Feb 17, 2013, 8:32:10 AM2/17/13
Friends have used the word "testimony" in several ways, with special reference to our corporate experience and teachings regarding the ethical implications of our faith, both for individuals and for our Quaker communities. Among those testimonies are nonviolence and peace; simplicity; equality; community decisionmaking based on prayer and the "sense of the meeting"; truthfulness at all times.
To this list some would also add a spiritual and nonceremonial understanding of baptism, communion and other sacraments; fidelity and monogamy (a testimony that cuts different ways in the affluent West and in Kenya); temperance or abstinence with respect to alcohol; rejection of secret societies.
For many (perhaps most) Friends worldwide, evangelism is the activity that relates to the crowning testimony: the proclamation of the Good News. It is our relationship with Jesus Christ, "the author and finisher of our faith," and our relationship with each other as we maintain that primary relationship with Christ, that orders our lives in ways that cluster into those patterns of discipleship that we Friends often refer to as the Quaker testimonies.
Taken together, these testimonies that flow from our relationship with Christ shape our identity as Friends. Stories of our Quaker ancestors and their faithfulness to the testimonies give us concrete models of discipleship and a sense of continuity. Our continuing allegiance to the testimonies helps us know why we are Friends rather than another sort of believer or "just a Christian."
On the other hand, in some sectors of the contemporary Quaker world, those who highly value the testimonies as the hallmark of Friends are criticized as liberals or as promoters of "ethnic Quakerism" and accused of putting unnecessary barriers in the way of potential new believers who might come to a saving faith in Christ through the Friends' doorway. These evangelical critics say that, at best, the promoters of the testimonies are obscuring the primacy of evangelism, conversion and salvation and the role of the Bible in shaping discipleship. At worst, they are perilously close to setting up a counterfeit religion that illegitimately draws on a historical connection with Friends to gain an undeserved credibility.
Those who assert the high value of the testimonies can point to a long history of Friends emphasizing ethical action over concern about theological categories or our destination in the afterlife. They can also point to the early Friends' appeal to the Westmoreland Seekers and others who found themselves outside the mainstream Christianity of their time. In this day when triumphalist, formula-based Christianity, sometimes severely compromised by an unholy alliance with affluence and political power, has lost its appeal for many people, there is an argument to be made that Friends, with our special combination of mystical sensitivity, ethical consistency and a gracious approach to human imperfections, can provide a congenial faith community. If this is true, the testimonies are precisely those markers that might attract the sincere seeker who will not be reached by the more standard expressions of Christianity.
Some Friends believe that the Quaker movement stands for a purification and intensification of Christianity, returning to the life and power of the apostolic church; others believe that Friends are a relativization of Christianity, well-suited to a pluralistic world. (Albert Fowler described this division with unrivaled clarity in his excellent 1961 Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Two Trends in Modern Quaker Thought: A Statement of Belief.) For those in the latter camp, the central concern of this "Quaker Evangelism Project" is mostly irrelevant. There is no spiritual urgency in attracting new people to the Quaker community, since it is all the same to God, or the gods. Of course it is always nice to enjoy the company of like-minded people, and they will come to us because they will find our activities congenial.
However, even for those who agree on the importance of evangelism, that is the importance of presenting the Christian faith attractively and providing universal access to the community of believers formed by that faith, there are at least two directions we tend to go. For some, the invitation to become a "friend of Jesus," as Friends Church Southwest puts it, is primary. The testimonies are important, but secondary, a matter for Christian education after the threshhold of conversion and salvation has been dealt with; and not only are they secondary, they are perhaps negotiable, depending on their awkwardness in the specific context of the new believer.
Others who are equally convinced of the importance of evangelism are convinced that the testimonies are in fact the very material that our evangelism should be made of. The testimonies display the "provocative innocency" (R.W. Tucker's phrase) that draws attention to the faith underlying them; they distinguish radical Christian faith from the churchianity that has accommodated itself to the world; they constitute the "signs and wonders" that validate our attempts to be faithful to Christ.
These two camps (to risk oversimplification) within the small-e evangelical Quaker movement both want Friends to thrive as Christian communities. They differ in emphasis and methodology, but not in loyalty to the Prince of Peace. How can we support and exhort each other to greater effectiveness and greater faithfulness? What resources of thought and experience can we give each other? What can we learn from the successes and failures of Quaker evangelists and prophets worldwide? These are some of the questions that led me to set up this forum. [November 12, 2003]