of Quaker life and thought for reflection and exploration. One of these areas is our understanding of the significance of the meeting- or church-community. Participation in the community of faith may be a witness to God’s new order of love, peace, and justice coming to birth in the world. At the same time, such participation provides major avenues through which God’s transforming presence may continue to touch our lives.

Gospel order is the term which has historically been used to gather together many of the most significant elements of Friends’ understanding of the church-community. George Fox made use of the phrase when he began to describe more fully the practices of worship, decision-making, and daily living in Friends meetings. His writings indicate that his interest in this topic grew as the Society of Friends, created initially in a period of spiritual upheaval and ferment, began to take shape as an on-going movement, living out the implications of being led into God’s new order.

Friends were not the only ones to face these implications. Shakers made the term gospel order famous, at least to those familiar with church history. This community, too, understood itself as living in the end-time when God’s reign was manifested on earth. Shakers discovered that many adherents came from the great revivals that were Sweeping, first, colonial America and later the United States. Participants in these revivals, touched by God’s Spirit, asked themselves how they were henceforth to live their lives. How could they manifest faithfully their new commitment to God? Many found it unsatisfying to go home and take up their old lives exactly as before. They felt God leading them to new patterns of life. The Shakers provided a way of life for this deepened commitment.

More than a century before the Shaker movement, early Friends were in a similar position. Coming out of a great spiritual revival, transformed and guided by the Spirit of Christ, they sought to find an on-going life of faithfulness. George Fox’s teaching about gospel order explored what it meant to be a people of faith who listened and responded to the leadings of the Inward Teacher in daily living. In our own era, the contemporary renewal which has touched many people on a personal level has led them to inquire what it means to be part of a community of faith which lives as a witness to God’s new order. This essay on gospel order is offered as a part of the process of searching together for an answer to that question.


Early Friends expected and experienced the in-breaking of God’s new order in their lives. This new order had personal, communal (ecclesiastical), societal, and even cosmic dimensions. [See Referencesbelow for Benson, Jones, Gwyn, Punshon, and Taber.]

They discovered that all persons who turned to the Light found their lives transformed. The Light revealed the ways they had previously turned from God. It led them to Christ, their Inward Teacher and Guide. God’s new order meant a reconciled and faithful personal relationship with God. It also meant being gathered into a community of God’s people who lived the way of faithfulness together eschewing those conventions of the larger social order which were considered contrary to God’s will. Friends believed that God would manifest this new order in the fabric of the social, political, and economic life of the whole society. Indeed, they felt that ultimately this new order would affect alI of creation, restoring all things to their right relationship with God and with each other.

Gospel order was the phrase early Friends most often used to describe the communal/ecclesiastical and societal dimensions of this new ordering. There is no intrinsic reason why the phrase could not be used to denote the personal and cosmic dimensions of God’s new order as well. Some contemporary Friends use the phrase in this expanded way. This paper will concentrate on the communal and societal aspects of gospel order.

Both words, “gospel” and “order,” are important in understanding the foundation of meeting- or church-community life. “Gospel” does not refer primarily to the intellectual content of faith or a religious message. It is the actual life, power, and reality of the relationship with God. Intellectual beliefs only refer to this reality. Faith for Friends was not a matter of accepting certain tenets of belief, although they certainly had such. Faith was living in the life and power of relationship with Christ. As George Fox said, “For many have had the letter, but lost the life; the notion, but lost the possession; the profession, but lost the substance, Christ Jesus.” [ George Fox, A Collection of Many Select and Christian Epistles, Letters, and Testimonies, published as part of The Works of George Fox, Vols. 7 & 8, 7:326. Hereafter citations will be listed by Fox, Works, volume #, and page.]

The word “order” reverberates with Friends’ multifaceted experience of God’s in-breaking order in their lives. In this context of the corporate and social dimensions of gospel order, the term “order” refers to the characteristics of daily living which flow from God’s life and power and which allow the community to maintain and deepen its relationship with Christ.

George Fox wrote of this relationship as a covenantal relationship [ On the covenant theme see Douglas Gwyn, Apocalypse of the Word, 99-108 and Charles F. Thomas, “Being a People of God,” The Church in Quaker Thought and Practice, 27-32.] Covenant is a theme which pervades the entire Scripture. The dictionary definition of covenant is that of a contract or agreement between two parties. In Scripture, however, covenant has always meant more than this. It signifies a relationship of abiding trust and fidelity with God. Historically, this relationship was expressed in a number of ways. In contemporary society, scriptural accounts of the covenantal relationship reveal ever new dimensions of meaning.

After the Flood, God made a covenant with Noah, and indeed, all life on earth (Genesis 9: 1-17). The covenant expresses God’s relationship of caring with the whole of creation. It also reveals that humanity’s relationship with God is intrinsically part of the relationship which God has with the whole earth. Consequently, this covenant forms a significant element in the development of some contemporary theologies concerning the environment.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims all recognize themselves as heirs of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants (i.e., through Isaac in the Judeo-Christian tradition [see Genesis 17] and through Ishmael in the Muslim tradition). The recognition that all three of the historic monotheistic traditions acknowledge a mutual covenantal relationship with God has inspired new directions in peace work, international community-building, and interfaith dialogue among the three groups.

The covenant given on Mt. Sinai has manifested the heart of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. This is a covenant of law. Yet it is more than a legalistic code. It is the framework through which the living bond with God may be expressed in everyday life. The act of giving the Ten Commandments was preceded by a theophany on the mountain. Moses led the people from their camp to meet God who descended on the mountain in fire and spoke through thunder (Exodus 19:16-19). The Ten Commandments, thcmselves, begin with the words, “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:1-2). This is an awesome, yet personal, relationship between God and the former slaves who have been given the gift of freedom and peoplehood. The Jewish faith has been a profound witness to the strength of that covenant through centuries of adversity and many attempts to destroy its corporate distinctiveness. It is in this covenantal tradition that Christians have understood their relationship with Christ as a new covenant. George Fox proclaimed that Friends were entering into the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah. For Fox this covenant was the fulfillment of all that went before. In this new covenant God’s law was not to be written on tablets of stone:

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more. [ Jeremiah 31:33-4 NRSV]

For early Friends, the new covenant was Christ Jesus and their living relationship with Christ, not merely a code of behavior. [ Fox, Works, 7:62] The patterns of life, the “order” in gospel order, were an outgrowth of that relationship with Christ.

Gospel order and the covenantal relationship it embodies are an expression of an abiding bond of faithfulness with God and, significantly, with other people. At the heart of Quaker faith is the understanding that one cannot live God’s new order alone. This is a sociological as well as a spiritual reality. It is necessary to have a community to embody a new pattern of living. A single person cannot live a new social pattern alone. Under ordinary circumstances, a person alone will follow the structures of the surrounding society when engaging in any interaction. These are the only structures that exist. Without the gathering of a people to live God’s new order, the Christian faith is truncated. It can never bear fruit.

Early Friends stressed that God’s new order was not present simply because people did all the “right” things in an outward sense; rather, God’s new order, gospel order, was present when people lived out of the fullness of their living relationship with Christ. Truth is not found by professing correct beliefs and correct actions while actually living outside the life and power of Christ. Only this life and power makes a church-community part of the true church. Only when the sap of the vine flows through the branches are they living branches. [ Isaac Penington, “Of the Church in its First and Pure State, and its Declining State, in its Declined State, and in its Recovery,” Works of Isaac Penington, vol.3: pp.133-7]

Early Friends’ insistence that the true church did not rest on theological proclamation or legalistic, outward action grew out of deep inward awareness of the ways in which the Spirit moved in their midst. Isaac Penington testified to his own experience that all humanly-based religion must be broken in pieces before God can work in human lives. [Isaac Penington, Letters of lsaac Penington, p.231] Even the most clearly articulated religious beliefs and goals of human behavior remain human ideas. They become ideals we attempt to realize through our own efforts. Life in Christ is not the imposition of a system of” oughts” and “shoulds.” George Fox wrote: “Take heed of getting into a form without the power; (any of you,) for that will bring deadness, and coldness, and weariness, and faintings.” [ Fox, Works, 7:170] This does not mean that correct belief, discipline, and standards are unimportant. It simply means that gospel order is, first and foremost, life lived in God’s transforming, guiding, and sustaining power. As long as we are trying to get ourselves or others to live up to an external code of behavior as the highest expression of religious life, there will be inevitable failure. Only in Christ’s life and power is there true human freedom and liberty. Friends felt that living in the power of the gospel was the way to overcome bondage to sin, unrighteousness, and all barriers that separate us from God. To live in the gospel is the way to experience the empowerment that allows one to embody peace, holiness, and righteousness. [ Fox, Works, 7:277]

While Friends did not define gospel order in terms of a legalistic framework, this order was not only an inward feeling. Gospel order entailed an ordered way of life that had concrete expressions in virtually all areas of living.

