The quote reflects the semi-Gnostic perspective the early Quakers found in the Gospel of John. Gnosticism makes a strong distinction between spirit (good) and material (bad). Really, the point here is to say that just because God can speak to us directly doesn’t mean God avoids speaking to us through others.
We talk about experiencing God speaking to us through others. Micah gave an example of the Spirit speaking to him through someone and directly, in the same day. Mackenzie talked about hearing testimonies of generosity. One Friend told her his family gives away 10% of their income, not as a church tithe, but to help others. Shortly after, other friends told her they’d all been helped by a certain other Friend, who gives away about half of what he gets—and he’s not wealthy. She felt conviction about her giving habits and believes that was the Spirit telling her it’s time to level up on that skill.
Micah points to the value of a community in encouraging faithful action.
Barclay included “conveys comfort and consolation” in his list of what Spirit-led Teachers do. Mackenzie points out that if you look at the Letter to Ephesians, shepherd and teaching are separate roles. Mackenzie has all the pastoral care skills of Sheldon Cooper. So, on the rare occasion when she knows the right thing to say to a sad friend, she figures that’s God popping by to help out.
Finally, we talk about times when people give shocking vocal ministry. Micah gives the example of people who normally have difficulty speaking or a developmental delay. Mackenzie talks about traveling ministers who speak to the condition of those present without being informed in advance. A friend of hers has experienced this in other churches, which may call it “word of knowledge.”
Mackenzie: Hi. Welcome back to Quaker Faith and Podcast. I am Mackenzie. And I’m here with Micah. And we are going to be talking about spirit led teachers which is we’re using this book Traditional Quaker Christianity and it’s in section 6F in there. There’s basically in this chapter that was actually written by the authors of this book. It’s just a giant … Actually, it’s not a giant either. It’s just a big block quote from Barclay’s Apology which is a 17th Century explanation of Quaker theology.
Mackenzie: So I guess I’m going to start with just reading the quote and then we’ll talk about it.
Mackenzie: “Although God leads us chiefly by his spirit, sometimes he conveys his comfort and consolation by a word written or spoken by another person at an opportune time. By it, the faithful are made instruments in the hand of the Lord to strengthen and encourage one another. This also tends to foster their growth and lead them to salvation. Those who are led by the spirit and actually love and cherish the things which represent the product of the spirit and other persons. They also find that such mutual manifestations of the heavenly life also tend to quicken the mind and to provide the recollection of truth so necessary for the progress of the gospel.”
Mackenzie: “God teaches his people himself and nothing is made clearer than the fact that under the new covenant, no other human teacher is needed.”
Mackenzie: They footnote for Jeremiah 31:31.
Mackenzie: “In spite of this, one of the major results of Christ’s ascension was the sending of teachers and pastors for perfecting the faithful. The same work is ascribed to them as to the scriptures. Both are primarily for the development of greater maturity in the faith of those who believe. But human teachers are by no means to a preference over the teaching of God himself under the new covenant.”
Mackenzie: And Micah had some thoughts.
Micah: I actually didn’t really like the quote when Mackenzie read it to me right before we started recording. But reading it the second time, I like it a little bit better. I think the main thing that I think is a little bit weird about Barclay and the early Quaker. I mean, Barclay accurately reflects the perspective of the leading early Quakers. He actually asks for George Fox’s approval on it after he wrote the stuff.
Mackenzie: I thought George Fox was already dead by that time.
Micah: I don’t think so. No.
Micah: I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure that Barclay and Fox chatted and Fox generally approved of what Barclay wrote. I think this is an accurate representation of the early Quakers. I guess I have some cautions about the perspectives of the early Quakers and of later Quakers too. I think there is a little bit of … I hope our listeners will forgive me for taking a little bit of an excursion here. But to take it even a little bit further back, the Quaker movement could really be ascribed as what seminary grads would call a Johanean community meaning highly influenced by the gospel and writings of John.
Micah: And John and the community/individual that wrote John, the Gospel of John, the Letters of John, this community was borderline gnostic. Not quite, right? They weren’t. But some … an author that I read suggests that perhaps after the gospel of John was written, there was a schism in the community with some of the community becoming gnostic and the rest of the community then writing the three letters of John during the controversy.
Micah: But in any case, the folks that wrote the Gospel of John and John’s Letters were a part of a tendency in Christianity that was extremely focused on the role of the spirit and often risked denigrating the creation and potentially even looking at the creation as being a bad thing.
Mackenzie: Hang on a second. Could you explain gnostic?
Micah: Right. So I just sort of did in the sense that …
Mackenzie: That was …
Micah: Gnosticism … and gnosticism was a complex constellation of philosophies so I won’t do it justice in like 15 seconds. But basically gnosticism is the idea that the spiritual realm is fundamentally good and that’s where everything good happens. And the physical realm is imperfect at best and even evil at worst.
Mackenzie: This sounds like dualism as well.
