Street Corner Society

Skip to site-wide links.

Reflections >  Quaker Thought & History  >  Christian Reunion from the Quaker Standpoint

Quaker Thought & History

Christian Reunion from the Quaker Standpoint

By Edward Grubb


Christian Reunion from the Quaker Standpoint

A hopeful feature of the religious life of the present day is the widespread and deeply felt desire for the healing of divisions among Christian people. Their separation in different organizations, where they have no obvious common life, can speak with no common voice, and are sometimes in acute disagreement with one another, is felt to destroy the very meaning of a Church, which should be the fellowship of all genuine disciples of Christ. On the foreign mission field, in particular, the absurdity has long been felt of proclaiming various brands of Christianity, and reproducing among the peoples of India and China and Japan divisions which to them are for the most part without meaning. The movement towards re-union has received a powerful impetus from the war, because of the failure of a divided Christendom to hold up before the nations their duties to one another, and guide the peoples in the way of peace.

The many proposals for reunion, whether smaller or larger, start for the most part with a double aim — that of finding a common creed and agreeing on a common organization. Such, apparently, is held to be the essence of reunion. A "visible" Church is thought to consist of persons who define their religious beliefs by the same formulae and express their Christian life through the same institutions. Since nearly all divisions have come about through failure to agree about one or both of these two things, Belief and Organization, it is perhaps natural that efforts for reunion should put them in the foreground. One of the most ambitious of these movements, that which is preparing for a "World Conference on Faith and Order," and which held a preliminary Conference at Geneva in August, 1920, shows by its very title that its promoters consider agreement on "faith" and "order" to be the first object at which to aim.

The main purpose of this article is to question that assumption, and to inquire whether there is not a deeper and much more essential condition of reunion which is being to a large extent overlooked. But, in order to deal with this, it seems needful in the first place to ask: What is a Church? — and this raises the still more fundamental question: What is Christianity? For it is obvious that, if efforts after reunion are to be wisely conducted, there should be a clear understanding of what it is we are trying to unite, and what is the nature of the material with which we have to deal. The second and more fundamental question will be dealt with first.

It is in the light of history that answers to these questions must be looked for. The real nature of the Church, and of the Christianity that produced it, will be best gathered if we look back to the first century, when both were at their purest and brightest. Let us glance at the presentation of Christianity in one of the latest writings of that century. From near its close has come down to us the first Johannine Epistle, in which the writer endeavours to fortify his fellow-disciples against moral and intellectual dangers that were already threatening their Christian life. With intense earnestness, and some reiteration, he offers them tests of true Christianity. His first and primary test has nothing to do with either belief or organization, but is purely ethical. It is "walking in the light" (i. 5-7), "keeping the commandments" of Jesus (ii. 3-6) — specially and inclusively the commandment of love to men (ii. 7-11). "We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brethren" (iii. 14); "love is of God, and every one that loveth is begotten of God and knoweth God" (iv. 7); "if we love one another. God abideth in us" (iv. 12).

This is a test of Christianity which the Church has rarely thought of applying", though the world does it effectively enough. For the writer, Christianity meant in the first instance an inward experience of the God who was love, and who had manifested His character in the human life and sacrificial death of Jesus (iv. 9, 10). It was, secondly, a way of life based on that experience of God in Jesus. "We love, because He first loved us" (iv. 19). Jesus had died for men, but He had conquered death, and was reliving His own life of love in the souls of His faithful followers. "Hereby know we that He abideth in us, by the Spirit which He gave us" (iii. 24).

