Quaker Sacramentology: A Christological Critique

Tonight in class we discussed and experienced Quaker worship.  Although many Quakers have fallen in line with most current evangelical-protestant expressions of worship, there is still a significant amount of Quakers who worship just like they did when George Fox was around, by having “silent” or “unprogrammed” worship.

The Quakers (although i’m aware of the vast theological diversity in the Quaker church today, this post will focus on the Quakers who essentially line up with historic orthodoxy) take very seriously the theological truth that Christ is already present in their midst (through the Spirit).  They take it so seriously in fact, that they do not use any sacraments in their gatherings, not even communion or baptism.

For Quakers, the only baptism that matters is being baptized (and sealed) by the Spirit.  When it comes to communion, it is very interesting to note that for Quakers the focus is on remembering what Jesus has done for us, not the logistics of the elements.  In fact, Quakers have found the dissention caused by the elements, they view them as more of a hindrance than a help.  They would rather get to the “true, spiritual essence of communion.”

Their refusal to engage in Lord’s Supper goes back to their strong insistance on the ever available and present Christ, their Teacher.  They argue that they do take communion seriously.  In fact, they take communion more seriously than anyone else, because they don’t limit communion with Christ during church to being mediated through bread and wine.  Communion with Christ can and is an ever present reality in their worship gatherings.  His not limited to elements during a ritual.  They don’t condemn anyone who does perform these sacraments, but they see no use for them.  

Let me confess that in some ways i’m a “closet Quaker.”  I love their emphasis on silence in corporate worship, among other things.  I love how “counter-cultural” they are without needing to point it out to everyone else.  Despite my deep admiration and respect for their tradition, i must say i find their views regarding the sacraments to be disconcerting.

In my mind, part of what lays behind their view of communion and baptism is another example of falling into the trap of Greek dualism.  The form or symbol (eg, the water, bread and wine), is only a dim shadow of the real substance (the spiritual presence of Christ).  While they have a valid point that much needless division and violence has occurred due to sacramental minutiae, the idea that we have no need for the “baser physical aspects” like the sacraments betrays a basic disdain for the physical world which their Teacher created (Col 1). 

Furthermore, such a view can lead one unknowingly to a docetic view of Christ.  While I’m sure that they would readily affirm that Christ did indeed have a physical body, if what we are really after, and what God is really about, is the “pure spiritual essence” of things, then why is the Incarnation really needed (Perhaps this is why many Quakers end up being unitarian-universalists)?

Christ’s humanity doesn’t allow for us to have such an aversion to the physical world impacting our spiritual lives.  We are physical beings, and if God can condescend to the point of taking on flesh, surely we shouldn’t be surprised that our Lord used concrete, physical realities like water, bread, and wine to teach us and help us remember, nor should we reject them as less than the best of what God has to offer us.  The incarnation teaches us that we must reject such a physical-spiritual dichotomy approach to the sacraments, and humbly allow our Teacher to use what we would think unnecessary to teach us the depth of His love. 

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3 responses to “Quaker Sacramentology: A Christological Critique

  1. Nicely stated! Since for the Christian God our Father lives in us – “for through him (Christ)..[we] have access in (by) one Spirit to the Father.” (Eph.2: 18) Therefore I am His temple. I do not need to go anywhere special to worship Him. He has wonderfully designed my life to be lived, moment-by-moment, place-by-place, and circumstance-by-circumstance in worship of HIM! This individual truth does not negate the collective need to worship, but shows that we come together: “made us to be a kingdom, priests to God..” (Rev.1: 6) And here we are both individual and collective…”You are the temple of God.” (1 Cor. 3:16)

  2. I stumbled on this post in an entirely accidental way, and I’m impressed– you’ve hit the nail on the head of some of the dangers of Quaker sacramental practice. But you’ve missed the other side, I think.

    I was raised in the unprogrammed Quaker tradition. As I have grown into an understanding of Christ, and the powerful, dynamic mystery of Christ’s humanness, I have wondered about the adamantly non-physical nature of Quaker sacraments. Are we denying, in our practice of worship, the physicality of our spiritual existence– and by extension, the embodiment of God in Christ?

    Is that a greater or lesser danger than the one we (Quakers) were reacting against– the danger of forgetting the spiritual reality in the practice of the physical form?

    The understanding that I have come to is that both traditional (physical) Christian sacraments, and Quaker sacramental practice, are intended to manifest the presence of Christ in the concrete reality of our physical lives, to erase the duality between body and spirit. The two approaches attempt to do this in different ways: the first, by practicing a ritual in which the presence of Christ is enacted in a physical, communal sharing/partaking that is concrete, but limited to a particular act. It is a practice for which I have a deep respect, and sometimes a longing.

    The Quaker understanding of the sacraments, ideally, is also one of embodiment. It brings sacramental awareness to every facet of life. Each concrete act, presence, interaction is infused with God’s presence. Worship is communion. Breathing is communion. Instead of demarcating a particular act, we aspire to bring to every meal the intention of breaking bread with Christ, to every rain shower the awareness of baptism by the Holy Spirit, in the grace of God.

    How often is a Friend actually able to maintain that level of conciousness? I can only speak for myself– I fall very short. But I would rather aspire, even without success, to a practice of the sacraments that transforms all physical acts, than to settle for one that (from my Quaker perspective) seems to limit that transformation to a discrete set of practices.

    I don’t mean to disparage the physical sacraments– I haven’t experienced them or spent a lot of time trying to understand them, beyond basic training in religious studies and individual musing. My point, I guess, is that both a Quaker and a more mainstream Christian approach have similar ideals and similar pitfalls. Both aspire to unite the physical and spiritual, as Christ did. Both are vulnerable to human imperfection, erring on the side either of reducing the practice to empty form by forgetting the substance, or of failing to experience the spiritual concretely, because we have rejected the aid of the bread, the wine, and the water.

    Your invitation to “humbly allow our Teacher to use what we would think unnecessary” is a powerful one, and it made me stop and think. I don’t want to excuse myself from that challenge, and I will keep thinking about it. Here is my best current understanding: my commitment is to act according to the forms taught to me by the Living Christ. I am open to the possibility that Jesus’s command to “do this in memory of me” was intended as a universal command to all his followers; but there is nothing in the text, or in my own experience, that demands that interpretation. If Christ’s movement in my heart teaches me to partake of bread and wine as communion, I will submit– but to this point, Christ has taught me to celebrate the presence of His spirit in all things, and to recognize silent worship as an experiential practice of communion that extends to all things in my life.

    • Kody,

      thanks for stopping by, and for your thoughtful and charitable response. Thanks also for giving me “an insider’s perspective” on the inner logic of quaker sacramentology. You have also given me much to think about!

      My initial thought: why either/or? I don’t disagree with your understanding of the whole of life as communion, but communing with others can take multiple forms, one of which could be participating in acts that bind those in communion together & also remind them of those who have come before. Again, this shouldn’t be limited to one physical act, but neither should a very tangible physical act be excluded.

      It seems to me that if i am interpreting your thoughts right, i think that maybe the problem wasn’t that something was wrong, but that they overreacted.

      Thoughts on this? Thanks again for stopping by Kody.

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