No Such Thing as Faithful Disagreement

As I prepared to resign from my role as pastor I sat in my office with a friend that I have deeply respected and we had a conversation about what was driving me away from ministry in the Yearly Meeting. One moment in the conversation still echoes in my head. I told my friend that it seemed that there was no space for faithful disagreement in our Yearly Meeting, and my friend who I respected couldn’t bring themselves to say that disagreement could in any way have faithful people on both sides.

This is the state of the Northwest Yearly Meeting (NWYM):  There is a sense that people who disagree with each other cannot have come to a different conclusion if they were “really” being faithful. Krissi Carson posted on Facebook that:

Yesterday and today I attended Northwest Yearly Meeting’s mid-year boards. I came with a heavy heart and left with a heavier one. We approved a new YM presiding clerk, but the preceding discussion and discernment over the nominee was tense and loaded with the weight of our desperate desires to voice and silence the conversation on human sexuality. Many of my friends felt, in the end, unheard and unsupported, that the process did not follow the open steps we believe in as Jesus-loving Quakers. But then as I sat downstairs afterward waiting for a friend who was in a board meeting, I overheard another group of folks who felt the opposite. What struck me about their conversation was that these folks used the same divisive phrases about my friends who felt unheard (they came with an agenda, they didn’t want to listen, they this, they that) as my friends and I have said about them. Liberal or conservative–it was an interchangeable conversation. (Emphasis mine. Full text at end of post.*)

At this point I would have to say that to a certain extent, everyone is right. It has felt to me like everyone has an agenda and is unable to hear past that agenda. The sad thing to me is that these agendas match the political allegiances of the principality in which we live. I am also seeing political actions that more closely mirror the methods of political parties in the nation. Below is my analysis of what I have witnessed. This is strictly opinion, but there is ample evidence of spiritual violence being exchanged between factions in the NWYM. This may not cover all the details, but this is how it looks to an outsider. Whether or not you agree with my analysis, please take a moment to realize that there are enough things going on to justify my perceptions.

The current conflict is ostensibly about the murky subject of LGBTQ inclusion in the life and ministry of the NWYM, but I believe is actually about who gets to set and enforce the identity of the NWYM. This particular fight has gone on for many, many, years with skirmishes dating back to the 1960s and is rooted in Christian reactions to the culture shift that began then. Not having been around the NWYM, I cannot speak to the ways the conflict played out in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. What I can speak to is some of what I saw and heard about in terms of this conflict around the turn of the millennium to now.

At the turn of the millennium there was a concerted push to distance the Northwest Yearly Meeting from the Quaker part of its identity, culminating in the writing of a “white paper” calling for the removal of Friends’ terminology and questioning Friends’ aspects of faith and practice. This push included work to bring in pastors and church planters from other, more conservative, evangelical denominations in order to influence the direction of the Yearly Meeting (YM) by changing the tone of visible leadership. The then Superintendent of the Yearly Meeting, in frustration with the ways the Friends’ process was being used to undermine this agenda, called the Faith and Practice of NWYM “So much jot and tittle.” during the business sessions of the Yearly Meeting. This statement, along with what has been characterized as his “heavy handed” leadership style, gave those who were working for his ouster exactly the ammunition needed to bring him down and he was eventually removed from leadership within the Yearly Meeting.

After the Superintendent’s ouster, the Board of Evangelism, a group mainly on the side of distancing from the Quaker tradition, came under increased scrutiny and attack as they pursued their agenda using funds from the sales of Friends church properties which had been shut down and designated to their board. The Yearly Meeting leadership who were trying to redirect the function of the Yearly Meeting out of conflict mode initiated a reorganization of the Yearly Meeting in a way that would disenfranchise those most engaged in the Quaker vs. Evangelical conflict within the YM. The Board of Evangelism (BoE) and Board of Peace and Social Concerns were dissolved and not reconstituted with their functions spread out across the new structure of renamed boards. This also had the effect of freeing up the money that had been previously controlled by the BoE. Along with the change in structure came a centralization of power that eventually gave the Board of Elders the authority to: remove a Church/Meeting from the YM, nominate persons to the Administrative Council (those who would oversee the administrative functions of the YM including serving as the court of appeals for Elders’ decisions), appoint an un-nominated clerk for the Yearly Meeting Nominating committee (the committee that recommends people to be nominated to the various YM boards and committees, including Elders), while retaining the power to nominate the Faith and Practice Revision Committee, and exerting oversight and discipline over staff, pastors, and leaders in the YM. The change was also made to require minutes from individual meetings to be run through and approved by local areas before being accepted for distribution to the Yearly Meeting as a whole or be brought to the floor of YM business sessions, this was mitigated to allow the Presiding Clerk of NWYM to distribute, or bring to the floor, minutes from local meetings at their discretion if the local area wasn’t functioning or on a case by case basis if there was sufficient urgency.

