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Gospel Order

Updated: Jun 11

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 15th of Tenth Month, 2023

Speaker: Donne Hayden

Scripture: Matthew 18:15-17

Reproving Another Who Sins

“If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If you are listened to, 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 that person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.

In the New Testament, Paul frequently uses the phrase “in good order” when he talks about how worship should be conducted. In a 1678 letter to early Friends, George Fox uses the phrase “gospel order” in his advice for how to live and worship in community. In his book, The Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, Conservative Friend Lloyd Lee Wilson describes “gospel order” as “the order established by God that exists in every part of creation, transcending the chaos that seems so often prevalent…. the right relationship of every part of creation, however small, to every other part and to the Creator.”

We find God’s reaction to the chaos currently prevalent—again—in words spoken through the Old Testament 1 prophet Isaiah. The Lord says:

15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,

I hide my eyes from you;

even when you offer many prayers,

I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

16 Wash and make yourselves clean.

Take your evil deeds out of my sight;

stop doing wrong.

17 Learn to do right; seek justice.

Defend the oppressed.

Take up the cause of the fatherless;

plead the case of the widow.

(Isaiah 1:15-17) 2

Clearly, after thousands of years, we humans still don’t get it—witness events in the Ukraine, Israel & Palestine, every-day violence in our own country, and seemingly everywhere over the earth—

Some of the early Friends came close to understanding what God requires of us. Through their writings, we find the insights they gleaned from close reading of the scriptures. For instance, Fox’s “gospel order” comes to us from Jesus’ teachings (i.e., the gospel), which lay out the order in which we can please God when we come in worship or prayer. Jesus echoes Isaiah’s words which express God’s wish that, before coming to worship or pray, we wash the blood from our hands and the evil from our hearts.

23 … when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)

Before I am worthy to worship God, I must be in right relationship with God, who desires right relationship throughout creation. A few chapters later in Matthew, Jesus teaches an order or process by which those who follow it can stay in “right relationship” with each other, and therefore, with God.

If your brother does wrong, go and take the matter up with him, strictly between yourselves. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others with you, so that every case may be settled on the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, report the matter to the congregation; and if he will not listen even to the congregation, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax-collector. (Matthew 18:15-17, NRSVUE)

In a 1678 letter written To Friends of Quarterly and Monthly Meetings everywhere, George Fox echoes Jesus’ words, which were passed on through the Gospel of Matthew. Listen to how closely Fox follows the passage in Matthew.

And dear Friends, if there should happen at any time anything that leads to strife, dispute, or contention in your Monthly or Quarterly Meetings, let it be referred to half a dozen, or such a like number to debate and end out of your meetings … that all your Monthly and Quarterly Meetings may be kept peaceable. And then they may inform the meeting what they have done; that the weak and young among you may not be hurt by listening to the strife or contention in your meetings, where no strife or contention ought to be; but all to … determine things in one mind, in the power of God, the gospel order; in which gospel of peace you will preserve the peace of all your meetings. [Italics mine]

If any man or woman has anything against anyone, let them speak to one another, and end it between themselves; if they cannot so end it, let them take two or three to end it. In case these can’t settle it, let it be laid before the church; and let half a dozen, or a proper number out of your Monthly or Quarterly meeting hear it, and finally end it, without respect of persons.

Unique in Fox’s paraphrase of Matthew’s sequence is his addition of the concern about arguing in front of the young and vulnerable, and his suggestion that the gospel order process take place outside of regular Meetings for Worship with Attention to Business. Think of it as not arguing in front of the children.

But what if gospel order doesn’t work? Then what?

Here is a true story of Quakers practicing gospel order. Some of you may have read The Footwashing at Marlborough 3.

It happened in Pennsylvania, around the time of the Revolutionary War. Two Quakers, Richard Barnard and Isaac Baily, lived on neighboring farms. Richard Barnard opposed the Revolutionary War and was a “war-tax refuser;” that is, like many Friends at the time, he refused to pay taxes that directly supported military action. Isaac Baily, on the other hand, was a strong proponent of the Revolution; he was, in general, known “as a contentious man, often involved in disputes with his acquaintances and even with his meeting.” Needless to say, they were not very compatible neighbors.

At one point, a dispute arose over property rights and the waterway that ran between the two farms. Isaac Baily, in a fit of anger, went out and “dammed up the waterway.” Richard Barnard did what he could. Because “peacemaking and reconciliation was very important” to him, as was gospel order, “He tried every conceivable method to work out a satisfactory solution with his neighbor."

