by George Fox
(Ed.note: This epistle of George Fox was written to answer some Friends’ objection to the holding of separate Men’s and Women’s Meetings for Business. Fox emphasizes the capacity of those faithfully seeking Christ’s voice to guide them to be in close communion with each other and with Christ even if they are physically separated.
This passage is also relevant to some questions that have arisen among Friends in the 21st century:
- Is it possible for Friends to experience deep unity of shared worship and corporate discernment in electronic gatherings such as via Zoom or Google Meetup, and
- At times Friends in a given meeting feel a need to worship in a smaller group or at another time or (in the case of Mt Toby Meeting) outdoors. Does this act of worshipping separately divisive of the fabric of the meeting?
- Similarly, there are times that certain groups of Friends who share something in common such as Friends of Color, younger Friends, Friends who share a certain common vision or understanding of Quakerism, or LGBTQ+ Friends, etc. have felt led to gather, or worship together or form a new meeting. Does this motion necessarily create separation or division with the body of the meeting, gathering, or yearly meeting that the group is part of?
Fox suggests that the degree of unity in the spirit is not to be determined by physical but rather by spiritual separation or unity in Christ.)
And the apostle saith to the church of Corinth, ‘I verily, as absent in body, but present in the spirit,’ &c. (1 Cor. 5:3). And again the apostle saith to the Colossians, ‘Though I be absent in the flesh, yet I am with you in the spirit, joying, and beholding your order, and the steadfastness of your faith in Christ.’ (Col. 2:5)
Now this was, and is the true Christians’ spiritual order, that was discerned in the spirit; though they were absent in the flesh, or body, one= from another, yet they could behold their spiritual order, with the spirit of Christ; and also, though they were absent in the flesh or body, they could behold the steadfastness of their faith in Christ Jesus, who was the author and finisher of the saints’ holy, divine, and precious faith; which faith is the saints’ victory, called the faith of God’s elect, in which they have access to God, and do please him. Now the saints do behold one another’s steadfastness in this faith of Christ, though they be absent in the flesh, or body, one from another; yet in the spirit of faith, they behold one another’s steadfastness in the divine, holy, pure, precious faith in Christ Jesus. And into this heavenly unity, both in the spirit and in the faith, the apostle brought the saints to know one another, though they were absent in the flesh, or in the body, yet present in the spirit, joying and beholding the spiritual order that is amongst the saints, and the steadfastness of their faith in Christ Jesus. This is a heavenly beholding, and a heavenly joying, and a heavenly order, and a spiritual and a heavenly sight, and society, and communion, that can see and behold one another’s steadfastness in the faith in Christ Jesus, and do behold that heavenly and spiritual order amongst the saints; though they be absent in the flesh, or body, one from another, yet they are present in the spirit, and beholding the order of the spirit. All that are in this heavenly and spiritual unity, fellowship, and society, can say as the apostle said to the church, ‘By one spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free, and have been made all to drink into one spirit.’ Namely, all that are baptized by one spirit into one body.
So, though we are absent in the flesh, or body, yet by one spirit we are all baptized into one body, and so have all been made to drink into one spirit.
So here is a unity and a fellowship in the spirit; and the saints know by what they are baptized into one body, and into what spirit they do drink, though they be absent in the flesh, or outward body, from one another. And to this heavenly and spiritual fellowship and order, the able ministers of the spirit brought the saints, the church of Christ, to behold one another in the spiritual order, and the spiritual fellowship and communion, and in that to joy and rejoice; and likewise, to behold one another in their steadfastness, in the holy, divine, pure, and precious faith in Christ Jesus; and though they were absent in the flesh, or outward body, yet they were present in the spirit. And therefore, every one must come to their own measure of the spirit in their hearts and gift of faith, which Christ is the author of, if they will come into this heavenly and spiritual sight, and beholding the order of the saints, and the steadfastness of their faith in Christ Jesus, though they be absent in the flesh, or outward body, one from the other.
So every one must come to the grace, light, and truth, in their hearts, that’s come by Jesus, and the word of faith in their hearts, if that they come to this heavenly and spiritual unity, and fellowship, and order, that is amongst the saints in light; though they be absent in the flesh or body, yet they are present in the spirit, and the spirit brings them to the spirits of just men made perfect, to have unity with them. And the apostle saith, ‘If any man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of his.’ And the apostle saith, ‘It was the spirit of Christ which was in the prophets, which brought them to inquire and search diligently of the grace that should come;’ and the spirit of Christ, in the prophets, did testify beforehand of the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow; and the spirits of the prophets were subject to the prophets; and so they had a communion, and a spiritual sight, fellowship, and society, one with another; though they were absent in the body, yet they were present in the spirit of Christ.