Micah: Yeah, yeah. And so the goal of the life of faith is to emerge from the darkness and blindness of the physical realm and become entirely spiritual. Okay? So obviously because John’s Gospel and the Letters to John are included in the Bible which was agreed upon by the orthodox church which rejects gnosticism. Obviously these documents are not gnostic. However, the community that wrote them was wrestling with gnosticism. And the viewpoint expressed in the Gospel of John is the closest that you’ll see in the Bible to gnosticism. Because the Jesus that you read about in the Gospel of John is very otherworldly. And is very, very spiritual and seems less human sometimes. Not always, actually. There are parts of the Gospel of John that are very, very human but there are points in the Gospel where Jesus seems almost otherworldly.
Micah: And so, I say all this to bring it back to Quakers. The Quakers as a movement have always resonated very much with this almost gnosticism of really emphasizing the spirit over the created world. And you see this in Quakerism today and you certainly saw it in the early movement where you’ve got Barclay here saying well, we’re always led by the spirit of God but sometimes other human beings or writings could be helpful to us. Right?
Micah: And I agree with … I think what the thrust of Barclay and the early friend’s argument was in terms of the spirit. Like the relationship with Jesus Christ being primary. And that you had to know God yourself. You couldn’t simply agree to someone’s statements that someone had made in a book. You couldn’t simply turn your life over to a human teacher and let them make their decisions and their discernment for you. That ultimately you had to be taught by Jesus himself and not by human teachers.
Micah: However, I think there’s a risk here that we need to be aware of of tumbling into gnosticism and of denying the way God is at work in the created world and in other people. That God speaks through everything or God can speak through everything. God created everything that we can see and everything that we can’t see. And so the idea that we couldn’t be taught through another person or we couldn’t be taught through a book or we couldn’t be taught through and experience with nature or we couldn’t be taught through anything we experience is problematic. Because the spirit in terms of what you might call an orthodox Christian view as opposed to a gnostic Christian view. The orthodox Christian view is that God has made the creation good. And therefore, God is reflected in the creation. And God at work in other people can speak to us and we can actually encounter God in other people. So that’s the only place we’re … I think Barclay and I might mostly agree if we really talked through it or if he and I were able to get together and talk about this.
Mackenzie: If he was alive.
Micah: If he was alive.
Mackenzie: Any necromancers out there?
Micah: I don’t think that Barclay and I are in fundamental disagreement but I get nervous with what I see as sometimes an overemphasis on the spirit as something that is separate from … entirely separate and distinct from the physical plane because I would definitely say I’ve had direct, personal experiences of God and Jesus but so much of my faith life has been experiencing God through other people and through other situations and through physical encounters in nature or with just anything. My experience of God is mediated through my life experiences and a lot of it is other people and things.
Mackenzie: And just so we’re all clear with all this joking about necromancers. That’s not actually a Quaker thing. That’s just a nerd thing.
Micah: Quit lying. You know we’re all into necromancy.
Micah: So what were you talking about?
Mackenzie: Well …
Micah: I went on a huge tangent.
Mackenzie: Yes, you did.
Micah: Hopefully it was interesting to anyone.
Mackenzie: So the discussion question that is in the book says, “Even though human teachers are quote/unquote necessary under the new covenant, we find it helpful to have God speak to us through other humans. Barclay says it encourages us in a way that apparently being taught only in word does not. So what has been your experience with the holy spirit teaching you through other people?”
Micah: I’ll just give the example of my experience of the World Gathering of Friends which I’ve mentioned before on this podcast and was extremely formative for me. It was really where I felt called deeper into discipleship and into a life of gospel ministry. I would say at that gathering, I was ministered … like God spoke to me through people and then God spoke to me through, I don’t know what to say God spoke to me through. God spoke to me in the closest thing I could have to a direct encounter. Whatever that means.
Micah: And so, I was deeply … There was a particular night where I was deeply, deeply impacted by a sermon that was given. And then, after that sermon, experienced time of worship with another person where I felt like I met God in a very personal and direct way. And so, in that same evening, I felt like I experienced God speaking to me very clearly through another faithful person. And then, having what you might call a direct encounter with God too where it wasn’t another person teaching me or even another person acting as an intermediary or a messenger but was actually through having a direct experience with God.
Micah: With that being said, I don’t know that I could have made sense of the experience that I had with God that evening if I hadn’t heard the sermon earlier. And I’m not even sure if I could have made sense of the sermon and that experience with God if I hadn’t then had the wider community of Christians and Quakers to help me make sense of what had happened. So I really … I still needed people who had been formed by God to help me make sense of God’s teaching to me.
Micah: Now something that I think the early Quakers were just really unrealistic about is that we can have experiences, we can and do have experiences of God. But to really integrate them into our lives, it has to be borne out in community and we have to have others who have also been formed by God to help us interpret and make sense of what God has shown us.
Mackenzie: Are you talking about the importance of the community … I can’t remember what episode number that was. I’ll look it up.
Mackenzie: I would say also that some of our friends, definitely the spirit speaks through them and ministers to me. Just you … Quakers use the word witness to mean … It’s kind of hard to explain but the way somebody lives out their life as a reflection of their faith, then impacts others. And there’s someone I know who is incredibly generous. Just if somebody needs something, he’ll just give them whatever it is that they need. Basically no questions asked. And he’s helped out a lot of people with a lot of money despite … There’s this voluntary poverty idea.