The Patterns and Structure of Gospel Order

The content of gospel order (as it relates to church-community concerns) falls into three general areas: the inward life of worship and discernment, the interior functioning of the church-community (and the Quaker home which, in some ways, is seen as a smaller version of the meeting community) and the social testimonies of Friends. [ These categories are, to a certain extent, artificial. The very act of worship was a witness to the social order and every social testimony bore ·witness to a deep inward listening to the teaching of the living Christ. These categories are simply helpful ways to cluster the patterns of faithful living for the purposes of discussion.]

The first dimension of gospel order was/is living in a way that nurtures and maintains the covenental relationship with God. For Fox this meant regular assembling together for meetings for worship and church business. It is in worship and business meeting that Friends practice the disciplines of listening together for the inward leadings of their shepherd. Without these basic patterns of listening and responding to God, the rest of gospel order would not be possible. 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 manifestation 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.

The second area of gospel order, the corporate life of the meeting-community, grows out of the first:

Therefore keep your meetings, and dwell in the power of truth, and know it in one another, and be one in the light, that you may be ·kept in peace and love in the power of God, that you may. know the mystery of the gospel: and all that ever you do, do in love; do nothing in strife, but in love, that edifies the body of Christ, which is the church. [ Fox, Works, 8:42]

The internal life of the meeting-community, the church, was a reflection of the love and unity Friends felt in their relationship with, God. Conversely, in the meeting they could know God’s power and love through one another. In his pastoral epistles George Fox outlined many suggestions for the life of the meeting. For example, he urged the community to care for all those with special needs: the poor, ill, weak, imprisoned, widowed, fatherless, and aged. He counselled apprenticeship programs for destitute children, homes for the distempered, and almshouses or hospitals for the poor who were “past work”. [ Fox, Works, 7:343]

Gospel order affected marriage, family, and home as well as the meeting. George Fox devoted considerable attention to the subject of marriage in his discussions of gospel order. Fox sometimes spoke of marriage as a symbol of Christ’s loving relationship with the church. Marriage was, thus, a commitment of love and fidelity. Since marriage was God’s ordinance, according to Fox, those whom God had joined, no human being could put asunder. Weddings conducted by priests were forbidden. This did not mean that weddings were merely the private affair of the couple. The arrangements were carefully overseen by the meeting to make sure that all involved were clear to proceed. The wedding itself, held after the manner of a meeting for worship, consisted in the exchange of promises between the man and woman. The community witnessed the promises, a sign of its support and an indication that the wedding was a corporate act as well as a personal one. [ Fox, Works, 7:332, 335-6]

Friends experienced Christ’s ordering work in their pat terns of home life. Many Quaker families had daily worship to nurture that living relationship with Christ. Everyone in the family was encouraged to worship with the larger community of Friends as well. In an era when extended households were common, Friends were expected to provide nurture and care for all those in the home: children, apprentices, and servants. [ Fox, Works, 8:22-3]

The third aspect of gospel order embodied a prophetic witness to the larger society. This witness was expressed through what cam. to be called “testimonies”: plain speech; simple or plain dress; the refusal to go to war, take an oath, or pay tithes to the state church, etc. These testimonies were very important for the interior life of the individual Friend and had a profound effect in shaping the life of the meeting-community. George Fox wrote, in regard to simple dress and fashion:

Therefore take heed of the world’s fashions, lest ye be moulded up into their spirit, and that will bring you to slight truth, and lift up the wrong eye, and wrong mind, and wrong spirit, and hurt and blind the pure eye, and pure mind, and quench the holy spirit. [ Fox, Works, 7:300]

Beyond these inward personal implications, the testimonies provided a vital witness to the new order which God was bringing to birth in the world. For the first generation of Friends, the testimonies were a prophetic challenge to what they perceived as a vain, unrighteous order around them. To be a prophetic challenge meant to follow the examples of the Hebrew prophets who, following a direct leading from God, called society to righteousness and articulated what must change for the people to be able to live in justice, mercy and love. For example, seventeenth-century England was a highly class-conscious society. Friends were particularly concerned about the spiritual consequences that arose out of the pride and arrogance engendered by this social system (at least for those on the top of the hierarchical pyramid). In the eyes of Friends, such people usurped the authority which can rest only with God. Therefore, Friends refused to participate in the existing social· structure when it was unfaithful to God. They felt called to a new way of living as evidenced in their plain speech, their refusal to doff their hats, and their simple dress.

In the eighteenth century, testimonies tended to retain their personal meaning (i.e., as signs of personal yielded ness to God’s will) and their social meanings as symbols of a withdrawn community living God’s order separate from the world. [ For those interested in the 18th-century evolution of gospel order may, see the References below.] But the larger spiritual, socio-economic and political witness to that new order coming to birth in the world faded. Later expressions of social justice (e.g., commitment to Native American affairs “or the abolition of slavery), very significant in themselves, were no longer perceived as part of the more holistic in-breaking of God’s new order into the larger society. Consequently, contemporary Friends have lost the fullness of the meaning of gospel order. We often assume it has only to do with the details of the internal life of the meeting rather than a holistic challenge to all areas of life, including the social, political, and economic dimensions of society. It will be impossible to reclaim the depth of faithful community life without special attention to this lost dimension of gospel order.

As significant as each of these individual components is, however, the challenge of gospel order arises on a deeper level than the summary of its individual parts. The call to be gathered into gospel order is a witness to the importance of the church-community, the people of God. A sense of peoplehood challenges the individualistic assumptions of much of contemporary society. It is on this level that gospel order may bring its most profound challenge to us today.

Reclaiming the Importance of Church

Friends might rightly be called a high church group, not in the liturgical sense of the term but in terms of the importance it places on the church-community. George Fox criticized the religious groups around him for calling their worship buildings churches not because he recognized no place for the concept of church within Quakerism but precisely for the opposite reason. Church was of great importance. Its meaning had nothing to do with buildings but with the people who were drawn to live in God’s order.

Church, in this sense, has become very weak in contemporary American society. [ There are, of course, exceptions to this generalization in virtually all heritages. Moreover, some traditions have been special carriers of a strong and holistic view of the church-community. A list of diverse examples might include the Shakers, churches in the African-American community, and certain Anabaptist and Pietist groups.] Most religious groups no longer embody a distinctive order. A new word has been coined to describe the resulting form of religious life. “Americhristianity” refers to religious communities so fully acculturated to the society around them that they are unable to speak any prophetic message to that society. They end up blessing American society’s general goals and norms. The term is most often used to designate those church groups which have supported American governmental expan­sionist and in imperialist movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But it might as easily apply to other religious groups which, while resisting this aspect of the American value system, have become acculturated in areas of fan1ily and personal morality. One reason for this inability of religious groups, whatever their theological perspective, to manifest a deeper Christian witness is that religious life has become individualistic. This is not to say that church groups have disappeared. Church organizations continue and even thrive. But church as gospel order has disappeared from our theological understandings.

Our individualistic framework means that we tend to see religious life in a bipolar way, divided between inward life and social concerns. Contemporary Friends often use this same conceptual model (even when the nature of Quaker church-community points toward something deeper).

