Update & Preview Philip Gulley, Western Yearly Meeting, And An Excerpt from His Forthcoming Book

Six years ago, in Quaker Theology, Issue #9, we reported on the effort to revoke the ministerial credentials of Friend Philip Gulley, the pastor of Fairfield Friends Meeting near Indianapolis, Indiana. Fairfield is part of Western Yearly Meeting, which encompasses the western half of the state.

The charge was heresy, specifically that Gulley had espoused a universalist theology in his 2003 book If Grace Is True. An Issue #9 piece also reviewed the book.

Gulley had previously been known as author of a series of “Front Porch Tales,” folksy volumes that had been quite popular with evangelical readers. If Grace Is True was his first work of theology, and it was met with intense controversy, including calls for his expulsion from the ministry.

This controversy has continued, coming to the floor of Western Yearly Meeting for extended discussion at least twice. In 2007, a proposal to rescind came from the YM’s Executive Board. After lengthy exercise, the Clerk determined that there was no unity for any decision and remanded the proposal back to the Executive Committee.

The proposal came back to the floor this past summer, at the 2009 sessions. Debate (no milder term will suffice) continued for four hours, whereupon the Clerk determined that there was not only any unity on the matter, it was also clear such would not be forthcoming and declared the proposal laid aside. A later effort to resurrect it was rejected. This appears to be the end of the line for efforts within Western Yearly Meeting to revoke Gulley’s pastoral credentials.

Predictably, his critics were not satisfied, and some resolved to act. By the end of August, the groundwork was laid for the formation of a new midwestern evangelical yearly meeting, and dissident pastors were invited to join it. How much of an exodus from Western Yearly Meeting this call will provoke is not yet clear.

Meanwhile, some of those who had supported Gulley, either by agreement with his views or in affirmation of his right to hold them, were taking some organizational steps of their own. Several pastors of more “moderate” orientation, including Gulley himself, are planning a new, semi-annual series of gatherings to be called the Festival of Friends.

The festivals will invite participation from Friends in both Western, Indiana, and other Quaker groups. It is not, however, intended to be a new yearly meeting, but rather informal, cooperative events, focused on education and fellowship. The over-riding goal is to begin to re-knit the frayed bonds among the various groups there, which have been strained in recent years by repeated controversies such as that over Gulley’s pastoral credentials.

Gulley notes that the Festival process strongly resembles the way in which Friends General Conference was initially organized: as a series of “conferences” rather than a free-standing organization.

As these two fledgling initiatives suggest, things Friendly are in flux in Indiana. The two yearly meetings have been declining in membership for decades, raising a question about their continued viability as separate bodies. For some views about what path the future might follow there, we suggest a look at “Friends’ Ecclesiology and the Quaker-Wide Web,” in QT Issue #4 (online at: http://quakertheology.org/issue4-3-1.html ).

One near-term outcome of the end of disciplinary proceedings will be that Gulley can publish his next book without anxiety about official reprisal. It will likely stir some renewed controversy, however. Titled, If the Church Were Christian, it is due out from HarperCollins early in 2010. We are pleased to include herewith an excerpt from its opening chapter.

– The Editors


If the Church Were Christian, Jesus Would Be A Model For Living Rather Than An Object of Worship

Copyright © by Philip Gulley. Reprinted by permission.

I was born into a mixed marriage. My father hailed from Baptists and my mother from Roman Catholics. My father was religiously indifferent and ceded the spiritual ground to my mother, who took me and my siblings to Mass each Sunday morning in the small town where we lived. The building was a modest one, intended as a temporary structure until the church had grown sufficiently to erect a more suitable building. Unfortunately, our priests were near retirement, depleted of physical and spiritual energy, and unable to expand the church’s population. For as long as I attended there, the building where we gathered to worship was small and plain, with one exception– behind the altar hung a magnificent figure of Jesus nailed to a cross.

