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The Giftedness of Elders

Posted on Monday, October 30, 2006 at 09:00PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | Comments19 Comments | References1 Reference

Two Quaker bloggers, RichardM and Liz Opp, have recently posted essays about the rôle of the elder in the Religious Society of Friends.

Richard’s essay was the first to appear. In it, he wrote that “Real eldering requires a gift of the Holy Spirit and must be Spirit led. I know what real eldering sounds like and the voice is gentle but authoritative. It is more often positive and encouraging than discouraging. Eldering is a gift that some have and others don’t.”

This doesn’t say outright, but it certainly suggests, that a real elder is one who has that special spiritual gift that makes “real eldering” possible: a gift that not everyone gets to possess, and that involves being a conduit through which the Spirit itself counsels individuals.

Liz’s essay appeared two days later. After summarizing Richard’s understanding and ascribing it to “many Friends” (not just Richard), Liz expressed concern that it was too narrow, and that its narrowness “endanger[s] the traditional rôle of elder. Elders,” she wrote, “have other functions too” — such as “helping ground the meeting” in worship, and overseeing the general condition of the meeting.

Liz contradicted Richard’s assertion that elders accompany traveling ministers on their journeys. But she agreed with his basic point that elders are definable by the special gifts they possess: “Elders have certain gifts,” she wrote, and continued in that same vein for some sentences more.

Now, I’m a tad disturbed by this business about the special giftedness of elders. It’s certainly a romantic view of Quakerism — wow! look at all these gifted men and women in it! And I don’t want to denigrate the genuine people skills to which it points. But this view of elders as specially gifted people ascribes something to them that, in fact, is not required of them, and that many of them simply don’t possess. And in doing so, it also aggrandizes them — in a way that I think would have made earlier Friends quite uncomfortable.

I’m also a bit dismayed by the assertions of both parties that “this is the traditional understanding of the matter”, since neither Richard’s description of elders, nor Liz’s, matches the actual traditional view as given in Quaker writings from George Fox’s day down to the mid-twentieth century.

Thinking that these points would be easy ones to address in comments on Richard’s and Liz’s blog sites, I turned to my library of Quaker books, and received another shock: There’s not one modern Quaker tome in my (fairly extensive) collection that does a decent job of describing what elders were and did and meant in traditional Quakerism.

In fact, the current books of discipline of some major liberal yearly meetings, such as Philadelphia, New England and Pacific, barely even mention the word “elder”. You’d never know, from reading them, what the traditional elder in our Society was like.

This is regrettable. I don’t think you can really understand traditional Quakerism at all, if you don’t understand the place of elders and overseers in it, and the reasons why they were given that place.

The lack won’t be an easy one to remedy in a journal entry, either. What follows will only scratch the surface. But let me trot out some of the key early writings on the matter, and talk a bit about what these things have to say.



The idea of appointing elders began, among Friends, as a way of guaranteeing that certain tasks would be taken care of — more or less the same tasks that in New Testament times were done by presbyters and deacons.

Friend Wilmer Cooper, in his book A Living Faith (second edition, 2001), reminds us that Friends were designating elders as far back as the early 1650s, which is to say, the first decade of the movement. For a time the terms “elder” and “overseer” were interchangeable, and the same group was expected to perform both functions. The rôle of overseer began to be differentiated from the rôle of elder, however, in the 1690s.

The first known document setting out the rôle and duties of an elder or overseer among Friends, was a general letter by William Dewsbury, one of the great early Quaker leaders, written in 1653, for the express purpose of establishing a designated body of elders among Friends.

Dewsbury’s letter had the backing of George Fox, who subscribed it (signed his own name below Dewsbury’s). And it remained influential among Friends for centuries — for instance, being reprinted by the Quaker leaders William Evans and Thomas Evans in their own influential essay, “Institution of the Discipline”, in 1837.

Here’s what Dewsbury wrote, then, in the form in which Evans and Evans reprinted it. For convenience, I am going to number the sentences, so that we can refer back to them as “Dewsbury/Evans sentence such-and-such” — “D/E § such-and-such”.)

  1. That in every particular meeting of Friends, there be chosen from among you, one or two who are most grown in the power and life, and in the pure discernment in the Truth, to take the care and charge over the flock of God in that place.

  2. And you who are chosen, watch over the flock of God, you to whom is committed the charge and care; and take the oversight thereof, not by constraint but willingly, not for filthy lucre but of a ready mind.

  3. I charge and command you in the presence of the living God, not to rule as lords over God’s heritage, but in the power of the Spirit in all purity.

  4. Be examples to the flock, and see that order be kept in the church, in constant meeting together, according to the rule that hath been given forth, that is to say, once a week, or more, if it may be, besides the First-day meeting.

  5. And you are to have a general meeting with other Friends near you, once in two or three weeks, as the Lord orders and makes way.

  6. Be not slack and backward, but faithful to the Lord, in improving every opportunity for Friends to meet; and, in every town where Friends are scattered, lay the charge and care on some Friends the most grown in the Truth, to see that they meet together to wait on the Lord three or four hours, as the Lord orders it, one night or two in the week.

  7. Watch over one another with a pure, single eye, to see that those who come amongst them, walk orderly, according to what they profess.

  8. And if any walk disorderly, those to whom the care and charge is committed, or any other who discerns them, and is moved to speak to them, to deal plainly with them in reproving them, ministering to that which is pure in the conscience, for the restoring of them.

  9. But, if they will not reform, acquaint two or three more who are most grown in the Truth, or you to whom the charge and care of the flock is committed, with the other that did admonish them in tender bowels of love, to admonish them; and, with plainness of speech, minister to that which is pure in their consciences, to raise up the Witness, and to judge and cut down the deceit; that their souls may be saved and their nakedness covered.

  10. But if they still walk in disorder, when the church is met together, reprove them openly; and if still they do not reform, but walk in their filthiness, when the church is met together, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, charge them to depart from amongst you.

  11. So, cast them out, and have no union with them, not so much as to eat with them, until they reprent, and turn to the Lord, and walk in obedience to that which is pure.

  12. If they do this, then receive them again: but if they still walk on in the stubbornness of their wills, and do not bend to that which is pure in their consciences, keep them forth, that no filthy person dwell in the house of God.

  13. Then will the blessing of the Lord God be with you.

  14. And see that there be not any in outward want in the church, and that all walk orderly in their places and callings.

  15. And if any root of bitterness spring up in any, which causeth strife in their minds one against another, as soon as you know of it, call such before you and examine the matter strictly; and stand in the wisdom and power of God to guide you to judge the cause, and end it in righteousness.

  16. But if the cause be hard for you to discern, and the measure you are grown to cannot discern betwixt the parties, I charge you, and command you, not to be hasty in the cause before you, to order it in your doubtful and dark minds: “for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.”

