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Conflict, Gospel Order, and the Covenant Community

by F. Peter Phillips
Cornwall Friends Meeting


Quaker approaches to conflict within our spiritual communities are grounded on the notion of “gospel order.” Historically, the concept of “gospel order” arose from strictly religious beliefs. Lloyd Lee Wilson defines “gospel order” as “that state of affairs which would prevail everywhere if the experience of the pure and holy birth of which Barclay speaks were universal.” In that sense, “gospel order” might be understood as that way of living that approximates, and ultimately yields, the divinely inspired community.


The Society of Friends has always relied upon corporate discernment rather than individual meditation to determine the will of the Spirit. Sandra Cronk expressly links “gospel order” to communal society as practiced by early Friends. Early Quakers discerned that God, once attended to, propounds a new social order of reconciliation and community. Conflicts among Friends were therefore perceived as instances of departure from a divinely-inspired state—as violations of the divine will as discerned through “gospel order.” Jesus’s teachings in Matthew 18, to Cronk, set forth “an outline of a procedure to embody accountability within a community.”


This concept of “accountability” is central to our dealing with conflict among one another.  The monthly meeting has always been recognized as the core of faith-based authority among Quakers, and constitutes the basic “covenant community,” with special relationships to each other and to the divine. The weighty concept of “covenant” is intentionally and inextricably linked with the Quaker concept of “gospel order.” As Lloyd Lee Wilson put it, “Friends’ understanding of the monthly meeting as covenant community is that in the Gospel Order, God is calling individuals to live in covenant with Him and through that covenant in community with one another.”


This covenant relationship imposes consequences upon a chronically disputatious spiritual community. Jerold Auerbach noted, “How people dispute is, after all, a function of how (and whether) they relate.”


The concept of Friends’ living in communities that are covenanted mandates that such communities be harmonious. “Gospel order” presupposes a harmonious state. It can be acknowledged that disharmony within the community is inevitable, while simultaneously accepting the religiously inspired obligation conscientiously to address and promptly to resolve such conflicts. Writ large, the implications of harmony in “gospel order” culminate in the Quaker Peace Testimony.


Thus, “gospel order” facilitates (or predicates) two dimensions of rigor: an individual’s covenantial relationship with God, and the proper and harmonious functioning of the monthy meeting—the core community of the Society.


These principles illuminate why the effort of the yearly meeting to assist monthly meetings in addressing internal conflict does not use the rubric of “resolution,” but rather of “transformation.”  The goal—the charge, if you will—is to transform our meetings into the covenanted communities whose accountability to each other in individual relationships is necessary in order to achieve unity with the divine in corporate worship.


You can view the bibliography and references for this article here.