We could paint Christianity as existing between two extremes. On one side are those who believe Christianity should be uniform; that Christians should submit to an authoritative leader in all matters of Faith and Practice without question. The other extreme is an individual and personal faith outside of a faith community. On one extreme, there is no room for God’s voice to the individual and on the other side there is no room for the community to help build the individual. Robert Barclay criticized both extremes in his Anarchy of the Ranters, and called for a more moderate approach.
Steven Covey paints a similar picture in the secular world talking about the differences between being dependent, independent and interdependent. Some communities are dependent upon leaders, and are forbidden to question. The rugged individualist is independent and cannot accept that another person has anything to teach him, he might read his Bible, and pray but not listen or struggle with opinions other than his own. He may seek to hear God’s voice, but he will not ask others to help him discern that he heard or that he understands rightly. The interdependent Christian would engage in a real relationship dialoging and working with the community instead of simply obeying or simply trying to figure it out alone.
A core principle of Quakerism is that the risen Christ is still with us. Friends believe that Jesus is the Word of God that gives light to the world — and this role continues, so that Jesus is a more perfect Word than anything which could be written. People come to Christianity because the risen Christ shows Himself to us and teaches us. Christianity is about living with and learning from the risen Jesus. This interpretation of John’s gospel puts each of us in a place where we learn and explore what it means to be Christians. Each Friend is able to learn from Jesus, and struggle with what this means in his daily life. It also allows change as we experience continued revelation.
A competing core principle is that of community. Friends quickly learned that individualism is dangerous. People work hard to justify their actions. Some claim Divine revelation or Scriptural authority to act in ways contrary to Christ’s standard of love. Friends not only felt that Jesus showed himself to individuals but also in community. Friends set up elders and overseers to help discern Truth and Friends have the tradition of questioning each other for accountability. When individuals need to better understand, we form clearness committees to seek God’s will. The individual is informed by God’s work and voice in the community as the community examines one another’s leading in light of scripture, and their experiences with God.
The community also seeks to live with Jesus, and make its decisions by understanding God’s will. Friends do so by searching scripture, listening to one another, and prayerfully considering what we all learn in our process of living with Jesus. There is a multitude of voices, sometimes in unity sometimes in conflict. We labor with each other, seeking to discover God’s will. We seek to grow and understand as we face the complex task of understanding an infinite God and living according to God’s will. One might say that the strength of a community of people experiencing God is that they not only correct and encourage each other, but the community experiences “Cumulative Revelation” as they learn from one another.
The society of Friends offers a path for those who want a community help them build a relationship with God. It provides a group attempting to live out their faith as best they know how. Friends learn together instead of learning alone or denying that there is anything more that what they already know. As long as God gathers such a prophetic Faith community, Friends or a similar group will have a place in this world.