  17. But send for some who are more grown in discerning, to judge the cause and end it in righteousness.

  18. Then will deceit be judged, and strife kept out, and the innocent set free to serve the Lord: and your union will be in Christ Jesus, where you will bring forth fruit, abiding in him, and through his blood you shall overcome the world in you and without….

  19. The eternal, pure, Spirit of the most high God, rest upon you, whom he hath chosen to watch over his flock … and furnish you with courage and with boldness and pure wisdom to rule in the power of his Spirit, to cut down all deceit, and to wash the disciples’ feet, in bowing to the pure in the least appearance; and ministering to it, to strengthen the desire raised up towards the name of the Lord….

  20. Then will you have unity together in that which is pure, eternal, begotten of God….



Please note the general thrust of this letter. It’s set out in the first sentence: these people are to have “care and charge over the flock of God” in a particular place.

They’re to be the people in charge, their job description consists of a list of things that people in charge would naturally be expected to do, and there’s no mincing of words about it.

No doubt, many of you can see at a glance how this directive mixed the duties of elders with what we now see as the separate duties of overseers.

In fact, it doesn’t seem all that clear that these two sets of duties ever should have been separated. Just looking at our own local meetings, we can see how the problems that arise in our worship and ministry (the problems that are the province of elders) are often interlinked with problems that the worshipers and ministers are wrestling with in their private lives (the problems that are the province of overseers). And whenever these two sets of problems are so interlinked, the tangle really has to be dealt with as a whole.

There were good reasons for dividing this set of duties in the way that Friends eventually divided them, between two groups, the elders and the overseers. The main reason was that, otherwise, the single committee responsible for both types of work would be overburdened with duties. Another, lesser reason was that dividing the work gave more people an opportunity to involve themselves in the crucial work of the Society.

But Dewsbury’s letter helps us see that a single type of person was needed for both sorts of duties: someone who

  • is himself (or herself) very familiar with such issues and their real-life solutions,

  • has shown sufficient steadiness and integrity to be worthy of Friends’ trust in handling them,

  • has developed the detachment and perspective needed to hear of them as they arise without becoming unduly disturbed, and

  • has gained the strength needed to deal with such issues without becoming faint of heart

— or as Dewsbury puts it, someone who is “grown in the power and life, and in the pure discernment in the Truth” (D/E §1).

And this insight, as to what qualifies Friends for eldership, is important for us here because it demystifies the matter.

We can see that in Dewsbury’s (and Fox’s) estimation, an elder is not someone who has charismatic gifts beyond the measure of ordinary mortals; he or she is simply someone who has the necessary experience, seasoning and discipline to do the job right and without transgressing.

There’s a passage in another early Quaker document, by Richard Farn(s)worth and other leading early Friends, that underscores and clarifies this point. The document is titled A Testimony from the brethren, who were met together at London in the Third Month, 1666…, and I take it from A. R. Barclay’s 1841 anthology Letters, &c., of Early Friends:

We do advise and counsel, that such as are made overseers of the flock of God by the Holy Spirit, and do watch for the good of the church, (meeting together in their respective places, to set and keep the affairs of it in good order,) to beware of admitting or encouraging such as are of weak and of little faith, to take such trust upon them; for by hearing things disputed that are doubtful, such may be hurt themselves, and hurt the Truth; not being grown into a good understanding to judge of things. …

We also advise that not any be admitted to order public business of the church, but such as are felt in a measure of the universal Spirit of Truth, which seeks the destruction of none, but the general good of all, and especially of those that love it, who are of the household of faith.

Please notice, dear readers, what this passage doesn’t say. It doesn’t say: No one can be an elder or overseer unless they display special gifts. It merely says: Don’t appoint anyone as an elder or overseer who hasn’t yet developed the strength, the faith, and the necessary understanding of Christ’s Spirit as that kindly Spirit that “seeks the destruction of none, but the general good of all”.

And, really, any Friend can develop that strength, faith, and understanding, given sufficient time and sufficient dedication to Christ’s path!

Now here again is the same point made in 1676-78 by Robert Barclay in his Apology, Proposition X, Section 26:

…There are also the elders, who … grown up in the experience of the blessed work of truth in their hearts … watch over and privately admonish the young, take care for the widows, the poor, and fatherless, and look that nothing be wanting, but that peace, love, unity, concord, and soundness be preserved in the church of Christ; and this answers to the deacons mentioned Acts vi.

Again no mention of special talents! Barclay’s concern is only that such people be properly “grown up in the experience of the blessed work of truth in their hearts”.

So let us return again to the fact that Dewsbury’s description of the work of the elder and overseer is a list of administrative duties. Let us now note that Dewsbury does not say anything along the lines of, “You elders have a special gift from God, and it is not for mere mortals to dictate the work of that gift. Go forth, O elders, and follow your special gift wherever it may take you”. And yet that would be what we’d expect him to say, if elders were defined by their special gift from God. But Dewsbury says instead, “Here is the list of duties that you must take on as elders.”

And Dewsbury repeatedly cautions the elders not to overreach these duties, or to exceed the powers that are being granted to them: don’t “rule as lords”, he says (D/E §3); don’t “be hasty in the cause before you, to order it in your doubtful and dark minds” (D/E §16), but “if the cause be hard for you to discern …. send for some who are more grown in discerning” (D/E §§16-17).

So this isn’t a vision of elders (and overseers) as charismatic judges. It’s merely a vision of elders (and overseers) as administrators and controllers with clearly defined jobs in a system.



Some important ideas about elders and overseers changed in the centuries that followed. What changed the most was Friends’ ideas about how much control over the community these two groups of people should exert.

Dewsbury and Fox originally designed the work of elders and overseers in a context where nearly everyone was a first-generation Friend, drawn to Quakerism by the promise of a community where everyone would live zealously in the Spirit of Christ, committed never to sin, committed never even to be so much as unkind to each other.

What those first Friends wanted of their Religious Society was that it be a holy order, a bit like those of the Benedictines or the Jesuits, only for Protestant householders instead of for Roman celibates. This was not an unusual expectation in that time; the Amish and Mennonites wanted the same thing of their communities.

And in such a context, it made sense to place such powers and controls as Dewsbury describes in the hands of a designated body of the faithful. Such powers and controls were needed in order to keep weaker members of the community from going astray.

So the people into whose hands these powers and controls were given — the people appointed to be elders and overseers — were people who had displayed the highest degree of commitment to the high ideals of Quakerism: the ideals of never sinning, of being just, transparent, accountable, and never ever unkind. They were chosen on this basis, so that they could be trusted to use the controls they were given as well as any human might, in the service of the high Voice that spoke in Friends’ hearts and consciences.

