February 6, 2023
by Becky Towne, President and Professor of Christian Spirituality at Houston Graduate School of Theology
In 1647, a young man sought direction for his life in a world of political upheaval and empty religious practice. He asked friends, priests, and leaders to help him on his quest. Nothing they offered helped or connected to his need until he encountered the living Christ who said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” The young man then exclaimed, “and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.” The discovery of that present reality of Jesus turned young George Fox’s spiritual frustration into joyous fervor in following the way of Christ.
Over time, as Fox shared the gospel, large numbers of people came to know and follow Jesus and many preachers and teachers joined the movement. Together, Fox and his followers set out to know Scripture and the Giver of Scripture and to be led by the One Giver of Scripture, life, and ongoing direction. They were eventually called the Society of Friends, in accordance with Jesus’s words in John 15:14, “You are my friends if you do whatsoever I command you.” Eventually dubbed “Quakers” from their powerful testimonies, even in front of magistrates, they lived to obey God no matter the consequences.
They attested to the fact that the light of God is present in every person (John 1:9), something they called, “that of God.” As a result, they refused to honor one person over another seeing all people as created equal in the eyes of God. Therefore, they couldn’t abide by the harsh realities of prisons so they responded with prison reform. They couldn’t abide the devaluing of dark-skinned people so they led the abolition of slavery on at least two continents. They were engaged with the world around them but defined by their attention to the life of Jesus and the words of Scripture.
Following Jesus and the words of Scripture meant being attentive to the Spirit’s leading. Since they believed that Christ came to teach his people himself, Friends focused on hearing God directly through discernment from the Spirit. As a result, Friends formed “clearness committees” to discern God’s direction for individuals and meetings for discernment for corporate guidance on specific matters. Commitment to the group process of discernment, which Friends call “the sense of the meeting,” helps the community discern the “mind of Christ” through conversation, Scripture, and prayer.
This attentiveness to the Spirit, coupled with a commitment to Scripture and communal discernment fostered a non-creedal community. That is to say, the community’s theological beliefs vary and have continually been refined as the community listens and responds to the guidance of the Spirit.
As it is with many movements in the Christian tradition, the history of the Friends community records various splits, statements of faith, and theological perspectives among the variety of Quakers around the world. Friends, who trace their beginnings back to George Fox and the powerful preaching and teaching ministry of early Friends, are brought back time and again to the importance of seeking God, listening to His voice, and responding as directed. Using more recent terminology, Friends helped bring in a wonderful blend of missional theology and spiritual direction—a combination that helps us stay attuned to God’s voice in order to partner with God in God’s work in the world.
In keeping with the concepts shared by Greg and David over the past several weeks, I am especially drawn to the way a directional set gives appropriate language to the Friends movement over the years. Ours has been a community focused on discerning where God is leading. To be friends of Jesus, Friends must study and follow the commands of Jesus, which can only be accomplished by assuming a posture of ongoing discernment. In doing so, we begin to see the Fruit of the Spirit emerge as a community gathers around the direction in which the Spirit is leading. Love for one’s neighbor is coupled with a slowness to anger and an abundance of lovingkindness. An ongoing receptivity to the Spirit’s guidance helps us value people, pay attention to the ongoing work and word of Jesus, and respond in obedience to the never-ending direction of the Holy Spirit.
The directional set nature of the Friends has kept us “on our toes,” knowing that abundant life is dependent upon an ongoing relationship with God through listening, discernment, and response.