a response to
The Nature and Purpose of the Church: A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement
(World Council of Churches
Faith and Order Paper No. 181, Nov. 1998)
by Friends United Meeting Ecumenical Task Group
Friends United Meeting commits itself to energize and equip Friends through the power of the Holy Spirit to gather people into fellowships where Jesus Christ is known, loved, and obeyed as Teacher and Lord.Friends United Meeting Mission Statement
Editor’s Note: The World Council’s Faith and Order Commission has been sponsoring ecumenical dialogue on the nature of the church since its initial gathering in 1927. Three Friends were present at this first conference, and Quakers have been part of its work continuously since then.
The main purpose of the study, The Nature and Purpose of the Church, published in 1998, is to give expression to what the churches can now say together about the nature and purpose of the Church and within that perspective to state the remaining areas of disagreement. Churches The Faith and Order Commission invited churches, commissions, colleges, institutes, and individuals to reflect on the text, and to identify areas of convergence, difference, and what issues may have been omitted.
Although there are many areas in which the diverse communities of Friends might differ from the text in its present draft, most yet affirm, in their various ways, that in God’s design the Church exists, not for itself alone, but to serve in God’s work of reconciliation and for the praise and glory of God.
In 2001 FGC prepared a response to this draft, which can be found on the web at:
The FUM response is being published here at the request of its sponsors. Issues involving the nature of the church, or ecclesiology, are one of our continuing concerns as a journal and forum for discussion among Friends and other interested persons.
The full text of The Nature and Purpose of the Church can be ordered from the WCC U.S. distribution center by calling 1-800-944-6190. It is also online at:
(1) This response is the product of a group of theologians commissioned by Friends United Meeting. The Ecumenical Task Group of the General Board of FUM revised and approved this document in its meetings on February 9, 2002. The General Board received and commends this paper to the Faith and Order Commission and FUM’s member Yearly Meetings for study. Friends United Meeting is an association of Yearly Meetings (regional gatherings) of Friends in North America, Africa, and the Caribbean, and other bodies of Friends in Mexico and Palestine.
(2) Other bodies of Friends may choose to compose similar responses, and we welcome these contributions to the broader ecumenical conversations. While we would have differences of nuance and emphasis in some areas and some substantial differences in others, we want to register our appreciation for the thorough and thoughtful responses crafted by Friends in Britain Yearly Meeting and Friends General Conference.
(3) In the Religious Society of Friends, we are blessed with some provocative and life-giving thought on the nature of the church given us by our forebears in the first few generations of our comparatively short history. Many of us long for greater familiarity with this thinking. Yet in the last one hundred fifty years, major changes in our styles of worship and ministry have brought about tremendous diversity, and Friends United Meeting encompasses this more so than any other Friends body. We confess that in the last century or so we have not thought systematically or intentionally about the nature of the church, though our experience of church has been vibrant, uplifting, and salvific. At present, our inherited ways of acting as church combine the theological and practical heritage of our own Society with that of the broader Anglo-American free church movement, and particularly the Wesleyan tradition. These developments have been both life-giving and problematic, and we recognize the need to deepen among ourselves a theologically substantial process of reflection on the nature of church as we experience and understand it.
(4) We recognize that much of what follows in our response, and much of what other Friends have written in theirs, will register that Friends cannot unite with some important principles and practices held broadly among Christian churches. In the last hundred years, Friends have lived in tension between our sectarian heritage, which we believe has an important witness to make to the broader church, and our desire to learn from and co-operate with other Christian bodies. We are committed to learning better to see the manifestation of Christ’s Church in other churches, and we want to participate in the broader dialogue among Christians. We hope that other Christians will read our response in the context of our deep appreciation for the impulses toward greater communion among Christians; we wholeheartedly welcome this spirit and wish to accompany it.
(5) Friends’ theological stance on three questions in particular make institutional merger with other churches very difficult. These questions are (1) the necessity of water baptism as compared with the baptism of the Holy Spirit; (2) the sacrament of the Lord’s supper as compared with communion with the living Christ; and (3) the humanly-ordained priesthood as compared with the free gospel ministry.