As the generations passed, though, and Quakerism entered its middle period, the ardor and commitment of Friends declined, and their hunger for a community of saints declined as well.

At this point, most ordinary Friends became more and more inclined to be just ordinary people living in a Quaker variation on ordinary ways. But the Friends community still wanted its elders and overseers to be a counterbalance to this tendency, and so it picked, for elders and overseers, those who were most zealous for the old ways. This created an unintentionally unhealthy situation, in which the desires of the elders and overseers were powers increasingly at odds with the desires of the ordinary members of the community.

Moreover, the elders and overseers, in this middle period of Quakerism, were generally chosen for commitment and conformity to the established rules of Quakerism, rather than for any deeper spiritual seasoning they had acquired.

Things that early Friends knew clearly, got forgotten in this middle period.

One of the important original expectations of elders and overseers had been that they be Friends of sufficient experience to have some understanding of the conditions of others, so that they would make good counsellors — that they be “grown into a good understanding to judge of things”, as the Farn(s)worth letter puts it. Another expectation — again in the terms of the Farn(s)worth letter — had been that elders and overseers understand clearly that the Spirit desires “the destruction of none” and “the general good of all”. In the middle period of Quakerism, these wise expectations were forgotten, giving way to the far lesser expectation that the elders and overseers just be conformers and enforcers of conformity.

Thus the elders and overseers slowly ceased to perform their duties in the manner that the community, and the movement, really needed.

The elders’ and overseers’ control rose to a peak in the eighteenth century — first in Ireland, where Joseph Pike led the charge against backsliding Friends, and then, later, in the American colonies. But then new, secular liberal values began infecting Friends in the nineteenth century, values emphasizing the right of the individual to think for herself and choose her own path. And as these values grew stronger, the original vision of Quakerism as an ordered religious Society began to lose its hold on Friends’ imaginations.

Now Friends began challenging the control of their elders and overseers, and diminishing their elders’ and overseers’ powers again. This happened first among the Hicksites and lesser splinter groups, sometimes even in the form of shouting matches, to the express horror of their opponents the Orthodox. But later in the century, it also happened among the more liberal Orthodox Friends, the group that Rufus Jones belonged to. And finally it happened even among Conservatives and Evangelicals.

Still, aside from this gradually changing view of the degree of control that such people ought to possess, Dewsbury’s basic ideas about the rôles and functions of elders and overseers survived pretty much unchanged all the way down to World War II — and in some places, longer than that.

I’ve mentioned that Evans and Evans reprinted Dewsbury’s letter in 1837 — and it was in the opening section of the opening volume of their prestigious multi-volume series The Friends’ Library. From this advantageous position, Dewsbury’s letter came to exert a renewed influence on another four generations of Quaker readers in the Orthodox (Wilburite and Gurneyite) world.

All through the nineteenth century, the descriptions of elders and overseers in official statements from Friends bodies continued to express the same basic understandings. As liberal attitudes strengthened, Friends adjusted their descriptions of the elders’ and overseers’ duties accordingly. But — for instance — in 1931 we find the London Yearly Meeting Revision Committee still saying:

The primary duties of elders are to seek for true discernment in respect to offerings in the ministry, and to be loving and faithful in the exercise of that discernment; to be diligent in spiritual travail and prayer for those on whom the ministry of the word devolves; to sympathize with them in seasons of conflict and discouragement….

It is [the elder’s] part also to consider how far the varied needs of the congregation are met by a corresponding variety in the vocal ministry, so that all may be alike edified by the due exercise of a diversity of spiritual gifts. In this service he may at times be called upon to consider prayerfully, in consultation with his fellow elders, whether any Friends, in younger or older life, are failing to offer such service as they may be qualified to render, and, if this appear to be the case, lovingly to urge upon such a faithful obedience to the voice of the Divine Guide within the heart.

And this is of course still just a list of administrative duties —indeed, still pretty much the same list that the earliest Friends went by — only now expressed more mildly, because Friends had by this time lost patience with life under the control of their elders.

Thus all the way down to roughly World War II (and in some places longer), all through the period which we think of as “traditional” Quakerism, “elders and overseers” just meant people who’d been given certain specific administrative duties — not necessarily people with any special gifts.

And indeed, especially in the smaller Friends communities, most of the elders and overseers were very ordinary people just trying to fulfill their responsibilities as best they could.



So where did this idea come from, that elders aren’t just ordinary Friends entrusted with certain specific tasks, but are rather a set of special people with special charismatic gifts?

I see two processes involved.

First, Friends discovered early in their history that elders and overseers wouldn’t be effective in their work unless they were respected, and wouldn’t be respected unless they were good examples. In Dewsbury’s letter we already see him telling the people who would be elders, “Be examples to the flock.” (D/E §4).

Three generations later, in 1722, we find Joseph Pike, the Quaker reformer, spelling out in his autobiography a primary reason why being an example is important:

…Let me add a caution to all ministers and elders, to take great care of any undue liberty in words or behaviour, before such as are young and tender in the Truth, whether in youth or riper age; for the newly convinced are very sharp in observation; and if they observe anything, whether it be in … words … or in behaviour, which they think not agreeable to that solidity the Truth leads into, it is apt to stumble or confuse them. We find, the great apostle Paul was very tender over those who were young and weak, and denied himself of lawful things, lest he should offend them, and said, though all things were lawful, yet all things were not expedient.

By 1806, the importance of elders’ being good examples had become so clear that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting made it the focus of a set of queries and advices:

…Are ministers and elders careful to attend meetings for divine worship, bringing their families with them. Do they diligently attend meetings for discipline, encouraging such of their families to this duty as are of proper age, and suitable deportment?

…Are the lives and conversation of ministers and elders clean and blameless among men: are they in unity one with another, and with the meeting they belong to, harmoniously labouring together for truth’s honour?

…Are they good examples in uprightness, temperance and moderation; and careful to train up their families in plainness of dress and simplicity of manners, becoming our religious profession?

…It is earnestly and affectionately recommended, that ministers and elders watch over one another for good, to help those who are exercised in the ministry in the right line, discouraging forward spirits that run into words without life and power, advising against affectation of tones and gestures, and every thing that would hurt their service; yet encouraging the humble careful traveller; “speaking a word in season to them that are weary.”

And let all dwell in that which gives ability to labour successfully in the church of Christ, adorning the doctrine which they deliver to othars, being examples of the Believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in truth, and in purity.

Now, the assiduous practice of any discipline such as this has a real tendency to change a person’s character.

It doesn’t do much good if one is only trying to conform to outward rules, of course. But if one is really trying to be a good example of such broader virtues as “harmonious labour”, righteousness, and mercy, God is likely to bless one’s efforts with the reward of a spiritual alteration, so that one actually becomes more and more like the person that one has been striving to behave as.

