The society of Friends has had a long history of disagreement about what it meant to be the church — the most important of these had to do with the extent of the invisible church. Some of the more arrogant Friends believed that all true Christians were Quakers in faith and practice — because God convinced them of Truth. Others believed that the True church was all that God had gathered, no matter what they called themselves, allowing for a much wider range of Faith and practice. No matter where Friends are on this scale of argument, Robert Barclay spoke of an invisible church that included many who were not seen as part of the community. Speculation of what is included in the invisible church (Is it a sub-set or a super-set of the visible church) does not change that this invisible church is God’s creation.
In spite of these arguments, I believe that my own theological views and interpretations of Scripture and Tradition fit within the Quaker conversation about what it means to be Church. While I don’t want to take space looking into the various arguments about the invisible church, I think it is necessary to point out that this is part of the Quaker view of church. My personal ideal is that the Religious Society of Friends finds a way to live up to the name “Religious Society” by serving the wider (invisible) church.
Friends, believing that God speaks to anyone, choose the congregational model. Instead of voting, because Friends have observed that God’s prophets often speak against the majority view, Friends adopted a method to discern the validity of hard prophetic voices — which is a slow way of making a decision. However, decisions are powerful as they are accepted by the group as a whole. The people who need to fund the project and volunteer for it already decided that it should be done. Friends claim the great success of eliminating Slavery within the Society of Friends before the Revolutionary war, because of the life-work of minority prophets such as John Woolman. The danger is that sometimes people argue before they listen, and if Friends do not stop to pray then they may not stop arguing and start doing. Another weakness of the Friends method is that it assumes a level of maturity that our members may not have achieved.
Recent history has showed that our method of decision making is utterly counter-cultural. People of different political parties want nothing to do with one another in secular life, and creating a system that asks people of differing views to seek God’s will together and submit to God’s will expects them to do what society rejects. Friends now face the difficult choice of accepting wider culture, and forming politically homoginous groups, or continuing to struggle with the process — even though outside voices make it more difficult. The first choice silences potential prophetic voices, and follows culture, the second risks suffering endless political arguments which distract from listening to God’s leading. The results of this decision will impact the American Friend’s view of what it means to be part of the Church.