In this bipolar model, the inward life of prayer and worship is seen as the source of strength and sustenance. When the water in this inward well of prayer and worship is deep enough, it flows over its walls to send us to serve and be active in the world. Those with great perceptivity point out that the flow can be in the other direction as well. Our commitment to peace and social concerns will inevitably affect our inward lives. There is truth in this model. Yet we are left wondering why our meetings tend to divide into camps of inward life Friends and social concern Friends. Somehow the power is missing which can witness to the deep transformation God brings to all areas of life.

The bipolar model of religious life sees both the inward life and the work of social concerns in individualistic ways. It is primarily as individuals that we relate to God or experience Christ as savior. Our social and peace concerns often take the form of individually supported programs and projects, even though as a cluster of individuals it is very hard to counter the corporate reality of the society and the social values around us.

Early Friends’ experience of being gathered into gospel order bespeaks another model. In this model the inward life, the work of social concerns, and the life of the meeting community are fused together into an integrated whole. For example, while Friends would certainly recognize the place of personal prayer and personal discernment of God’s leading, yet our major ways of listening to God and discerning God’s will are in the meeting for worship and the meeting for business, both corporate patterns. Thus, the inward life is not structured primarily in individualistic terms but in communal ways.

In the same vein, the witness to peace and social justice does not happen primarily through individual commitment to certain projects or programs of social change (although these are very important). As is clear from the discussion of the early Quaker testimonies, the most basic peace and social concerns work grows out of living gospel order. In the seventeenth century, Friends commitment to plain speech, peace, and simple dress was the community’s witness to living in a new order of peace, simplicity and harmony. That new order was already present, at least in the form of a seed ready to grow to maturity. Living that order gave a prophetic challenge to all the unjust social structures of the old order. We need to listen deeply to the Life and Power within to hear what twenty-first century expressions of corporate commitment we are being asked to live.

The frustration and sense of incompleteness which many feel in trying to deepen their prayer and worship lives or to make a more serious commitment to the work of social justice may find a solution through answering God’s call to be gathered into gospel order as a church-community, as a people of God. The integration of the inward life and social witness is complete only when the structures of the meeting-community are seen as part of the whole. Historically it was through the mutual support and care of members that Friends were enabled to stand against the value systems of the larger society. The process of mutual accountability. was not a way of checking to see whether Friends lived up to certain petty points of lifestyle, but a way to give each other the strength to be a people who listened to God and lived God’s new order. Indeed, it was through their relationships with one another that Friends often experienced God’s healing and reconciling love, empowerment, and guidance. Gospel order grows out of the intertwining of the inward, communal and social witness aspects of our lives as Quakers, Each aspect of this order finds its own expression in large part through its relationship with the others.

The Prophetic and Priestly Dimensions of Gospel Order

The characteristic ways Christ enters into relationship with people are called, in theological language, the “offices” of Christ. Prophet, and priest-king are two of the offices of Christ which figure most prominently in the teachings of George Fox. Although he names many other offices as well, these two describe some of the major ways in which early Friends experienced Christ at work in their midst. Quaker understandings of the offices of Christ helped to give shape and pattern to the inward, communal, and societal dimensions of gospel order. The offices of prophet and priest-king were of special importance in the structure of the church community.

Christ, as prophet, reveals our unfaithfulness and sin; leads us to righteousness, reconciliation, and unity; and empowers us to act faithfully when led by God. The Quaker patterns of gospel order were molded by this prophetic view of Christ in many ways. Meetings for worship were organized on the basis of inward listening to God’s direct and unmediated leading. Mediated modes of worship were rejected as unfaithful to this trust in God’s direct work in our midst. Thus, early Friends considered prearranged hymn-singing, prepared sermons, responsive readings, and outward celebrations of the sacraments unnecessary or even a denial of the direct leading of the inward Christ who acted as immediate head and guide. Vocal ministers spoke spontaneously as they were led by God. The Quaker form of ministry was different from that in surrounding religious communities. Ministers did not become the pastoral overseers of their congregations but rather the prophetic voices of God’s Word both at home and on their often extensive travels in the ministry.

The testimonies of plain speech, non-payment of tithes, and rejection of the oath were all forms of prophetic challenge to the fallen social order. The testimonies were corporate prophetic symbols. The church modelled its behavior after its vision of its prophetic savior. It understood its testimonies as obedient response to the continued leadings of the living Christ.

While stressing the office of prophet, George Fox counselled that Friends must accept Christ in all his offices. He wrote movingly of Christ as king and priest or, perhaps more aptly, as a priestly king. Contemporary Friends have tended to put so much emphasis on the rightful reclaiming of the prophetic element in Quakerism that the other offices of Christ have sometimes been ignored. The result has been a serious deficiency in understanding gospel order as faithful response to Christ as priest-king as well as prophet.

Christ as king is the orderer, ruler, judge, and protector. The governing elements reflected in gospel order are very clear. But these elements must be evaluated with care as Christ is a most unusual king. He is a king with a priestly function as well. A priest is the mediator between the people and God. A priest offers sacrifices to restore the broken relations between the people and God. Christ Jesus performs both these functions. He is the mediator between human beings and God. He not only offers the sacrifice which brings forgiveness and restores the relationship with God, he is the sacrifice. [Fox understood Christ as a royal priest or priestly king after the order of Melchizedek. For some interesting details on the subject of Christ as priest, please see Fox’s Works, 7:202, 317 & 8:71-2, 154-5.]

Jesus’ paradoxical kingdom comes into being through an act of faithful suffering. He yields himself completely to God’s will, even when it means facing persecution and death on the cross. Fox proclaimed that gospel order is possible only as Friends remain in the power of the cross, that state where there is utter yielding of human willfulness, death to the old life of sin, and, at the same time, the gift of God’s empowerment to live a new life. “And the cross of Christ is the everlasting power of God: so no longer do you keep in fellowship, but as you keep in the cross of Christ.” [Fox, Works, 8:67]

The church is a royal priesthood, wrote Fox. [Fox, Works, 8:72] The priestly function of Christ is manifested among Friends, not with any priestly liturgical office (since the outward celebration of the sacraments had been superseded by the strong prophetic listening as a pattern of worship), but in the everyday life of the community. The church offered spiritual sacrifices to God through its holy and righteous living. On the human level, the community was both priest and sacrifice. In Fox’s mind, the priestly dimension of Christ’s present work was incarnated (in part) by the community living in gospel order.

The church was a suffering servant church. This was especially true in times of persecution. Fox wrote:

And so, all Friends, be ready to offer up yourselves in the power of God, joining to the suffering seed, in which ye offer up yourselves to God in patience, in your sufferings, feeling the seed which was before that was which makes to suffer. For the lamb must have victory. [Fox, Works, 7:104]

The Quaker peace witness is a sign of the church’s willingness to be a servant, to love unto death, as Jesus loved the World, rather than to retaliate, defend itself, or press its ideas through violence and hatred.

In myriad ways the church-community and its members provide the hands, feet, and voices so that God’s healing love, mercy, and forgiveness can reach broken people around the world. This work follows the priestly office of Christ.

George Fox was moved in 1655 to say to Friends:

Who is moved by the power of the Lord to go lie in prison and offer himself to the justice for his brother or sister that lies in prison, that his brother or sister may come forth of prison, and so to lay down his life for his brother or sister?… If any brother in the light… be moved of the Lord to go to the priest or to the justice or impropriator, to lie in prison for his brother… he may cheerfully do it, and heap coals of fire upon the head of the adversaries of God. Or likewise, any that suffer for the Truth by them who be in the untruth…, as Christ hath laid down his life for you, so lay down your lives one for another. Hence you may go over the heads of the persecutors, and reach the witness of God in them all…. And this shall lay a judgment upon them all for ever, and be witnesses to that in their consciences for ever. [George Fox, The Journal of George Fox, pp.221-2]

Early Friends’ apocalyptic struggle with the forces of evil and unrighteousness was named the Lamb’s War. The terms “lamb” and “war” manifest, respectively, the priestly and prophetic-apocalyptic strands of this struggle. The spiritual warfare against unfaithfulness and untruth was carried out not with carnal weapons but with sacrificial love, mercy, servanthood, justice, and the call to righteousness. The church, as the body of Christ in the world, lived Christ’s prophetic and suffering servant (priestly) work as a single witness.