So as a person active in the eldership (or the overseership, or the ministry) works year after year for fifteen or thirty years at the difficult personal practices of humility, integrity, kindness and understanding, and at learning to say the right thing in the right way to newer Friends, she or he is likely to turn slowly, gradually, into a fairly awesome figure.

Great Quaker elders, then, were made by dint of sustained practice and struggle on the heavenward path, and of their own willingness to yield to the lessons of the Spirit along the way. Anyone willing to put in the necessary practice and struggle and do the necessary yielding-up can grow in this same way. It was never a path restricted to the specially gifted, but rather, a path open to anyone who would be willing to hold herself to it. (And there are some wonderful stories of initially unprepossessing folks who did grow, by following this path, into great Quaker elders!)

But anyone who grows long enough along such lines is likely to wind up being a moving and awe-inspiring figure in the eyes of younger seekers. And it is only inevitable, then, that some such younger seekers will begin to imagine that the old Friend is someone born with some sort of special gifts.

And this, I think, is one cause of the romantic view of elders as specially gifted people.

The other cause is related, but it is something that really only came into play as elders and overseers were deprived of their former control over the community.

For though they now lacked power, these people still had the task of dealing with disorderly members and attenders. So they needed to develop different methods of eldering — methods that would work in situations where they were now powerless.

And this was the cause of a renewed interest in that “gentle but authoritative voice” that Richard wrote of, as well as being the cause of a much-renewed desire to act only insofar as they had the clear leading, and the clear backing, of the Holy Spirit.

It’s not as if no Quaker elder had ever exercised that “gentle but authoritative voice”, and that total reliance on the leading of the Spirit, prior to World War II. One thinks of Pike and Woolman, who were famed for both attributes.

But in the records of the nineteenth century, one can find many complaints from Friends who felt that elders and overseers relied too much on authority without gentleness, and on rigid human rules instead of the Spirit. And when elders and overseers were deprived of power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such reliance on authority and rigid rules became impossible. Elders and overseers had to find their way to a purer reliance on gentleness and the Spirit than most of them had ever known.

So, far from being characteristic of “traditional” eldering, these methods are actually more characteristic of the newly-powerless elders of the twentieth century.

The art of reaching people when one is powerless, is a wonderful art, and it’s an amazing thing to witness. It is very likely to strike onlookers as something “I could never do; it takes a specially gifted person to do it.” In fact this is not true; anyone can learn to do it. Learning to do it does take work! It requires a combination of long habituation to utter dependence on God, with practice, practice, practice in certain basic interpersonal skills. Gandhi taught his followers ways to do it. People were taught ways to do it in the 1950s and 1960s in civil rights movement workshops. The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) teaches ways to do it. I myself teach ways to do it in my witness workshops. But the misunderstanding, that “I could never do it,” still persists.

And this too contributes to the romantic view of elders as specially gifted people.



In some ways, the new developments in Quaker thinking about eldership are very healthy.

  • They commit us, at a whole new level, to the path of gentleness.

  • They teach us a heightened dependence upon God’s power instead of our own.

  • They elicit a new, heightened spirituality in our elders, in answer to the changing circumstances.

In other ways, though, these developments are dangerous —

  • For in the first place, they require elders and overseers to have skills and powers that may not be present in smaller Quaker communities.

    I’ve talked with Friends from such communities, who complain either that there is no one in their meeting who can bring the group into right order, or else that there is no one skillful enough to try to bring order without being offensively heavy-handed. In the older days such heavy-handedness might not have been such a problem, because it was understood that when elders and overseers acted as cops they were only doing their job. But now the barest hint of heavy-handedness can trigger a meeting-wide crisis.

  • And in the second place, the new concept of eldership opens a door to the rise of cultic leaders — leaders who are perceived as having special gifts and who are therefore followed too uncritically.

    This is precisely what happened in an earlier age to Quaker ministers such as James Nayler, Elias Hicks, Joseph John Gurney, and to some extent Howard Brinton, and when it happened with each of them it did the Society harm. We don’t need it happening again with our elders.

  • In the third place, there is the mirror-image problem: as we elevate our elders above the norm, we simultaneously downgrade ourselves. We wind up thinking, as RichardM confesses, “Oh, I can’t do Quaker duty X myself, I’m too ordinary! I need to leave such work to the specially gifted ministers and elders.”

    This error overlooks the power of our own willingness to be faithful, which can and will open us up so that God can give us whatever is needed to do the job. It deprives the meeting community of our latent spiritual talents, and eventually it causes the community’s spiritual life to fade away.

  • Finally, this way of thinking can lead in the end to a setting up of a priesthood credited with salvific powers that the laity cannot share.

    Indeed, there’s a history lesson here. I’ve said that this concept of elders is rooted in the older New Testament concepts of presbyters and deacons, and so it is. You can break out your Bible, if you desire, and find corroboration in Acts and the epistles, where presbyters and deacons are shown serving in the church in the manner of Quaker elders.

    But the New Testament presbyters evolved directly into the Orthodox and Catholic priests. In fact, the very word “priest” is a corruption of that older word “presbyter”! And so, by degrees, they evolved also into the corrupt churchly power structure that the early Friends rejected. Do we really want our descendants to go that route again?

It is interesting to me that this modern shift in understanding, from seeing elders as traditionally having been simple appointed administrators in a Society designed as a strict holy order, to seeing them as “traditionally having been” specially gifted (born saints of a sort), reinforces a larger misunderstanding of what Friends are and have been.

It’s the same misunderstanding that causes many liberal Friends to imagine that you don’t have to be a member to be a Quaker — that anyone who likes can call himself a Quaker, and he’ll be one.

It’s the same misunderstanding that causes many liberal Friends to imagine that Fox’s “that of God in every one” is something that makes each person just naturally divine, rather than being the Voice in the heart and conscience that calls us to rise above our cheap impulses and act in better ways.

It’s a shift away from a Quaker cosmology in which people have to struggle to grow up out of sin and be as Christ would wish, and in which Quakerism exists as a disciplined body to strengthen its members in that struggle, toward a Quaker cosmology in which the Spirit gives people a ride, and Quakerism exists as a loose community of folks who go on the ride.

This, too, may be a danger. Or it may not! But whether it is or not is a much bigger question than can be addressed in this essay.

What is very clear to me is that our Quaker elderate (if I may call it that) is a good and useful institution when done rightly — and that, as it has often been done rightly in Quaker communities down through the centuries, it has been responsible, over that period, for helping many, many Friends to grow at least part-way toward sainthood. I heartily agree with Richard and Liz that it deserves to be nurtured and revived.

