Discerning leadings

episode 18: discerning leadings

Today, we’re talking about discerning leadings. This is section 3G in Traditional Quaker Christianity, if you’re following along in the book. Which, on that note: just looked at the iBook store for the first time ever last week (yes, really), and hey! It turns out TQC is available for purchase as an ebook in iBooks. So, you know, good going Ohio Yearly Meeting! This is a level of tech savvy I have not come to expect from Quakers.

This section of the book is based heavily on Hugh Barbour’s “Five Tests for Discerning a True Leading,” available from the Tract Association of Friends. It just, um, leaves out one of the five. shrug

It’s interesting that “consistency with the Bible” is the fourth test, not the first. Many people jump straight to that one, but there’s a lot in the Bible that we don’t believe should be copied, like slavery or most of King David does. (King David is That Guy.)

Friends developed this system of discerning leadings so as to distance or distinguish themselves from the Ranters. The Ranters had an interesting theology of perfection. They believed that because they were saved, they were incapable of sinning, and thus nothing they did would be sinful for them. Some said you had to commit a sin (without thinking about it as a sin) to free yourself from it, kind of like how some people say you need to go bungee jumping to get over a fear of heights. They were kind of chaotic.

In fact, Parliament wrote the Blasphemy Act of 1650 specifically to target the Ranters. The people who persecuted Quakers a few years later twisted the Blasphemy Act to do so. (It’s actually really interesting how Quakers were brought up on charges that were worded exactly to match the Blasphemy Act, but that’s for another time. Meanwhile, if you’re interested, it’s toward the end of Kate Peters’ “Print Culture and the Early Quakers.”)

  1. Moral Purity – we talked before about how “but I don’t want to” was considered a symptom of a true leading.
  2. Patience – discerning leadings can take a while. Time is not usually very critical, so spending a week discerning is generally fine. Leadings aren’t usually flash-in-the-pan passing whims. Of course, patience is not infinite. Just as way can open, way can close. And sometimes Quaker institutions can take slowness to extremes that stifle the movement of the Spirit.
  3. Consistency with Others – other people have dealt with issues before. How did another meeting deal with it? How did early Friends deal with it? What about the writings of early Christians? We also have journals of Friends such as John Woolman. For that matter, how would the people you know and respect and admire handle the situation?
  4. Consistency with the Bible – this does not necessarily mean consistency with the traditional interpretation of the Bible. After all, we understand communion and baptism completely differently from most Christians. There’s a lot of context that can be missed, and when you use a 400 year old translation like the King James, you can run into issues with the ways early modern English differs from 21st century English (“awful” used to mean “awe inspiring,” for instance).  And, well, as mentioned above there are an awful lot of things in the Bible we don’t exactly think of as “morally pure” nowadays. When ABC made Of Kings and Prophets, there were parents who were very upset to learn this Bible-based show has a lot of sex and violence.

And the left out…

Number 5: Inward Unity

When discerning leadings in a group, if everyone has ended up on the same page, that’s a good sign. God likes order, not disorder. Discerning leadings is best done in a group.

Update on Patreon

Listeners have offered $9 per episode. Thank you! This is the third episode for which the charge will go through, which means we can have an episode transcribed. Yaaaaaay! Three episodes recorded for every one transcribed doesn’t add up to a great situation if you’re Deaf or Hard of Hearing, though. Episodes tend to run 20-35 minutes, which means $20-35 per episode to transcribe. We rounded to 30 on the Patreon page. There are a few hundred of you listening to this podcast (every episode has at least 400 downloads, y’all!), so if like…5% of you sign up for $1/episode, we can transcribe every episode going forward.


Mackenzie: Welcome to Quaker Faith & Podcast where we will explore traditional Quaker beliefs and a variety of Quaker beliefs found today.

Mackenzie: Hello, and welcome back to Quaker Faith & Podcast with Mackenzie and Micah. This time we are talking about discerning leadings and we’re looking at the book, Traditional Quaker Christianity. This is section 3G. And here it has … The authors of this book have reprinted four out of the five tests for discerning a true leading, from Hugh Barbour’s tract of that same name. Five tests for etc… Seems a little odd that they left out number five.

