Gospel order is life lived in God’s transforming, guiding, and sustaining power.
– Sandra Cronk,
Gospel Order (Pendle Hill pamphlet 297)
Early Friends identified a need for the right ordering of community life, which they called “gospel order,” based in the life and teachings of Jesus. George Fox called this order the New Covenant of Jesus Christ, a divine, not an institutional, structure by means of which Christ could be “present in the midst of his people as ruler, governor, and orderer.” Instead of the rules common to churches of their time, Friends developed some essentials of faith and practice embodied in queries and advices. These practices encouraged them to base their inward life on worship and waiting on the Lord, to obey the promptings of the spirit through what became our social testimonies, to conduct meeting business as worship with reverence for God and love and respect for each other.
Friends believe that the gospel calls us to align our lives to the spirit of Christ and to commit ourselves to follow that spirit; our practices allow us to wait for the guidance of the spirit in our corporate life. This right ordering allows us to make corporate decisions according to the sense of the meeting, to test decisions through the process of carefully constructing minutes, and to organize the community into committees entrusted with defined responsibilities.
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church....
– Matthew 18:15–17 (NRSV)
These words from Jesus help us to respond creatively to conflict. Individuals first meet to air and resolve conflicts; if the first meeting is unsuccessful, they may meet a small group of Friends, sometimes called a committee of clearness, to try again to settle the matter; if there is still no resolution, Friends can bring the issue before the entire meeting for business. Although in this way Friends first reproved and corrected those who “walked disorderly,” the process gradually came to express the mutual accountability of Friends to one another, and led to the appointment of elders to exercise nurture and disciplinary care for their meetings.
The power behind all our communal practice derives from Jesus’s words, also in Matthew 18, that “where two or three come together in my name, there am I also.” We pray that this power will enable us to minimize backbiting, talebearing, and personal misunderstandings, and to provide for the acceptance and resolution of the contrary feelings which are inevitable when Friends work together.
Maintain that charity which suffereth long, and is kind; put the best construction upon the conduct and opinions one of another which circumstances will warrant. Take heed ... that the enemy produce no dissensions among you; that nothing like a party spirit be ever suffered to prevail. Let each be tender of the reputation of his brother; and be earnest to possess the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit. Watch over one another for good, but not for evil; and whilst not blind to the faults or false views of others, be especially careful not to make them a topic of common conversation. And even in cases in which occasion may require that the failings of others should be disclosed, be well satisfied, before they are made the subject of confidential communication, either verbally or by letter, that your own motives are sufficiently pure.
– London Yearly Meeting, 1834