But I think it will never work properly unless we see it clearly enough to practice it aright. And we won’t see it clearly at all if we insist that true elders are people with superpowers. Such an insistence does not help the elders do their work; it only burdens them with dreadful expectations.

We’re far better off just thinking of elders as ordinary Friends like ourselves, to whom the meeting has given an administrative job that is delicate in nature, but must be done somehow, and should be done in faithfulness.

For that is the real traditional view of the matter. And besides, it’s the truth!

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    Thanks for Marsshall's linking to my recent article. But due to technical issues I have reposted it which means his link is invalid.

Reader Comments (19)

Marshall, I will need to take much more time to read and digest all that you have written here, and I don't know when that might happen. That said, I do want to say that I personally do not see Friends who have gifts as elders as having "superpowers" or "being specially gifted people." (I don't think Richard M intended this interpretation either.)

At the same time, I can understand that some of what I wrote could be misinterpreted in the way that you refer to here. I wrote:

"Elders have certain gifts that are specific and responsive to condition of the monthly meeting or yearly meeting. They are gifted with the ability to provide spiritual care and nurture to the meeting as whole."

In my own mind, "certain gifts" are not the same as gifts that are "over-and-above" the gifts of any other Friend in the meeting. Friends simply have different gifts: not better or worse; just different. Similarly, when I use the phrase "they are gifted with the ability..." in the above context, I mean they have been given the ability... I do not mean 'gifted' as in a 'gifted' child (i.e. one with an IQ that is higher than [above] that of many others).

All that aside, I think what you are cautioning, Marshall, is that Friends need to stop putting elders (and ministers and clerks) on a pedestal. If that's the case, I very much agree.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Oct 30, 2006 at 10:49PM | Unregistered CommenterLiz Opp


Thank you for this very enlightening analysis! While I don't think RichardM was suggesting that elders are born with a gift to be an elder, I think I understand where he is coming from in referring to it as a gift. The Book of Discipline of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) says "Within any Meeting, there will be found some with special gifts. These will include those with a gift in the vocal ministry (ministers), those especially qualified to guide and counsel others (elders), and those whose insights and judgments can contribute significantly to the life and growth of the Meeting (overseers).". This seems consistent with what I have read in Lloyd Lee Wilson's writings about spiritual gifts, and also seems consistent with what Richard was writing. It is also consistent, I believe, with Paul's description in 1 Corinthians 12, of us all being different members of the body of Christ with different gifts.

I don't believe that recognizing that someone has a gift of eldership means that only that person can function as an elder, any more than recognizing a gift of vocal ministry means that only that person can minister. I agree that we should look at elders (and ministers) as ordinary Friends like ourselves, but I don't think that precludes recognizing that there are people with special gifts to perform various jobs. It is the recognition that while we are all part of the same body of Christ, we do not all perform the same function, yet we are equally responsible for the life and health of that body.

I am not sure how this view fits with the view you have presented, I can see some areas where they are at odds. I hope you can add some more enlightenment here.

With love,

Oct 31, 2006 at 11:12AM | Unregistered CommenterMark Wutka
Wow, Marshall, thank you, thank you, thank you. The roles and relationships between elders, overseers and ministers has remained something of a mystery to me, partly I think now because these terms have differed so much over time. I'm touched by the observation that eldership isn't a mysterious gift but is a result of ongoing work, care and obedience.
Oct 31, 2006 at 11:30AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Kelley
This is too long to read now and I've got too much to do today to give a full response, but folks shouldn't be left speculating about what I meant. I did mean that eldering is a special gift from the Holy Spirit, that not everyone has this gift (just as everyone does not have the gift of vocal ministry) and that we see who is so gifted by watching how things work out when they try to do what elders (or ministers) do. But I don't think that the gift is something people are born with--gifts come at various times of people's lives. And I do not think that the gift is unrelated to the spiritual efforts we make to be obedient. Indeed the very idea of a gift implies that there is a responsibility to develop the gift. But a person without some particular gift hasn't got the gift to develop. People should not appoint themselves elders and seek to go about counseling people without listening to the feedback from the meeting about how well these attempts at counseling are going. Same goes for vocal ministry. We are open to people speaking in meeting but one shouldn't keep speaking week after week regardless of the input of the community. The role of the community in recognizing and encouraging the development of gifts, including the gift of eldering, is vital.

And when I read these passages about eldering from early Friends they seem to me to be saying exactly what I'm saying. "To be most grown in the life and power and in the pure discernment of the Truth" sounds pretty mystical to me. To demystify this into administrative and people skills is not the way I understand it. If Quakerism ain't mystical; it's just a bunch of nice people with nice ideas.
Oct 31, 2006 at 01:45PM | Unregistered CommenterRichardM

Liz, dear friend, I'm not just cautioning against putting elders on a pedestal. I'm glad that you agree with me on that point! -- but if that had been all I meant, I'd have written a far shorter essay.

The essay is as long as it is because I wanted to talk about the rôle and the nature of the elders, and purpose of having such an institution, down through the history of our society. As I noted, there just don't seem to be resources in print right now where one can go to learn such things in any depth.

But beyond that, I'm cautioning against thinking that elders have "certain gifts" of "ability" -- regardless of whether the abilities in question are "super" or not. The best elders do have "seasoning in the Life", they have acquired skills, and those things are good and rightly valued by their meetings. But seasoning isn't a "gift" in the sense of a talent; it's just long experience and lessons learned. And neither is an acquired skill a "gift" in the sense of a talent; it's simply what long practice makes of ordinary human clay. Both are things that anyone can arrive at, not just the gifted and talented.

I much appreciate your efforts to clarify what you mean, and I take your corrections to heart. I'm glad you don't mean "gifted" in the sense of a "gifted" child. But I think we are not yet in agreement.

Nov 1, 2006 at 01:22PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Mark, I believe your mention of the North Carolina (Conservative) discipline, and of I Corinthians 12:4-11, takes the discussion to a new level. I will try to rise to that level, though I tremble at the challenges it represents.

I would ask you (and anyone else who is interested) to take another and closer look at I Corinthians 12:4-11, and notice the kinds of gifts enumerated there. They are all things that were associated either with the miraculous powers of Christ, or with the central characteristics of the Holy Spirit.

Those who receive such gifts, then, become more like Christ, or like the Spirit -- in a word, more like God -- at least in respect of that particular gift. In language that the epistles use elsewhere, they put on the traits of God as if it were like clothing or armor. And being given these things by God the Father, and coming to resemble Him more by putting them on as clothing, they become heirs by adoption, prepared to inherit the Kingdom. (Cf. in particular Romans 8:14-17, Galatians 4:5-7.)