Micah: Yeah, we’ll get to number five because it seems odd to leave out the fifth one but maybe they had run out of pages or something.

Mackenzie: I don’t know. Well if we need the title. 1, 2, 3, 4 look at the title, uh… hang on.

Micah: So because it is so central to the Quaker understanding of Christianity that Jesus is here to teach us himself and that the Holy Spirit is present to guide us. It becomes really important that everyone, since there’s no centralized priesthood that does all our stuff for us.

Mackenzie: We don’t have a Pope. No Quaker Pope.

Micah: We don’t have a Pope. It becomes really important that all of us together learn how to do discernment. Discernment being figuring our how likely that a certain impetus or message or plan of action is coming from God or could be coming from another source, whether it’s ourselves, our egos, or another spirit. So Hugh Barber puts forward five tests and we’ll get to the fifth at the end, so stay tuned. The book just gives us four which I’m just gonna lay out in the beginning so you know what’s coming.

Mackenzie: Can I interrupt for a second. Because Micah said “or another spirit” and I’m sure there are some of you who at this point are like whoa. I just want to lay out that one of the examples given in the book is the spirit of deceit. This doesn’t have to mean, possessed by a demon. We can talk about the spirit of jealousy and things like that.

Micah: It totally means like exorcism level demonic possession, that’s what we’re talking about. Quit lying, Mackenzie.

Mackenzie: No. This is not lying. Spirit is often a metaphor for other things.

Micah: I thought we were on the same page here. I though we were talking about real head twister demons.

Mackenzie: Anywho. Old priest or the young priest.

Micah: Okay. Without further ado, I’m just going to list out the four we’ve got. We’ll get to the fifth at the end, so you can stay in suspense. But the four tests for a true leading according to Hugh Barber are, the first one is moral purity, the second is patience, the third is consistency with others, and the fourth is consistency with the Bible. Which I have to say, a lot of times, Christians in general, and even Quakers in particular, tend to leap right to consistency with the Bible and think that’s the only test for leading but of course lots of things are consistent with the Bible that we know are wrong.

Mackenzie: The existence of slavery, for instance.

Micah: If you take passages out of context in the Bible, it’s very easy to justify things simply on supposed consistency with the Bible.

Mackenzie: Look, if King David did it, it’s probably a bad idea, okay?

Micah: While consistency with the Bible is important, obviously, there are other tests that are also important to be used together with that.

Mackenzie: On the flip side I’d say that there are a fair number of Quakers who would say that that on isn’t important and say well that’s old and we have contained revelation, we have new revelation, so that replaces the old thing.

Micah: Right, which you know, idk. I quite not know how to respond to that. With just moral purity, patience, and consistency with others. We should get into the particular points-

Mackenzie: Yes.

Micah: But if we just have the first three points and not the fourth point, it’s really easy for us to make up our own moral purity determine what patience means just for us and to limit our consistency with others to people we agree with.

Mackenzie: Right. To find Echo Chamber.

Micah: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So at it’s best, Scripture helps us to avoid the Echo Chamber of the spirit and find a broader perspective from our spiritual family throughout history.

Mackenzie: I just imagined Odysseus and the ship trying to sail between Scylla and Charybdis with Scylla and Charybdis each being a little Echo Chamber you could be sucked into.

Micah: Alright. So you want to get started on moral purity? What’s that?

Mackenzie: The introduction to this section tells us that the reason it was necessary for friends to develop the system for discerning leadings was because at the same time as they were coming into existence there was also this group that was referred to as The Ranters. They had some things overlapped with friends and at the same time were just kind of completely out there in terms of morality.

Micah: Have you ever heard someone refer to as like, say, “oh that person, they’re a free spirit”. Well free spirit is actually, there’s the heresy of the free spirit. The Ranters were free spirits. They were real free.

Mackenzie: Right. The intro here says that, according to The Ranchers, you could only be freed from sin once you’d actually done it without thinking about it as a sin. Which I’d say that most people don’t think about sins as sins, so that doesn’t make sense to me. This moral purity thing, one of the, I think, several, probably a couple months ago at this point. Micah mentioned that if something is contrary to what you want to do, it’s probably a real leading then but if it’s something you really want to do, yeah, double check that. That comes up in here, that your self-will, will have a tendency to veer more in the not pure direction so if you have a leading that isn’t what you want to do then that’s probably heading more toward the poor direction.