The primary test, then, of real Christianity is ethical — it is the experience, the presence, and the practice of love. But, since this experience in its fulness has come to men through Jesus, there is, bound up with it, another test of a more intellectual character — that of true thoughts concerning Jesus Christ. "Who is the liar, but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ?" (ii. 22; cf. iv. 15; v. I). "Every spirit which confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God" (iv. 2). The new experience of God, which had flooded the souls of these first Christians with light and love, had come to them through His manifestation in human form; and this, of necessity, raised the question: Who and what was Jesus? As against the Jewish Ebionites, who were content to regard Him as prophet and law-giver, the writer insists that He must be recognized as more than that — as the Christ, the Son of God. As against the Greek Docetists, who inclined to regard His humanity as a mere appearance, he presses with equal force for recognition that he was bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.11  The actual humanity of Jesus is to the writer just as vital as His true divinity. Unless Jesus was in some real sense divine. His sacrificial love would not necessarily be a revelation of the character of God; but unless He really became man, with all the limitation this involves, the divine self-sacrifice would be incomplete. Such would seem to have been the writer's thoughts. And so far, but no further, his second test is theological. He never separates it from the first, as though true "doctrine" could be held apart from real experience and sound practice. In ch. iv. 15, 16, the two tests are brought together, and the confession that "Jesus is the Son of God" is almost identified with "abiding in love."

Further, these true thoughts about Jesus are never imposed as dogma, to be accepted simply on authority. The only authority appealed to is that of God, who is "light" and whose light shines in the souls of those who walk in it, in so far as their eyes are "being cleansed" by the "blood of Christ" from the mud of sin (i. 7). The truth is self-evidencing for those who obey it. A Christian is one in whom Jesus by His Spirit is re-living His divine life of love, and who consequently gives to Jesus His rightful place as the communicator of this life to men. The theological test is secondary and subordinate to the ethical.

As to tests of an external character, such as membership in a visible Church, nothing of the kind is even mentioned. There is no allusion to baptism, or to a rightly ordered ministry. By the end of the century such thoughts were in the ascendant, and the writings of Ignatius show the place which, within a few years, they gained in certain sections of the Church. It can hardly be by accident that they are here ignored, nor can we be satisfied with the suggestion that they are taken for granted. Had the writer regarded these things as Ignatius did, he could not have passed them over. Though he never alludes to the "Church," the term "brother" shows what was in his thoughts. The body of true disciples is a "brotherhood," a family, a fellowship, bound into one by worship of a common Lord, by a common experience and a common life — the life of love to Him, to one another, and to the men for whom His life was given. The unity for which (as he reports) Jesus prayed is not the unity of those who are encircled by an outward fence of creeds and sacraments. It is a unity like that of Jesus with His Father (John xvii. 21-22) — a unity of mind and will and purpose — the unity that comes of having His quality, His character, His devotion, reproduced in themselves. "The glory which thou hast given me I have given unto them, that they may be one."2

The upshot, then, of this enquiry into first-century Christianity, as it is presented in the Johannine writings, is that the Christian Church was the fellowship of those who were united to their Lord by the reception of His Spirit into their souls, and by allowing Him to reproduce in them His own life of love and dedicated service of men. The writer does not assume that their unity will be preserved by organization. What he does take for granted is that Christ will manifest Himself unmistakably in lives that are surrendered to Him, that loyalty to Him and the re-living of His life of love will distinguish Christians from "the world "and keep them in unity of life and character. And this is in harmony with the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Synoptics, where there is no sign that He gave any thought whatever to the organization of His followers into a "visible" Church.

It may, I think, be urged with much force that the misfortunes and divisions of the Christian Church are due to the loss of the Spirit, and to the endeavour to preserve its purity by verbal definitions and the perfecting of its outer framework. It is precisely this endeavour that has failed. The citadel of truth cannot be guarded by a wire entanglement of creeds and ceremonies and ordered ministry. The effort so to preserve it, when the spirit and the life are lacking, intensifies the evils it sets out to cure. All the worst divisions in the Church turn precisely on these external matters of verbal definition and rigid order. When the Christian spirit is in abeyance, rigidity of organization turns into tyranny, the dead hand of tradition paralyses life, and any fresh upspringings of the Spirit can only seek for freedom through revolt and separation.