The statue was so realistic as to be frightening. Nails protruded from Jesus’ wrists and ankles, blood mingled down in a grisly red, his body striped with angry lashes. The figure loomed above the priest, inescapable. It had to be gazed upon. Without my mother telling me so, I deduced this Jesus was to be revered. Had the statue been placed anywhere else, had it been avoidable, I do not think it would have captured my attention to the extent it did. But placed behind the altar, squarely in the center of the worshiper’s attentions, forced me to gaze upon it, brought it sharply to focus, and required a response. It was clear, from the priest’s words, from the hymns we sang and prayers we offered, that the hoped-for response was veneration. This Jesus was to be worshiped. Further, the quality and sincerity of my worship would determine my future, whether I would enjoy an eternal life of joy and bliss with Jesus, or an eternity of suffering and sorrow without him. . . .

. . . But the more I learned about the historical Jesus and the Jewish setting in which he lived, the more I wondered how he would have felt about his promotion to divine status and a subsequent object of worship. Would he have welcomed such veneration as his due? Or as a monotheistic Jew would he have interpreted such reverence as idolatrous? Of course, it is intellectually risky to read someone’s mind two thousand years after his or her death. But this has not kept us from claiming to know the mind of Jesus, even about matters with which he couldn’t have been familiar, such as evolution, abortion, the American political system, and other topics. So even as I imagine how Jesus might have felt about his promotion to divine status, I am well aware I might be mistaken. But I risk the discussion because I believe the church’s worship of Jesus is something he would not have favored. Further, this tendency has had profound consequences, not all of them beneficial.

One consequence has been our tendency to value right-thinking above right-acting. When I first indicated my interest in becoming a pastor, a church invited me to work with their youth. Why they entrusted their most vulnerable members to my inexperienced oversight was a mystery, but this happens often in churches, occasionally with good results. The church was located in a solidly middle class area, which hampered my efforts to introduce the children to human need and heighten their sense of social responsibility. So I arranged to transport the youth to the inner city of Indianapolis to help renovate a homeless shelter. My ministry was overseen by a board of elders, most of whom approved this undertaking, except for one man who sat with his arms folded, clearly unimpressed with my proposal. After the meeting, he took me aside and objected to the project.

“If those people would just work, they wouldn’t be in that place,” he said. “We ought not coddle them. Why are you doing this?”

I pointed out that the residents of the shelter were victims of spousal and child abuse and had come there seeking safety. “These aren’t lazy people. They’ve had bad luck. We’re Christians, and I think we should help them.”

“What’s being a Christian got to do with it?” he asked.

I chuckled, thinking he was joking, then realized he wasn’t, that in his mind being Christian had little to do with acts of compassion. During my time at that church, I got to know the man better and observed that while his enthusiasm for orthodoxy was great, he had little passion for ministry. He believed all the “right” things about Jesus, and could give his intellectual assent to the tenets of traditional Christianity. If tests had been given to measure one’s orthodoxy, he would have been a star student. But for some reason, this had never translated to a zeal for service. For him, being a Christian had everything to do with worshiping Jesus, and little to do with following his example.

I hasten to add that while I have met other people like him, I have known many others who take right belief and right action seriously, whose appreciation for orthodoxy is matched by their mercy and compassion. But it’s also clear that for some people in the church, belief is not only everything, it is the only thing. Indeed, I have noticed many Christians refer to themselves as “believers”, as if Christianity is primarily about “believing.”. . .

. . . Several years ago, I was interviewed by a man writing an article for a magazine. While the interviewer was not a theologian, he was curious about spiritual matters and asked what I thought about Jesus, specifically about his divinity. I expressed doubts about his divinity, at least in the way the church has typically defined it, and said, by way of explanation, “He (Jesus) was a monotheistic Jew who did not see himself as divine. He saw himself as a rabbi, probably a prophet.” I chose my words carefully, knowing they would be quoted. Wanting to affirm my deep appreciation for the life and witness of Jesus, I added, “But I certainly understand the personality of God through the person of Jesus. That is, I believe God’s priorities were also Jesus’ priorities, and those priorities were to care for the poor and the marginalized.”

Within a short time, calls demanding the rescinding of my recording (ordination) were circulating through our yearly meeting (an organization of local Quaker meetings).

Again and again, the same charge was voiced – questioning the divinity of Jesus was unacceptable. Even in a denomination as tolerant as the Quakers, a pastor was not allowed to express reservations about a matter which had confounded thoughtful and sincere Christians for thousands of years. For the next several years, I was summoned before committees, asked to affirm doctrines in a denomination that expressly rejected creedalism, and when I declined to do so, was urged to leave ministry and Quakerism. I had become a Quaker precisely because of its theological and intellectual freedom, only to discover the limits of that freedom. Fortunately, more rational voices carried the day, but not before the chill winds of wrath and fear had done their damage.