Micah: There’s a Supreme Court ruling I think, I might be making this up but I don’t think I am. I feel like there’s a Supreme Court ruling where one of the Justices, it was about pornography, and one of the Justices says, “you know it when you see it”. I think when it comes down to it, moral purity is sort of the pornography test, which is, you know when someone is being a jerk. Often times. You know when someone, and I won’t even say as someone else, if you really are listening, and you really are paying attention, you know when you’re being selfish, you know when you’re being-

Mackenzie: Greedy.

Micah: Greedy. You know when you’re being-

Mackenzie: Jealous.

Micah: Jealous or mean or any other nasty emotion. You know those things are there. If those things are there, not from God. Jealousy, greed, hatred, these things don’t come from God. So if that’s a part of what you’re feeling, at the very least, you need to separate out that part that isn’t from God and see what’s left because that part is definitely from God. So second test is patience and I think honestly, patience is a requirement for a true leading. It’s also just a requirement for the discernment process. It can sometimes take a little while especially or a more risky leading.

Micah: It can take a little while to figure out whether that leading is actually a true one. The test of patience basically means that if this is really from God, in many cases, God’s probably not going to get too upset if you delay for a week or two or carrying out this leading. And that leading is still going to be there, that leading doesn’t just go, a true leading isn’t just here right now and then in a week you no longer feel it. That’s obviously no true always, I think we can get silly with this and say well I need to have a leading to save a drowning child and I’ll wait a week to figure out whether that leading was real, right? But realistically, for many things that we’re doing discernment about, time is not actually that critical and so we have the opportunity to wait and see whether this is truly something that is coming from a God place or whether it’s something that was something that struck our fancy.

Micah: And if in a couple weeks we still feel really strongly about it, it may more likely be from God. An example of this, there’s a story, with Quakers there’s always a story and usually it’s an imaglimation of several other stories. There’s a story about a minister who felt called to go preach, woe to the bloody city, to some city-

Mackenzie: Litchfield.

Micah: But it wasn’t Litchfield because that actually happened, like he actually did it. But there was another minister who felt like God was telling him to go and preach hell firing condemnation to the city. The elders in the local group basically said to him, you know brother, you might just want to sit with that for a little bit. We’re not so sure, are you willing to wait on that. And so he said, yeah, I really do think God’s calling me to do this but I trust you guys so I will wait on this. He waited for some period of time and then they got back together and discussed it again and he’s like, you know, I think maybe you’re right about that. As I’ve sat with it more, it no longer seems so clear to me, so maybe that wasn’t a real leading. On the other hand, if he comes back in a couple of weeks and that leading is still there, you might want to proceed to step three.

Mackenzie: There are a couple of phrases that you sometimes run into with Quakers which are running your guide, would be not having the patience and just going and doing something that you haven’t actually been led to do or without having figured out how exactly God wants you to do it or whatever. Then on the flip side, you have lagging behind the guide, and you don’t hear that one so much.

Micah: We’re better at out-running these days.

Mackenzie: Hm?

Micah: We are better at out-running these days then we are at lagging behind.

Mackenzie: I know some friends who would say the opposite. There’s a blog post by Emily Provence recently, On Delay, is what she called it. She was saying how if the discernment to do something in a meeting, for instance, has to go through a certain committee or a certain couple of committees and well you see, the committee only meets every other month on the first Tuesday. We can’t discuss that for the next seven weeks, and then they’ll get together, and well we didn’t even really get to the end of the agenda so give it another two months before it comes up, before it actually does come up and then that’s going to be referred to this other committee, and they just had their meeting yesterday, so it’ll be a month before their next meeting. By being too rigid about the timing of our committee meetings, not just having, hey you know we’ve got something to discuss, let’s get together, we can there buy and up lagging there behind. Just wanted to throw that out there. I think that’s a problem that we certainly run into in meetings.

Micah: If we’re able to neither outrun our guide nor lag behind the guide, then the next step after patience would be to see whether the leading has consistency with others. We have a lot of examples at this point. Even if we just look at Christian history, we’ve got 2000 years of examples and we look at our broader tradition, we’ve got many thousands of years of examples. We’ve got a long track record and we can look back and say, okay, well I’ve got this leading to do x, y, z, where are some other times that people we know that were holy men and women did x, y, z and how did that turn out?

