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The Role of the Church
By: Kennard T. Wing
In 1685, George Fox replied to some Friends in the ministry in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Here’s how his epistle opened:
“Dear Friends, With my love to you all, and all the rest of Friends, I was glad to hear from you; but you gave me no account of the increase of truth amongst you” (8:291).
Elsewhere, he wrote, “We are not our own, and are not to live to ourselves, nor to order ourselves, but to live unto him and be ordered, ruled and governed by him, of the increase of whose government there is no end” (5:203).
And in his journal, Fox wrote, “all believers in the light, the life of Christ, that pass from death to life, are in the order of the Holy Spirit, power, light, life and government of Christ Jesus, of the increase thereof there is no end” (BII:417).
It seems so me that this is the purpose of the Church: to increase the truth, to increase the government of Christ. In Lewis Benson’s words, to be “the instrument of God’s universal redemptive purpose” (Benson, QRT 2:1:5).
It also seems to me that this increase has to happen in three realms. The first realm is within the individual human heart. This we call sanctification. The second realm is within the Church itself. This we call love of neighbor. And the third realm is the world at large. This we call love of enemies.3 The Church is the primary instrument through which God works in the latter realms, and an important instrument in the first.
I want to look first at the ways the Church participates in the sanctification of the individual member. Aleksandr Soltzhenitsyn wrote that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Mohandas Gandhi wrote that “each of us has a piece of the truth and the untruth.” One of the exciting parts of Friends’ gospel is that God will do something about that in this life. The primary way God does that is through inward work, but the Church has a role to play.
People of God, living in the power and spirit the apostles were in, will love the new member with the transforming love of God, and have compassion for the new member with the transforming compassion of our Lord. In this love, they may teach.
God spoke directly to Samuel, and Samuel heard the voice, but he didn’t recognize it as God’s voice. Samuel needed the teaching of Eli to learn to recognize God’s voice. Let the church, in love, teach the newly convinced how to hear and recognize God’s voice.
Living in the power and spirit, the people of God are a model. Just as Jesus, as a man, behaved as we ought to behave, so those who live and walk in the spirit show us both how we ought to behave, and that it is possible for us to do so, as they do, with the power of God. This modeling is not intended to engender a slavish imitation, nor are people to mimic externals. The example is a verb, not a noun: walking in the power and spirit of God.
Despite these, there will be times when individuals depart from the spirit, and walk out of it. In love, Friends may admonish them to return to their inner Bishop and King. They may labor with them to thresh down the evil that has got up in them. Fox says, “let there be no backbiting among you; but in love, ye that dwell in the light and see clear, speak to the others whose minds have gone from the light” (7:61). In his journal, he writes, “Be not negligent in your men’s meetings, to admonish, to exhort, and reprove, in the spirit of love and meekness” (BII:152).
So teaching, walking, and admonishing in the living spirit of God’s love contribute to the sanctification of individual members. In Penington’s summary, “The end of ministry is not only to gather, but also to preserve and build up what is gathered, even to perfection” (Penington II:405).
I want to turn next to the world. God’s redemptive purpose is plainly given early in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The 1660 declaration puts it this way, “we do earnestly desire and wait, that by the word of God’s power and its effectual operation in the hearts of men, the kingdoms of this world may become the kingdoms of the Lord, and of his Christ, that he may rule and reign in men by his spirit and truth, that thereby all people, out of all different judgments and professions, may be brought into love and unity with God and one with another.”
As in the Church’s role toward individuals, the first item of business is teaching. Fox’s journal says, “The gospel is to be preached to all nations…The preaching of the gospel of Christ is to the intent that all may come to be heirs of the gospel and into the possession of it, and to be heirs of Christ and of his government” (BII:240-241).
At least as important, again, is modeling. “Walk as becomes the gospel,” writes Fox, “and let your lives and conversations preach, that…you may reach to that of God in all” (8:91). Writing to the prisoners in Algiers, he says, “my desire is, that the Lord may preserve you all, that do meet in the name of Jesus, that in your lives, and conversations, and words, you may preach righteousness, and holiness, and godliness, and the life of truth; so that you may answer the spirit of God, both in the Turks and Moors, and the rest of the captives; that God's city may be set upon the holy hill there, which cannot be hid; but that all may see it with the light wherewith Christ hath enlightened every man that cometh into the world. And that Christ's ensign may be set up in those parts; that with his light in all men, they may all see it, and flock to it (8:193). Finally, speaking of unity within the church, he says, “this oneness is that which convinces the world, that the world may know that God hath sent his son by the love and unity and oneness that is amongst the saints” (5:292).