If I use any divine language in regards to Jesus, I tend to use the language of my Quaker tradition, which talks about “that of God in all people.” This understanding allows me to celebrate God’s presence in Jesus, while affirming that same divine reality in others. Perhaps Jesus lived more fully in this presence than most, but within everyone exists the potential to live as he did. I realize this distinction isn’t sufficient for many Christians, that they will insist on the unique divinity of Jesus, but this Christian believes the same God which so enlivened Jesus also enlivens others. Unfortunately, such hopes, when voiced aloud, are often silenced or scorned.

This is where we are today – before any substantive discussion about Jesus can occur, his divine status as the second person of the Trinity must be acknowledged, even if Jesus never made such a claim for himself and might even have been offended by it.

I argue against the deification of Jesus because of my admiration for him. I believe his promotion to divine statue contradicts the Jewish faith of Jesus, and ultimately encourages behavior inconsistent with the ethic of Jesus. It has made the church overly proud and prone to asserting itself as the only path to God. In questioning this claim, my wish is not to diminish the life of Jesus, but to honor it as fully as I can by asking whether his elevation to divinity is something he would have wanted. One telling clue to Jesus’ self-awareness can be found in the tenth chapter of the gospel of Mark when Jesus was approached by a man who called him “Good Teacher.” Jesus’ response was immediate and startling, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” I have heard some say Jesus was, in a clever way, offering the man the opportunity to affirm his divinity, but that is not what happened. Jesus simply directed the man to a style of living he believed would honor the priorities of God. Clearly, Jesus was a man who did not comfortably accept affirmations of divinity as his due.

I also raise the question of divinity as a matter of integrity, living as we do in an era when many thoughtful Christians value the priorities of Jesus, but reject the creeds and legends which have built up around him. The question for today’s church isn’t whether or not Jesus was divine. We should be asking ourselves what it meant when earlier Christians made that claim, then find a way to affirm the value of Jesus in language that doesn’t require the suspension of reason, science, and grace.

Lest you consider such a matter trivial, consider for a moment the damage done by theological exclusivity. When any religion claims a unique divine status for its founder, the next inevitable step is exclusion. “Our religion is the true path to God! All other religions are false.” Tolerance, acceptance, and mutual respect fall by the way. Justifications are made not only to treat others poorly, but sometimes even to kill them. One can examine almost any conflict in our world today and find behind it the poison of exclusive religion, one group murdering another in the name of God. Our world can ill afford the high cost of divine privilege that elevates some and denigrates others. The time has come for a new language, a language which honors Jesus, though not at the expense of his own self-understanding and our own need to live in peace.

What would it mean if Jesus were a model for living rather than an object of worship?

At the age of eighteen, when my interest in Christianity was rekindled, I attended a friend’s church. Accustomed to the more subdued worship style of Catholics and Quakers, I was intrigued by my friend’s pastor, who was more casual and outgoing. While his tone was conversational, his message was dead serious there were doctrines which must be believed for one to enjoy right relationship with God. Specifically, I was asked to believe Jesus was God, that I was sinful, that the divine Jesus had died on my behalf to save me from God’s judgment, and by believing those things, I would go to heaven when I died. He then offered the congregants an opportunity to come forward and publicly affirm the theology he’d just shared. I was young, and frightened, so went forward.

Though I no longer embrace that theology, the experience of going forward ignited in me a desire to learn more, so I don’t regret it. What I do regret is believing for a number of years that the sole value of Jesus rested in his ability to usher me into heaven. This was reinforced by my friend’s preacher, who downplayed any other value Jesus might have offered, especially the power of Jesus’ good example.

“Some people will tell you Jesus is only an example for how we should live,” he said. “But anyone can be an example.”

Thirty years have passed since I heard that sermon, and one thing I’ve learned is the difficulty of being a good example. I’ve known many people who’ve exemplified one or two virtues, but I’ve known very few persons who’ve consistently embodied the qualities and values we associate with godly virtue. Moreover, I have witnessed the damage done when appropriate models were lacking – children whose parents failed to provide a loving example, teens whose friends and family were unable to serve as helpful models for living. I have heard teachers, judges, and social workers lament the scarcity of good examples in the lives of children they’ve encountered.