(6) It is our sincere hope that institutional merger is never confounded with the visible unity possible among Christians. Communion with other Christians in the living Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ is a reality we believe possible and desirable.
(7) We are gratified by the WCC document’s clear enunciation that “The Church . . . is the creation of God’s Word and Holy Spirit.” It is a central claim of Quaker faith that whatever may happen in particular local meetings of various religious societies, Church, when it happens, is the work of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, and not the result of any particular human arrangement, covenant, contract, appointment, sacramental ordination, or inherited authority. For this reason, for a great part of our history and in many local congregations still, we are cautious about using the word “church” to name ourselves, for fear of presuming that we are Church simply because we have a building and a congregation. “Church” is a work brought about by God among the community of believers, and this work is not dependent upon our human arrangements. The Church is gathered by the Holy Spirit; it is not taken as a given by virtue of outward marks. Many Friends happily call their fellowships churches in conformity with general practice, but others maintain our testimony that the term “Church” properly refers to the “invisible church.” In traditional Quaker thought, the Church catholic is the body of those persons, whatever their nation, “of such as God hath called out of the world, and worldly spirit, to walk in his Light and Life,” and who have responded to this call with amendment of life by God’s healing grace, regardless of whether they have heard the outward Gospel or have benefit of the scriptures.1 The particular churches of Christ are characterized by outward profession of faith in Jesus Christ but, in them also, this inward work of holiness is still necessary.
(8) We note, however, that Friends stand in the “Believers’ Church” tradition of Christianity in which commitment by others on behalf of an infant or child is not sufficient for full membership in the gathered, visible church. The visible fellowship is a voluntary association of those who are inwardly convicted of sin by the Light of Christ and desire to accept the offer of redemption, and who have actively sought and been granted membership in the gathered church. It also includes those seekers who worship with us but have not yet asked for formal membership. Yet our witness to this principle has not been unambiguous, and among ourselves we struggle somewhat with a longstanding, but now faded, practice of “birthright membership.” We are nonetheless agreed that it is not the meeting’s grant of membership, but the inward work of the Holy Spirit, to which the soul yields in humble obedience, which constitutes a person’s adoption into the body of Christ.
(9) We would add further that this work of the Holy Spirit is not merely the transformation of individual souls and the collection of those individual persons into a body. Rather, the Spirit continues to work collectively upon the gathered body, as the World Council’s document so clearly enunciates. Quakers hold fast to the faith that it is in the context of that “gathered meeting” under the covering of the Holy Spirit’s power that the depths of God’s redeeming grace can be fully known and the will of God for us fully discerned. Friends bear testimony to the unique power of the gathered meeting waiting upon the Lord with open attentiveness, and we profess that apart from our corporate waiting upon the Lord, our ability to attend and respond to the inward work of Christ is incomplete. The fullness of Christian discipleship is possible only in the visible body of Christ’s church, waiting in expectant hope of the manifestation of his presence among us. Further, that manifestation is not complete until it is realized in both the visible transformation of our own lives and the corporate witness which is, with the power of the Holy Spirit, world transforming. While Friends differ from other Christians in our position on the necessity of outward sacraments, we joyfully join them in confessing that the fullness of the Christian response to God’s gracious offer of redemption is possible only through the working of the Holy Spirit in the worship of the gathered church. This we believe to be the substance of other religious societies’ reliance on outward sacraments, and insofar as those outward sacraments better enable a congregation’s openness to the operation of the Holy Spirit, we rejoice in the reality of that grace.
(10) On the controverted question posed in the document, “whether the preaching and the sacraments are the means of, or simply witnesses to, the activity of the Spirit” (par. 13) we may offer a mediating formula. While we as a body do not accept that any outward sacrament is necessary and do not practice them ourselves, we recognize that in other bodies, the sacraments can be not only the witnesses to, but at times the means of the “immediate internal action upon the hearts of the believers.” Nevertheless, we must testify that we can accept no intrinsic connection between outward sacraments and inward grace. The performance of the sacrament can never ensure the operation of grace, but God’s generosity may at times choose to work through the sacraments. We believe that, with regard to any outward means of communicating God’s grace, the salvific operation is the real and inward transformation of the human heart.