So this is language and thinking that does not allow us to refer to just anything as a gift. Paul does not even speak of a "gift of administration" in this passage, such as would be given to presbyters and deacons in the early church -- let alone of such things as "a gift for tent-making" or "a gift for cookery" -- for such things would not be reflections of the outbreaking of God's Power that the disciples had seen in Christ and in their own Pentecost. The gifts Paul speaks of are carefully limited in character: gifts of preaching and teaching the word (i.e., ministry), the gift of faith, and the gifts of healing, miracle-working, prophecy, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues.

Now we might turn to Robert Barclay, whose thinking was so formative for the traditional Society of Friends. He takes up the matter of the giftedness of ministers in Proposition X, §25 of his Apology, and in doing so he follows the model of Paul, speaking only of gifts proper to the nature of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, he carefully distinguishes between gifts and offices, saying for example that prophecy is a distinct gift but not a distinct office. "Prophecy", he writes, "as it signifies a speaking from the Spirit of truth, is not only peculiar to pastors and teachers, who ought so to prophesy; but even a common privilege to the saints."

Barclay then goes on in the very next section to discuss elders, and true to the logic of what he has said just previously, he names no gifts that are synonymous with the office of elder. Nor does he add to Paul's list of gifts, being scrupulous as ever not to depart from the logic of Scripture.

All through the traditional era of Quakerism, Paul's and Barclay's carefully circumscribed understanding of what constitutes a divine "gift" continued to prevail. The books of discipline of North Carolina (Conservative) throughout the nineteenth century describe the proper method for minuting a person's gift in the ministry, but nowhere do they say anything of a person's gift of eldering, or of an elder's gift of anything.

But now to the modern discipline of North Carolina (Conservative), pp. 25-26. Does it stick to the logic of Paul and Barclay, and of its own nineteenth-century antecedents? I would say it does not; it seems to me to break new ground. But do you disagree?

So I think this is consistent with what I said in my essay above -- that eldership in the traditional Quaker understanding was not a matter of distinct, special gifts; but that a shift occurred when elders lost power. I think the language of the present North Carolina discipline is illustrative of thinking after the shift.

I agree with you that we are all responsible for the life and health of the church, and I agree with Barclay that we may all partake of the gifts that Paul listed, whether or not we hold office in the Church.

And I respect your freedom to disagree with me, as I also respect Liz's.

Nov 1, 2006 at 01:25PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey


I think the commentary will work best if I focus on one part of your essay at a time. This comment concerns the essay use of Dewsbury.

After reading the passages you quote I am amazed at how differently they appear to me than they do to you. I respect your intelligence and good will but these passages look very differently in my eyes!

First, let me repeat that you did understand my original essay. Our differences are not due to any misunderstanding there. I do hold that there is such a thing as a spiritual gift that enables people to elder rightly. This gift is divinely given and cannot be acquired through training or mere ordinary life experience. It is mystical—in my opinion—and if we seek to demystify it we will misunderstand it. I also hold that this is the view of eldering held in my Yearly Meeting. I also think it was the view held by most Friends throughout the history of the Society of Friends. Now that history is fairly long and includes a lot of people so I would never say it represents what all Friends thought. But it seems to me that the Friends you have quoted take the mystical and “romantic” view you disagree with.

Before I begin examining the quotes in detail let me add that there are simple administrative duties that need to be taken care of for which special gifts may not be required. Someone has got to see that the meetinghouse roof doesn’t leak, that the electric bill gets paid on time, that someone is signed up to do childcare, that notices are sent out announcing the potluck, etc. These are necessary jobs that somebody had better take responsibility for. Thank heaven for the Martha’s of the world. This level of service to the meeting shouldn’t be viewed as something mystical that only specially gifted Friends can do. In our Yearly Meeting these are thought of as falling under the purview of overseers. There’s more to overseeing than that and this more may require something of a gift too. People get sick, they get divorced, they lose their jobs, and they need care. Overseers have the responsibility not to allow Friends in need to suffer in silence and alone. My wife does have a gift when it comes to this kind of care. She has a keen eye and ear for even subtle signals of these needs and she is a whirlwind of positive energy when it comes to doing something about it. And there is a gift in offering help to those who need it in such a way as to not make the recipient feel guilty or ashamed about getting some help. But even if a meeting lacked anyone who had such a gift, it would still be necessary for someone to pitch in and do what needs to be done regardless. The gift here is optional.

Now for the details. D/E 1 The phrase “most grown in the power and life, and in the pure discernment in the Truth” rings very mystically in my ears. I don’t think that Fox thought such discernment was the result of mere human experience. The essence of the gift of eldering is a gift of discernment. This is different from the gift of vocal ministry. Also D/E 3 “not to rule as lords over God’s heritage but in the power of the Spirit in all purity” again this sounds very mystical to me. The contrast is with those “hireling ministers” who have been trained by human beings in seminaries and who work for money. D/E 9 “minister to that which is pure in their consciences” Can mere human wisdom discern the inward depths of a person and see the part that is pure and speak directly to it? I don’t think so. It takes a gift. But the clearest, to my mind, evidence that a spiritual gift beyond mere conventional human experience is understood lies in D/E 16-17 where advice is given on what to do when the case is hard. “and the measure you are grown to cannot discern betwixt the parties” The gift will not be sufficiently developed in some elders to deal with some cases. “I charge you…not to be hasty in the cause before you, to order it in your doubtful and dark minds…but send for some who are more grown in discerning.” These are not simple administrative tasks that anybody can do. A fully developed gift is sometimes required. It is a gift which different people have in different measure. People who are less able to discern what is in another person’s heart shouldn’t try to do it. They should ask help from someone more gifted. D/E 18 “your union will be in Christ Jesus” We could read this as just pious religious language that doesn’t really say anything but puts a wash of religiousity over something quite practical and human. But I think the author meant exactly what he was saying and that the mystical language is exactly what he means. Demystify such language and you alter the meaning.

You summarize all this as “We can see that in Dewsbury’s (and Fox’s) estimation an elder is not someone who has charismatic gifts beyond the measure of ordinary mortals; he or she is simply someone who has the necessary experience, seasoning and discipline to do the job right and without transgressing.” I disagree almost completely with this. It is true that the gift has nothing to do with charisma. But it is a gift and it goes far beyond ordinary perceptiveness.

I think it best to pause with just this much for now. Thanks for continuing the discussion. I like it when people agree with me but I also appreciate thoughtful disagreement. In the long run you learn more from those who disagree.

Nov 1, 2006 at 02:24PM | Unregistered CommenterRichardM

This was too long for me to read on the computer. As I sometimes do when I find something long but worth reading, I copied the text and pasted it into a word document. Complete with comments to date, it runs 17 pages. If anyone else would like my somewhat reformatted for ease of reading in print version, let me know at robinchris, domain= earthlink.net and I'll email it to you.