Clear thinking, indeed, has always been needed and always will be; and life will always express itself through some form of organization. Let the Church leaders who have the needed intellectual equipment by all means devote their best powers to thinking out what Christianity is and means, to discovering and formulating what is implied in the religious experience that informs the Church. Let them cooperate heartily in devising and re-moulding, as changed conditions demand it, such organization as will give the largest freedom and the strongest cohesion to the spiritual life of their fellow-members. But let them beware of the divisive spirit that- creeps in if they seek to be "lords over God's heritage," and to keep it in their own way by excluding all who differ from them. It is the spirit of exclusion and excommunication that has always proved so deadly. Why should the better thought embodied in the creeds (on the assumption that it was the better) unchurch the worse, whether Arian or Nestorian or Mono-physite? Why not rather seek, in humility and love, to "expound the way of God more carefully," as Priscilla and Aquila did to Apollos (Acts xviii. 24-28)? Why need one order of ministry deny reality to others constituted in a different way? Why need persons irregularly baptized, or not baptized at all with water, yet in whom the Spirit of Christ is manifestly at work, be ruled out of His Church?

In reply, it may be argued that clear thinking and wise action demand precise definition; that we are bound to present to our minds as exactly as possible the concepts we are using, and therefore to exclude that which does not come within the definitions we have framed. It may be objected that I am pleading for blurred and hazy thought, in which no word stands for anything that can be clearly marked. That is not so. What I am pleading for is reality, and the nearer we come to reality the more we find that precise definitions fail us. The exactly defined terms with which men argue represent abstractions and not realities. The world of real things, of living things especially, is one in which classes fade into one another by infinite gradations. Most of all is this the case when we are dealing not so much with objects as with persons, and with the great moral and spiritual values which give to persons their significance. The more clearly and exhaustively, for example, we study the facts that go to form the meaning of the word "Christian," the less we shall be able to define it precisely by any form of words. The attempt to do so, which necessarily involves the attempt to exclude all that is not within the definition, lands us in unreality.

Such considerations appear to be overlooked by most of those who are concerned in the movements for re-union. So long as these are based, even tacitly and unconsciously, on the desire to exclude, they are bound to fail. Representative Anglicans and Nonconformists meet together, and evolve, with legitimate rejoicing, certain statements of belief on which they can all agree. But what about devout Christians, whether in or out of the bodies so represented, who cannot honestly subscribe to these formulae? In a re-union on a credal basis, are they to be left out in the cold? The Anglican Bishops, met at Lambeth in 1920, state that "we acknowledge all those who believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and have been baptized into the name of the Holy Trinity, as sharing with us membership in the universal Church." What about the persons baptized under a different formula, as were those of whom we read in the Acts of the Apostles, or (like the Quakers) never outwardly baptized at all? The latter appear to be deliberately shut out, though a late Bishop of Oxford testified of them that they manifested in no small degree the fruits of the Spirit. Insignificant in numbers they no doubt are; but what matters is the principle at stake. A Church enclosed by a ring-fence so formed as to shut out even one true Christian is not really Catholic, and may prove a hindrance to real unity.

Many, perhaps, would say that a re-united Church, even if imperfect, which all things human are bound to be, would be better than one divided as at present. I venture to suggest that, if it is founded on a basis of exclusion, it may well be worse. The larger it is the greater is the danger to dissident minorities — in whom, as history shows, the Spirit may be actively at work. Under present conditions, bodies whose members "profess and call themselves Christians," but are regarded by the rest as unorthodox — whether on matters of belief, like the Unitarians, or on matters of practice, like the Quakers — can maintain their spiritual life in fellowship with one another without feeling that they are altogether excluded from the Christian fold. They feel themselves to be Christian Nonconformists of a rather extreme type. But this would not be so if they were shut out from a Church which was generally regarded as Catholic, and was united on a basis of creeds and forms which they honestly consider to be no part of real and primitive Christianity. A truly Catholic Church must include all who feel themselves to be fundamentally Christian, even if their understanding of Christianity appears to the majority to be imperfect.

The Quakers have often been regarded, on the mission field and elsewhere, as an obstacle to re-union, because they persist, in opposition to nearly all the rest, in their objection to outward sacraments and a separated ministry. But this opposition, if it is maintained in a spirit that is Christian and not contentious, may prove to be of the greatest value in preventing wrong steps being taken. By standing firmly to their convictions they have already, in a few cases, been able to hinder the erection of fences where there should be none — to obtain a broadening of the basis of re-union through recognition of the reality of Christian life apart from its customary forms. In Madagascar, and to some extent in western China, the "Friends" have been strong enough to secure that their native members shall be received as Christians by other Churches (when, for instance, they move into a different locality), though they have never been baptized with water and do not take the outward communion. Unfortunately, this was only possible because in these mission fields the Quakers were a strong minority. At Kikuyu (East Africa), being a negligible quantity, they were unable to prevent a federation of Churches being carried out on the usual basis of creeds and sacraments.