(11) In this spirit we are able to affirm the sentiment expressed in par. 20, “Through Holy Communion their participation and communion in this body is renewed again and again,” though we emphasize that the communion which makes us ever more deeply the body of Christ is not the outward re-enactment of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, but rather koinonia a communal sharing between ourselves and God, “participation in the body of Christ” graciously offered and effected by God’s work in the gathered community. We confess that among us this is accomplished in the depths of waiting upon the Lord. We also joyfully confess that in the gathered meeting in which we experience the depth of communion with one another and with God, it becomes possible to discern in unity the will of God for us personally, corporately and for our witness in the world. We believe that this discernment of God’s will is in fact the purpose of the communion into which God draws us.
(12) The document professes that the church, “as a communion of all believers held in personal relationship with God . . . is already the eschatological community God wills” (par. 36). We would add that when this is true, it is because of the real presence and work of Christ in its midst which is the essence of Jesus’ eschatological promises and the church’s eschatological hope. From the earliest days Friends have claimed, eschatologically, that “Christ has come to teach his people himself,” and is present and working among us as our head, our Lord, our bishop, our priest, our prophet, our king. The church is the “eschatological community God wills” because Christ is among us, and only when we yield to his work in faithfulness and love.
(13) On the controverted questions posed by the comments on “The Church and Sin” (par. 41), we may once again offer a mediating formula. Friends would agree that the Church cannot sin when by “the Church” we mean not any human structure but the gathering of all faithful persons throughout history, the “invisible church” of which we (like our Friends in Britain Yearly Meeting) have written above. The Church is indeed the “gift of God,” but only in this sense. The particular institutional arrangements which we establish on earth are the Church only insofar as they are gatherings of faithful Christians waiting upon the Lord and responding faithfully to divine guidance as it is given us. The Church cannot sin, but these human institutions may be sinful and may commit sin as institutions because they can and do turn away from communion with God and act contrary to the divine will. When they do so, they are simply no longer the visible Church but rather in a state of apostasy, for which God constantly offers forgiveness and redemption but likewise demands repentance. This apostasy is a real possibility not only for the fallible individuals who make up institutions, but for institutions themselves. This is as true of our own Quaker institutions as it is of other religious societies. No human institution can claim to be free of sin; nor can any human institution claim that it can guarantee that it will always, at every moment of its existence, be faithfully and authentically the Church.
(14) On the controverted question of church as sacrament (par. 47), we note that the claim that the church is sacrament is not in common use among us, but neither is it antithetical to our understanding of either church or sacrament. All reality may be sacramental in that God may choose any means of communicating the divine life and presence to human beings. Because we testify to God’s sacramental power pervading all our experience, we cannot object to sacramental language about the Church so long as it is understood that the Church is not in any way necessarily or categorically sacramental. It is sacramental only when and as God chooses to use it as a means of communion with us. This is the same caution voiced above with regard to the outward sacraments.
(15) We approve with enthusiasm the “visible and tangible signs of the new life of communion” that may be shared between Christian societies, and we continue to be glad to participate in these. We note, however, that “breaking and sharing the eucharistic bread” is not a possibility for koinonia with other churches. This is true in part on theological grounds. However, most churches admit as communicants only those who have been baptized with water. Thus many Friends may be ineligible to be communicants in other Christian bodies. For those bodies which would require baptism more broadly understood, participation of Friends in communion might be possible.
(16) We note with a little concern the remark in the introduction to controverted questions on the eucharist after par. 80: “It is a matter of continuing concern among all Christians that not all Christians share together in the Holy Communion.” The troublesome word is the first all. We note with gratitude the recognition after par. 77 in the section on controverted questions regarding water baptism that not all communities practice it. A similar acknowledgement concerning the eucharist would address communities such as ours which do not outwardly practice the Lord’s Supper.