The Process of Mutual Accountability

Historically mutual accountability provided an internal dynamic to keep gospel order strong within the Quaker community. Friends often referred to this internal dynamic and, indeed, the whole pattern of community life as “church discipline.” The term is difficult for many people to hear today. It rings in contemporary ears with a note of rigidity and punishment. This negative reaction comes in part because of the historical memory of abuses in the handling of church discipline during past eras of Quaker history, especially the era of divisions. This reaction comes also because of the influence of our individualistic society, which is reluctant to establish and uphold corporate standards of living lest they infringe on individual freedom. There is no question that church discipline can become distorted, but it would be a mistake to see these distortions as the essence of the process. It is helpful to realize that discipline is the process of discipling, i.e., acting toward one another as disciples and helping one another become disciples of Christ. Mutual accountability is the lifeblood of the process of discipling.

The core of the accountability procedure used by Friends came from Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18. [Fox, Works, 7:339] This scripture passage became the backbone of Quaker discipline during the middle period of Quakerism. Matthew 18 recommends going to the person who has sinned and talking to that person in private. If this does not bring an amendment of behavior and a reconciliation between the two parties, Jesus suggests taking one or two others along so they can be present during the conversation. If the person still refuses to listen, then the matter should be brought to the attention of the church. If no repentance is forthcoming then one should treat the person as tax gatherer or pagan, i.e., as someone outside the community.

Perry Yoder has written a small set of “Comments” for Quaker Religious Thought which provide a helpful way to understand the significance of mutual accountability. [Perry Yoder, “Comments,” Quaker Religious Thought, Vol. 61, Article 5 (Winter, 1985), pp.1-35.] Accountability grows out of and, in turn, nurtures the quality of personal relationship within a community of commitment. In an impersonal social structure, people interact with one another through a structure of law. Traffic regulations with red lights, stop signs, and double yellow no-passing lines are examples of the legalistic structure of an impersonal system of relationship. Such a structure can be very useful in certain social situations. But a family or close-knit community, while it may have a well-worked out set of expectations and standards of behavior, has more than a framework of law. People care about one another. They have a commitment to live in a relationship of trust and love, a relationship where people hear and respond to each other. Accountability is not just concerned with members meeting the group’s outward expectations of behavior but about nurturing the deeper relationship of trust, caring, and responsiveness. The outward expectations and standards are expressions and signs of that committed relationship.

In gospel order, those gathered into the church-community have a covenant with God. It is a living relationship of trust, listening, and responsiveness to God’s call. They also have a covenantal relationship comprising the same qualities with each other. They are accountable to God and each other for maintaining these relationships. Matthew 18 is an outline of a procedure to embody accountability within a community so that it does not have to use an impersonal, legalistic framework.

Accountability has prophetic and priestly dimensions. On the prophetic side, accountability is a method of mutual admonition. Indeed, it is this very quality which is perhaps hardest for people brought up in the contemporary cultural milieu to understand. Yet early Friends recognized that admonition is an essential ingredient in the way God works with us. The Inward Light of Christ reveals to us our unfaithfulness and sin. This awareness is the beginning of a deeper sensitivity to God’s call and a recognition of our own inward blocks and barriers to faithful response. When Friends followed the process of mutual admonition with each other, they felt they were following the prophetic mode of Christ’s work in human lives.

There are a number of helpful aspects of the process of one-to-one admonition described in Matthew 18. It cuts off backbiting, tale-bearing, and general behind-the-scenes, disgruntled murmuring which is destructive to any group. It encourages the persons directly involved in the problem to address their difficulty, asking help from others if they need it. The procedure prevents problems from festering. It does not allow people to shy away from sharing their real thoughts when the behavior of another has caused offense.

Even with the obvious good points, some people find the admonitory sides of the accountability process distasteful because it seems to be one-sided, self-righteous, and condemnatory in tone. This perception need not be correct, at least when the procedure is used properly. Those who have followed Matthew 18 know that to speak to another who has committed a wrong is to make oneself open and vulnerable to one’s own part in the situation. Was there something in one’s own attitude or behavior that caused the other to act as he or she did? The one-to-one conversation may reveal that one has misinterpreted the situation or misjudged the other. One cannot enter this process without being acutely aware of one’s own faults. Even when it is clear that a wrong has been done, the goal of the process is not just amending the behavior of the other, but of restoring the relationship between the parties.

Reflecting on these issues Isaac Penington writes in one of his letters:

I have heard that thou hast somewhat against W. R.,… this thou oughtst seriously to weigh and consider; that thy path and walking herein, may be right and straight before the Lord. Is the thing, or are the things, which thou hast against him, fully so, as thou apprehendest? Hast thou seen evil in him, or to break forth from him? and hast thou considered him therein, and dealt with him, as if it had been thy own case? Hast thou pitied him, mourned over him, cried to the Lord for him, and in tender love and meekness of spirit, laid the thing before him?… If thou hast proceeded thus, thou hast proceeded tenderly and orderly, according to the law of brotherly love… But, if thou hast let in any hardness of spirit, or hard reasonings against him…, the witness of God will not justify thee in that. [Penington, Letters, #26, pp.7-8]

Friends saw mutual admonition as part of a larger process of spiritual guidance and nurture that went beyond the specific advice in Matthew 18 about confronting a person who had sinned. It meant helping each other hear and respond to God’s call. The admonitory aspect of mutual accountability involved all kinds of situations, including helping people to recognize and exercise their gifts, to see where the broken and unfaithful places were in their lives, to overcome paralyzing fears, to discern know when leadings, and to know they had outrun or lagged behind their Guide. Thus, admonition was not simply telling others when they were wrong, at least in the way we usually interpret that idea. It was admonishing a person to be courageous in adversity or to undertake a much-needed ministry or service. It was encouraging one another to take a risk in trusting God’s leading or letting go of a behavior that was blocking deeper commitment to God. In short, it was helping each other move toward greater faithfulness in all areas of living.

We often mature spiritually in small steps. Awareness usually comes before mature practice. There is a lag or gap in our lives. For example, we may come to recognize the truth of the call to solidarity with the poor and oppressed before we fully integrate this understanding in our manner of living (e.g., our commitments of time, work, and money). A prophetic word at the right moment may be just what is needed to help us close the “life-gap” between our awareness of God’s call and our day-to-day behavior. [John R. Martin introduces the concept of life-gap in discussing the process of mutual accountability. See Ventures in Discipleship: A Handbook for Groups and Individuals (Scottsdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1984), p.140.] In this sense, the life-gap is not wrong—unless we ignore it and thus say no to God. This existence of the gap is a sign of God’s working in us. Mutual accountability recognized that this is so and helps us move faithfully in responding to God.

On other occasions mutual accountability helps not only to close the life-gap between awareness and practice, it helps participants hear God’s call in the first place. Sometimes hearing is difficult. As an example, one common dilemma in Friends meetings today is the inability to hear when God is asking us not to take on more committee work, more projects, attendance at more gatherings. We often assume that more is better. But this is not always so. We may lose ourselves and the most important God-given commitments in our lives through a welter of other demands. Mutual accountability can help us hear when God is calling us to say no and when to say yes. The prophetic aspect of the process of mutual accountability is the commitment to help each other listen and respond to God’s call both as individuals and as a community of committed Friends so that we may live faithfully in God’s new order.

The process of mutual accountability described in Matthew 18 draws on the priestly as well as the prophetic understanding of Christ. The passages in chapter 18 which describe speaking to a person who has done wrong are part of a much larger context that deals with humility, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The chapter begins with the disciples’ argument about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus responds by saying, “Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3). The chapter goes on to tell the story of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go in search of the one who has gone astray. After describing the accountability procedure, Jesus answers Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive. The New Jerusalem Bible says, “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). Matthew ends with the parable of the unforgiving debtor whose compassionate king cancels his debt while he, in turn, refuses to show compassion to another who owes him money.