[Editor's Note: Robin provided her e-mail address to the system when she posted this comment, so all you have to do to send her an e-mail is to click on her name below and then click on the "send an e-mail" button! -- MM]

Nov 1, 2006 at 02:30PM | Unregistered CommenterRobin M.
Martin, I'm just tickled pink that you found this essay helpful.

Of course you'll want to wait and see how the dialogue unfolds, since it's clear that others have very different takes on the matter from my own, and you'll surely want to modify your own views in light of what they have to say --

However, with all due respect to Liz and Richard, I'm going to stand by my position; everything I've seen in the old Quaker tomes seems to me to point to the conclusions I've presented here.
Nov 1, 2006 at 04:27PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Wow, this is very interesting to read and well reasoned.

As one who tended to think along the lines of the "special gifts" when with Friends, I find you offer a compelling review and refutation of that assumption. Perhaps, through the experience of being transformed by God by way of a devoted and devotional life, as outlined by earlier generations of Friends, these (eventual) "elders" were seen by others as having "gifts". But, perhaps the gifts were the "typical" (I don't know of a better word than that) results of the devoted life?

I, like Martin, just never understood the whole "elder" thing despite my efforts to educate myself regarding it. In fact, I've learned more through blog posts like this one than I ever did in any of the Meetings I attended. :)

Very interesting and thanks to you, Liz, and RichardM for such thoughtful posts and comments.
Nov 1, 2006 at 08:12PM | Unregistered CommenterJoe G.

Richard, I'm grateful for your comments and clarifications here.

I also want to say that I'm comfortable with our holding different opinions. My replies to you here are not meant as an attempt to squelch your views; I'm just trying to present my own understanding alongside yours, for consideration by our readership and by Friends generally.

In the more recent of your two comments, you zero in three times on the power of discernment; unless I mistake you, you are saying that discernment is the special gift that elders have in some abundance but not everyone has or even can have. If this is your position, then it is a departure from Friends' historical position.

Let me return to one of the points I made in my response to Mark Wutka: Barclay spoke in his Apology, Proposition X §25, of the fact that gifts are not coterminous with offices -- that for example "prophecy, as it signifies a speaking from the Spirit of truth, is not only peculiar to pastors and teachers, who ought so to prophesy; but even a common privilege to the saints."

This is even more manifestly true of discernment than of prophecy. All members of our Society are considered as possessing powers of discernment regarding all things, and as duty-bound to contribute the use of these powers to the common good. That is how our meetings for business operate: discernment of any issue before the group is not done by elders alone, but by all who are present, collectively.

Our confidence that this is the right way to proceed, and that all members present are indeed capable of sharing in the work of discernment and thereby contributing to the solution of difficult spiritual and interpersonal problems, is solidly grounded in Biblical understanding. See Acts 15:22-23,28, where the solution of a crucial spiritual and interpersonal issue is discerned not just by the apostles and elders but by a process including the general brethren as well, and also see I Corinthians 6:1-3.

The fact that our meetings for business proceed in this manner, and have so proceeded from the beginning clear down to the present day, is itself evidence of how this view of the matter has been shared throughout our Society.

And not only our meetings for business, but also our meetings for worship, express this understanding -- or at least, they have done so in the traditional understanding.

Barclay, again, tells us how Friends meetings for worship were structured in his day, in his Apology, Proposition XI §9: "...When many are met together in this one life and name ... we judge it needful there be in the first place some time of silence, during which every one may be gathered inward to the word and gift of grace, from which he that ministereth may receive strength to bring forth what he ministereth; and that they that hear may have a sense to discern betwixt the precious and the vile, and not to hurry into the exercise of these things so soon as the bell rings, as other Christians do."

So meeting for worship was a place where all who were gathered heard what the speakers said, and engaged in discerning what part of what had been placed before them was "precious" and what part was "vile", allowing themselves all the time they needed for this task of discernment before rising from the meeting. All engaged in this work of discernment, not just the specially gifted elders.

Again, this was a practice solidly rooted in the Biblical understanding: see I Corinthians 14:29, which Dewsbury echoed in a general letter to Friends in 1663.

So in the historical understanding of Friends, the particular gift you identify with eldering was in fact a general gift to all who were what Paul and Barclay called "the saints" -- meaning, all who had been convinced and, consequent to their convincement, had allowed the experience of convincement to begin the long task of reshaping their beings: in Barclay's own day, all active Friends.

But it makes sense that Barclay (and early Friends generally) would have seen it this way. For the experience of convincement is one in which we come face to face with the inward Guide in the place of our hearts and consciences, and capitulate to It. And after our capitulation, our experience of Its voice and guidance remains with us; we turn to It again and again. And it is from our experience of Its urgings and drawings and reproofs that discernment arises.

And all people can be convinced: that has been an article of faith with Friends from the very beginning. So the gift of discernment is available to all people everywhere.

-- There is more to be said, obviously, but it will have to wait. Right now I'm due to go in to work.

Nov 2, 2006 at 08:31AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
An interesting conversation here. And I must say I hadn't thought about this issue much until now.

First thought: elders according to Marshall's citation require discernment which is both a charismatic gift and a gift of reflectful experience -- and so in that sense both sides of the dialogue are right.

Second thought: liberal Friends have gone through a period of de-emphasizing elders following a period where it is perceived elders overstepped their authority. Some are now recognizing the cost this lack of elders -- and consequently may be over-romanticizing the role.

Third thought: an uncharismatic elder presupposes (or may seem to presuppose) a measure of objectivity in matters of faith -- something we're abit cagey about. And that plays a part in all this as well.

Interesting issues.
Nov 2, 2006 at 11:29AM | Unregistered Commenterdavid

We disagree about so many things! Let's take things one at a time. First, I appreciate that you have got to get back to work (same here), but when you get a chance please reply to my close reading of Dewsbury. You continue to think it supports your view; I continue to think it refutes you. The details matter here.

Second we differ very much in our understanding of how Quaker business meetings proceed. I understand the business to be conducted by the meeting as a whole not as a number of individuals. Yes, each individual should try to use their own powers of discernment but it is a form of romanticism to think that everybody has the same power of discernment. Elders are ones who are gifted with especially high levels of discernment particularly about other people's spiritual condition. To speak directly to your citation of first Corinthians I'd identify the gift associated with elders as "discernment of spirits." This isn't quite the same as discerning the right action to take in business meeting. I don't think that everyone has the gift of "discernment of spirits."

At some places in your essay and response you seem to want to conflate discernment of spirits (in my view a real spiritual power) with ordinary human experience and people skills. In other places you seem to accept the idea that this form of discernment is God-given and not from human nature. If you do accept the latter view then it seems only a verbal dispute whether to call something that is beyond human nature and God-given to be a "gift" or not.