(17) We find the question about the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary to be theologically compelling. While there is diversity among Friends concerning the precise nature of Christ’s sacrifice, Friends United Meeting insists on the salvific centrality of that historic sacrifice. On the other hand, Quakers have confessed from the earliest days that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and with it his resurrection is without effect if it is not repeated in the heart of each believer in the crucifixion of the fleshly will in rebellion against God and the resurrection of the soul to new life in God. In this sense, our understanding has some affinity with the Roman Catholic insistence that the eucharist repeats the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, for we believe that the context of this repetition of his sacrifice inwardly in us is the gathered meeting covered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. This experience is precisely what we mean by communion, and precisely what we hope is effected in other churches by their experience of eucharist.
(18) Friends differ from many Christian bodies on the question of the ordained ministry, and here we have a great affinity with other Believers’ Church traditions. We appreciate the document’s affirmation that “Jesus Christ is the unique priest of the new covenant (Heb 9:10)” (par. 83). Quakers would not deny the priesthood of all believers, but from the earliest times have testified that Christ is present among us as our bishop to oversee us, our priest to intercede for us with God, our prophet to guide us, and our king to govern us. We are therefore unable to unite with theories of priestly apostolic succession. It is our belief that persons are chosen among us by God to exercise a gift in ministry on particular occasions; we make no requirement that such ministry, which includes speaking prophetically in our meetings for worship, be exercised only by persons who hold an professional office or appointment in the church. Nor do we expect that persons with a particular gift in ministry must show evidence of many or all the other gifts in ministry in order to minister among us, and Friends have traditionally resisted the notion of a single minister competent to exercise most or all the apostolic gifts of ministry in a community. Even though a majority of meetings in FUM now employ a pastor, all Friends insist on being open to the gifts in ministry with which God endows other members, whether for a season or persistently through their lives. We do not use the language of priesthood to name the exercise of these gifts, and cannot see our way forward to do so. At the same time, we rejoice in the gifts in ministry with which God endows members of the larger body of Christians, even where we may differ in theology and practice.
(19) We believe firmly that no church can make a minister. God alone makes ministers by graciously endowing some members of the church with the gifts in ministry enumerated in Scripture. However, when a person has exercised a gift frequently and over a period of time, Friends may choose to record that gift. Doings so signals our recognition of the gift, our desire to nurture it, our desire to establish a relationship of accountability for the minister who exercises his or her gift, and to register our confidence that the minister speaks not only for herself or himself, but for the community of Friends. Friends may choose to rescind this recording for various reasons, or God may choose to withdraw the gift; but we are clear that these are two different processes. We are also clear that a person called by a meeting to be a pastor need not be a recorded minister, since such a person may not yet have been properly seasoned in the exercise of the gift, and Friends may not have had sufficient time to discern whether we are called by God to record the ministering Friend’s gift.
(20) A substantial minority among us would take a more traditionally Quaker stance on the exercise of ministry. Many meetings decline to employ paid pastors at all because of traditional Quaker opposition to preaching the Gospel in exchange for pay. Because of abuses in the past, some of these Friends no longer record ministers, though they continue to search for ways to recognize, nurture, and hold accountable gifts in ministry with which God endows Friends. Nonetheless we are happy to recognize that ordination in other denominations may constitute a church’s recognition, based on evidence and communal discernment, that God has endowed a member with apostolic gifts.
(21) All Friends would be united in expressing reservations about the notion of apostolic succession as it is understood in episcopal traditions. We are not able to accept the notion that a lineage of ordination could automatically communicate the teaching authority of the Holy Spirit or the right to speak in Christ’s name. The church is apostolic only insofar is its members encounter Christ, accept his offer of grace and redemption, seek to follow him, and share the good news with others as did his apostles. Friends insist that Christ is come to teach his people himself, and through his Spirit he encounters us just as he did his apostles. The same Spirit of Christ which gave forth the scriptures is alive and active among Christians now, and we are apostolic when we are transformed by that Spirit. That apostolic character cannot be lodged in any office or restricted by any sacramental conferral of authority, but only resides in the church’s faithful following of Jesus and building the kingdom of God.