He went to talk to Isaac, and when that did no good, Barnard asked some other Friends to go with him to talk with Baily, but Isaac Baily refused to budge. Barnard took the “issue of the dammed waterway” to their Meeting, which discerned that he was in the right, and Isaac Baily was wrong.

This had no effect on Baily, who refused “to remove the dam or be reconciled” to his neighbor.

Richard Barnard was deeply troubled and unsettled by the conflict with Baily, and one day when a travelling minister came to visit him, Barnard “opened his heart to the minister.” After he had described the problem, the minister said to him, “There is more required of some than of others.”

That really struck Barnard, and he thought “What more could I do? Is more required of me?” He held this question up to the Light and asked God for “direction and guidance.” The answer he received was odd and unusual: he was required to give up “claims of being right,” go “to his neighbor in humility and forgiveness,” and wash Isaac’s feet.

A strange idea; Quakers didn’t do this—some other groups did, but Quakers didn’t. The idea was so strange that Barnard tried to put it aside, but it kept coming up, and he finally realized he could not ignore it. So early one morning, he “filled a bowl with water from the [disputed] waterway,” took the bowl to Isaac’s house, knocked on the door, and when Isaac—who was still in bed—called out from upstairs, “Who’s there?” Barnard entered the house and went up to Isaac’s bedroom. He told his surprised neighbor “how painful the strained relationship had been for him” and that “following God’s leading, hoping they could be reconciled,” he wanted to wash Isaac’s feet. Isaac refused, of course; “Don’t you touch my feet!” he sputtered, but Richard Barnard—who was, after all, being led by the Spirit—persisted, and “gradually Isaac became quiet and let Barnard complete the washing.” After Barnard had dried his feet, Isaac walked downstairs with him and saw him out the door. “Later that day Isaac took a shovel to the waterway and dug away the dam.”

The two men remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

As I said, this story is a wonderful example of gospel order. It is also an example of continuing revelation, another tenet of Quaker belief. The original “revelation” from Jesus in Matthew ends with this line: “If he will not listen even to the congregation, then treat him as you would a gentile or a tax-collector.” This brings up the question of how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors. As we know, he made little or no difference in the way he treated them. So perhaps that last line is not Jesus but the gospel writer.

The story about Barnard and Baily takes gospel order a step further. Before we can be in right relationship with God we must be in right relationship with each other, and to do this, we may be required to give up “claims of being right,” and go to our neighbors “in humility and forgiveness.” Like many teachings of Christ and the early Friends, gospel order and what it requires of us is counter-cultural and goes against the grain of our human nature. I personally find it easier to identify with Isaac Bailey than with Richard Barnard.

If you think this story is too hard to believe and couldn’t happen in the violence and evil of today’s news, I recommend you read a hard-to-find book, Through the Valley of the Kwai 4, a memoir by Ernest Gordon, who eventually became dean of the chapel at Princeton University.

The book focuses on Gordon’s experience as a young Scottish soldier serving in the South Pacific during WWII; he was captured by the Japanese and spent several years in a concentration camp. His account details what happened in the camp when—where it was every-man-for-himself, among prisoners degraded to the point of being animals—one man began showing concern and compassion for another. From this tiniest of seeds, behavior necessary to live harmoniously in community emerged among the prisoners. It was not called gospel order or understood as that, but in the midst of war and horrific violence, the prisoners established throughout the camp a right relationship with God and creation.

Through the Valley of the Kwai will give you hope for humanity, hope that one day we will understand how to please God.

We cannot impose gospel order on the governments of the world, but as Friends, let us embrace it in our own communities.

1 Some argue it should be called the “First Testament.” Would that mean the New Testament should be called the “Second Testament”?

2 The later prophet Micah echoes God’s response in Isaiah. In Micah 6:6-7 we find questions like “How can I please God? What sacrifice or offering would please God?” God’s answer in Micah 6:8 is as succinct and direct as it could possibly be.

Micah 6:8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the LORD require of you

3 “The Footwashing at Marlborough” is told by Sandra Cronk in Gospel Order, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 297. All quoted words and phrases come from Cronk’s version of the story.

4 There is a book called Bridge Over the River Kwai, and you may have seen the movie based on it. Through the Valley of the Kwai is not that book.

New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

This document is protected by U.S. and International copyright laws. Reproduction and distribution without permission from the author is prohibited. © 2023 Donne Hayden. All rights reserved.

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