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What can we learn from the Quakers?

Continuing the series on what we can learn from other Christian traditions I want to look at the Quakers. The Quakers stand somewhere distinct from the liberal and liturgical traditions that I have covered and also from the evangelical and charismatic traditions that I would see as my own. They have an interesting relationship with all four from which we can learn a lot.

Quaker_definition_logoFrom my readings about the Quakers I would say that a key belief of the Quakers is that we can directly hear from God. Their founding principle was that we do not need the church and priests to mediate between us and God. We can directly experience God for ourselves through a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Quakers and the liturgical church

Quakers very much rejected most of the trapping of the liturgical church on their foundation – choosing rather just to worship together as the Spirit leads relating to one another as friends. This has a number of implications:

• Many will still have prepared worship with planned readings, songs and sermons but also have a time of just waiting on God with more spontaneous worship.

• Though they reject the idea of ordination many groups recognise those with gifts of speaking within the congregation – including women – but do not dress in any way that marks them out as special. Quakers usually have elders and a few may even have a paid pastor.

• Quakers reject the sacraments of communion and baptism. They believe that breaking of bread simply refers to sharing meals together and that baptism just refers to our spirit baptism when we come to know the Lord.

• Quakers reject the church calendar. They would advocate a living a simple life all year round rather than giving things up for lent. They believe in commemorating Christ’s death and resurrection every day of the year and not just at Easter.

There is much to commend in these ideas such informal worship style and belief in the priesthood of all believers but many would see their ideas of rejecting all sacraments as going too far.

Quakers and the evangelical church

The Quakers have always emphasised a personal relationship with God through Jesus. Like evangelicals they would believe in personal Bible study and prayer that involves conversing with God through Christ and by the Holy Spirit.

George Fox - founder of the Quakers

George Fox – founder of the Quakers

In the 19th century, due to the influence of the Great American Awakenings, some Quakers became more evangelical and began to put more emphasis on Jesus as Lord and Saviour and on his atoning work on the cross.

Again, they have always taken the Bible seriously but do not appear to have bought into modern evangelical proof-texting or debates about the inerrancy of scripture. They also honour other revelation. But their idea of the God speaking through the scriptures is one both evangelicals and charismatics would generally applaud.

Quakers and the charismatic church

A main focus of the Quakers has always been on listening to God’s voice as an inner experience that comes both through reading and studying the Bible and directly through the leading of the Holy Spirit – where thoughts will come to mind with a sense that they are from God. Quakers refer to this as the Inner Light.

During their time of waiting on the Lord anyone may bring a contribution. After some silent reflection and seeking God another contribution may be brought. This is rather like a charismatic meeting where gifts of the Spirit are shared such as prophecies except traditionally there are much longer periods of silence.

Their spontaneous worship and reliance on hearing God and being led by the Spirit are vital lessons. Of course we need to take care that this doesn’t lead us into error as it can be a subjective experience open to many unconscious influences. The Quakers emphasis on the Bible is an important balance but it has not always stopped them straying from the orthodox faith.

Quakers and the liberal church

The Quakers have for a long time stood for social justice issues just as many liberals do today. Among other things they were also known for opposing slavery and being pacifists – being conscientious objectors during wartime choosing to form an ambulance corp in the First World War rather than fight. Peace is a major emphasis in their understanding of God as is valuing others equally as we all bare God’s image.

They have also sought to be an influence for the kingdom of God in this world. They have always sought to live a simple lifestyle. Quakers have founded businesses that are very well known today such as Cadbury’s and have a great philanthropic heritage in trusts and charities and even among non-Christians now have a very positive reputation.

In the 19th and early 20th century they were also influenced by liberal ideas in interpreting the Bible including modern ideas of higher criticism, from the 70s by Universalist ideas and even more recently non-theistic ideas. So much so that some Quakers today would even place themselves outside of orthodox Christianity. Despite this, I feel that there is much in their heritage that we as evangelical and charismatic Christians can learn from today.

Lessons for today?

The Quaker Star

The Quaker Star

From my little study of the Quakers, despite some of their faults, I would say that there are many ways that we should aspire to be like the Quakers:

• Hold onto some elements of planned worship but strongly embraced spontaneity and informality.

• Cultivate a personal relation with Jesus including salvation though the atonement. This is experienced in our daily life and through Bible study and conversational prayer.

• Be led by the Holy Spirit and experience his work in our lives and hearing his voice daily – something I often feel like a beginner in, even after many years.

• Live simply, stand for social justice and seek to be an influence for God’s kingdom in the world.

If you have experience or knowledge of Quakers please let me know if you think this assessment is a fair one and let me know what you would add.

Further Reading

Quakers on Wikipedia
Quakers – on the BBC’s website
Ask a Quaker on Rachel Held Evans blog

June 7, 2014 at 6:00 pm
1 comment »
  • July 12, 2014 at 4:14 pmHye Sung

    I recommend looking up Friends of Jesus Fellowship, who are gay-affirming, charismatic, missional, evangelical Quakers

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