(22) For this reason, we would make a clear distinction between the apostolic character of the church and the ministry of oversight (episkopé ). There is much in the document’s understanding of oversight that we can affirm. Among us, those so gifted are appointed as elders to recognize, nurture, and maintain accountability for those with gifts in ministry, and overseers to care for the material needs of the community and its needs for counsel and support. Often the offices of elder and overseer are combined or maintained under other names but still carry out the functions of episkopé. Further, our meetings gather as “Monthly Meetings” and “Yearly Meetings” to exercise what the document calls “collegial episkopé”. Traditionally, our meetings at these levels consider ordinary and extraordinary business and try to discern at each moment where the Spirit of Christ is leading us. We do not act until we are in unity to do so; we neither locate decision making authority in a single individual nor in a representative body (synod), nor in the votes of a majority. These structures characterize both our local congregational government and our collegial work of “hold[ing] the local congregations in communion, to safeguard and hand on apostolic truth, to give mutual support, to lead in witnessing to the Gospel” (par. 91). The document’s description of the “ministry of discernment” and the sensus fidei (par. 99) is a faithful account of our practice of decision-making by unity (which we call “the sense of the meeting”), and we unite with this as an understanding of oversight in the church. The sometimes long and difficult process of sharing and listening in prayerful discernment is often an effective means of “preventing premature closure of debate” (par. 106). Collegial oversight in this sense does not only “help the Church to live in communion while the mind of Christ is being discerned” (par. 106), but is a process in which this sense of communion is experienced. Our communal decision making happens traditionally in a meeting for worship with special attention to decision making. At its best, this is precisely the same kind of activity of communion with Christ that we experience in our ordinary meetings for worship, whose purpose is also to help us discern individually and corporately how Christ is calling us to act in our lives. There is no theoretical distinction, and ought to be little practical one, between our worship and our meetings for governance. We therefore unite fully with the sentiments of par. 106. It is therefore very difficult for us to imagine a form of church government where all members do not have a significant voice.
(23) Personal episcopacy is therefore an office with which we could not reconcile ourselves, much as we trust that God will provide gifted, discerning leaders in those churches that do govern themselves by personal episcopacy.
(24) From these reflections, and from our understanding that unity must not be confused with institutional merger, it follows that we can find no place for a ministry of “primacy at a world level.” We further must distance ourselves from the belief that “a eucharist needs a president” (after par. 110), and on grounds more substantial than the fact that we do not observe the Lord’s Supper. While many of our meetings choose a person or person who exercise leadership in worship, that leadership is purely a function of the local community, is often temporary and circumstantial, and has no intrinsic connection with giftedness in ministry, nor oversight in church discipline, nor eldership, nor church governance. Our traditional forms of worship, still observed by many Friends, have no human leader appointed, even where there are recorded ministers in attendance. Preaching is, under such circumstances, exercised solely when the inward motion of the Holy Spirit is discerned. Even where we have an appointed pastor and an expected message, the point of the message is to communicate the leadings of the Holy Spirit as given to the minister, who is therefore not a presider but responding to the guidance of the living Christ among us. We insist that the “presidency” in our worship belongs to Christ alone, who is present as our priest to intercede for us, our bishop to oversee us, our prophet to speak to us, our Lord to govern us. None of those powers can be usurped by a human being or lodged in a church office. Consequently, the only eucharistic president we could affirm would be Christ himself, present and alive among us.
(25) In this spirit, we cannot unite with the proposed redefinitions of the term “hierarchy,” much as we appreciate the reconciling spirit behind them. Such radical redefinition deprives the term of specifiable meaning, and would be better replaced by a term that better befits the “relational life in which there is no subordination or domination” (after par. 97). We wonder, as well, whether such an attempt masks real differences between the churches, and might better be retained in its ordinary meaning, employed by those churches that make use of it but not by those which do not. We are a religious society functionally organized in layers of geographically broader structures of governance, but we cannot adopt for ourselves the term “hierarchy” to describe our governance. Ministries in the church certainly require the ordering of which the document speaks, and we affirm the “communion of co-responsible members” (after par. 97). But we note that many members of hierarchical churches would deny that their church is a “communion of co-responsible members” whether they do so critically or appreciatively.
