My Distant Cousins, The Quakers

Whenever I think of Quakers, I think of the man on Quaker Oats. (Naturally.)

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I didn’t grow up exposed to the Quakers, or anything they believed. In fact, the only thing I really knew about them was that they were distantly related to the Plymouth Brethren Assemblies, the non-denomination in which I was raised. (Literally. One of the Plymouth Brethren founders, Benjamin Newton, was related to the prominent Quaker Fox family.) Oh, and I read about a Quaker family in Katherine Paterson’s Lyddie, so I had this idea in my head that they were kind of like the Amish. That was the extent of my Quaker education until earlier this year.

I was visiting a church this spring (Shout out to Ranchland Church in McKinney, Texas!), and we were in the middle of a series in Psalms. In the bulletin one Sunday, there were two quotes about rest from a book called The Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster. (Y’all know how I am about rest, and if you don’t, just read my old blog.) Together, the quotes convinced me: I needed to read this book. A few weeks later, I noticed it on the shelf at Half-Price Books, and picked it up.

The Foreword, given by D. Elton Trueblood, informed me that not only was the author a Quaker, but that the book itself was heavily-influenced by Quaker tradition. For whatever reason, I thought, What am I getting myself into? Despite the quotes that had drawn me to the book, the word Quaker made me think I was about to be subjected to something legalistic and patriarchal and punishing.

I was surprised to find it was very much in line with my theology, which has drastically changed in the past year or so. Shocked, actually. I didn’t expect to be pumping my fist in the air, saying, “Yes! Somebody gets it!” but that’s what ended up happening. And because Foster includes many thoughts from theologians from history, it was comforting to realize that the things I have come to believe about God are not new and untested; in fact, they are ancient and respected. Foster introduced me to concepts I’d never heard of, but that made perfect sense.

In this book, Foster combines the things I love about the Plymouth Brethren and Baptist traditions and what I have gleaned from the Pentecostal tradition. To be honest, I’m not sure if that combination is Quaker tradition, or if it’s some mixture of Quaker tradition and what Foster has come to on his own, but I really, really appreciated it.

And guess what? The chapter on submission changed my outlook on the Epistles.

The Epistles first call to subordination those who, by virtue of the given culture, are already subordinate [wives, children, slaves]. The revolutionary thing about this teaching, to whom first-century culture afforded no choice at all, are addressed as free moral agents. Paul gave moral responsibility to those who had no legal or moral status in their culture. He made decision-makers of people who were forbidden to make decisions.

It is astonishing that Paul called them to subordination since they were already subordinate by virtue of their place in first-century culture. The only meaningful reason for such a command was the fact that by virtue of the gospel message they had come to see themselves as free from a subordinate status in society. The gospel had challenged all second-class citizenships, and they knew it. Paul urged voluntary subordination not because it was their station in life, but because it was “fitting in the Lord.” (The Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster)

The gospel calls everyone to die to themselves and submit, regardless of gender, race, or class. And so Paul isn’t saying, “Because you’re a wife/child/slave, it’s your role to submit.” He’s saying, “Regardless of your status, because of Christ, you are free to submit.” And that, to me, makes all of the difference.

And then there’s the distancing from Calvinism, which, Lord knows I’ve never been particularly sold because I wasn’t raised that way, in spite of many noble attempts to persuade me in that direction over the years.

A popular teaching today instructs us to praise God for the various difficulties that come into our lives, asserting that there is great transforming power in thus praising God. In its best form such teaching is a way of encouraging us to look up the road a bit through the eye of faith and see what it will be. It affirms in our hearts the joyful assurance that God takes all things and works them for the good of those who love him. In its worst form this teaching denies the vileness of evil and baptizes the most horrible tragedies as the will of God. Scripture commands us to live in a spirit of thanksgiving in the midst of all situations; it does not command us to celebrate the presence of evil. (The Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster)

I haven’t believed in a god who wills evil and horrible tragedies in years. I have never taken comfort in a god who would put people through hell for his own glory. I do believe in a God who is good and wills good things, and who, in the midst of glaring human failure, brings restoration. It was good to hear someone say what I’ve been thinking about that other god – that perversion no doubt perpetuated by the enemy.

I was also reminded that Christian community is not so much about shared beliefs as it is about being a group and not a group of individuals.

Dallas Willard states, “The aim of God in history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons, with Himself included in that community as its prime sustainer and most glorious inhabitant.” Such a community lives under the immediate and total rulership of the Holy Spirit. They are a people blinded to all other loyalties by the splendor of God, a compassionate community embodying the law of love as seen in Jesus Christ. They are an obedient army of the Lamb of God living under the Spiritual Disciplines, a community in the process of total transformation from the inside out, a people determined to live out the demands of the gospel in a secular world. They are tenderly aggressive, meekly powerful, suffering, and overcoming. (The Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster)

Cue High School Musical‘s “We’re All in This Together.”

What I realized most reading The Celebration of Discipline is that the Quakers, those distant cousins of the Plymouth Brethren, are not so far removed from me.

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