Micah: Quakers and just Christians in general, Christians who are attempting to really follow Jesus have done this a lot. In looking back, this is one of the reasons we look back on the New Testament in particular and say, how did the early Church handle this.

Mackenzie: Right, and you have the book of Acts and you have piles and piles of Epistles. And as we said, way back when we were talking about the Bible, you don’t necessarily know what question they’re answering in those Epistles but-

Micah: No. The truth is though we’re already sort of getting into the fourth test which is consistency with Scripture.

Mackenzie: Oh right. Well hang on so before we get to the Scripture part, then what about Friend’s Journals. You have The Journal of George Fox, The Journal of John Woolman, Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion, all of those.

Micah: But I think even getting outside of writing, I mean just think about, you’ve always got, “what would Jesus do” but it’s like, what would my good, loving, gentle, Uncle Bob do? Think about the people who are moral examples in your life and either speak to them about it. And ask them, well what do you think?

Mackenzie: Yeah, if they’re alive.

Micah: Or if they’re not alive or if for some reason it’s not appropriate to speak to them about it, just think about, well can I really imagine lovely Aunt Sue going and preaching bloody murder into that city. No I really can’t imagine her doing that. Well, why can’t I imagine her doing that?

Mackenzie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Micah: Cause of course, not everyone is exactly like you and has your same ministry so just because one person doesn’t do it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Mackenzie: Gotcha.

Micah: But if the example of other people who we know are good and righteous people in our lives contradicts the leading we are getting, it’s probably a warning sign. Doesn’t necessarily mean, because again, we have different callings and different leadings, so it’s not necessarily that that is not from God but it should put up a big yellow light and say well, why don’t we just take a yield here for a second and make sure we’re getting it right. If these good and upright and holy people that I know, and that I’ve seen in our history, wouldn’t do this or condone this, then maybe God wouldn’t either.

Mackenzie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So now let’s move on to consistency with the Bible. This can be an interesting one because if you have been listening to the podcast this long, you know there are a lot of things in the Bible that Quakers interpret one way and almost everybody else interprets another way. For instance, the last two things we talked about were Baptism and Communion and clearly we are out of step with most of Christianity on how we interpret those things being described in the Bible.

Micah: Like a billion people, you know. We’re out of step with well-over a billion people.

Mackenzie: Something like 99.5% of Christians, yeah. I think a billion is just the Catholics. Consistency with the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean consistency with the traditional interpretation of the Bible.

Micah: Good distinction. I think this is actually the trickiest test honestly. I think it’s very necessary because of the reasons I described earlier that the other tests, it’s very easy to just turn it into an unaccountable thing. The next thing about the Scriptures is anyone can pick up a copy of the Bible and look at it and say well, but it says here that, right? It’s sort of democratic in that way where even if you’re in your Echo Chamber, at any point, someone can open up the Bible and be like well, I’ve been thinking but it says here that…

Mackenzie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Micah: So it breaks us out of our Echo Chamber.

Mackenzie: But on the other hand you have the whole context exegesis, etc. thing where a naïve reading of the Bible and especially if you’re looking at something like the King James where it’s what, 400 year olds, and some of these words don’t mean the things they meant 400 years ago.

Micah: Right.

Mackenzie: And all of that stuff, then it can hairy again.

Micah: I think consistency of the Bible is extremely tricky. The truth is all these tests are tricky and discernment is tricky and there is no silver bullet to know whether God is leading you to something genuinely. At a certain point you just have to take a risk. I do think that consistency of Scripture can be really tricky because it’s really easy on the one hand to just justify yourself and most Christians do.

Mackenzie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Micah: And on the other hand it’s easy to always find a contradictory opinion in Scripture. You know for Quakers, I don’t think- have we talked about peace and non-violence yet?

Mackenzie: No, that’s like another, I don’t know, another 40 pages in the book.

Micah: Alright we’ll get to that eventually but sufficive to say, Quakers are traditionally committed to not participating in war making and there’s lots of war in the Bible including war that God supposedly sanctions and calls for, including genocide.