Finally, the analog to admonishment is corporate testimony. Corporate testimonies are concrete situations in which Friends cannot both walk in the truth and conform to the behavioral expectations of society, so they choose to violate society’s expectations and live in the truth. Historically, corporate testimonies had a powerful effect on changing society, even where they did not result in convincement.
Drawing on biblical images, Penington says of the Church’s role in the world: “They are the salt of the earth, having that in them which seasoneth their own hearts, and which hath virtue in it to season others. They are the light of the world, having that in them which casts rays of light, conviction, and demonstration, wherever they go. They being changed into the leaven of the kingdom, become a leaven, and so a weight upon iniquity; testifying against, yea, bowing down and afflicting, that spirit, as the power of life springs in them and breaks forth through them” (Penington III:130).
In addition to the human heart and the world, the third major arena in which the Church works is within itself. Again, the basic purpose is to increase the truth within the Church, and I see four main ways it does this.
First is by faith in unity. Fox taught that God is a God of order and not of confusion. God did not give me one leading and you another contrary to it. As we seek the will of God together, we can share what we have received. And in that sharing, our task is to find the unity in the separate pieces that God has given us. The trust that God is a God of order and not confusion can guide us to the larger Good and Truth that has been given to the Church as a whole through its members.
Where we have differences and diversity, we are fortunate, for that is our opportunity to grow in the truth. Where we have disagreement and disunity, that is a sign that we have gone out of the spirit, and set our own opinions up as idols to worship. Standing aside, sect-making, agreeing to disagree—these are all human strategies to manage disagreement without killing each other. They have nothing to do with seeking and dwelling in unity. So another role of the Church is to increase truth by seeking unity where there are differences and diversity within the Church. Fox said, “that which is divided is the kingdom that cannot stand” (7:114).
Second is to make the church the Kingdom of God on earth. We are to love our neighbor. This includes, among other things, meeting the necessities and wants of our members (7:167), helping them learn how to labor in God’s creation (7:94, 8:35), and attending to the poor (7:127, 7:329, 7:343).
Third is to take a continuing look at areas where we have not wholly come off the ways of the world. Fox tells us that Captain Sandys and his wife would have received the truth “if they could have had the world and truth” (Ni 113). Each shock of recognition of ways in which we continue to support the powers and principalities of the world in their iniquity is an opportunity to grow in the truth. This is the work from which tomorrow’s new testimonies will come.
It is not enough for us simply to reclaim what the first generation of Friends lived. Of the increase of truth and of Christ’s government there is no end. By all means, let us reclaim what we have lost, not to rest in it, but to continue the work.
Fourth is focus on how well the Church is performing its roles. The queries were supposed to aid in this, but for our purposes we can substitute for the many questions of today just two: 1) Are we in the same power and spirit the apostles and prophets were in? And 2) How does the truth prosper? Of course, there will be ten answers to the question how truth prospers: one for each of the areas of focus laid out here.
So the Church works in three realms: individual, church and world. And there are ten areas of focus across the three realms. For individuals, the Church teaches, models, and admonishes. For the world, the Church preaches, models, and testifies. For itself, the Church seeks increased unity, to enact the Kingdom of God on earth, to more fully come off the ways of the world, and increased effectiveness at all its roles. I close with two implications.
In the end, all these realms and focus areas are about increasing the truth and increasing the government of Christ. That makes them all highly interrelated. As a result, a church (in the sense of a human institution seeking to be part of the Church) will either succeed in all three realms, or fail in all three realms. For example, a church that has no unity lacks that which convinces the world. A church that hasn’t come off the ways of the world has no testimonies. A church that has no unity in standing apart from the world will find it difficult to encourage the work of sanctification. A church where sanctification isn’t progressing will find it difficult to achieve unity, or to stand against the ways of the world.
The final point I want to make is that either a church is increasing the truth and the government of Christ or it is dead. In the new testament, the Greek word for spirit is pneuma, the same word as for wind. The spirit is an energy that is always in motion. When the energy stops, it is dead. When we are in the power and spirit the apostles and prophets were in, the truth increases, and Christ’s government increases. When we are out of that power and spirit, the increase stops. And as soon as the increase stops, the substance leaves, and evil fills up the empty form. Jesus taught, "When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, 'I will return to the house I left.' When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first." (Luke 11:24-26). There is no such thing as an empty house. We are possessed by a power no matter what. Either our church is possessed by Christ, or it is possessed by a fallen spirit.