The centralization of power had some long term effects including fights over how to best stack Committees and Boards in order to achieve the desired ends of controlling whether the NWYM would be Evangelical or Quaker and arguments over the proposed changes to the area structures. Eventually there were nominating fights and differing factions gained and lost control of the Elders and the gate keeping subcommittees of the Church Planting Sub-committee and the Recording Sub-committee. This pattern was also evidenced in the fighting over whether to join Friends World Committee on Consultation, a minute to George Fox University challenging changes to the faculty alcohol use policy,  and the lead up to the removal of West Hills. It remains to be seen whether this pattern will continue in the aftermath if some serious course correction isn’t made.

So far I have spoken of two groups within the NWYM: the EVANGELICAL quakers and the evangelical QUAKERS. There is a third group that has been marginalized in this fight even though I would argue that they constitute an overwhelming majority of the NWYM: the Evangelical Quakers who actually value both aspects of our heritage. Until recently this group has remained silent, with a few notable exceptions, about the infighting that has been plaguing the YM. That changed drastically with the ouster of West Hills Friends Church for welcoming and affirming of those who identify as LGBTQ, ie. not being “Evangelical” enough. There is a bit of tit for tat going on with a push to kick out/severely discipline an Idaho church for not allowing women to be in visible positions of leadership, ie. not being “Quaker” enough. That church is now the latest casualty in the fight as they have decided to leave the denomination. It seems like there has been a wakeup call that by allowing the warring Evangelical and Quaker factions to continue their infighting we have risked the destruction of the Yearly Meeting. On good days I like to think that this group has woken up in time to call a halt to the fight over control, and on bad days I think that it is too late and the expulsion of West Hills and potential expulsion/departure of other churches are the signs that we have committed to a death spiral of mutually assured destruction that will result in the complete shattering of the Yearly Meeting.

The human in me wants to remove those I perceive to be bad actors from their participation in the Yearly Meeting, but I recognize that would only serve to splinter things further. The truth is that when one group is uninvited from the table we create the context in which everyone can be uninvited. I deeply love people who are active on both “sides” of this argument and mourn the wounds that are proliferating more and more rapidly. As I have seen things played out over my time here in the Northwest the fight over power and control has been a bitter one and most of the casualties are being ignored. Many people on either “side” of this fight, as well as innocent bystanders, have been severely wounded and some have even stepped away from faith entirely because of the behavior of those they had respected as followers of Jesus. Regardless of who is on the “right” side, I want to remind us all as followers of Jesus: The means we use to achieve our ends determine which ends we actually achieve.

I think the NWYM as a whole is struggling with whether the Holy Spirit can be trusted to change people’s hearts, and over the last few business sessions there has been impatient action prioritized over listening for the voice of God. The fact is that many people on all sides have decided they have a monopoly on God’s truth and that those who disagree with them cannot possibly be faithful. I have completely given up on there being a Christ honoring resolution to the current disagreement as long as we continue to dishonor the image of God borne by those with whom we disagree. Many people have been pressuring me to take a side in this conflict and I will: I am getting bandages together so I can be by the side of the wounded.

 

*

Long post, but I need to get this out, and my wall is as poor a place as any:

Yesterday and today I attended Northwest Yearly Meeting’s mid-year boards. I came with a heavy heart and left with a heavier one. We approved a new YM presiding clerk, but the preceding discussion and discernment over the nominee was tense and loaded with the weight of our desperate desires to voice and silence the conversation on human sexuality. Many of my friends felt, in the end, unheard and unsupported, that the process did not follow the open steps we believe in as Jesus-loving Quakers. But then as I sat downstairs afterward waiting for a friend who was in a board meeting, I overheard another group of folks who felt the opposite. What struck me about their conversation was that these folks used the same divisive phrases about my friends who felt unheard (they came with an agenda, they didn’t want to listen, they this, they that) as my friends and I have said about them. Liberal or conservative–it was an interchangeable conversation.

Folks, I bring forth a plea: if we truly hope to see our yearly meeting unite even as we disagree, we (myself included) must, MUST, find a different way of talking with each and must stop talking ABOUT each other. This will require a humility and wisdom that is well beyond our years and a willingness to be vulnerable and even wrong that I have not yet practiced or seen. This will require leaning on the Holy Spirit in ways we didn’t know we weren’t already doing. I implore us to stop making assumptions, to stop using us/them language, even when it feels as if our limited language pushes us to do so. No one person has all the answers and sometimes we have wrong ones. This is why Quakers so clearly value the community voice over the individual. And remember that Jesus was right about everything he said but let the people execute him anyway. I beg you. I beg us all. We must search for the way forward that we do not, at the moment, understand and can not yet see.