(26) The apostolic character of the church is the gift of every person who has responded to Christ’s offer of grace and redemption, and the responsibility of passing on that apostolic character is no more than the responsibility to share the Gospel and be the means of bringing others into the new covenant, as God gives grace and opportunity to do so.
(27) We note with appreciation the document’s emphasis on Christian service, and we would submit that cooperation in Christian service and mission may be the most fruitful area for the deepening of Christian community. We unite with the sentiments of par. 111-117, with the reservation that our understanding of baptism and the Lord’s Supper is different, as noted above. Yet we unite wholeheartedly with the conviction that Christian ethics and Christian service are grounded in the community’s worship, in which it seeks communion with God through Christ, experiences inward transformation of the soul and empowerment for discipleship, and seeks to discern the leadings of the Holy Spirit. We joyfully confess that the basis of Christian ethics and service is the presence of Christ among us as our redeemer, teacher, and Lord. We testify that God’s will for us can be known through the Holy Spirit as we set aside the confusions and contradictions of our own wills and listen corporately to the evidences of the Spirit’s leading among us.
(28) It is difficult for us to comment on whether the document represents “converging understandings,” because we recognize that as the major churches of the world come closer to “converging understandings,” our distinctive ways of understanding and living the Gospel and of being church will probably remain well outside that convergence. The convergence represented in the document on “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry” largely excludes our theological understandings, yet we have no desire to impose our forms of Christian practice upon other Christian bodies, and we look for signs of visible unity in other arenas. It is not clear to us that churches must have identical understandings of the church and its ministry in order to achieve mutual recognition. Churches which place restrictions upon who may participate in or preside at sacramental celebrations will have to address the conflicts that arise when these restrictions are mutually exclusive. Any Christian indeed, any person is welcome to worship with us, to pray with us, to offer vocal ministry among when moved by the Spirit of God, to share in the communion with God that we experience in our gathered meetings for worship. Few if any of our recorded ministers would be concerned with being authorized to celebrate the sacraments in other churches. Some of our members might have a desire to participate in other churches’ sacraments, and we no longer forbid this. We recognize that the Spirit blows where it will, that Christ is available as an ever present help to all who call on his name, and is present in every human being to convict of sin, redeem, and guide even where the outward Gospel has not been heard. We rejoice that Christ works where and how he will, and we do not make it our business to adjudicate how other churches respond to that work.
(29) We hope that we are not guilty of “retrenchment often expressed in a reconfessionalism of an anti-ecumenical spirit,” but we confess that our heritage, our distinctive understanding of the Gospel continues to be a source of vitality and creativity, and we are cautious about compromising it, though we have learned to be a great deal more flexible and appreciative of others in the last century and a half. Our commitment to the integrity of the Gospel as we understand it is confessional, but no less ecumenical.
The oikumené , the “household of faith,” is a house of many mansions; we need not all live in the same one. We are committed to the effort to find ever more ways of experiencing and expressing Christian unity, but we believe that the diversity of gifts of the Holy Spirit and the inexhaustible richness of the goodness of God may require a diversity and plurality of ecclesial arrangements and practices to manifest this fullness. We happily recognize ourselves as part of a much broader Christian movement, a recognition we have not always made in the past and we hope to continue sharing our witness to the Gospel with other Christians. This may involve occasional critique, which should be part of the mutual accountability of Christians in any case. Friends United Meeting in particular has at points had major differences with the World Council, and these may arise again at times. But these differences and critiques should be interpreted as part of the collegial accountability that obtains between Christians, not as retrenchment or an anti-ecumenical spirit. Our vision of Christian unity is grounded in our experience of the gathered meeting, united under Christ’s reconciling leadership and empowered to serve God faithfully in the world. We commend the Faith and Order Commission on its work of nurturing an increase of love among us. We are grateful to God for the mutual blessings that come as we seek together to understand the riches of the Gospel with other Christians in the ecumenical movement.
1 Robert Barclay, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, 1675, prop. 10.