The chapter is about more than prophetic admonition. It does not set our moral standards. It assumes people will fall. People hurt and wound one another. They turn away from God. The heart of faithful living is to learn how to love on the other side of hurt and betrayal. This is the way of God’s forgiving love which restores relationships after there is a break or fall. This is the gift God gives us through Christ. In Jesus’ sacrificial love on the cross, we are restored to wholeness; we are reconciled to God and each other.

William Woys Weaver, clerk of Marlborough Meeting in Pennsylvania, has written a moving account from the early history of his meeting which shows the priestly side of forgiveness and reconciliation in the practice of mutual accountability. [William Woys Weaver, The Marlborough Footwashing: A Remarkable Anecdote of Peace and Harmony From the Year 1782 (Chester Springs, Pennsylvania: Firbank Press, 1981)] The author calls the story, “The Footwashing at Malborough”. The title, of course, brings to mind the account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. The foot-washing conveys Jesus’ love, servanthood, and spiritual cleansing.

The story happened in Chester County, Pennsylvania. It took place around the time of the Revolutionary War. Two Quakers lived on neighboring farms. One was Richard Barnard, an elder, who was a war tax refuser. Not able to support military endeavors because of religious conviction, he refused to pay all taxes directly related to war. His neighbor was Isaac Baily, a strong supporter of the Revolutionary War. Baily was known in the area as a contentious man, often involved in disputes with his acquaintances and even with his meeting. It would have been hard to find two more unlikely neighbors than these two Friends.

A waterway ran between the Baily and Barnard homes. As part of a dispute about property rights and water use, Isaac Baily dammed up the waterway. God’s call to peacemaking and reconciliation was very important to this Richard Barnard. He tried every conceivable method to work out a satisfactory solution with his neighbor. Following the advice of Matthew 18, he went to talk to Isaac, but to no avail. He took other Friends with him to speak with Isaac. The matter of the dammed waterway was put to arbitration; Friends decided Richard Bar­nard was in the right. But nothing would induce Isaac Baily to remove the dam or be reconciled to this neighbor.

The situation was a great burden to Richard Barnard. Not only was he without the use of the water, but he suffered much inward discomfort as the result of the broken relationship with Isaac. Moreover, he was an elder in his meeting; he was supposed to be a counselor and guide to others. Yet he could not solve his own dilemma.

One day a travelling minister came to visit. Richard Barnard opened his heart to the minister and described his problem. When he finished, the minister said simply, “There is more required of some than of others.” Richard was struck by this response. He considered what more could be required of him. He had done all that seemed humanly possible to find a solution to the problem.

Richard held up the problem to God for direction and guidance. The answer that came was beyond all “techniques” for conflict resolution. It required giving up claims of being right and going to his neighbor in humility and forgiveness. Richard felt that God was calling him to wash Isaac’s feet. The idea was so unusual, he kept trying to push it away. But in the end, he realized he would not have an inward sense of being faithful to God’s leading unless he was willing to surrender his notions and be obedient.

Therefore, one morning he filled a bowl with water from the waterway that divided the two men and went to Isaac Baily’s house. It was so early that Isaac was still in bed. But Richard went up to his bedroom and explained that he had come to wash Isaac’s feet. He described how painful the strained relationship had been for him. He was here now, following God’s leading, hoping they could be reconciled. Isaac sputtered and fussed, refusing to participate. But Richard persevered and began to wash his feet. Gradually Isaac became quiet and let Richard complete the washing. Then Isaac dressed and accompanied Richard to the door.

Later that day Isaac took a shovel to the waterway and dug away the dam. The water flowed again between the two farms. In the afternoon Isaac and his wife came to pay the Barnard a friendly visit, the first in a number of years. Richard was very grateful for the restored relationship.

The friendship between the two men remained deep and vibrant for the remainder of their lives. Some while after the problem with the waterway, Richard Barnard broke his leg in a lumbering accident. Isaac took care of him during his recovery. When Friends decided to build a new schoolhouse in the vicinity (a building which may also have functioned as a meetinghouse), the two friends contributed one hundred dollars and adjoining land at the juncture of their two properties for its construction. It was a fitting memorial of God’s healing work in their lives.

These neighboring Friends experienced Christ’s power of forgiveness and reconciliation as a living reality in their lives. Although Friends did not commonly use the theological phrase, “the priesthood of all believers,” this incident shows that its meaning found expression in their lives. Among Friends, priesthood moved from a liturgical function into daily life. Richard Barnard’s gift of sacrificial love made reconciliation possible with his neighbor.

Both forgiveness and repentance (and its consequence, amendment of behavior) are prominent elements in the scriptural understanding of mutual accountability. The interplay of these two elements helps to make clear the place of disownment in the process. Disownment, once widely practiced by Friends, is now used infrequently. Some contemporary people find this aspect of the accountability process discomforting.

Amendment of behavior may not occur through admonition alone. In the Marlborough story only the power of forgiving love was able to restore the relationship and thus allow a possibility of changed behavior. Forgiveness arises out of reliance on God’s gift of reconciling love to us. Forgiveness, however, cannot be forced. An insistence on forgiveness may only force the victim to suppress anger and hurt until it came bursting out in an unexpected rage. Sometimes the victim, unable to demonstrate outward anger, will “play the martyr,” killing the offender with kindness until the latter is consumed with guilt. In the practice of mutual accountability the community must be clear that no unconscious manipulation of either party is complicating the situation. Forgiveness must arise freely out of God’s healing work in our lives.

In the same way, a forced change of behavior in the offender is no change at all. Yet the church was clear that it did expect to see an amendment of behavior. If this change was not forthcoming after a suitable time, working through all the avenues of caring outlined in Matthew 18, the meeting felt it had no choice but to recognize that the relationship of love and trust with the recalcitrant person was non-existent. Lack of repentance was a sign that the offending party was not part of, and did not wish to be part of, the covenantal relationship that characterized the meeting’s commitment. In such situations the meeting disowned the party involved. The disownment was understood not as the intention to cut one off from relationship with the community. The disowned one could still attend meeting for worship; social discourse was not interrupted. Disownment was the recognition that a fundamental covenantal commitment was already severed. [Fox, Works, 7:340] When Matthew 18 says that the unreconciled person should be treated as a tax gatherer or pagan, it means someone outside the community of faith with whom attempts at reconciliation have failed.

The possibility of disownment among Friends prevented the accountability process, with its strong emphasis on forgiveness, from being a matter of cheap grace (i.e., offering the offender forgiveness with no call to righteousness). At the same time, it is always clear that disownment is not the end of all hope of reconciliation. There is always hope for repentance. [Fox, Works, 7:340. Repentance is shown by a letter acknowledging wrong action.] The door is always open for reconciliation. When there is repentance and change of behavior, the meeting is happy to welcome the person back into the community, allowing no shadow or inward reservation to undermine the person’s full participation in the life of the church.

For the process of mutual accountability to operate with integrity, it is obviously necessary for all members of the community to live in a close relationship of love, trust, and caring. There needs to be a commitment to Truth and a deep listening to God and to each other. Disownment cannot be used as a political weapon in a power struggle over theological and moral disputes, as has happened in the past. We cannot admonish each other unless we are listening together for the way God is truly leading each of us as individuals and jointly as a community. We cannot love each other into wholeness unless we know each other well and have that knowledge anchored in God’s love and truth. Both the prophetic and priestly dimensions of mutual accountability require nothing less than a covenantal relationship with God and each other.