I want to get to the other parts of your essay, particularly about the problems that arose with eldering in the middle period but I don't think I can do that without getting clear about the early period first.

I have to add another note in explanation of "where I'm coming from" in this. I don't consider myself a good Quaker historian; my views are almost entirely dependent on twenty years of my own observations of eldering as it actually takes place in our Yearly Meeting. What I have seen with my own eyes is not something that I can easily be convinced is mere fantasy or romanticism on my part. People who have not experienced a living tradition of eldering may well have different views on it.

Nov 2, 2006 at 12:39PM | Unregistered CommenterRichardM
Thank you so much for providing so many references in Quaker writings and history. This helps me tremendously in looking at this particular issue of eldering. Like many things, we have gotten it wrong and can abuse a practice that can also supportive and needful.
Nov 2, 2006 at 05:00PM | Unregistered CommenterPeterson Toscano

Friend Richard, it does seem that we disagree about many things, though I do not believe that any of our disagreements need be fatal to friendship, or to our ability to unite in a common practice and a shared community.

The areas of apparent disagreement that I myself have noticed revolve around (1) the meaning of "charism", which is translated in Christian and Quaker circles as "gift", and of "charism"'s derivatives "charisma" and "charismatic", (2) the relationship between the fruits of experience in the life of the Spirit and the outright gifts of the Spirit or of God, (3) the question of what "mysticism" is and implies, (4) the nature of "administrative work" in Friends tradition, and the relationship between charismatic and bureaucratic sources of authority throughout the main part of our Society's long history, (5) how we read Dewsbury's 17th century language and terminology, (6) the relationship between our experience (I do not quarrel with yours) and our interpretation of our experience (which I think we need to be very careful about), and finally, (7) the relationship between what you have been seeing in North Carolina (Conservative) today and what was the case for most of our Society's history.

That's a lot of stuff to talk about.

I'm not convinced that it is desirable to put Dewsbury first on the list, since I think we may need to clear away a lot of mental undergrowth (meaning: unexamined 20th and 21st century assumptions regarding what "gifts" are, what "growth in the power and life" is, what "mysticism" is, etc.) before we can begin to see Dewsbury's 17th century terminology clearly. But I will be happy to try to address Dewsbury in his proper place.

Since this is likely to be a complex discussion, and not one that can be settled in a single day or even a single week, I am thinking of setting up a separate page on this site as a multi-threaded discussion page, where you and I and others can talk about these matters at our leisure, as equals, and let the conversation flow and evolve as it will. The software running this web site would allow me to do this very easily, and the multi-threaded design would make the discussion a bit easier for all of us (onlookers included) to find our way around in.

What would you think of this idea? Is it overdoing it, or does it sound helpful? (And also, what do others think?)

Nov 3, 2006 at 10:56AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
I think that our differences can be explored fruitfully and patiently. There is no need to rush.

I think the exploration is best done in a decentralized way. People don't read long posts--they skim them. Putting more and more things on one site will just lead to more and more shallow reading and less deep and thoughtful reading. So I think it best to mutiply posts and not try to tie everything together at one site.

Just a side note on "charismatic": the normal meaning outside the context of Christian theology is that of a strong and captivating personality. It's good to keep the popular sense as distinct as possible from the theological sense. Elders are not "charismatic" in the popular sense. In fact quite the opposite.
Nov 3, 2006 at 11:56AM | Unregistered CommenterRichardM
I would be interested in hearing your views on the meaning of χαρίσμα (charisma) with respect to Paul's usage of it. The reference I have handy (BDAG) defines it as "that which is freely and graciously given", with one specific usage being "of special gifts of a non-material sort, bestowed through God's generosity on individual Christians" (for a lexicon, that's quite a bit of theological interpretation, eh?) Although the English word charisma does come from the Greek, I don't see any commonality in meaning, and I don't get the impression from Richard's statements that he is implying that elders should be charismatic in the English sense, but that that the ability to elder properly is a χαρίσμα.

While Richard has said that he thinks discernment of spirits is essentially the gift of eldership, I wonder if maybe it is the gift of leadership (not mentioned in 1 Cor 12:8-10, but in 1 Cor 12:28 and Romans 12:8) or possibly discernment and leadership in combination are what we look for in elders. The interesting thing about "leadership" as it is translated in the NET Bible ("governments" by KJV, "administrators" by RSV) is that Romans 12:8 and 1 Cor 12:28 use different words for this gift, although they are sometimes translated to English the same way. In 1 Cor 12:28, the word is κυβερνήσεις (kyberneseis) which BDAG defines as "administration", but the verbal form of this word has the meaning "to steer or pilot a vessel" and also takes on the meaning of "to guide", and that to me seems like it does resonate with the role of an elder. The word in Romans 12:8 is προϊστάμενος, which could mean "to exercise a position of leadership, rule, direct, be at the head of" or "to have an interest in, show concern for, care for, give aid". BDAG lists Romans 12:8 under both these definitions, so perhaps it is unclear which way Paul meant it (in fact, KJV opts for the first meaning, RSV the second).

I think you have presented a strong case that early Quakers did not consider eldership to be a χαρίσμα, and I am mostly persuaded by it. But that being said, I am unwilling to use that fact to discount the possibility that it is, in fact, a gift of the Spirit that is not bestowed on everyone. Or perhaps, it is a case of differing meanings, and the word in question is not gift or χαρίσμα, but elder - the role is now different from what it was in the past. You pretty much said so with respect to the loss of authority, right? Also, it seems to me that with respect to eldership, that you and Richard do agree on the most important aspect, which is that a person becomes an elder not through human effort, but by the working of Christ in his heart, and that you differ in whether Christ eventually turns everyone into an elder or not. Would that be a fair statement?

It is wonderful to see that such disagreement can still take place in very civil and enlightening conversation, and I appreciate all of the wisdom you, Richard, Liz and others have displayed. On the issue of creating a separate discussion area, or letting the discussion take place here and on other blogs, I think either one is fine for me. I don't care where it takes place, I am just happy that it is.
With love,
Nov 3, 2006 at 09:25PM | Unregistered CommenterMark Wutka

Editor's Note: RichardM has posted a new essay on his blog site addressing the issues we've been talking about. You can read it at http://quakerphilosopher.blogspot.com/2006/11/eldering-in-practice-not-in-theory.html .

Nov 3, 2006 at 11:21PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Editor's Note: david the kwakersaur has posted an essay on his blog site, in which he takes some of the thoughts from my essay here and carries them forward in a new direction. I think he raises an excellent question! You can read it at http://numbers-11-29.blogspot.com/2006/11/quaker-monastics.html .

Follow-up Comment, Twenty-four Hours Later: The address above is valid; I've just tested it!

Nov 4, 2006 at 07:21PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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