Mackenzie: At which point your question is, now did God actually tell you to do that or is that your excuse?

Micah: But there’s no denying that the Bible has that stuff in there.

Mackenzie: Right.

Micah: And so consistency with the Bible, is the Friend’s commitment to not committing Genocide consistent with the Bible? Well, you could argue it’s not, so it’s really tricky.

Mackenzie: You know, the number of things that are in the Bible. So, a couple of years ago, I forget what TV channel decided to do King’s and Prophet’s as a TV series that’s based on the Old Testament, right? And apparently you ended up with all of these very concerned Christian mothers because, do you know they put sex and violence into that TV show? You just can’t have sex and violence in the Bible. You haven’t read it, have you?

Micah: Yeah, yeah. That’s pretty intense. There’s some pretty intense pornographic stuff. Not to mention the violence in the Bible. There’s some passages in terms of violence where I just sort of, if it were a movie it wouldn’t be allowed.

Mackenzie: And yes that’s my mocking Church lady voice.

Micah: Yeah, it sounds sort of like a weird chipmunk Sarah Palin voice. So I know we promised, we’re coming up on the end of this podcast but I know we promised we were going to share the last, the fifth and hidden test. It’s the advanced test that they don’t include in the manual.

Mackenzie: Right, but if you go to the Tract Association of Friends, we’ll put a link in the show notes, you can get a copy of the entire five tests tract from Hugh Barber in which case, it will be in there.

Micah: So what’s the fifth one?

Mackenzie: Inward unity.

Micah: So what does that mean?

Mackenzie: Um.

Micah: Okay, Mackenzie’s looking it up on her smart phone now. What does inward unity mean?

Mackenzie: I closed out of that page because we were-

Micah: I think I know what it means while she’s looking it up. What I think Hugh Barber’s referring to with inward unity is the fact that when we’re doing discernment together as a community, a really good sign that leading is really from God is that the process of discernment brings us as a community into a profound sense of peace and unity with one another. I know that I’ve experienced on many occasions in Quaker community and at other times too with non-Quakers, a sense that at the end of the discussion and discernment process, the decision we came to was not something that any of us would have come to before but that we felt led to it together and felt like we came to a decision that was bigger than us. And then we were unified in it, we felt like more of a community and more of a people after the decision had been made than before. That’s a good sign that it’s from God because the God and Father of Jesus Christ is a God of order and not of disorder.

Micah: When this leading orders us into unity, it’s a good sign it’s from him.

Mackenzie: Yeah, that’s pretty much what he says in there. He talks about the power of the Spirit to bring people into unity was one of the happy discoveries of early Friends. It talks about testing our leadings in community but that you don’t just try to do discernment off on your own, that you do it with a group of people.

Micah: You can but it’s easy to get some wacky results when you’re off on your own. Talk about an Echo Chamber of one.

Mackenzie: Yeah. I’m trying to discern between Cocoa Puffs and Fruit Loops for breakfast.

Micah: I mean obviously Cocoa Puffs cause you can drink the chocolate milk afterwards.

Mackenzie: Good point.

Micah: Well at least we solved that one in our clearance to [inaudible 00:21:52] two.

Mackenzie: There we go.

Mackenzie: Hey everybody, just a little update on the Patreon. Currently, we have pledged, there’s $9 per episode pledged to us right now and the way it works is we have it marked that $30 per episode means that each episode gets transcribed going forward. We’ve also got a back catalog that also we’ll be caught up on so that deaf and hard of hearing folks can know what’s going on. We’ve decided to have the $9 that have been pledged be charged on the last couple episodes and this one which taken together means great, we can get one of the back episodes transcribed. Awesome.

Mackenzie: However, if it takes three episodes of income to get one episode transcribed we are never going to end up with having all of them transcribed. So if you would like to support deaf and hard of hearing people being able to know what is going on with this podcast, it would be fabulous if you could go to patreon.com/quakerpodcast and pledge just a dollar or two per episode. We have two episodes a month. I guess we might have three episodes like twice in a year so this is only a few dollars a month from you and it would be really great. Thanks.

Mackenzie: You can find us on the web at quakerpodcast.org as Quaker Podcast on twitter, Facebook, or Patreon, and on iTunes.