And now all such that do say, because the men and women do not meet together in one place in a bodily presence, that these are in a separation, and have declared and preached them up to be in a separation, because they do not meet outwardly altogether, men and women, in a bodily presence. In this you have showed your ignorance and numbness, and darkness, and blindness to the spiritual sight, and from being ministers of the spirit that the apostles were in; not seeing, nor beholding, though they be absent in the body, or flesh, yet present in the spirit, joying, and beholding the saints’ order, and stead-fastness of their faith in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And you, then, are not like to bring people to the spiritual order, nor spiritual joy, nor the steadfastness of the saints in the divine, holy, precious faith in Christ Jesus, who are so blind, you cannot see no more than the Pharisees: though the saints are absent in the flesh, or body, one from another, yet are present in the spirit.
Now, though all the world were present in a nation, if it would hold them, and if they be present in the outward body, or flesh, and have not the spirit of Christ, which the apostles and the true church were in, they are none of Christ’s, but are in a separation from the spiritual joy, and spiritual order, and divine faith in Christ Jesus. And such cannot preach in truth every one to the grace, and truth, and spirit, and the word of faith in their hearts, that say, except the men and women are together in an outward bodily presence, they are in a separation.
Such be out of the doctrine of the able ministers of the spirit, which said, ‘Though they be absent in the flesh, or body, yet they are present in the spirit, joying and beholding their order, and the steadfastness of faith in Christ Jesus.’ And so, all are in a separation, let them meet outwardly together, in a bodily presence, if they are not, as I said before, in the spirit of Christ the apostles and the true church were in; as the apostle saith, ‘These be they that separate themselves, sensual, having not the spirit, (to wit,) raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame. They are gone into Cain’s way,’ in envy, ‘and after the error of Balaam,’ from the spirit, and Corah’s way of gainsaying; ‘clouds without water, trees without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots,’ so cannot grow; ‘wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever, which kept not their first state, but left their habitation’ in the spirit. These are the murmurers and complainers, and their mouths speak great swelling words, &c. These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the spirit; though they meet all together, men and women, in a bodily presence, yet they are in a separation from the spirit of Christ, the apostles and the church were in.
I say they are in a separation from the heavenly spiritual worship, and unity, and communion, and order in the holy spirit, and gospel the church of Christ were and are in. You may know them by their fruits, their murmuring, and complaining, and their mouths speaking high swelling word; and yet, wells without water of life, and trees that have not spiritual fruit on them, and in Cain’s envy and Balaam’s error, and Corah’s gainsaying, self-willed, speaking evil of those things they know not, and speaking evil of dignities or dominions, that is over such spirits, the power of God. These be they which separate themselves, sensual, having not the spirit, which troubled the church in the apostles’ days, and now who are known by their fruits; and though they meet in a bodily presence together, yet they are in a separation from God; and though the faithful believers in Christ do meet, the women by themselves in one room, in the spirit and name of Christ Jesus; and the men do meet in another room, in the name, and spirit, and power of Jesus, to do those services that he commands them; this is no separation, though they be absent in the flesh, or outward body, one from another, yet they are present in the spirit, joying and beholding, seeing their order in the spirit, and the steadfastness of their divine faith in Christ Jesus the Lord from heaven, who is the author and finisher of it. And so every believer in Christ, and saint comes to their own, and lives and walks in their own, as they did in the beginning, when they were turned to the light.
But they that see not the spiritual order of the saints, though they be not outwardly absent in the body one from another, they are they that separate themselves, sensual, having not the spirit, and are blind and do not see, like the Pharisees; and have ears, and do not hear, and have hearts, and do not perceive. Such are wells without water, and trees without fruit, that are gone into Cain’s, Corah’s, and Balaam’s way; though they have great swelling words of vanity, yet they are gone from their own; to wit, erred from the spirit of God, and so from the spiritual order, into the outward carnal order; and so from the spiritual union, and communion, and fellowship, into their body, sight, and fellowships, who are absent from the spirit, and separate from it, and are present together in the body; and that is the thing that they so rage for, like waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame, and gainsay the saints’ order and practice; that is, though they be absent in the flesh, or body outwardly, yet the saints are present in the spirit, joying and beholding one another’s heavenly and spiritual order, (which are born of the spirit,) and the steadfastness of their holy faith in Christ, the Holy One, the author and finisher of it; and so are under Christ’s peaceable government, of the increase of which there is no end, and praise God in the spirit, and to him sing hallelujah. Amen.
From: The Saints, (or they that are born of the Spirit,) their Heavenly and Spiritual worship, Unity, and Communion; and the Ministers of the Spirit in the New Testament, preached the word of Life, which was in the beginning, which they had heard, seen, and handled, and brought the Church of Christ to the same word: and they brought the Church of Christ to have fellowship with the Father and his Son.
Found in George Fox, Works, Vol 4: p.236.
Appreciation to John Edminster of Ohio Yearly Meeting for bringing this passage to our attention as helpful to the issue of Friends gathering for worship and corporate discernment via electronic media.