I have failed to be an appropriate model for Christian conduct many times. At significant points, when I should have led by example, I failed to embody the very principles I publicly affirm. I have been intolerant, greedy, slothful, and even dishonest. Were someone to say I was an example for how others should live, I would be flattered, but would know their assessment was inaccurate. To say Jesus is “only an example,” as if that were a small thing, underestimates not only the profound difficulty of serving such a role, but also discounts its rarity.

I have heard this disparagement of example by many Christians, most often by those who’ve emphasized orthodoxy over conduct. Though we can’t know with certainty Jesus’ self-understanding, I suspect his chief hope was to embody the values of God. Indeed, if someone had accused him of being “only an example,” he would have likely replied, “What is wrong with that? Shouldn’t we all be?”

Consider this: Jesus offered no new revelation from God. Everything he said and did grew out of his Jewish faith. Like all religions, there were those in it who’d forgotten and forsaken its principles. What first-century Judaism needed wasn’t a new revelation, but the reminder of a previous one. The prophets preceding Jesus had described well the priorities of God – mercy, forgiveness, hospitality, and compassion. Jesus exemplified those virtues, expanded their meaning for his generation, and through the power of his good example urged others to not only imitate his works, but to exceed them. . .

. . . The Christian gospel ought not be that Jesus was God and we can find life in his death. Our good news is that we can find life in his example – accepting the excluded, healing the sick, strengthening the weak, loving the despised, and challenging the powerful to use their influence redemptively. These objectives do not require divinity, but commitment, compassion, and courage. Jesus accomplished what he did not because of some supernatural power unavailable to the rest of us. He accomplished what he did because of his steadfast dedication to the priorities of God.

Several years ago, a fellow Quaker and friend, Ray Stewart, lay dying in a hospital. He was advanced in years, had suffered a number of health setbacks, was near death, and knew it. But the day we visited, his senses were sharp, his mood good. While Ray had taken his faith seriously, he was not always a friend of orthodoxy and had a habit of distressing more conventional members of our denomination. Because he could be outspoken, some people dismissed him as crotchety, but I found him to be genuine and loving.

While I stood by his bedside, he took my hand and gave me several parting instructions, knowing it would likely be our last opportunity to speak.

“Philip,” he said. “If you ever hurt your children, apologize to them. The mark of a man isn’t his pride, but his humility.”

I nodded my head.

“But don’t be a pisswilly,” he added.

Ray was always urging me not to be a pisswilly, or an insignificant person.

I had my own parting words for Ray. I promised him I wouldn’t be a pisswilly, then said, “Ray, when I grow older, I want to be like you.”

He squeezed my hand in silent appreciation. I left shortly afterwards and within a few hours he was dead.

I have reflected on our last conversation many times since Ray’s passing. I don’t think I could have said anything more meaningful to him. The highest compliment we can ever pay anyone is our desire to be like them.

Now consider for a moment all the energy the church has devoted these past centuries getting people to believe theological doctrines about Jesus – sending missionaries around the world, television and radio ministries, going door to door, spending billions of dollars and untold hours urging people to believe certain things, then killing, threatening, or excluding them when they didn’t.

What if those sizeable resources had instead been used to being like Jesus, bringing to fruition his hopes and dreams for the world? Of course, I know the church has fed the hungry, clothed the poor, and been the source of great good. I also know we have expended many resources, and created no small amount of ill will, when we have valued orthodoxy over practice. If the church were serious about honoring Jesus, conducting ourselves as he did would be our chief concern.

In the chapters ahead, I will be examining in more detail the priorities of Jesus and their implications for his followers. I don’t pretend to be a Jesus scholar. There are many others more knowledgeable. My hope is to interpret the life and example of Jesus in a redemptive and relevant way. Each generation must do this with Jesus, lest it be forced into stale beliefs which strain credibility and diminish life. For the joy of Christian faith is not to be found in the rote recitation of dogmas about Jesus, but in modeling his mercy and love, which alone have the power to transform us and our world.

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