Elders: Overseers of Gospel Order

Living faithfully in gospel order was such a significant part of Quaker faith that a separate ministry of elders developed to oversee this aspect of Friends life. In the first decades of the movement the work of elders and vocal ministers was not sharply delineated. Vocal ministers sometimes participated in the organizational and community concerns that later become the purview of the elders. [Punshon, Portrait in Grey, p.62] In the early years of the eighteenth century, Friends formally recognized elders as having responsibilities distinct from those of the vocal ministers. The ministry of the elders gave them, to a certain extent, a different context in which to understand the work of God within the community. [For a vivid portrayal of the role of elders see two chapters in Rufus Jones, “Growth of Organization and Discipline of Friends in the Eighteenth Century,” and “Propagation of Quakerism by Itinerant Ministry,” in The Later Periods of Quakerism, Vol. 1, pp.104-145 and 194- 242. See also Peter Wood, Eldering, Canadian Quaker Pamphlet #27, p.3-4]

Vocal ministers stressed direct, unmediated communication with Christ who was the inward teacher and guide. Their speaking in meeting for worship grew directly out of such leadings. In this way, the prophetic role of Christ was predominant in their understanding. This prophetic emphasis provided the unique structure for both the meeting for worship and the work of the vocal ministers.

The elders, while fully accepting and participating in the prophetic side of Quaker experience which emphasized the unmediated work of Christ, also understood Christ to work in priestly and mediated ways. Their special responsibilities reflect both dimensions of Quaker experience.

The elders had a vital role to play in each of the general areas of gospel order outlined in this essay. They had oversight over worship and the spiritual life of the meeting, the daily life of the meeting-community, and the practice of accountability. Each set of responsibilities opens up insights about eldering ministry and the way Friends historically tried to nurture life in gospel order.

The prophetic function of elders is evident in the many ways they nurtured Friends’ community of listening. The communal pattern of listening to God was the heart of gospel order. To enter the communal discipline of listening (in worship or business meeting) was the first act of faithfulness for Friends; it also enabled all other parts of Quaker life to exist (since that life flowed from direct listening to the Inward Guide). It is not surprising, then, that one of the elders’ primary responsibilities was care of this process of listening.

The elders themselves rarely spoke in meeting for worship. [A number of elders did go on to become ministers. When an elder began to speak frequently in meeting for worship, it was the usual custom to leave the work of eldering and become recorded as a minister.] That was the gift and calling of vocal ministers. Yet the elders had a significant role in worship. They helped create an inward space for Christ to enter. They were noted for their gift in centering, the ability to focus their attention toward a deep inward listening to the movement of the Spirit of God in the meeting for worship. Their attitude of deep listening helped the meeting as a whole to center down in worship.

Because of this attentiveness to the movement of the spirit, elders were expected to know when the silence was living and when it was dead, when the speaking gave voice to the movement of the Spirit and when it outran the Guide or erred in other ways.

The elders were partners with the vocal ministers in caring for worship among Friends. They often travelled as companions to the itinerant ministers. At home they helped ministers discern and respond to the call to public ministry. The select meetings of ministers and elders (the forerunners of the contemporary committees of ministry and counsel or ministry and oversight) were schools of the Spirit. They provided opportunities for worship and discernment. In these meetings, inexperienced ministers could grow in their ability to discern the movement of the Spirit under the tutelage of more mature ministers and elders. The select meetings were also occasions for reflecting on the spiritual health of the Society and recognizing any special needs or difficulties.

The elders functioned as what, in contemporary language, might be called spiritual nurturers or guides for the ministers in particular and, by extension, for all Friends. The elders were recognized as mature in the religious life and wise in the ways of the Lord. They helped people listen and respond to God. They knew much about the spiritual journey and could help others detect problems and find encouragement along the way.

Unlike some Christian traditions where spiritual guidance is largely an individual process involving the faithful person and the guide, in Quakerism the process is more communal. The elders were the overseers of this communal process of spiritual formation. They were concerned to nurture the life of the whole meeting as well as the individuals within it. In turn, the meeting-community was, in many ways, the nurturer of its members. The structures of formation were largely communal. The meetings for worship, meetings for business, opportunities (or occasions for worship and spiritual conversation, usually with a travelling minister), and the select meetings of ministers and elders were all communal avenues through which Friends learned to listen and to respond to God. As the Friends movement matured, a whole culture of listening developed. Elders were responsible for keeping these avenues of listening spiritually alive.

In helping people listen to God, then, elders exercised a prophetic function. Their ministry grew out of Friends’ emphasis on immediate leading by the Spirit. The communal patterns of worship and discernment, over which the elders had oversight, were spiritual disciplines which enabled the listening process.

The community, was (or could be) an avenue which mediated God’s transforming work and power to Friends. At the same time that the Spirit worked through direct, inward leading, the Spirit worked through community relationships to help Friends become a people whose lives, were centered in listening to God. Healing, comfort, chastisement, guidance could all come through life in the meeting. The elders as overseers of these community relationships exercised a priestly function of ministry. This aspect of ministry cared for the human avenues through, which God’s love was mediated or carried to meeting members.

The meeting was the matrix of much of the daily process of salvation (i.e., becoming whole, becoming reconciled to God and one another). While God was the author of this healing work, the meeting was the locus for receiving God’s love and practicing the art of loving others. Of course, many experienced God’s love directly in worship or prayer. But for others, God’s love became real as it was incarnated in another human being. The story of Isaac Baily and Richard Barnard shows one way forgiveness was incarnated in meeting life. It is common today to hear newly convinced Friends say that in the meeting community, they learned to take off their protective and defensive masks for the first time. They learned that there were people who loved them for themselves. They no longer had to hide or pretend to be someone or something else. The incarnated love helped them understand God’s love. Being led to the experience of divine love and forgiveness freed them to love God and others in return.

The elders were expected to see that the inward life of Friends was translated in faithful daily living. They had to oversee the caregiving and priestly or mediated ministry of meeting life. Historically, the elders made sure that the ill, the poor, the aged, the orphaned, and all others with special needs received the care and help they required. As Friends communities developed in the mid- and late-eighteenth century, the task of caring for those with special needs began to be separated fro1n the work of elders and given to that of the overseers. [John Punshon indicates that the separation of elders and overseers was not official in the London Discipline until 1789, Portrait in Grey, 143.] In some meetings overseers also did much of the oversight over the moral walk of members, along with what today might be called pastoral counseling, leaving elders with the ministry of spiritual nurture. Meet­ings varied in the ways they separated the functions of what originally had been one ministry of eldering. Functions overlapped in some meetings. [Rufus Jones, Later Periods, pp.124-5, 130-1] However meetings defined these two ministries, together the elders and overseers were responsible for seeing that love and caring took prac­tical form in the daily life of the meeting. They helped the meeting become a royal priesthood through the sacrifice of righteous living.

The final part of the elders’ work was overseeing the vital area of accountability. They gave care to the priestly dimensions of Matthew 18 by helping with dispute settle­ment and reconciliation of broken relationships. Some­times the elders acted as disinterested parties in the second step of the reconciliation process, helping two disagreeing Friends to get beyond their blind spots as they talked to one another and tried to work out their differences. Elders could act as arbiters or mediators in disputes, at the request of the parties involved. The elders helped meeting mem­bers realize the meaning of God’s gift of “at-one-ment” in their daily lives.

The elders were also given oversight of much of the prophetic work of accountability. They watched to see if individual Friends and the meeting as a whole walked faithfully in gospel order. Calling the community to faithful living originally had been a way to draw Friends into God’s gift of new life through obedience to the living Christ. For first generation Friends, faithfulness to the testimonies was, in turn, one way to call society-at-large to accountability before God for its unjust social, political, economic, and religious structures. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the vision of gospel order tended to become more narrowly focused on the internal functioning of the meeting-community. Scholars vary in their evaluation of elders’ work and of the Quaker vision of gospel order during this era. The wider prophetic aspect of gospel order tended, to fade and has yet to be reclaimed. Some see a pettiness, rigidification, and an oppressive quality in the community life. Others see remarkable insights nevertheless about corporate patterns of faithfulness which they feel are largely overlooked and misunderstood in our era which is heavily ‘wedded to individualistic value systems. However one evaluates the role of elders historically, the prophetic oversight of the meeting’s accountability work had and has far-reaching potential.

In summary, the breadth of eldering responsibilities was enormous: nurturing the meeting for worship, encouraging ministers, overseeing accountability, giving care and spiritual guidance. These responsibilities put the elders at critical points in the community’s life of gospel order. The eldering ministry was the church’s way of nurturing the meeting community as an expression of God’s presence in the world.