The thesis which I wish to maintain is that re-union shall be approached from within and not from without — not by cleverly devising formulas and methods that may secure a superficial uniformity of beliefs and practices, but by recognizing our common life and allowing it to find its natural expression. Unity must precede Union. When we all mean the same thing — as, to a large extent, is the case with Protestant Christians on the mission field — unity is achieved; and, since division is then felt to be intolerable, some form of real union will without great difficulty be found. If it is the natural expression of true unity, it will be framed in no exclusive spirit, and will not rule out those who ought to be included.

Unity is not a condition that has to be, or can be, artificially created. It arises naturally in the souls of those who open their inward eyes to the truth of God, who follow the same Lord, who share the experience of His light and love. As William Penn wrote: "The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here make them strangers" "This," wrote another Quaker mystic, Isaac Penington, "is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but that I feel the same spirit and life in him." Such unity is already present, in germ at least, underlying our differences of creed and administration; and what we have to do is to open our eyes to it, bring it out into clear consciousness, and act upon it. The Bishops at Lambeth show, in their Encyclical Letter, that they are aware of this. They say:

"In this appeal we urge them (Christian people) to try a new approach to re-union; to adopt a new point of view; to look up to the reality as it is in God. The unity which we seek exists. It is in God, who is the perfection of unity, the one Father, the one Lord, the one Spirit, who gives life to the one Body. Again, the one Body exists. It needs not to be made, nor to be re-made, but to become organic and visible. Once more, the fellowship of the members of the one Body exists. It is the work of God, not of man. We have only to discover it, and to set free its activities."

If the Bishops are right, as surely they are here, the path to re-union is not to try, in the first instance, to find a common basis of creed and ceremony and ministerial orders, but to recognize that the real basis lies much deeper, in the underlying unity, and to lay on this the primary emphasis. We must get to know one another better, in the localities where we live, and find how much we have in common, how much there is to learn from those who differ from us. Such intercourse as is made possible by the Student Christian Movement, and the Interdenominational Summer Schools at Swanwick, is of priceless value. We must read one another's books, and see how the honest study of the same facts brings us to similar conclusions. We must study the writings of the saints and mystics, Catholic as well as Protestant, and discover the common experience which they all share and of which they are all exponents. A great poem like The Hound of Heaven "reaches the witness" in us all, and it never occurs to us to ask what particular brand of Christianity its author bore. And, still more, we must discover, and co-operate in, our common work for the Kingdom of God among men; it is this, more than anything, that has brought together the Churches on the mission field.

To seek thus for re-union by mutual education in unity may be a slow path, but it is a sure one, and it will not lead us astray. Already we are discovering that we are much nearer to each other than we knew. We read each other's expositions of the Bible and of religious history, and find that in the disinterested pursuit of truth, whatever difference there may be in detail, in essentials most of us are at one. We discover that it is opinions and practices that divide, while facts and truth unite. In the light of unbiassed study of primitive Christianity, even the chasm that yawns between Orthodox and Unitarian is perhaps finding its bridge.

To wait for corporate re-union till we have found our unity with one another may seem intolerable to those whose minds are set on a "visible" Church. But to frame an artificial body for a life that is not there is to re-enact the errors of the past; the body is bound to go to pieces. Life produces organization; organization can never produce life.

Chapter VIII ...>

From Quaker Thought and History: A Volume of Essays. By Edward Grubb, M.A. Published in 1925 by The MacMillan Company, New York.)

Notes and Links

 1  This is clear, not only from ch. iv. 2 (quoted above), but from the opening words of the Epistle, and it may be the point of the illusion to His coming "by water and blood" in ch. v. 6, especially if this has reference to the "blood and water" of John xix. 34, 35.

 2  The "glory" was the victory gained by obedience even unto death, but it could only be achieved as it was imparted to others. "I am glorified in them."