Mackenzie: And he basically does, he lives a very, very simple lifestyle and in order to be able to give more of what he has to other people. And that has been convicting for me. Seeing him, knowing and I didn’t find out about this from him telling me that he gives away a whole lot. It’s other mutual friends said oh yeah, so and so helped me out. He gave me a lot of help. This is what he gave me. And it’s like holy moly. And then, I talked to the guy and found out that half of his income, he was giving away. That’s ridiculous.
Mackenzie: And I know he makes a lot less money than I do so I’m like man, I need to step up my game. And I feel like that’s, as far as I’m concerned … And somebody else had told me that, and this person doesn’t remember having told me this. He’s like wait, I don’t normally share that. What? That this other friend gives away 10% of their income not as a tithe to the church but to charity and helping other people and stuff.
Mackenzie: And so, this was all in relatively short order that I was hearing from different friends, different Quakers that I know, about how they have felt the spirit move them to generosity and that then in turn, for me, was convicting and okay, I need to do better at this.
Micah: Yeah. That’s a witness or a testimony to the importance of community formation. And that, we are communal animals. And when we see people, when we are among people who are acting a certain way, we will tend to act more that way. We gravitate towards that kind of behavior. And so, when we surround ourselves with people who are being faithful in concrete and specific ways, it is much more likely that we’re going … I mean, there’s still effort required on our part. There’s still faith that’s required on our part. But it’s much easier and it’s much more likely for us to move in that direction. Whereas, when we’re immersed in the mainstream culture, we’re likely to act much more like that mainstream culture. Which I’m sad to confess, I do.
Mackenzie: Yeah. I mean, ditto usually.
Mackenzie: I would also … so something else that’s in here is that or something that I noticed in here is that Barclay said, “…conveys his comfort and consolation as well,” which is I don’t think of it as a teaching thing. So Micah and I have been with the Friends of Jesus folks talking about the five spiritual gifts that are … not gifts but …
Micah: Sort of roles.
Mackenzie: Roles that are in the book of Ephesians. The apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, or pastor. And teacher. And the comfort and consolation one, that is much more I think of as the shepherd/pastor than the teacher one. So I think it’s interesting that Barclay puts those together but actually then again, in Friends of Jesus, we have the … I say we but I’m not actually officially a part of Friends of Jesus.
Micah: You’re pretty active.
Mackenzie: The shepherd and teacher folks are meeting together and that’s on the other side of things, I can certainly see myself having been used by the spirit or receiving words from the spirit to comfort or edify other of my friends like when they’re going through a tough time and just understanding what is the thing that they need to hear and be told in order to help build them up when they’re having trouble.
Micah: Yeah. And I think that’s actually really in my experience a real strength of the Quaker tradition is the Quaker community has helped me learn how to be more attentive to when God is speaking through me and let that happen. And so, there are times when often in surprising ways you are able to speak to the spiritual condition of someone who needs spoken to. And God gives you the words.
Mackenzie: And I don’t normally think of myself as being all that great with emotions and stuff. I’m a computer nerd. I’m kind of like computers are great. You type in the thing and they do the thing you told them to and they don’t get their feelings hurt. And so, I figure when I actually know what the thing I’m supposed to say and I’ve said somebody suggested that I should start a pastoral meeting. And I’m like ha, ha. Me as a pastor. That’s a good joke. If you ever watch Big Bang Theory, when somebody is upset, Sheldon has memorized that the thing you do is you hand them a hot beverage and you pat them on the shoulder and say there, there. And I’m like a step above that but I’m like me being a pastor wouldn’t work. I’m only one step above Sheldon on that. So that’s always like when I actually do know the thing that I’m supposed to say is or something, I’m like yeah, that had to be God because that did not come from me.
Micah: There are lots of stories from Quaker lore of people who’ve been convinced of the Quaker message because of things like that. Because of going to a meeting for worship and someone standing up and giving very eloquent vocal ministry and then finding out they were … like after the meeting, that they were like developmentally delayed and they have the mental capacity of a six year old but they were speaking in ways that things like that. People are given gifts.
Mackenzie: That’s not where I was expecting that to go. I thought it was going to be somebody goes to meeting and they don’t know … I’ve heard stories of somebody goes to meeting. They don’t know anybody there. It’s their first time there. There was no way anybody in the room knows their thing. And somebody stands and gives a message that speaks directly to them. Actually one of our friends was at a vineyard church recently and had that experience where … I think it was at the vineyard church where the … Maybe it was different one but the person who was supposed to be preaching. They got up and they read the first sentence of their sermon. And then they stopped and they said no, all right. I have a message that I need to share. And they looked directly at my friend who had never been in that church before. And talked to them about their call to pastoral ministry and where that … I know you have this call and here’s what the advice that you need is.
Mackenzie: And then, went back and did their sermon.
Micah: That’s crazy. God’s pretty cool.
Mackenzie: Certainly, I don’t know. This is the sort of things where you’re like oh, that’s kind of spooky.
Mackenzie: You can find us on the web at quakerpodcast.org as Quaker Podcast on Twitter, Facebook, or Patreon and on iTunes.