Knowing God’s Will

Through the eldering ministry, we are challenged to understand Quaker modes of knowing God’s guiding presence in the midst of daily life. Elders used both mediated and unmediated forms of knowing. The vocal ministers, on the other hand, used a very distinctive epistemological structure. In the eighteenth century (when vocal ministry and eldering ministry were formally distinguished), the Quaker journals, written largely by vocal ministers, record the way the ministry of the writers unfolded through direct, unmediated inward discernment of God’s will. The decisions about where to travel, what meetings to attend, even which house to visit, what to say during an opportunity with a family, or what message to give in worship were all determined by an inward listening to God. Reflection on outward circumstance and analytical reasoning, while not absent, were often secondary modes of knowing and decision-making. Some ministers actively discouraged anyone from telling them about the problems of a meeting they were visiting. They preferred to receive their insights directly from God in worship. They felt such knowledge was safer and less likely to be tainted by human prejudice. Thus, they spoke to meetings and individuals as God led them, not as they humanly analyzed the situation. This unmediated form of knowing was in keeping with the whole prophetic structure of the vocal ministry. [One could reasonably argue that the mode of knowing of vocal ministers is also mediated, i.e., through the human brain and nervous system. For the purposes of this paper, however, the traditional Quaker mode of distinguishing between mediated and unmediated ways of knowing will be accepted. For a portrayal of the mode of unmediated knowing among Friends see Jones, Later Periods, pp.92-100, 224-229. See also Howard H. Brinton, Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experience among Friends, pp.44-6.]

Elders used this mode of knowing too. Only as inward listeners to God in worship were they able to oversee the spiritual life in worship or the faithfulness of vocal ministry. However, this was not the only mode of knowing they used. They relied on the more usual mediated modes of knowing to obtain information about the Friends in their care. They accepted information that came through the ordinary five senses to tell them how the daily life of the meeting was going: who was ill, who was suffering from financial hardship, who was angry with whom; what issues were involved in a particular dispute and how they could be settled justly; who was not living faithfully in gospel order as judged by their dress, speech, home life, irresponsible relationships with others, etc. Quakerism thus acknowledged a rightful place in ministry for a mode of knowing God’s will that used human analytical and evaluative skills and depended on ordinary, outward evidence and the community’s understanding of right ordering. In short, Friends recognized a mediated form of knowing.

The overlapping of these two modes of knowing within the two ministries helps put some contemporary debates among Friends in a wider perspective. Programmed and unprogrammed Friends continue to debate the rightness of planning a sermon in advance of a worship service. This is really a debate about whether it is right to use the human mind to analyze the needs of the congregation and to reflect on what God would have said to those gathered for worship or whether it is more appropriate to wait upon the Lord in silence for a word to speak spontaneously to Friends at the time of worship. The dual epistemological framework of Friends sheds light on the structure of the work of contemporary Quaker pastors. Pastoral work is usually seen as a replacement of the old-style vocal ministry. On many levels, however, it would seem to be more closely related to the traditional eldering ministry. Of course, the pastor does do public preaching as did the vocal ministers. But the pastor’s general oversight over the life of the meeting, the pastoral counseling and spiritual nurture work, and the use of both mediated and unmediated forms of knowing to address the needs of the congregation all indicate a very close resemblance to eldering.

Unprogrammed meetings often struggle with these issues independently of any discussion of the pastoral tradition. The idea of direct leading by the Spirit is contrary to the understandings of the wider culture. As we try to order our lives, it is sometimes easy to jump immediately to human expertise, problem-solving skills, and techniques of efficiency. We may forget to listen to our Inward Guide at all. At the other extreme, wanting to protect direct, unmediated communication with God from mere human management or “head-knowledge,” Spirit-led learning, teaching, and planning are devalued. Ignorance about religious life and thought flourish. Serious commitment to work in the world is hindered. Understanding the way in which elders held as important both mediated and unmediated ways of knowing can help us do the same.


The word tradition carries ambivalent connotations. The Quaker heritage has always been aware of the dangers of tradition. Support of tradition can become idolatrous. It may be a way of protecting the status quo and blocking the in-breaking of God’s prophetic Word. Any “thing” in the created order has the potential to be either a barrier or an avenue to God. This is also true of tradition. Tradition need not be a barrier to God. It has the possibility of providing a positive function. While recognizing the danger of too much reliance on tradition, friends still saw it as a reflection of the living history of the church-community. The pattern of gospel order grew out of that living history as Friends attempted to respond faithfully to the work of the Spirit within their cultural milieu. The elders’ task was that of nurturing the ongoing life of the community so that God could act in and through it.

When Friends came together in their meetings to discern God’s will, the results of the discerning were recorded in the minutes and eventually connected and arranged in the Quaker books of discipline. The record of the meeting’s discernment over the years became part of the church’s living tradition. The church did not have to start from the beginning to decide in every situation whether it was consonant, with God’s will to go to war, wear fancy attire, pay tithes, or take oaths. In regard to the peace testimony Friends said: “The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it.” [George Fox & others, Declaration to King Charles II. Ed. Note: Cronk’s quotation is actually an addendum added to a later printing in 1661 as the final paragraph of the version of the Declaration posted on this website.]  To insist that the community re-evaluate every principle it had come to know through its relationship with God, on every occasion that demanded a decision, seemed to make no sense.

This did not mean that tradition could not or should not be changed. Indeed, the in-breaking of the Spirit was necessary to prevent tradition from becoming an idol. Meetings tried (not always successfully) to be open to God’s new leading. (The Society of Friends, which had once countenanced slavery, came to reject it.) Tradition was not meant to supplant listening to God. On the contrary, part of the content of Friends’ tradition was the radical call to listen to God. In this situation tradition was not a device to maintain the status quo but a part of the prophetic framework of Quakerism, calling Friends to renewed faithfulness. Friends followed biblical precedent. They understood that God exercised this prophetic function in part through the historical record of the people of God.

There were undoubtedly problems, in later eras of Quakerism, with what had become traditional patterns of gospel order. These patterns were stultifying to some people. The evocative quality of the symbolic behaviors became opaque to many. There was little room for the development of new patterns. Elders in some regions came more and more to embody the ruling, judging, and protecting aspects of Christ’s office as king. In early Quakerism, these tasks were always clustered with prophetic and priestly functions. Cut off from these aspects of ministry, the elders’ work made tradition feel oppressive rather than freeing. In response, many meetings discontinued the use of elders and many aspects of the church discipline the elders had come to represent. Today most meetings must wrestle with the problems that come from lack of corporate discipline. Out of the contemporary struggle to discern God’s leading in our midst, Friends are beginning to reclaim a more vibrant view of tradition. In this view, tradition is a record and embodiment of God’s work in history and in the created order. Cut off from this history, we become a rootless people, unable to make prophetic use of the past to help discern the meaning of faithfulness in the present. If we forget that God’s new order must take some shape and form in daily life, we risk upholding an airy faith unrelated to flesh and blood lives.


The elder was the caretaker of the living tradition which gave shape to gospel order. Thus, while the vocal minister gave prophetic voice to articulating the direct, inward call of Christ, the elder gave prophetic utterance by calling Friends to faithful obedience to God’s mediated word manifested in the patterns of gospel order. Gospel order is a rich, multivalent concept and experience in Quaker faith. It ties together the covenantal relationship with God, the inbreaking of God’s new order, and the church’s patterns of faithful living. It unites, as intrinsic elements in its understanding of the church, the inward life of prayer and worship, the daily life of caring and accountability in the meeting-community, and prophetic witness in the world.

Reclaiming the fullness of early Friends’ understanding of gospel order enables us to hear God’s call to deeper faithfulness today. Our response cannot be simplistic. On the one hand, we are not asked to reproduce the exact patterns of another era. We need to begin where early Friends began, i.e., living in the life and power of a renewed relationship with God. To see the ways in which the lives of early Friends were centered on listening to God causes us to ask what it means today to be a people who listen to God. Of course, we still have many traditional forms of “listening”: meetings for worship and meetings for business. In our busy world, however, we are often so involved in keeping up with the demands of home, work, meeting, and society that there is little time for real listening to happen. Without this deep listening to the Inward Teacher, any “order” runs the risk of becoming form without power.

