Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
What do you think the Church is?
One of the distinct aspects of the Gospel of Early Friends, and a matter of faith that George Fox was most clear on, was his conception what it is that constitutes the True Church.
A good starting point to reach clarity on this point is to ask ourselves the question, what is the Church?
There are many misleading answers offered by various counterfeit versions of Christianity. They tend to fall into three main categories;
Although, these seem quite modern views of what constitutes the Church, they have been around for quite a long time.
In one of his most important tracts, published in the Doctrinals, “To All that would know the Way to the Kingdom”, George Fox speaks to the first two misconceptions directly, he writes, “the Church in God are not in imitation gathered from the letter and a high-flown people in their imaginations, but are those who are born again of the immortal Seed, by the Word of God, which lives and endures for ever, which the world knows not.” [Emphases, mine].
There is a common view in Christianity that the bible provides a pattern or blue print for the New Testament Church, and it is necessary to follow that pattern to be the True Church. This is to seriously misunderstand how God gathers and orders His People. This understanding is vested in the faith that human power creates the Church not God’s Power.
The other extreme is addressed by the phrase, “…and a high-flown people in their imaginations…”
Individualism is highly prized in our modern culture. This individualism finds expression in many modern religious groups, where people are simply left to get on with following God as they see fit, with little or no interference from that religious institution. The consequences of this kind of fellowship came to me most forcibly several years ago, when I suggested that an unruly member of the meeting, I belonged to, at that time, badly needed eldering. I cannot remember the exact response, but I can well remember the indignation of one person, who responded along the lines of, “…you can’t tell people what to do….” In the absence of any clear commitment to follow Christ, this kind of fellowship descends into moral relativism, as in “my ‘truth’ is different from your ‘truth’, and 'how dare you question my truth’. This is essentially a moral free for all that is not rooted in unity in God’s Power.
The third popular misconception is that the True Church can only ever be the ‘Invisible Church’. The ‘Invisible Church’ is based on the idea that there is an invisible group of true believers, known only to God, but not to each other. The ‘Invisible Church’ is by definition invisible and can never be an outward objective community in history.
Although George Fox never used the term ‘Invisible Church’, he was in no doubt that the Gospel that had been committed to him, had the power to gather people into the True Church, and that through the power of the ministry of Early Quaker preachers, the True Church had been indeed been gathered in the UK, America and other places where Friends had travelled, and where people had been convinced. In 1686, he wrote to Friends a Yearly Meeting in Yorkshire;
“And you that believe in the light, have the light of life, and are clothed with the son of God that doth not change, and are the true and living members of the church of Christ Jesus, that is in God, and have the moon (that is changeable) under your feet. So all changeable religions, worships, ways, churches, and teachers, which are like the changeable moon, and the changeable world, with its changeable fashions; the true church of Christ, that is clothed with Christ, the son, that doth not change, hath all these changeable things, like the moon that changes, under her feet.”
In the next part of this article will look at Early Friend's understanding of what is the True Church...
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For any who are interested, Fox's To All That Would Know the Way to the Kingdom is available as a download from this site. Go to the Resources tab, select the Online Resources option. You can then click on the title of Fox's To All That Would Know... and the text should appear.
The parable of the Banquet (Mt. 22:1-14 and Lk.14:15-24) came to mind when I read this. All are invited into the Kingdom of God, but many will not come. In the Luke version, the host of the banquet then instructs his servants to bring in the poor, the halt, the maimed, and the blind. Such are they who feel the need of own souls. All, however, are in such need, whether they have the courage to feel and see it or not.
The other idea that I had when reading this pertains to the excerpt from Fox that upholds the unchangeable "true church of Christ." One of the errors of Liberal Quakerism is to misinterpret the doctrine of continuing revelation to dismiss the essential foundation of our Quaker faith, which is Christ. The error is the result of carnal-mindedness that does not see the unvarying power of the Lord ever poured out upon the temporal, and therefore changing world. It is this element of change in the world to which the constant of God's power in Christ makes response in continuing revelation.