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7 responses to “No Such Thing as Faithful Disagreement

  1. Pingback: Gil George: No Such Thing as Faithful Disagreement (Links)

  2. Gil —

    The question I have is “Do we love each other as Christ has loved us?” If so, how do we show that love to each other?

    NW YM isn’t the only yearly meeting where there are struggle of this sort going on — even among somewhat more “liberal” yearly meetings.

    It seems a part of the cultural norm of the principality in which we live, in which human control rather than becoming yielded to what God would have us be/do remains problematic.

    As I read the gospels — and I do — We all need to be on the side of the wounded.

  3. From my distant perspective this thing seems sad and strange. Why do people want to change the identity of a church. If they want to be Evangelicals there are plenty of Evangelical churches they could join. I actually left an overtly Evangelical church to become a Quaker. I wouldn’t have considered trying to make it into a Quaker meeting to suit my preference. It is like people insisting that their apple pie needs meat in it, they should just get a meat pie if that’s what they want and leave the apple pies alone.
    Or is that too simplistic?

  4. I Am glad that you are on the side of the wounded . there are no winners or losers her just followers of Jesus. Why are people forgetting that. . Or the fact that he who is with out sin can cast the first stone. A better question is who are the marginalized? That is the work of Christians to find and bring them into the kingdom. Good job Gil

  5. Gil: When you wrote “Many people have been pressuring me to take a side in this conflict and I will: I am getting bandages together so I can be by the side of the wounded.”, I thought to myself how your experience and attitude is a metaphor for the walk Jesus made when on Earth. He too was pressured to take sides in political struggles (yes, these schisms ARE political struggles), and he even angered many people by his acts of compassion to those wounded by life. His “bandage” was one of unconditional love and acceptance that we are all “that of God”.

    I concluded long ago that it is best to err on the side of ‘Love and Light’. And let our unity be in that ‘Love and Light’. Period. Divine love is a constant. Social culture, political positions, doctrinal views, and biblical interpretations come and go over the centuries. So, why would we mere humans want to block entry into the kingdom of God for any of God’s children – based on these. Who do we think we are – God himself?

    I am grateful for my Quaker meeting where I am constantly reminded that ‘God is love’.

  6. The real disagreement involves whether we can agree to disagree among ourselves about biblical interpretation. Can we live in tension with each other while we let God work on our hearts? There are those who say yes, and those who say no. Those who say yes are not leaving. Those who say no are forcing others to leave and/or leaving themselves.

    But this is not really the root of the conflict. The root of our conflict is the place of the Holy Spirit in our understanding of God. There are those who adhere to an understanding of Scripture that has existed and been taught as fact for a century or more. There are those who follow the Quaker idea of constant revelation, that God speaks to us now, outside of Scripture. The latter group has its roots in the theology of George Fox. The former group sees Fox and his theology as being in grave error. The former limit the holy Spirit to repeating what is in the Bible word for word. The latter group looks to the Holy Spirit to clarify the messages found in the Bible.

    Concerning this conflict, I have written down my view of the places of Scripture and the Holy Spirit in our discernment process.

    God speaks directly to us in Jer 31:33. He repeats this passage twice more in the Bible (Hebrews 8:10 and Hebrews 10:15). When God says something 3 times it’s usually important.

    “After that time” refers to the coming to earth of Jesus Christ. After that event He will write His law upon our hearts and place it in our minds, He says.

    Jesus Christ said that he had come to fulfill the law, not abolish it. He came to fulfill it by living it, as an example to us of how we can live out the law. And by Christ’s example we will finally be able to understand the law.

    When asked what were the most important parts of the law, Jesus Christ said that loving God and loving your neighbor were paramount, above all else. People constantly asked Him in one form or another, how little must I do, and how little must I give to fulfill the law and be saved. His answer was invariably that we must do all and give all that we are capable of doing and giving. And that was his example, even to giving up His life for us. We no longer needed lists of examples of how to live out the law. We no longer needed to be taught detailed lists of legalisms. When Christ healed the shriveled hand of the disabled man on the Sabbath He was demonstrating that kindness and love superseded legalisms. Love God, and love your neighbor, this was His message. This is the law that has been written on our hearts by Christ.

    How is this law written, and where do we find it? We often quote item #4 from our Faith and Practice document concerning what we believe. It honors Scripture and states how much we value it. We don’t speak about #3 as often. It says that the Holy Spirit “informs our consciences”, in other words, writes God’s law upon our hearts. Therefor, conscience, informed by the Holy Spirit, has a place alongside our understanding of Scripture. We are to test each against the other, as individuals and as a people. For Scripture is never wrong, but our understanding of it can be. When conscience tells us something is wrong we need to examine our understanding of Scripture, even our long held beliefs about it, as well as what is in our hearts, for both of these things come from the Holy Spirit. We must ask ourselves constantly, by this action or thought, are we loving God? Are we loving our neighbor? This is how we are to live out and fulfill God’s law.

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