On the other hand, we cannot dismiss the past forms of gospel order too easily. While cultural expressions of gospel order may take varying forms to meet the needs of each age, the underlying values and Christ’s call to righteousness remain the same. The historical expressions of gospel order help us to come to grips with the particular areas of our lives where we slide easily and unthinkingly into the uncaring, unjust, exploitative structures around us.

Looking at the historical expressions of gospel order raises provocative questions for the community of faith, particularly in regard to the nature of corporate commit­ment and the role of structure in faithful living. If indeed, a living relationship with Christ is the basis of gospel order, what does it mean today to be a committed people in covenantal relationship with Christ? What does it mean to practice the mutual accountability that keeps this relation­ship alive! Do our lives with each other in our meetings and homes reflect fidelity, love, and trust! Can we reclaim the socio-economic and political dimension of gospel order? Can we participate corporately in God’s new order in a way that will allow our love to speak to a world dying from environmental destruction, violence, hatred, and en­trenched systems of economic exploitation and injustice?

If the historical experience of Friends is applicable today, then corporate life needs pattern and structure to support faithful living. In turn, structures need care to prevent them from withering or becoming oppressive. Com­munities of commitment need to see what forms the pat­terns of faithfulness and the ministry of caring oversight will take today.


[Ed. Note: the sources cited in Cronk’s original footnotes are listed here alphabetized by author. Cronk’s original footnote citations are provided above in italics & brackets in the text of her paper.]

  • Lewis Benson, “The Quaker Conception of Christian Community and Church Order,” in Catholic Quakerism: A Vision for All Men (Philadelphia: Book & Publications Committee, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 1968), pp.43-59.
  • Lewis Benson, “The People of God and Gospel Order,” in The Church in Quaker Thought and Practice: A Study in Ecclesiology, ed. by Charles F. Thomas (Faith and Life Movement: Distributed by Friends World Committee, Section of the Americas in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Plainfield, Indiana, 1979), pp.16-29.
  • Howard H. Brinton, Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experience among Friends (Wallingford, Pennsylvania: Pendle Hill Publications, 1972), pp. 44-6. [a portrayal of the mode of unmediated knowing among Friends]
  • Kathryn Damiano, “On Earth as it is in Heaven: Eighteenth-Century Quakerism as Realized Eschatology,” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Union of Experimenting Colleges and Universities, Cincinnati, Ohio, December, 1988. [on the 18th-century evolution of gospel order. Her work is especially sensitive to the corporate and communal values of Quakerism. As a result, her portrayal of 18th-century Friends has a much more positive tone than that of many earlier studies.]
  • George Fox, A Collection of Many Select and Christian Epistles, Letters, and Testimonies, Written on Sundry Occasions by that ancient, eminent, and faithful Friend, and minister of Christ Jesus, George Fox, in two volumes, published as part of The Works of George Fox, Vols. 7 & 8 (Philadelphia: Marcus T.C. Gould, and New York: Isaac T. Hopper, 1831). [Citations are provided as volume:page(s)—e.g. 7:418 would mean Vol. 7, p. 418.]
  • George Fox, The Journal of George Fox, rev. ed., edited by John L. Nickalls (London: Religious Society of Friends, 1975), pp.221-2.
  • George Fox & others. Declaration to Charles II. [Cronk’s quotation can be found in the final paragraph, which was added in a 1661 reprinting of the original 1660 Declaration.]
  • J. William Frost, The Quaker Family in Colonial America: A Portrait of the Society of Friends (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973). [on 18th-century evolution of gospel order. Of special interest for the topic of gospel order is the chapter on “The Nature of Christian Discipline,” 48-63.]
  • Douglas Gwyn, Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox (1624-1691), (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1986), pp.73- 75 & 109-112. pp.99-108. [on the theme of covenant]
  • T. Canby Jones, “Knowing One Another in That Which is Eternal: Is Gospel Order Possible Today?” Unpublished manuscript, February 1979, 5-7. [Canby Jones’ work has opened up the understanding of the cosmic and creation-centered aspects of gospel order. His interpretation of Fox’s understanding of Wisdom as God’s ordering power in the whole of creation is an important addition to the theological work on this theme.]
  • Rufus Jones, The Later Periods of Quakerism, Vol. 1 (London: Macmillan, 1921). [on 18th-century evolution of gospel order. Jones’ account is especially rich because of the many excerpts from primary source material]
  • Rufus Jones, “Growth of Organization and Discipline of Friends in the Eighteenth Century,” and “Propagation of Quakerism by Itinerant Ministry,” in The Later Periods of Quakerism, Vol. 1, pp. 104-145 and 194-242 [for a vivid portrayal of the role of elders] & pp. 92-100, 224-229. [for a portrayal of the mode of unmediated knowing among Friends]
  • Jack D. Marietta, The Reformation of American Quakerism, 1748-1783, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984).
  • John R. Martin, Ventures in Discipleship: A Handbook for Groups and Individuals, (Scottsdale, Pennsylvania.: Herald Press, 1984), p.140. [Maring introduces the concept of life-gap in discussing the process of mutual accountability.]
  • Arthur J. Meekel, “The Founding Years, 1681-1789”, in Friends in the Delaware Valley: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1681-1789, edited by John Moore (Haverford, Pennsylvania: Friends Historical Association, 1981), pp.14-55. [This essay is helpful because it includes the inner life of the Quaker community as well as its social concerns.]
  • Isaac Penington, Letters of lsaac Penington, A Minister of the Gospel in the Society of Friends, which He Joined about the Year 1658, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Friends Book-Store, undated), p.231.
  • Isaac Penington, “Of the Church in its First and Pure State, and it s Declining State, in its Declined State, and in its Recovery,” The Works of the Long-Mournful and Sorely Distressed Isaac Penington, 3rd ed. (London: James Phillips, 1784), 3:133-7.
  • John Punshon, Portrait in Grey: A Short History of the Quakers, (London: Quaker Home Service, 1984), pp.53-79.
  • William Taber’s fine work on this topic has been primarily in the form of addresses, retreat presentations, and classroom teaching.
  • Charles F. Thomas, “Being a People of God,” The Church in Quaker Thought and Practice, pp.27-32. [on the theme of covenant]
  • Frederick B. Tolles, Meeting House and Counting House: The Quaker Merchants of Colonial Philadelphia, 1652-1763, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press , 1948). [on 18th-century evolution of gospel order]
  • Richard T. Vann, The Societal Development of English Quakerism, 1655- 1755 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1969).
  • Perry Yoder, “Comments,” Quaker Religious Thought, #61 (Winter, 1985), pp.31-35.
  • Peter Wood, Eldering, Canadian Quaker Pamphlet #27 (Argenta, British Columbia: Argenta Friends Press, 1987), pp.3-4.
  • William Woys Weaver, The Marlborough Footwashing: A Remarkable Anecdote of Peace and Harmony From the Year 1782 (Chester Springs, Pennsylvania: Firbank Press, 1981)

About the Author

Sandra Cronk was a spiritual nurturer, teacher, and historian of religion. For ten years, she taught Quaker faith and thought, spiritual life studies, and religious community at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study and contemplation near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1990 she became a founding member of the School of the Spirit, a ministry of contemplative prayer and religious study.

This paper was written in response to an invitation to address an issue relating to the religious life & thought of the Society of Friends. The choice of the topic, gospel order, grew out of the author’s experience of the concern among Friends in local meetings and among students at Pendle Hill to find ways of upbuilding the meeting-community and to explore what it means to belong to a community of commitment. The original scholarly paper has been revised for a general readership with the hope of facilitating current explorations of faithful community.

© 1991 Sandra Cronk All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author’s estate.

ISBN 0-87574-297-3. Library of Congress Catalog Card # 91-061844.

Hard copies are available from Pendle Hill Publications as Pendle Hill Pamphlet #297.